In Conversation with Randall Horton

An interview by Deniqua Campbell

I met Randall Horton my first year at the Writer’s Foundry. He has the kind of laugh that makes you laugh; loud but warm, silly but genuine. After approximately two to three in-person poetry workshops, we were back on lockdown after Covid outbreaks spiked in the area. The remainder of our fall 2020 semester resumed via Zoom. I was just beginning to understand who my professor was, how his mind operated, and the way he viewed poetry. I knew for certain two things: one, he too was a Howard University alum, and this was only the beginning of our relationship (he would later become my graduate thesis advisor) and two: he was unequivocally a genius. I was thrilled to be taking his memoir class in the fall of 2021. It was great to hear his infectious laugh in person, to hear him talk about literature. When he spoke, we listened. 

A few weeks into the semester, I walked into the conference room that doubled as a classroom where the eleven of us sat intimately around a long brown oval table. I eyed the cover of a book that lay next to Randall’s MacBook, the words “dead weight” in a particular red font. The cover was of Randall; his head was down, presumably so we can get a good look at his cool white boater hat that perfectly concealed his eyes. iPhone headphones were draped around his neck. I didn’t notice until months after I read the book, the word “react,” slightly visible, looms against a dark wall in the background. No one hesitated when he gave us permission to take a peek. I read the first page and said, “You’re such a poet!” His laughter filled the small conference room. “Yeah man, what can I say?” he replied. 

Dead Weight reminds us that sometimes confinement threatens to keep us within the echo chamber of our past. Randall Horton takes us on a gripping journey through his former years as a drug smuggler to being incarcerated for eight years, ultimately finding the light at the end of the tunnel: a PhD in creative writing and a second chance. We discussed rejection, memory, and his advocacy for incarcerated individuals among other topics. The following exchange is the result of those topics discussed over email.

DC: You are someone who knows how to begin a story. There are numerous opening sentences—too many to list—in this memoir that are extremely poetic. They command your attention and paint a vivid and permanent image in the reader’s mind, yet they all seem to be written so effortlessly. It reminded me a lot of Heart Berries, one of the books you taught us last semester in our Memoir class, and the way Marie Mailhot sometimes begins her chapters. Did Mailhot or her style of writing influence the writing of your memoir at all? Who are some of the writers or mentors that inspired you to write Dead Weight or overall influenced you to write?

RH: I would say we are both poets at heart, and so attention and detail, the sentence and everything inside of the sentence, is something that we innately do. The list of writers that have influenced me is long. With that said, I think I am influenced deeply by parts of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. Each of these writers can operate within an interesting syntax while engaged in creative inquiry in an effortless way. 

DC: It was surprising to learn that poetry was, as you called it, “an outlier” and something that wasn’t on your radar. That it wasn’t until after you participated in a poetry workshop in prison that poetry became of great interest to you. How much of a role did poetics play in writing this memoir?

RH: Poetics played a huge role. I often look at poetry as the foundation to language building, and in the building and crafting of that language, a lyrical prose can be obtained, one that asks for the reader to have trust through a maze of imagistic lyricism and investigation through metaphor. Also, you have to remember I had this other life before incarceration, one in which people were not reading poems and engaging in literature. These things were foreign to our existence. 

DC: Your parents instilled your blackness into you at a young age. Essentially, there was no white gaze. It existed but the gaze through which you operated was through the Black one. I was heartbroken after learning that our alma mater, Howard University, rejected you when you tried to reenroll to complete your undergraduate degree. And even more so when Central State rescinded your Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence offer. Having this solid foundation of blackness and then experiencing what feels like betrayal from institutions that were specifically created to put Black people in better positions, how did you navigate through something like that?

RH: To be fair, and honest, both of those situations were difficult blows of rejection. I only needed a few credits at Howard, and this was the one thing on my mind returning from prison. However, it did teach me how to reconfigure my life, and to use a setback as a stepping stone, which I did do. The fact that Central State rescinded their offer and would risk a lawsuit rather than to have me there, says it all. Both of these situations taught me a lot. I don’t want to call them up and say, hey you were wrong. No, not that. I am interested in the creative journey, and if those setbacks were part of it, then so be it. 

DC: I recall quite a few haunting lines that demonstrate those lucid memories that you couldn’t forget if you tried. I can’t imagine how difficult it was digging into some of those old wounds in order to recall a specific memory or moment in time. How did you prepare yourself for conjuring up some of those more difficult memories? What advice can you offer to writers who are thinking about writing a memoir?

