Randall Horton vs. the i

October 27, 2020


VS: Randall Horton vs. the i

Danez Smith: She’s my twin sister that I met in a Detroit mall, Franny Choi.

Franny Choi: And they’re my twin sister that I met at American summer camp, Danez Smith.

Danez Smith: And you’re listening to VS, the podcast where poets confront the ideas that move them.

Franny Choi: And also their secret twins.

Danez Smith: Yeah. What the hell was up with the ’90s? People were just finding twins all over the place.

Franny Choi: Ooooh man. Yeah.

Danez Smith: I kind of thought that was going to happen to me one day.

Franny Choi: Right. Right.

Danez Smith: Every year, I went to summer camps being like, this is the year, you know, that I finally get my twin.

Franny Choi: Where is she? Where are you, twin? (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: Make sense of me. You know?

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS) Right, right. And now, there’s only just like—my only twin is like, the Franny Choi that lives on the Internet that people interact with.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: She’s my long lost twin that I will forever be in a contentious battle with. (LAUGHS) Which is not as fun, like, fewer secret handshakes. And a lot more just like, identity crises. So, you know, thanks a lot, ’90s … media.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS) No secret twin parties. Just a lot of crying about the boxes that people put you in, right?

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS) Right. What do you think is the most significant difference between the Danez Smith, the brand, the poet, the lifestyle guru?

Danez Smith: Oh, the brand is very much like, bright Saturday morning cartoon. And the actuality is like, dark Saturday night, depressed Adult Swim cartoon, you know?

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: Very different, you know, it’s like—

Franny Choi: I like that you’re a cartoon in both scenarios, though.

Danez Smith: I’m a cartoon in both scenarios. Yeah, it’s very much like, what’s that one with the hamburger and the fries?

Franny Choi: I don’t know. I don’t know. I didn’t have cable growing up, so I never knew. And also they scared me. I was like, “Oh, these cartoons are swearing. I don’t want to watch them.” (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS) Word. Well I just feel like, I’m a very, you know, sad, sad man who like, goes to work every day and then voices Elmo, you know? (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Ohh, totally. Oh my god.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS) Yeah, that’s it. I think I’m like this, jolly—and maybe I am in some ways, but I think I have, like, you know, been maybe a little bit of the Billy Porter of poetry. Like a jolly queer. (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS) Wow. The Billy Porter of contemporary American poetry. That’ll be my next “They’re the” intro for you.

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Franny Choi: Although, I feel like it sounds racist coming from me. Which is…

Danez Smith: It does.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: I like racism. You know how I feel about this. (LAUGHS) How about you, though? Who’s the Franny that people think they know, but they have no idea?

Franny Choi: I think that it’s similarly like, oh here’s the fun older student that’s gonna lead the racism workshop, you know? (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: Mm-hmm.

Franny Choi: You know what I mean? And like, it’s because at some point I was literally the older student that was going to lead the fun racism workshop in your dorm, you know? That was like, the first way I knew how to be up in front of a room of people, talking about something. And so I think I’ve continued that brand. But, yeah, I don’t know. I think that one has to kind of like seem chipper, to be like, “Invite me to your school.” And I am chipper. I am chipper, but I also am very … sour about a lot of things. Yeah. And pretty, pretty, pretty unhappy, generally speaking.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS) Sorry. Sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh at that so loud.

Franny Choi: At me being unhappy?

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS) Yeah, it’s like, “Hey, y’all. Quite unhappy.”

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: Yeah. I wish we could just walk into to the world and say that.

Franny Choi: Yeah. No, it’s true. And also uh … I think that we both also have talked about being boxed into being like, slam poets and stuff, you know.

Danez Smith: Yeah. Any aspect of your identity or your experience that you are comfortable, like sort of peering out from in order to like, do something like write a poem, right, people are also willing to, like, limit you to that lens, too, right?

Franny Choi: Mm-hmm. And our guest today, Randall Horton, who talks about being boxed in to being a particular kind of poet, especially as somebody who has had the experience of being incarcerated and what it’s been like to come for the first time to writing about that experience in poetry in his new book, which just came out, which is called {#289-128}, which is a reference to the number that he was given while in prison. So, we are really excited to get to share with you all this conversation that we had with Randall, where he talks about what it means to resist that experience of being boxed in.

Danez Smith: Randall Horton is the recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award, The Bea Gonzalez Poetry Award, the Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award for Creative Nonfiction for Hook, a memoir published by Augury Books, and the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Literature. He currently sits on the advisory board for PEN America’s PEN Prison Writing Program. In 2018 and 2019, Randall was selected as poet in residence for the Civil Rights Corps of Washington, DC, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to challenging systematic injustice in the American legal system. Dr. Randall Horton is currently the only tenured full professor in the United States of America at a university or college with seven felony convictions. He is a member of the experimental performance group Heroes Are Gang Leaders, which recently received the 2018 American Book Award in Oral Literature, and their latest project, The Baraka Sessions, was named best vocal jazz album by NPR in 2019. Randall’s latest collection, {#289-128} was published by the University of Kentucky Press in fall 2020. Dr. Horton is a professor of English at the University of New Haven. His next memoir, Dead Weight, is slated to be published in 2021. Let’s get into this amazing interview with Randall Horton, who will start us off with a poem.


Randall Horton:





the last stop is also a beginning point

on the c at 168th POETRY IS HARD

catches my eye before we depart

against the reflecting neon signs

as square tiles parallel lives lived

in a box or cell—we alone the man

& [I] of no significance until he exits—

the grinding wheels pull away

from 155th—a ghost compartment now

analogous to time spend in solitary.

i occupied this same mute hush

when white boy met his living shadow

in a split second on the cold concrete

bringing to view faces pressed

inside rectangle glass— the aftersound

resonates loud year after year—

(white boy died from the epistles of dear john)

appearing at 125th a person is reading


on the train today no one reads

& we continue swathed in noise—

* * *

Franny Choi: What a great launch into that “Subway Chronicles” series.

