Randall Horton's poems
Poetry As a State of Becoming: An Interview with Randall Horton
By Niki Herd
Rosetta Merrill: We Are Everyperson
when sky is filled with sawdust
and pine trees stand tall
there is a song in my throat, a sound that flutters through me soft as hair ribbons tracing ripples in a southern breeze. My family is a strong spirit. Our rhythm is the current of ruffled ocean and moves a colorless sea. Our lives pull the sun across a ridge of pine each day. My people are the windsong, the meek that toil unseen to eyes whose stomachs are full. At night, when coal whitens in a potbelly stove, and the impossible is our only hope, I close my eyes and feel my feet pulled from red clay and know my footprints will be here long after we have sung these everyperson blues.
Niki Herd: The poem Rosetta Merrill: We Are Everyperson is one of the opening poems to The Definition of Place which is appropriate since this collection is about the lineage of regular people—your people to be exact— who have experienced a particular place in history. These folks are hard working, whiskey drinking, black-skinned, rural, proud and American, though America has yet to accept them. What was the impetus for crafting these voices into a blues-in-verse family tree? How did the stories come to you—was there research done, are they fictional stories, or both?
Randall Horton: I was initially working on a project totally different from The Definition of Place, dealing with more pastoral experiences from a very difficult time in my life. When I showed some of the poems to a fellow poet whose critique I value tremendously, he told me something lacked in the poems, that there was a certain disconnect from the poet to the reader, which I did not want. Around the same time, I had written a couple of poems about my family for a workshop that I was taking and when he saw those, he was like you should really explore these more. What I began to realize was that I had never known too much about my family. I began to understand that I needed to rediscover my past before I could truly scratch the surface of the things I wanted to write about personally. I needed to know where I came from. About this time I was also getting ready to enter a MFA program at Chicago State University. It was there, under the encouragement of Sterling Plumpp, that I began to craft the poetic stories of my family. This book was my MFA thesis project.
The story began to take shape with an actual event documented in the Guntersville Democrat in 1912. This story would end up the Backstory section. [In it] I recreate the scene where my family members were coming home from church in a horse drawn wagon and attacked by a white man named Major King. His main purpose was to intimidate, frighten and possibly rape. A shootout occurred. This is fact and documented. Major King was killed by an unknown assailant. That unknown assailant appears on the book cover and his name was Bud Merrill. Although certain family members served time on the chain gang, the person who killed King was never captured. It was a story no one in my family repeated until after Bud died, for obvious reasons. African Americans during the turn of the century were hung for crimes lesser than that offense.
These stories are true. However, I must say that I felt like these great-great family members were speaking through me to tell their stories. I wanted this to be about regular everyday people, not someone famous or with name recognition. I did not want to hide behind a made up persona. This is what I hopes attracts the reader to the poetry and ultimately the story. I traveled to Guntersville, Alabama and did some research at the museum and library there. I spent time at the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham. I read every book I could that dealt with African Americans in the South. Zora Neale Hurston's Characteristics of Negro Expression and her book Every Tongue Got to Confess, where she recorded original stories from Florida and Alabama, were invaluable. Also, without one of my oldest living cousins, John L. Murray, who knew about the story and also knew my grandmother and grandfather when he was a little boy, this collection would not have been shaped the way it was.
Niki Herd: You talk about the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum. There is a section of the collect ion titled Colored Water: 1963 which overtly addresses the racism in Birmingham during that year. The section is kind of segregated from other poems that address, perhaps more between the white space of each line, the limitations blacks endured under white rule. What were you trying to accomplish by setting this section apart from all else?
Randall Horton: In the Colored Water: 1963 section I was looking for a way to segue from northern Alabama to central Alabama where I grew up. Colored Water: 1963 becomes center to the book in a couple of ways. First of all, my parents married and moved to Birmingham in 1960; a year later I was born. My mother is from Birmingham and my father from Guntersville. I wanted to show a generational shift to my pending generation. We lived eight blocks from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in a small apartment. I was still in the crib when the ground shook from the bomb that took four little girls' lives. These girls are talked about to death, yet two little boys lost their lives the same day. Their voices are silent. I had to tell their story. I wanted to recreate the climate in the city of Birmingham that day. Also, I wanted to show the struggle with white and black children growing up and wanting to play with each other, but their parents' hate was so deep this was not possible.
