Eradicating the Language of Recriminalization with Dr. Randall Horton

{#289-128}: Poems by Randall Horton
Randall Horton
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Sep 23, 2020

“When did you realize poetry could be your companion? Your release?” 

In this episode of the Johnson County Library podcast Did You Hear, Dr. Randall Horton and Anishinaabekwe poet Louise K. Waakaa’igan discuss poetry both as a lifeline and as a discipline.  It’s a discussion between two people who share a gift for and love of poetry; but it’s also a discussion between two people who share a common language that only those who have been “inside” can fully understand.  

An unrelenting advocate for personal voice and perfect line breaks, Dr. Horton is equally passionate about eradicating the language of incarceration that tends to recriminalize those entangled in the legal system. If you listen closely, you’ll hear this passion in Dr. Horton’s language: he says, “before I went to the inside” (8:57 mark) and that he “received” the time (9:17 mark) to which he was sentenced. Both of these statements show how Dr. Horton refuses to let language used by others (“sent to prison” or “imposed a sentence,” for example) control and define his narrative.  

And it’s that narrative that he brings us in his newest book, a collection of poems titled {#289-128}. Yes, this was his number when he was “inside,” but if there’s one thing this collection makes clear, it’s that no person can be defined by just one word—Dr. Horton can no more be defined simply as “felon” as you or I can be defined by the most public, most documented transgressions of our own lives. It’s clear to me after sitting with his poems that we all must ask each other: why do we, as a society, insist on branding people who’ve been incarcerated with markers that never let them fully live a life of their choosing, but we allow others, some of whose actions cause harm, to write their own narratives? 

In this 45-minute podcast, Dr. Horton and Waakaa’igan share thoughts and insights about life inside and out; about their writing practices and recent works; and about the roadblocks each faced as they reentered society as a returning citizen. To the question of what roadblocks Waakaa’igan encountered as she re-entered society after being inside, she says:  

“My own fears as to how I’m going to fit into this new world now that i have a felony. Right? So that’s my own hesitation and I think that is probably my biggest roadblock because now in 2020, Randall, there are so many conversations happening about change, about injustice, about equality. And so I may have a felony, but somebody else may be an amputee and so they might have kind of the same insecurities about ‘how do I fit in in?’ Two totally different situations, I agree; but yet still our own personal fear and hesitation of ‘do I really fit in?’ and ‘can I really do this?’ And ‘yes I can,’ and ‘this is my community so of course if fit in.’ Right?” 

In this exchange, Waakaa’igan gets to the heart of Dr. Horton’s collection: we may not all understand what it’s like to be “inside” and we may never know what it’s like to fight our way back into a society from which we’ve been separated; but we all, in some way, understand constraint and imposed boundaries. It’s that common language that invites us to step inside of Dr. Horton’s reality on the “inside” so we can better understand each other in our daily lives. 

Their conversation touches on the dual nature of writing: both as a means to understanding and as a craft that requires study and discipline. Waakaa’igan says: “I think I wrote before incarceration as a means to cope. Being a young minority woman in the world we’re in, it was a really great and safe way to express myself and to process what I was going through. On the inside it was more about crafting this thing called writing and the discipline of it, because it takes discipline and it takes a lot of erasing and editing. I nurtured the discipline of it.” 

Dr. Horton is on the faculty of the 2020 Johnson County Library Writers Conference, where he will teach sessions in Memoir Construction, Creative Nonfiction with Fictional Elements, and City as Protagonist. He will also be in conversation with poets Megan Kaminski and Rudy Francisco for the kickoff event.  

More about Dr. Horton and his body of work can be found at 

Reviewed by Lisa A.
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