Randall Horton: Yeah. Thanks. Finally figured out a way in. But, you know, I’m always interested in train travel. The subway and the train is very interesting modes of meditation and creativity. I don’t know. It just something about that that I’ve always enjoyed, because I used to commute from Harlem to New Haven. And so, one of the things that would sort of occupy my time a little bit. And I sort of got used to that. And-and-and of course, in New York, there’s always something, you know, on a train, to sort of inspire you. Right?

Danez Smith: Mm-hmm.

Randall Horton: You know, that became sort of the impetus, because most of these were sort of thought about in some kind of way on the subway.

Franny Choi: Hmm. Well, congratulations, also, on your book. The first question that I want to ask, is like, how are you feeling about it being in the world?

Randall Horton: Well, I’m feeling pretty good about it. Uhm…I think my last book was 2013. And so, it’s been some time between poetry projects. I had a memoir in between there and some other things obviously. But uhm, I’ve been excited for this project for a couple of years now, and sort of the anticipation of-of it coming out, and then having the book launch last night with the Brooklyn Historical Society, and to have it situated to the panel and sort of actually discuss some of the things that I’m trying to amplify in terms of the criminal justice system and the prison industrial complex, and the language that we use around that, and other things. It was-it was great. And so, I feel good about it and happy for it to be in the world. And, you know, we do what we do as poets. And so that’s part of the thing. I wrote the book that I was supposed to write, or I’d like to see in the world. Now it’s time to get busy and figure out what’s next, you know.

Franny Choi: Well we like to ask all of our guests to kind of situate us by telling us what is moving you, as a writer, as a poet in the world, or a person in the word.

Randall Horton: Yeah, I mean, that’s perhaps complicated, in a way, ‘cause I think I’m always moved by different things because I try to keep myself going in different areas. Most recently, like I said, I’ve been into the music thing. Uhm, the intersection of jazz and experimental music, avant-garde, or however you want to put that, which can be complicated within itself. But working with especially jazz musicians in the way that they sort of always looking for another way to sort of tell the narrative of their sound has really, I think, impacted my work in a lot of ways. So that’s been moving me. And obviously, the social climate and what’s happening, you know, nationally is—when I say moving me, it’s good to see people getting out there sort of actively, you know, saying how they feel, resisting and all of that, you know. That’s sort of been something I’ve been secretly wanting to see for a long time, so, you know, that’s good among so much of the negativity that’s happening. So that’s moving me.

Franny Choi: Mm.

Randall Horton: I’m also moved by prose, more so now.

Danez Smith: Hm

Randall Horton: Um, I’m interested in, you know, fiction writers and how they sort of construct their novels. As someone who wrote, who works in the area of creative nonfiction, I tend to lean toward the fictionists more so than nonfiction. Although I do. Fiction writers tend to move me, past and present.

Franny Choi: Hmm. What is it that draws you more toward fiction than nonfiction?

Randall Horton: Sort of the imagistic mythical nature in it. And how can one recreate that within nonfiction, which is sort of interesting to me. So thinking about a lot of Toni Morrison, actually, ‘cause she’s a huge influence on how I approach nonfiction. Its sort of magical realist aspect, in is it real or is it not, which I think blends into creative nonfiction. In terms of poetry, the influence of Ed Roberson is probably huge in my work as well. The Chicago poet. So I’m always feeling whatever Ed’s writing. (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Can I ask you more about the jazz and music projects that you’ve been involved with? Like what kind of work is that? What does that look like?

Randall Horton: I’m part of a larger project called Heroes Are Gang Leaders. And we take our name from a short story about Amiri Baraka, which was “Heroes Are Gang Leaders.” But what the, sort of the nexus of the group is, what we try to do is like, blend literary text with-with music. And so we received the American Book Award for Oral Literature, was it two years ago, for one of our-our projects. And then we’ve had a chance to sort of tour over in Europe. We did Berlin, Netherlands, Poland. Uhm and so, that’s the part to me, that’s, you know, more than anything, that’s interesting, is when we get a chance to travel and we’re able to sort of reach audiences that we probably never could reach here.

Danez Smith: Mm-hmm.

Franny Choi: Mm.

Danez Smith: It’s that Baldwin thing, right? I mean, you kinda go over there, you realize the reach of the words, right. Because, I think, so much, we can get caught in our own contexts as far as what we’re writing about, even yeah, just the American context of what being a writer is. And you go over there … it’s transformative. It’s transformative.

Randall Horton: But even then, as to the aspect of it even being an American, your Americanism shows immediately.

Danez Smith: Yeah. —

Randall Horton: —I know it’s true for me—

Danez Smith: —And it’s true, because you don’t realize it. I didn’t know I was American until I went somewhere else. I just thought I was a Black, you know? (LAUGHS)

Randall Horton: (LAUGHS) Right. Yeah. Nah. And it sorta comes out. So, like, oh I’m coming from this American privilege that I really don’t even have.

Danez Smith: Mm-hmm.

Randall Horton: And so that becomes the interesting way in which this sort of self-reflection of my own expectations, but it was it was a good thing. To me, I think it was a really good experience. But that sort of nexus for me has been very inspirational in terms of the creative stuff, in terms of when I come to the page, because they hate to do the same thing twice.

Franny Choi: The other people in the group?

Randall Horton: The jazz band, the band.

Franny Choi: Oh yeah, yeah.

Randall Horton: The musicians. In either one of them, their whole … the way they base their whole professional career on is like the experimentation, and the movement, so.