While I do shift from first person persona to third person narrative in Colored Water: 1963, I like to think of all the sections as being interrelated. The family strength I display in the preceding sections sort of manifests itself in the way I tell the story of Birmingham from a native son. My ancestors still managed to love in all that hate. The concept of place is the central theme. People who have never visited the South tend to get misconceptions. I come from proud people who didn't want to flee up North during the Great Migration. They loved the smell of pine trees and the open space. They found happiness in their own aestheticism, whether that was partying at the Boogie Shack or drinking some homemade sploe, or going to church; they lived and played hard. The second thing about Colored Water: 1963 is that it sort of sets the paradigm to the coming of age poems that are in my voice. I tend to think the poems in the last section, Scrapbook, are merely Elvie, Rosetta, Dennis and Bud Merrill extended. I become the fruition of their place and the Birmingham of 1963 helped to shape that.
Of course this was the section that I felt I had to remain the truest to poetry. I had to find a language that wouldn't seem rhetorical, yet at the same time, unashamed of the hard truths that come with exploring such a racially charged subject. In this section what I wanted most of all was to teach something old in a new way, to unearth that which had been dusted over, and at the same time, I wanted there to be hope.
Niki Herd: Yes. . .yes, this notion of hope and the technical concerns a poet faces is interesting to me, especially when there is so much left unsaid. But thinking about the latter right now reminds me of Czeslow Milosz saying something like 'language is the only homeland.' Language meaning not only what one says —to paraphrase another poet, Louise Glück— but the style of one's thinking. In The Cozenage of Mary Elizabeth we are faced with a letter poem that illustrates the ingenuity of the narrator and the poet. Can you speak about the role of poetic form in The Definition of Place? Were there any poets or other artists that influenced the work particularly in relation to formal concerns?
Randall Horton: That's a very good question. I think most poets who attempt to write a book in mostly persona will face this subject. When you start thinking about a collection of work in book form, something that a person is going to read from beginning to end, and then too, writing in other voices, you always want the work to remain fresh and innovative as possible. After I became comfortable with each person's voice, I used poetic form as a way of getting the most out of some of the poems that seemed to demand more than just conjuring the voice. Take for instance the poem you opened the interview with, Rosetta Merrill: We Are Everyperson. The first stanza of that poem is in haiku. The last poem before the generational and sectional shift Elvie: The Summation of a Life, which is in the voice of Elvie, begins with the first stanza in haiku. So Elvie and Rosetta are the bookends to the story, as they should be. In between these bookends I used sestina and the unrhymed sonnet to tell the most intricate of stories.
To tell the story of First Street, which was the main street where everything took place, sort of like theatrical drama, I used the line endings and structural set up, not only for rhythm, but to get at the blues of the atmosphere. Although I do not talk particularly about the blues in most of these poems, I think it important to mention that the blues is very much a part of this book, along with cultural memory and the black aesthetic. These people are living America's first authentic music in their lives. They are American literature personified. The irony is that they are in the truest form American, yet unable to share in the American vision.
Also, I used the sonnet for irony as well. The section Sydney Merrill is written mostly in unrhymed sonnets with a syllabic count of ten. It tells the story of his escape from the chain gang in Alabama and swimming the Tennessee River and ending up in Chicago, again, a true story. He wasn't a nice person. So I wanted to take this very pristine and Eurocentric form and envelope it in a persona that was mean and bad to the bone, so what you have is a very precise metrical account of his journey and inner thoughts. In this collection, I also introduce the poetic form called the skinny, which was invented by my good friend Truth Thomas. I used the form twice and combined them from opposite sides to make dice.