RH: I don’t know if one actually can “prepare” as much as admit the process will be difficult, that the past catalogues history, and in order to get to that history, there is no sidestepping the truth within that history. I am very aware of the image within creative prose. The images in memoir often require intense reflection, a sort of reflection that I am comfortable with when writing poetry. This is why a lot of my prose originates from a poetic point of view. Maybe that helps.  

In terms of advice, I would say write the narrative that comes to you and when it comes to you. Do not worry about an order in the beginning. It’s okay to be fragmented and all over the place in the beginning. In time these will be critical pieces to a puzzle you are trying to figure out, and that is your memoir. Remember, these are your words, claim ownership of them. 

I think when approaching memoir one needs to be flexible and let the narrative and structure develop over time. Also, when writing memoir, you are literally putting yourself on display to the world, be ready to face that when publication comes.

DC: Your voice is raw and unfiltered. The sentences come alive and jump off the page, at times feeling as though you are actually reading or reciting the lines to the reader. I can only assume the entire process of putting together a memoir is overwhelmingly tedious. From the names of people and places, specific locations, to the order of events. Can you explain your process of beginning the journey of writing this memoir? Were there any people you had to give a heads up to? Was there anyone who was against you telling your truth or theirs? Did you have to conceal anyone’s identity? How did you navigate through everything?

RH: The process of this memoir began with me being invited to deliver the Ralph Ellison Lecture at Tuskegee University in 2017. I knew I wanted to do something creative to honor the legacy of Ellison and his novel Invisible Man. At the time I was living in NYC on 136th between Broadway and Riverside and would walk up Riverside a lot to the Invisible Man statue on 147th—which faces the building where Ellison stayed until he passed away—and sit on one of the benches in the oval park and write. It was there where I created a way to talk with the protagonist in a novel while commentating on race and social strife through my personal memoir, often relating them to moments in the novel. This became “The Protagonist in Somebody Else’s Melodrama.” From there I was able to explore other facets of my life in the drug world that I did not previously in Hook: A Memoir. I gave my friend, Gary, a heads up that I was writing about 1303 T Street as well as the guy who owned the house at the time, John. In terms of the last section and my exploration into drugs being smuggled from South America, I did change some names, of course. The other people are all in my first memoir, and so I knew it was going to be cool to use their real names.

DC: My philosophy goes a little something like this: all writers are crazy, poets are insane, but those that write memoirs, are geniuses. I’m interested in the idea of memory and what it means in terms of recalling those suppressed memories that we desperately try to forget. I want to focus on two moments in the book specifically. The first being, the Ghanian student who asked you a series of questions at a lecture you gave at the Borough of Manhattan Community College: she asked what motivates you, how you remained focused after prison, and what keeps you from returning to your old life. And the second, the Facebook post of you recalling a dark memory from years prior and then having to relive the same vivid memory two years later. When recalling these unforgettable moments in time that “eat you alive,” and when thinking about those individuals that you have wronged or hurt in the past, how do you keep these traumas from overcoming your sanity?

RH: That, is a real question. One I’ve often wondered myself. Maybe it is because I have always been able to compartmentalize my experiences in ways that let me remember and deal with them in the same way. I mean, I really have seen the unimaginable existing in the underworld of drugs and street life. I do dream about situations where I almost lost my life by the smallest of margins. I think about the people I left behind, the ones I am quite sure stayed stuck in suspended animation and never overcame the condition they were in. I think writing about these things has helped me to come to terms with that period in my life. 

DC: I didn’t think I would come to dislike anyone who would be a part of your story. And maybe dislike is too easy of a word to describe how I feel about Bo (a character from Dead Weight). In my eyes, he’s the most frustrating character for many reasons. I think we’ve all encountered a Bo in our lives. That one friend or family member who, for a lack of better words, just can’t get it right. We might even be that friend or family member. You have this really great quote about guilt, “the hidden wound of guilt never heals, never creates a scab. It lingers and festers.” What were you feeling in those moments of your first encounter with Bo after all those years had passed, after having to essentially betray that friendship in order to save his life? Have you spoken to or seen Bo since then?

RH: I was stunned into silence. I felt a sense of sadness for both of us, but for him. To this day I do not know if he knows the whole truth, and I could not bring myself to mention it. If he knew, he gave me no indication that he did. It was like an event in our lives that never happened. I don’t think that I have ever reconciled that guilt, no matter the reason. And no, I have not seen or spoke to him since that moment. 