Danez Smith and Franny Choi: Mmmm.

Franny Choi: Yeah, right.

Randall Horton: So it forces me to step outside of myself sometimes and really think about what it is I’m trying to do, creatively in my own work.

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Danez Smith: Yeah, I was going to say, it seems like you identify with that. This kind of constant search for, how can I sound original when I—when you step to it.

Randall Horton: Yeah, and I think part of that originates from even when I was sort of coming into trying to be a writer and thinking about what that means. And always understood, in some ways, that people would try to sort of put me in the context of being this guy from prison who’s writing. And I’ve always understood that. And so I’ve always tried to sort of—I know I’m a writer first. I happened to have been incarcerated, and done some things.

Danez Smith: Mm-hmm.

Randall Horton: You cannot escape the history yous destined to make, to quote Black Thought, Roots. And so the whole reason I got into writing was the idea to be able to explore different things. And I think this is only part of that whole journey, ‘cause it has to be the journey that I enjoy being on if I’m going to be on that journey. Because my other life taught me that.

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Randall Horton: I was in that journey for other things other than self-gratification in a way that was fulfilling. It was more monetary and trying to be part of the capitalist machine that sort of eats us up, in terms of the way we have to sort of fight for that money and, you know, live an existence. And I got caught up in all that.

Franny Choi: When you say that you’re a writer first, can you say a little more about what you mean?

Randall Horton: Well, I guess I mean, a writer, artist, creative mind, creative being first. Because when I chose to sort of explore this I decide that that’s what I was going to put first in my life. That’s what I mean by that.

Franny Choi and Danez Smith: Hmm.

Randall Horton: This way doesn’t really make sense if you look at it, because how you gonna eat? How you going to feed- what are you going to do? When I chose this life, I’d been to prison and I have seven felonies. I don’t know how I’m gonna live my life, but I’m set on being a writer, you know, a creative mind. I’m gonna figure it out. So I had to be all in or I wasn’t going to be in it. I guess I’m trying to articulate, like, for me, in another life, I did a lot of things in the search for trying to make money and trying to live and trying to be part of whatever it is. And all of those things didn’t make me happy. This made me happy.

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Randall Horton: So, I’m gonna be that first and then, whatever. And so whatever happens after then, you know, like, I tell people all the time, for me, I should have—just getting out of prison, so I’m always, for me, I’m playing with house money, you know.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS)

Randall Horton: It’s like I’m glad to be here. (LAUGHS) I’m always thankful for whatever, you know, I’m able to sort of, you know, get out into the world, achieve, and sort of make happen. Because 18 years ago when I started this journey, if you would’ve told me that I was going to be able to write books and, you know, have something published and, you know, all of these kind of things, I didn’t know if that was possible. But now all these things I see and know to be true are possible.

Danez Smith: The Black in me just wanted to be like, “That was the testimony, brother.” Like (LAUGHS)

Randall Horton: (LAUGHS) Well sometimes, you know, you’ve gotta testify. But, you know, it’s sort of something I’m used to talking about, or trying to articulate, just the whole idea of it. I even wrote an essay about it in Poetry. It was, I think, “Killing the I in Pr[i]son.” I understand the idea of being someone coming from that existence and having to sort of produce the image so people can understand that, okay, yes, you can do this. But the other part of me is the part of me who’s like, but that’s not who I am, really. And so, for the sake of that, sometimes, you know, we have to make these decisions, like, if I’m going to be advocate in this, I got to say this. Because it’s not a whole lot of us walking around in this, you know, in this arena doing this kind of thing. And so, that is important. So I get that.

Franny Choi: When you say, like, the thing that you have to do in order to do this work, do you mean like narrating your time in prison or like talking about it—

Randall Horton: Yeah, going to juvenile detention centers, adult detention centers, talking to young kids and people about, you know, my experiences. That’s what I mean by that. I mean- now it’s, you know, if I’m going to talk to like, 200 kids in juvie and I got seven felonies, and they need the example. And I give them my life, too. ‘Cause first thing is, you have to have trust. And if they don’t trust you, then they’re gonna tune you out. And so they can smell that. And so I have to give them a little bit of that past so I can always really make them understand that this is consequence based here, that you will, you know, face consequences in ways in which you didn’t think. And trying to get out of that system—is a nightmare. But, there is hope. And that’s what I mean by that. And I know for me, you know, when I was on the inside, those who were coming in who had had that experience and had sort of achieved something were those I sort of tuned in more to, because I identified with them and they identified with me in the way that that’s experience based. You can’t simulate that.

Danez Smith: You embrace these things. You have to talk about these things. You also, right, are like also resisting being boxed in by this label of like, prison poet or anything like that. And we all, you know, we fight our labels, we fight our boxing, in order to be ourselves and like, represent our people, but also not be limited by that, you know?

Randall Horton: Yeah.

Danez Smith: Cause that question also enters the work, right. The “I” is sort of all types—we got the I in brackets, we got the lowercase “i”, we got the self in brackets—

Randall Horton: (LAUGHS) Right.

Danez Smith: Right, we have the number in the title, right. So like, it seems like you answered that frustration with craft.

Randall Horton: Exactly.

Danez Smith: So I guess I’m wondering, when did that extreme tussle with the self, or I guess, not even tussle. It’s like a blurring denial, acceptance, it’s a lot of things going on with the self in this collection. And I guess, when did that—how did it manifest in this way? How did we get here to these like six, five, six representations of who “I” is?

Franny Choi: Yeah, or like, what are you doing with the “I” and the self in this book?

Randall Horton: Right. Well, obviously—it’s not, I’m saying “obviously” like you’re in my head. (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Randall Horton: Obviously! (LAUGHS) No, no. No, I mean, well, first of all, I’ve been using lowercase “i” since my second book. And then any time I probably used the larger case bracket it’s probably a collective “I”.