In relation to formal concerns, Gwendolyn Brooks is the poet I depended on the most. Miss Brooks was a great formalist and language practitioner. Jean Toomer's Cane provided good context too. I have to mention that I was inspired by A. Van Jordan's M-a-c-n-o-l-i-a. The possibility that a book could come to life in the form of a story was appealing to me. As a matter of fact, the title poem of the book is written after one of his definition poems. Right after reading Jordan, I met Tyehimba Jess who was working on leadbelly, and he offered me some great advice on completing the manuscript. I have to say that I did not read Rita Dove's Thomas and Beulah until I was deep into my project—almost finished. When I read the book I realized that Thomas and Beulah were Elvie and Rosetta. The stories are different, but the one constant between the two projects is love. Rita Dove did an excellent job and what I got most of all out of that book was how to place poems so they talk to each other. There were other writers who influenced me with poetic form like Sterling Plumpp, Kelly Norman Ellis, Nikky Finney, and Quraysh Ali Lansana. These poets either wrote about the South, or in persona. I think poets just starting out have to understand that we stand on the shoulders of others who have done it before us; that inspiration comes from the past and the present. Poetry is a life long conversation with language. I like to think of myself as a student for life, so I am constantly exploring, seeking modes of expression.
But this isn't about me or him.
We are flagpoles of something
bigger than the voices in this stadium.
from An Amazing Two Minutes and Four Seconds. . .
Niki Herd: This is taken from your poem about a Joe Louis fight, fought the summer of 1938, against Max Schmeling. How does the notion of blacks and whites being flagpoles of something / bigger, and your desire for hope intersect? In other words, the poem represents one era, and then we fast forward to now—70 years later— and Barack Obama may become the next president of the United States, yet there is still the face of black reality in places like Jena, Louisiana, Jasper, Texas and New Orleans. Do you believe that the places/spaces you have written about have changed for the better?
Randall Horton: Well actually when I wrote that poem I was referring to Max Schmeling and Joe Louis being flagpoles for their respective countries, Germany and the United States. You have to remember during this time period there was a deep disdain between the two countries. Hitler was in power. These boxers became bigger than who they were. The Schmeling/Louis fights were about national pride. My father told me stories of how when he was a little boy everybody that lived on his street would be hugged to a radio, listening to the broadcast fight. Nothing in the African American community moved when Joe Louis fought. Joe Louis appealed to whites as well. The fact that these two boxers had epic fighting events, created a national pride. That's why in the poem, when the persona of Joe Louis speaks of the bigger, he means that they have transcended boxing in the physical, that the fight is no longer about the personal, it's about nationalistic pride and symbolism. Joe Louis understood he was a real peoples champ. The same thing with Jackie Robinson. The African American community saw these athletes as a way into Americanism. If somehow white America could accept this boxer and baseball player, then maybe there was hope in the face of Jim Crow and other laws of segregation, which brings us to the interesting debate about Obama.
Obama has a chance to do something no person of African descent has done in this country, and that is become president. In African American communities today there are various debates centered on Obama becoming president. People of my father's generation see this as an election to win at all costs. He is of the generation that saw Louis and Robinson as national heroes. Obama is no different. Obama is showing us that he has what it takes to become president more so than I could and other African Americans I know as well. Obama has to distance himself from anything that appears threatening to white people; it's almost as if they are telling him the terms in which he can be elected. My question is how many concessions does one have to make to keep trying to be accepted? It's like why do I need you to validate who I am, if I know who I am? I'm sure Obama is smart enough to understand all this. He had to know it going into the election. He is not running for the United States of Black America, but America. And if Katrina, the James Byrd dragging in Jasper, Texas, and the unequal treatment and blatant racism of Jena Six, have taught, if they have not taught a thing, is that there are still a lot of disparities in America. We have not gone as far as we think we have.