DC: Writing and reading in prison was something to help pass the time for you. But you also wrote letters, among other things, for inmates. Being able to offer these services provided you with extra commissary and provisions. When did you realize that writing was not only helping you pass time but also another means of survival?

RH: Before I left the Montgomery County jail on my way to DOC, one of the social workers that did programming in my unit made me promise her I would not stop writing. When I arrived in Baltimore for classification, I was locked in my cell 23 hours a day for over a week. During that time, I started working on a novel that would eventually fail, but in the process, I realized the power of language and what it did for me while I was on the inside. When I got to state prison I created a strict schedule for reading, writing, revising, and typing to get me through each day. 

DC: I’m a huge fan of the FX series Snowfall, so when I got to the last essay, I was thrilled to hear your perspective. You said it’s the first show that “delves into the complicated layers of the crack epidemic without sensationalizing the storylines to the point of unbelievability.” You said you had suspected government involvement, “the unseen puppet masters,” were you at all surprised to hear JC’s account as an eyewitness? I’ve been a loyal fan since day one, so I have to ask if you’re watching Season Five? Things are quickly spiraling out of control, again!

RH: First of all, I just finished watching the last episode where your boy [Franklin] dropped the mic in the diner! Did not see that coming! Love Snowfall. But all of it is interesting. In my first memoir I write about a betrayal between me and one of my homeboys that broke the foundation of what we did. He tried to go behind my back and hook up with my connect in Eleuthera, and I found out about it. There are so many similarities to Snowfall, it is eerie.  

But no, I was not surprised. He was an interesting figure who flew airplanes and ran cigarette boats. When I met him, he had two cigarette boats parked in front of his house. We developed a real friendship outside of the drug thing. The times that I write about struggling in Washington, DC often correlate to the times when I did not have access to JC, or he was living on another island in the Bahamas, laying lowkey from the DEA. With that said, I knew he was going to South America and dealing with the cartels, but never gave much thought about what the government was capable of until watching Snowfall. That is why I hopped on a plane and went to his crib, and we talked about it. 

DC: In the chapter “Archetypes and Disaster,” you expressed that it is your life mission to advocate for those in prison. I remember last semester in our Memoir class you briefly mentioned a project you were excited about that was coming to fruition. Can you talk a little bit about what you’re working on and the impact you’re hoping it will have on those incarcerated individuals? Lastly, I have to ask what else is in the works? Are there any other projects or books you’re working on that we can look forward to? 

RH: Well, let’s start with the last questions which will lead to the first. I am going to be quite busy for a while. I received a Creative Capital grant with a collaborative project titled Radical Reversal, which is also the name of our poetry band.

Radical Reversal is designed to reimagine the impact artists can have on the criminal justice system. While the idea of an artist grant can be appealing, we want to show artists that multiple things can be achieved while addressing one of the most important issues of our time. We believe that through mutual collaboration we can create an experience on the inside that has never ever been done.

We will provide and set up a small recording studio to simulate the one used to record the project: Not One Real MF (Available on iTunes), including equipment to host a live performance for three correctional facilities. The participants will be able to create words/language, play, learn and record music while learning the process of digital editing. Radical Reversal will cultivate a band to perform in a livestreamed performance with host institutions. The musical and recording equipment will live as a permanent fixture. We envision this to be a utilized space long after the physical performance that will improve the lives of those on the inside. 

We will begin our first program at the Youth Detention Center in Birmingham, Alabama, then we go to Faribault in Minnesota, then Suffolk County House of Correction in Boston. Birmingham will be a short six-week program but the others are yearlong. So, I’ll be busy for a minute. But, it’s a good busy. We will be documenting the experience and we will record in each facility as well as perform live, so I’ll be active. 

Randall Horton is a Professor of English at the University of New Haven. He is also a member of the experimental performance group Heroes Are Gang Leaders which recently received the 2018 American Book Award in Oral Literature. He received a 2021 American Book Award for #289-128: Poems. He is cofounder of the Radical Reversal, a music group with a focus on social justice issues. Their latest project is Not One Real MF and available on digital outlets. Radical Reversal recently installed a recording studio/creative/ performance space at Jefferson County Youth Detention Center in Birmingham, AL as a pilot program. The recipient of a Creative Capital award, Radical Reversal will now turn its  attention to MN-Faribault DOC in MN and South Essex Corrections in MA to install creative installations in both facilities simultaneously, complete with programing and culminating performances. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he now resides in New Jersey.

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