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Randall Horton: And so if I’m using lowercase “i” it’s me. In this collection, I don’t use it that much.

Danez Smith: Mm-hmm.

Randall Horton: So it’s really a collective “I”. And then there’s a collective “us” which could be conceived as the collective prison experience or the collective Black experience. It depends on the context of the poem. In the bracket itself, even though it’s in brackets, it sort of individualizes this thing that’s always searching sort of for itself. So that’s sort of why I bring attention to that. And then the periods are important to me, too, between the “or”s and the “but”s. And that stop and start. That influence comes from the poet Stephen Jonas, you know, the Boston poet who I think is probably one of the most fascinating poets. I love his vernacular and the way he, you know, he has these sort of—what is it, eargasms for the ear. Oh man, it’s just all sound, and it’s composition. His work to me is almost like—

Danez Smith: It’s jazz.

Randall Horton: Right. There you go. Exactly. So I’m after a little bit of that. And, you know, because we always standing on others’ shoulders. So there’s a lot going on.

Franny Choi: Yeah. Oh, there’s this line that I wrote down that was about, where you say “this is not that poem nor I the poet to hold your hand.” And I was curious about what it means to hold the reader’s hand there or what it means to reject that.

Randall Horton: (LAUGHS) Well, actually, I meant, you know, to be honest—there’s a smile because I just got this question last night.

Franny Choi: Oh, really? Okay.

Randall Horton: It’s not intended to mean anything other than I think sometimes we won’t—if you notice, the poem starts off with this whole imagistic, you know, flowery thing about, oh, we’re going to talk about prison in this beautiful way and you can just feel good about yourself. And that’s going to be this poem. And no, this is not the poem. And I’m not gonna be the poet, because I’m going to give it to you. (LAUGHS) So that’s my attempt.

Franny Choi: Mm.

Randall Horton: So, like, you know, we’re not playing around with none of this stuff and, you know, I can do all that, but then this is where we at with this, too. So it’s almost, you know, the idea of—I hate to use this analogy, because she would probably kill me if she was still alive, but if you look at Gwendolyn Brooks’s In the Mecca (LAUGHS), to how she sort of like goes through this whole esthetic journey just to show she can do it, and then F you at the same time. But no, but that’s really sort of what I was trying to do with that. And I think sometimes we get sort of caught up in you know, you can be somewhere talking about hard truths and people want you to sort of sugarcoat them in a certain way, in which it’s easier for them to sort of digest. And, you know, just like I say in one of those poems about, okay, he slit his wrist means he slit his fucking wrist. There are no allegories to hide behind.

Danez Smith: Mm-hmm.

Franny Choi: Mm.

Randall Horton: That’s what I’m getting at with that, in the easiness sometimes of how we have to have narrative. Sometimes you just gotta get it. You gotta get it.

Danez Smith: Mhm.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Randall Horton: You know, just like nationally, we’re tired of talking. We gotta get it. We don’t want to go in all this language and stuff, we want action, we want it now, you know. So that’s trying to do both of those things at the same time.

Franny Choi: Hmm. Yeah, that reminds me of the other line that I wrote down. I think it’s the beginning of another poem where you say, “nothing symbolic. okay. dark is dark— / cage is cage.”

Randall Horton: Mm-hmm.

Franny Choi: Which is such a like, bold move for a poet, I think. To say, “nothing symbolic.” (LAUGHS)

Randall Horton: Right. (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Like, that’s—(LAUGHS)—you know?

Randall Horton: I cut myself off before I even get started. (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Right.

Randall Horton: But I think that was the only entrance way into the poem.

Danez Smith: Mm.

Randall Horton: I’ve been looking at, you know, original constructions of the poem. I don’t think that was the beginning line, to be honest. That was the best way to come into that. So as the poet, thinking about the craft part of it, you have to give yourself some kind of license to go down the road that I went down in the poem, so.

Danez Smith: It’s interesting to hear you talk about that as the poet, because as the reader, right, and as a reader who has never been incarcerated or anything like that—

Randall Horton: Mm-hmm.

Danez Smith: To me, what those choices did—I think you do have to sometimes create like an inescapable condition for your reader, right? I think sometimes when you’re talking about these hard topics, right, where like, you can’t allow your reader to escape into the softness of metaphor, right? That’s what you’re saying, right? Like, there is no sort of like, imaginative route to sort of like, protect yourself.

Randall Horton: Mm-hmm.

Danez Smith: And I think that’s what the poem has to do, right. These poems, especially in that first section, those first two sections, especially, like, we’re talking about poems like that are like embracing the smell of shit in the air. We’re talking about poems where like, shit is happening, and it can’t … you know, I’ve felt this in my own poems. It was like, hey, Danez Smith ain’t gonna show you to no motherfucking trees right now and make this shit beautiful, you know?

Randall Horton: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS)

Randall Horton: I always —I go back to when I was at the Gwendolyn Brooks conference one year. And I think Amiri Baraka was there, and he was like … oh, no, this was the second Furious Flower, James Madison. He was in town or something. And he was like, he said something about I couldn’t be writing no poems about how my hand is shitting flower smelling with people out here dying, or something like that.

Danez Smith: Mm-hmm.

Randall Horton: So, I’ve always, you know, kept that at heart in terms of when one has to say what one has say sometimes, you know those are the things... And I think as a poet, too, you have to sort of work yourself into that courage to sort of go down that road a little bit, because I think we sometimes, you know, doubt some of the things that we do. But they end up being okay. So, I think it’s a good doubt.

Franny Choi: Mm. Oh, man. But is it really … does metaphor always get in the way?

