By Stephanie Hype | September 20, 2021
UAlbany had the pleasure of welcoming back alumnus Randall Horton for a discussion about his journey from previously incarcerated to becoming an acclaimed poet this past Tuesday. Organized by the New York State Writers Institute, the main theme of his discussion was that our lives are not dictated by the start of our journey but by the willingness to change to follow one’s true purpose.
Horton is the only person in the United States with seven felony convictions and an academic tenure, after earning his Ph.D. in English from UAlbany. The spark that helped turn his life around was participating in writing workshops put on by the jail addiction services during his time in county jail. Writing became a healer for Horton because it helped him gain more empathy.
“I never was in touch with myself. I never could explain to myself why I was making the bad choices I was making,” Horton said.
Falling in love with language itself helped Horton take responsibility for what he had done in the past. Writing helped him gain a sense of community he had been longing for by connecting with other writers. After realizing the power of a collective group of people, Horton’s goal for his poetry is to eradicate the language of incarceration that tends to re-criminalize those entangled in the legal system. He explained that his poems are a reel that overlook his experiences from an intimate and broad narrative.
“I’m interested in the line that’s going to capture the reader,” Horton said.
When Horton started writing slam poetry it helped him learn the difference between how a poem is performed versus how it is read. A poet has to know how to mix both in order to have a successful poem. During the discussion, Horton read poems from his collection called “#289-128” named after his Maryland Department of Corrections number. He read aloud poems like “Animals” and “Rhetorical, Perhaps” as if each word came directly from his soul. The listener could hear how much passion Horton had for his work with each dramatic pause he used as he spoke.
Horton’s writing process for poetry involves writing out what he wants and then picking what parts will go together based on common themes he sees in his work. He is not afraid to look at other poets' work for inspiration, including his favorites, Etheridge Knight and Stephen Jonas.
“Fall in love with someone else’s writing before you fall in love with your own,” Horton explained. “Not only does it humble you, it also helps you become more interconnected with others.”
Horton’s experiences, good and bad, helped to shape him into an acclaimed poet which includes winning the Gwendolyn Brooks and Bea González Poetry Award. What he lacked in technical writing, he made up with his unique life experiences. He encourages everyone that you have to live a life if you want to write. Without the journey, the destination is not as rewarding.
“Everyone has a story to tell. The question is, how are you going to tell the story,” Horton said.
Horton’s next book “Dead Weight” is a memoir written through a collection of personal essays and is expected to be released in 2022.