But let me back up a minute. . .[w]hy are we trying to move to a post-racial society when we haven't properly addressed the issues plaguing us now? I can only think that some people are in denial. . .To answer your question, yes things have gotten better. But they are not where they need to be. . .[a]nd as long as things are not better, poets will write about them, consciously and unconsciously. Writing, especially poetry, is a by-product of societal stations. I believe it is inescapable.
Niki Herd: Preach it reverend. . .preach [laughter]. Okay, The Definition of Place leaves readers in 1970s black America with the funk and film icons of George Clinton and Superfly. What place will you transport readers to next, and do you have any words of advice for poets trying to fashion a first book?
Randall Horton: [laughter]. . .Okay. . .[t]he first thing I had to learn when putting together [this] collection is that some poems, no matter how dear they were to me, would not make it in the book. I cut out entire sections for clarity and integrity. The manuscript was originally 110 pages. The one I sent to Main Street Rag was 80. If I may, I just want to acknowledge Main Street Rag as a wonderful press whose editor, Scott Douglass, is committed to giving poets a voice.
Don't be in a rush. Remember, good poetry won't go bad. You have to turn a blind eye to your own brainchild. The poems should speak to one another. You should know your manuscript backward and forwards. I mean sleep with the words in your head. Dream the manuscript at night. Know your poems so that when you hear or read a word that you have been looking for to replace a weaker word in one of your poems, you will be able to go right to it. Titles are important. Don't settle for the easy title. Make the title work in relation to the poem. I know it may sound odd, but you must learn to thrive off of rejection. Choose the contests you are going to enter carefully. Who are the judges? What kind of history does the press have in publishing minorities? This is important because the majority of the presses out there stick to a more conservative mainstream type of existence. Their record as a whole is terrible when publishing people of color. I know too many great poets whose work has not found a book cover. Don't waste your money, and most importantly, you have to believe in yourself and your work. Study, read, and look for mentors.
Before I started writing poetry and taking literature seriously, I was one of the statistical black men caught up, rebelling against a society that didn't seem to love me. I won't make any excuses though. I made the choices and I dealt with the consequences, or the state helped me deal with them. You could say I lived fast and furious in the underbelly of America. I served prison time and these were the poems that I tried to write previous to The Definition of Place. I went back to school upon release and got my BA, then my MFA, and now I am on course to get my PhD soon. I recently finished a collection of poems tackling these demons of my past. In a way, the next manuscript is an extension of The Definition of Place in that, after leaving the South, I find it inescapable. The South appears and reappears in a lot of my poems. I am forever southern. After having written in narrative for a while I am turning more experimental in my approach to poems. I think Bob Dylan said it best when he said, An artist should always be in a state of becoming.
Niki Herd: Thanks for this.
Randall Horton: It has truly been a wonderful experience. Thanks.
Randall Horton, originally from Birmingham, Alabama, resides in Albany, New York. His poetry manuscript The Definition of Place was a finalist for the Main Street Rag Book Award and was published in their Editor's Select Series in 2006. He is a former editor of WarpLand: A Journal of Black Literature and Ideas (Fall 2005) and co-editor of Fingernails Across the Chalkboard Poetry and Prose on HIV/AIDs from the Black Diaspora along with Becky Thompson and Michael Hunter (Third World Press, 2007). He received his undergraduate education at both Howard University and The University of the District of Columbia (B.A. English). He has a MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis in Poetry from Chicago State University. He is currently a doctoral student in Creative Writing at SUNY Albany and a Cave Canem fellow.
Niki Herd has been published in forums such as Just Like A Girl: A Manifesta!, From the Web: A Global Anthology of Women's Political Poetry, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, Autumnal: A Collection of Elegies on compact disc, Kalliope, PMS: poemmemoirstory, 10x10.8, Xcp: Streetnotes Biannual Electronic Exhibition Space, and Black Issues Book Review. She has served on the board of Kore Press, an independent feminist publisher and was nominated for a Pushcart Award. Currently a Cave Canem Fellow, she was recently a finalist for the 2007 Astraea Emerging Lesbian Writer Award from the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Social Justice.