Randall Horton: No, I don’t think it does. And I think there’s some metaphor in here, obviously.

Danez Smith: Fo’ sho’.

Franny Choi: Mm-hmm.

Randall Horton: So I think sometimes, you know, you just got to say it plain. Now that I think about it, I’m probably even more reacting to some of the work that I do in other areas within, you know, incarceration and that thing, right. And sometimes having to make it plain and making it have to to talk about some difficult truths and some difficult things. Especially with students, the classes I teach and all of that kind of stuff, doing advocacy work. People want to do advocacy in the nice, neat way. And sometimes you gotta get your hands dirty a little bit. And you have to—I’m not saying both can’t talk to each other, both can’t do this, you know, work together. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m just saying sometimes you have to go down that road.

Franny Choi: Mm-hmm.

Randall Horton: And maybe since this is the fourth book, I feel confident to go down that road in that way. But I that, like I say, it goes back to the confidence of the writer in what they’re doing.

Danez Smith: Mm-hmm.

Franny Choi: Mm-hmm. This is your fourth book of poems. Is that true?

Danez Smith: Mm-hmm. Fourth collection, fifth book overall.

Randall Horton: Yeah.

Franny Choi: Fifth book. Right, right, right. Yeah. You know, as writers we always go back to the same kind of topics or stories or like, things that drive our work overall. But were there new things that you learned about those old stories in this— in the process of writing this book?

Randall Horton: Well, to be honest with you, these are new stories, in some kind of way.

Franny Choi: Mm.

Randall Horton: Because I didn’t necessarily write about incarceration in my poems. My first book is really about, is a persona, a historical look at my family between 1912 and 1972. And the second one is more so my time on the streets of DC. And there’s a section in Lingua Franca on prison, but that was it. And then Pitch Dark, there wasn’t anything about incarceration. So I addressed a lot of that in my memoir, Hook. And so coming out of Hook, I felt more confident about talking about that experience through poetry.

Franny Choi: Mm, I see.

Randall Horton: So it was only until I did the memoir that I really, really was like, I understood that I got to go back to this and really address it. I felt ready now. I felt like I could do the experience justice.

Danez Smith: What was it about the prose that made that possible?

Randall Horton: I think it was part of the “Father Forgive Me” section, which talks about, you know, my sentence. I was sentenced to like a bunch of time. I had 10 in Maryland and five back up in Virginia. I go on back to Montgomery County, Maryland, where I was originally sentenced, and I had a motion for a reconsideration hearing, and my dad showed up as my only character witness. And after, the D.A. probably gave about a 30-minute summation about how terrible I was as a person, and how I had no chance at rehabilitation, and had never made any positive contribution to society. He was just like, “We just see no reason why Mr. Horton should be let out of prison. He should go back to Hackettstown and serve out his sentence.” And so my father was my only character witness. And so he got up and talked before the court. And then he held court for like another 30 minutes. And he one of them guys from Birmingham, Alabama, born in 1932. And you know, he a proud guy. He’s an educator. He taught school at Parker High School in Birmingham for like 30 some years. And so he’s a proud guy. And you know, he won’t be asking nobody for nothing. You know, that’s just how he roll. But he got up and he talked about me from the time I was born, man. Talked about all of the promise that I had, all of the things that I could do. And I had a foundation. He said that, you know, the family is behind me, but this wasn’t who I was. And if you just give me this one chance, and then he started-he started crying, man, right. And so I’m crying. I’m gone. (LAUGHS) My lawyer crying. She ain’t done nothing, but she crying. (LAUGHS) Everybody in the gallery crying. In other words, in the Black tradition, he held sway.

Danez Smith: Right. (LAUGHS)

Randall Horton: The judge was wiping her face. And she granted my—she let me out of prison that day, too, man. And so the bailiff brought me back in the back and he’s like, “Man, I’ve been sitting in with that judge for 30 years. She’s never given anybody a break. You’re lucky as hell. I’ve never seen it. Consider this a blessing. Do not come back.”

Danez Smith: Mm.

Randall Horton: And so, you know, I went down and saw my dad, man. And then after I cried for a minute, I cussed him out for making me cry. (LAUGHS) And uhm, so what I’m getting at, that was sort of like the nexus of my journey. I made the choices myself. I can’t blame nobody but myself. Like, you know, we can we can bring systemic stuff in there. What I’m saying is, I needed them to know that it wasn’t them. And so I couldn’t write about that until I addressed it in Hook. And that just opened up—once I figured that out, it was a way for me to sort of just go forward and talk about things a little bit more. I couldn’t write about it until I did it justice.

Danez Smith: Mm.

Randall Horton: To adequately explain what happened that day, ‘cause it was magic. And you talk about the magical realism, and there’s a scene there where, you know, I’m trying to like, close my ears, and I keep hearing this sound and it’s like, oh, and this goes back to the whole “Sonny’s Blues” thing, and Sonny’s banging on the piano the loudest sound ever created. You know, James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” right. So that sort of gives you insight into how I love to sort of bring that in there. But getting back to the narrative, it all sort of made sense and came together. And so I just took that time to work on that.

Danez Smith: Hm.

Franny Choi: This book is coming out, what, 20 years removed from your time in prison?

Randall Horton: Mm-hmm.

Franny Choi: I mean, I think it seems like a good reminder to anybody who feels like, oh, well, like, why can’t I write about the thing that happened to me last year or like, the thing that happened, that’s going on right now, you know?

Randall Horton: Right.

Franny Choi: Sometimes it takes time, you know. (LAUGHS)

Randall Horton: Yeah. Nah nah. And I wanted to explore other things.

Danez Smith: Mm-hmm.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Randall Horton: I figure if I’m gonna go on his journey, let me just cast my net wide, and not just go the obvious route. You know, that would’ve been the obvious route for me. I guess I’ve always been that way. You know, my Mama, you know, I’m a preemie, so I could never wait on anything, and I’m always—

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Randall Horton: For real, I mean, kinda. That’s what my mother says.

Danez Smith: It seems like also to me maybe that the sort of getting it out in what was like your first, you know, nonfiction piece, right. Getting it out there allowed you maybe, with this collection, to come back to it and do what you do with poems, which is a little bit more removed from the self maybe, right? In the space of persona and sort of like exploring like, you know, collective histories and stuff like that. So it’s like right, like you said, get it out, do it justice, do it right.

Randall Horton: Right, right.

Danez Smith: Now I’m free to sort of play with it in a sort of way, yeah, that I came upon.

Randall Horton: Yeah. You know, thank you, Danez. I didn’t even—I appreciate that.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS)

Randall Horton: (LAUGHS) That makes so much sense. And that really is the intent of it. You know, like when you free yourself of that and you really do get it out, it gives you like, that sort of freedom, sort of working those constructions, and be confident about, okay, you know, I’m good.

Danez Smith: Right. So if you can’t write about it yet y’all, make the memoir, first.

Franny Choi: Yeah.


Randall Horton: There you go.

Danez Smith: Just make a memoir about it, the poems’ll come.

Franny Choi: Easy.

Randall Horton: Yeah, only about five years.


Franny Smith: It’s just a-just a memoir.

Danez Smith: It’s a process. It’s a process!



Danez Smith: We have reached the point in our show where it is time to play some motherfucking games. Our first game is called Fast Punch or wait, what’s the other names for this game, Franny? or…

Franny Choi: Speed Bag.

Danez Smith: Speed Bag. Or some other shit. We need to have a few less names for this game. But what we’re gonna do, Randall, is we are going to give you 10 categories of which you can decide to give us the best of or the worst of these categories. And you are going to answer it for us. So it’ll be stuff like, you know, like—it won’t be this, but best Disney character, you know.

Randall Horton: Right, right, right.

Danez Smith: Or hottest stanza, uhm, ever.

Randall Horton: Right.

Danez Smith: Oo, that’s a hard one. What’s the best stanza in poetry?

Franny Choi: Really, really hard. (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: Yeah. Question for later. Are you ready to play this game, sir?

Randall Horton: Well, no, but I’m ready.


Randall Horton: We’re gonna figure it out.

Franny Choi: Do you want to say the best of things or the worst of things?

Randall Horton: I don’t know, my wife says I’m always a black cloud. So let’s go with worst.

Franny Choi: Okay, great! (LAUGHS)

Randall Horton: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: Worst! I love this. (LAUGHS)

Randall Horton: Heaven help us.

Danez Smith: Alright. Let’s do it. Let’s start off with this one. I’ll start us off, Franny. First off— I don’t think we’ve done a worst yet. So I’m so excited. Alright. Worst word to use in a poem.


Randall Horton: (LAUGHS) That.

Franny Choi: Amazing. Uhm Worst sandwich.

Randall Horton: Tomato.

Danez Smith: Ew. (LAUGHS) I’m sorry, I forgot that was an option.

Randall Horton: (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS) I know, me too!

Randall Horton: I’m from the South. Mayonnaise and tomato, salt and pepper.

Danez Smith: I know! And I hate them.

Randall Horton: I do too. The worst. (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: They’re the worst! I was like, “Grandma, this is the worst day of summer ever.”

Randall Horton: (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: Oh my god, I love this. Alright, worst animal.

Randall Horton: The aardvark. (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: Aw!

Franny Choi: Okay, worst thing about Derrida.


Randall Horton: His (IN FRENCH) différance, indifference.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS) Great.

Danez Smith: Alright. Worst character in a Toni Morrison novel.

Franny Choi: Oh …

Danez Smith: This could be a moral question. (LAUGHS)

Randall Horton: The worst character in a Toni Morrison novel … oh, man. The slave owner for the guys who owned the brothers in Ohio in Beloved. What was his name?

Danez Smith: I know who you’re talking about. I can’t think of his name right now, but he was particularly evil out of all the white men in Toni Morrison.

Randall Horton: Yeah, yeah, that’s what I’m saying. I can’t remember his name. I can give you the book and the location. (LAUGHS) So there you go.

Franny Choi: Great. Worst pasta shape.

Randall Horton: Penne.

Franny Choi: Hmm. Oh, wow. Oh, I feel tender about that. (LAUGHS)

Randall Horton: My son, that’s his favorite. So I just need—we never got, I never like, understood the shape of that. I didn’t grow up with that, so.

Danez Smith: Love it. Alright, worst place to read a book.

Randall Horton: Worst place to read a book is Times Square.

Danez Smith: That’s just the worst place to be.

Randall Horton: (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Worst, worst jazz musician. This worked better when it was best, but, worst jazz musician. (LAUGHS)

Randall Horton: Okay. W.C. Handy.

Franny Choi: Okay.

Danez Smith: I don’t know who that is, but, damn.

Franny Choi: But wow, shots.

Randall Horton: So he co-opted the movement a little bit. So Imma throw him—Imma put him under the bus. (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Great.

Randall Horton: Although he was, you know, he had some contributions.

Danez Smith: Alright, last two questions coming. Worst president.

Randall Horton: (LAUGHS) Donald Trump!

Franny Choi: Well, yeah, there we go.

Randall Horton: Yeah.

Franny Choi: Okay. And then the last one will be worst thing you ever saw on the subway.

Randall Horton: Okay!

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Randall Horton: A butt naked man, a bottle of water, and a rag. Giving himself a bath.

Danez Smith: Oooo

Franny Choi: Oh …


Franny Choi: Oh, whoa.

Randall Horton: I know.

Danez Smith: I like that.

Randall Horton: (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS) Danez is like, sign me up. I’m there.

Randall Horton: I mean, the silver lining is that he did have a concept of how to try to get clean. So, I mean, I have to give him props.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Randall Horton: There we go. But still was not a good visual.

Franny Choi: Sure, sure, sure. Sure, sure sure.

Danez Smith: That sounds like a VIP subway experience to me.


Danez Smith: I think I’d pay extra.

Randall Horton: (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Only commuters.

Randall Horton: Yeah.

Danez Smith: Only trains.

Randall Horton: And no one was reading a book that day.


Franny Choi: Thank you for playing our weird game.

Randall Horton: Thank you. And it was great. That was great. That was great. I was a little intimidated, but I think I got through. So, I appreciate it.

Franny Choi: You did great. You did perfect. Shall we play—

Danez Smith: You ready for one more?

Franny Choi: One more.

Randall Horton: Okay. Yeah. Cool.

Danez Smith: One more game. One more game.

Franny Choi: Okay, so now we’re going to play a game called This vs. That, where we put two things in competition with each other and make them get into a physical brawl. And then you have to tell us which one will win in a fight. So for this edition of This vs. That, we have poetry versus jazz. If poetry and jazz were in a fight, who would win?


Randall Horton: I think it would be a toe-to-toe knockdown Thrilla in Manila, would have to go 15 rounds—

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Randall Horton: Because, in one corner you gonna have jazz and you’re gonna be influenced by some of the greats like Miles Davis, Art Blakey and the jazz messages. And so they’re gonna be trying to variate their sound and sort of beat you up with different narratives. But then you’re gonna have the arsenal, the poets is gonna be armed with narrative, experimental and understand the line break and hit you in the head with stanzas that sort of ring with alliteration and rhyme. And in the end, I got to give it to my people in the corner of poetry for their sort of dedication and resistance that beats you down with the message. And the jazz people are going to just have to take their whooping and fall in line, and let’s do this thing together.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: Wow!

Franny Choi: Wow. (LAUGHS)

Randall Horton: I promise you, that is straight up. I wasn’t drinking anything.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Oh, man. That was perfect. I saw it all.

Danez Smith: That was perfect.

Franny Choi: It was like an audio book.

Randall Horton: Yeah, so.

Franny Choi: I saw it all in my head. (LAUGHS)

Randall Horton: So when you said it, when you said fight, I already knew how I was gonna sorta juxtapose it and stuff. So, boom, there we go.

Franny Choi: Amazing. Well poetry—

Danez Smith: Yeah, I’m mad though. That was amazing, but, no, I ride for team jazz, I gotta say. As a poet, I would disagree with this fight. I think jazz got cheated at the call—

Randall Horton: (LAUGHS) I had to, you know, tilt the scales in that way. And if I was—

Danez Smith: You did!

Randall Horton: Yeah, so, you know, I’m a friendly poet sometimes. I can hold your hand if I have to.


Danez Smith: Randall, thank you so much.

Randall Horton: Thanks man. Thank you all, I appreciate you. Appreciate you so much, Danez, Franny.

Franny Choi: Thank you.

Randall Horton: It’s been great.

Franny Choi: Would you do us the honor of closing us out with one more poem?

Randall Horton: Okay.



Poet In New York


exiting darkness begins the process

by which, of course, [I] dissolves

dim opaque, & a train whistling

by the last window starboard.

against plate glass bubbled the cheek

but then, oblique, as in —

pressed ever so silly dumb the night

vibrant & uptown folk trapped

in a maze of boundaries & books


thinks our protagonist. nomatter

totally recuses itself from the living, it

begins dream as manifest destiny.

there is departure in arrival

trapped in an impossible construct.

say the construct walks upright

in search of freedom everywhere.

a historical fallacy willing the body

say skin construction is black

deepening the scene’s projection.

let’s call {#289-128} human.

* * *


Danez Smith: I’m soooo grateful for that interview, oh my god. And also, I was saying this before the interview, that was my first time seeing Randall without a hat. Usually has a hat on.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Yeah, hatlessly he delivered his wisdom.

Danez Smith: Hatless, vulnerable, makes for an amazing interview. I love it.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: One thing I was really hooked on, though, was I think, you know, the dissonance in the conversation, right. Between like, trying to resist this label of being the prison poet, right. But also like, this is his first time writing about that in poetry, right. And what also an amazing—you mentioned in the interview Franny—but what an amazing sort of grace that like, it can take us forever. And we do it when it’s the right time to get to something that maybe feels like we’re supposed to write about.

Franny Choi: Mm-hmm.

Danez Smith: You know, it arrives to us whenever it’s supposed to.

Franny Choi: Yeah. I mean, we’ve talked before on the show about the kind of impetus put on poets to respond to things that are happening like right away, especially kind of like, big shared national crises or global crises. And how sometimes that’s possible, and sometimes it’s just like, it takes so much longer than, you know, the span of a news cycle to really be able to understand. You know, let alone years of healing from things, whether personal or bigger than that. Is there something, Danez, that this conversation brings to mind for you, like things that you will be able to write about, like, in a few years, but not right now? Or something that took a really long time to get to.

Danez Smith: Yeah. I mean, I guess in the immediate, I do feel like what’s happened in Minneapolis this year. It was easier to write about it in prose. And I don’t think poems about it will really happen for a while.

Franny Choi: Oh, that’s so interesting.

Danez Smith: I felt right away, I mean, that’s why I’ve kind of proposed that to him, was because I think, for me, there’s too many things to like, balance in a poem that I want to pay attention to that like, in order to just kind of chronicle what’s happening and how, like that sort of getting it right that he was talking about. I think for me, sometimes when that’s difficult, that happens in prose. And I think, too, like my, like, lifelong thing, I think to talk about my parents in a meaningful and truthful and like fleshed out way, I think is gonna take time. And I think maybe, too, might require some prose, which I think, too, was maybe familiar because it reminds us of like, the diary or the confession and all that, before I get to the poems about it.

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Danez Smith: The beautiful thing about being a writer is that the more and more I live, the more and more I realize that, like, there’s stuff in my past waiting for me now that wasn’t waiting for me before.

Franny Choi: Right, oh my god.

Danez Smith: That I’ve only now arrived at those tools, you know?

Franny Choi: Whoa. Whoa, whoa, whoa.

Danez Smith: Yeah. How about for you? What do you see yourself getting to maybe one day?

Franny Choi: You know, the first answer that came to mind was this breakup. Like, heartbreak following the end of a relationship that was like a six-year relationship. Uhm, there’s a difference, right, between writing lots of poems when something happens and then like, writing poems that will ever be shared with anybody, you know? There’s that. And also, when you were talking, it reminded me of the ways that my siblings don’t really show up very much in my poems. I love my siblings very, very dearly. And I think that I haven’t exactly ever known, up to this point at least, how to write about them and our relationships while still being able to kind of protect them. You know? I feel like a little bit too protective of my siblings to write about them in poems. And so actually, I think for me, I don’t know if I will be able to ever do it in prose, actually, because I think that feels like even more exposing because it’s like so personal. Like a personal relationship and like, somebody else’s life at stake, whereas, yeah. But maybe, maybe it’s true that once that happens, then I’ll be able to get to the deeper, at the bone of the thing, thing when it comes to talking about our relationship. But, yeah, I don’t know, for now I just like, I feel too protective of them to write about them.

Danez Smith: Yeah. I think in a work that can sometimes ask you to be so vulnerable in a way that it sometimes can like snowball into like nothing being sacred or off limits in your life, right?

Franny Choi: Yeah. Totally.

Danez Smith: That sort of question of vulnerability. And I mean, I think it took me a while to learn that, that it was okay for stuff to be off limits, you know.

Franny Choi: Yeah. Right, right. Because then you get into the thing of like, wait, this is like a thing that is like deeply moving me. Like, this is the core of my being that, like, shows up. Like so why am I, am I like, not reaching deep enough? And it’s like, sometimes you just can’t. It’s okay to not go to the thing that is like most driving you right now. You know?

Danez Smith: Mm-hmm.

Franny Choi: Life is long. You know, there will be years.

Danez Smith: Life is long.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: Let’s get back to our years, yeah. Thank some folks and get on outta here.

Franny Choi: I don’t know…Yeah … I don’t know … hey, let’s get back to 2020. I don’t know if that’s like the cheeriest way to exit, but let’s do it. Why not?

Danez Smith: The only good thing about 2020 is like, you know, there’s less of it ahead of us than there is behind us.

Franny Choi: Every day, every day there’s less 2020. (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: Alright. (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Oh my goodness.

Danez Smith: Franny, who you wanna thank this week?

Franny Choi: Okay. Yeah. I want to thank like, astrologers in general. You know what I mean? But specifically—is her name Susan something? Susan Miller? Okay, there’s a Susan out there who does these like, really intense ones that are like, “Don’t sign a contract on the 12th.” Like, “Do go on a date on the 13th.” “On the 14th you might have to short distance travel,” or whatever. And I just … shout-out to the rigor and the thoroughness. That’s who I wanna thank today. (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: Word. (LAUGHS) I am going to thank my mom for pressuring me. She uses my Hulu account, and so she’s been nagging me for a while to get Starz, because she wants to watch Power. And because I finally gave in, I got to watch P-Valley, and that was a pretty good show. So thanks, Mom. You got me to up our Hulu account so I could watch a really good show. Go watch P-Valley. It’s an amazing show, everybody. Steals someone’s Hulu account and watch it for yourself.

Franny Choi: I just love that of all the things that you have thanked your mom for on this show. This is like a really particularly good one. Very specific. I love the specificity. (LAUGHS)

Danez Smith: It’s very specific, you know. And I was like, so annoyed. I was like, this woman keeps on asking me. Like, I don’t wanna pay eight extra dollars so she could watch Power. But then I was like, “Oo, what’s this show about strippers?” This is amazing (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: There you go.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: When God closes a door, or whatever.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Okay. We also want to thank Ydalmi Noriega and Itzel Blancas from the Poetry Foundation. Thank you to our producer, Daniel Kisslinger. Thank you to Postloudness. And thank you to you all for continuing to listen to our little old podcast.

Danez Smith: Yeah. Wherever you’re listening to our little old podcast, make sure you like, rate, subscribe, share. Tell your mama. Tell your sister, tell your friend, tell your boss. And make sure you follow us on Twitter @Vsthe podcast. If you are on the Twitters. If you’re on Instagram, don’t follow us there. There’s nothing. You can’t see us. You have no idea what we look like. And with that, y’all, we are going to get on outta here. Y’all stay safe. Stay blessed. Make good risks. Make good donations. Have good thoughts and write good poems.

Franny Choi: And don’t be afraid to unlock certain things on your Hulu accounts. You never know where it may lead.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHS)

Franny Choi: Bye.

Danez Smith: Bye.

Danez and Franny have the honor and pleasure of chopping it up with the brilliant Randall Horton on this episode of the show. Randall, whose newest collection {#289-128}: Poems just dropped this month, talks about coming to know his story so that he could eventually write about it, resisting being boxed in as a poet who was incarcerated, and what he’s learned from his collaborations with jazz musicians. Get into it!

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