In his poetry collection the lingua franca of ninth street, Randall Horton writes a series of poems entitled “Notes from a Prodigal Son.” In the third poem, descriptions spill out like a litany: “The gavel/ The splintered body/...The grey cinder block/ The naked shower/ The elemental fear.”
Horton, the author of four books and Associate Professor of English at the University of New Haven, is a recipient of the Poetry Center’s Art for Justice grant and has been generating new work in conversation with the crisis of mass incarceration in the United States. Prior to his writing and teaching career, he served three years in Maryland State Prison before having his sentence commuted.
Last month, Horton guest taught a writing class at the Court Alternative Program of Education (CAPE) School in Pima County Juvenile Detention.
Over a dozen students from thirteen to eighteen sat at long gray tables. Bars of light streamed down from windows placed high on the wall. Intermittent bursts from detention officers’ talk radios flared sound into the room. Horton walked to the front and began to speak.
“I’m gonna be real with you,” he said. And he offered students parts of his history: telling them he got involved in things he shouldn’t have been doing, thinking he wouldn’t get caught until he did, and about the impact of his convictions and incarceration on his life and the lives of his loved ones.
The kids were immediately rapt. They leaned forward, some cradling their head in their hands.
I know from teaching in juvenile detention that this level of attention is hard to come by—not because kids aren’t interested in learning or writing but because their minds are consumed with much greater thoughts about their convictions, their sentences, their futures, people back home, the small children many of them have already sired or borne who are in their care. The purpose of poetry can feel elusive. Writing can feel like a luxury or a waste of time. To take the step to write a memory down is to have to deal with the pain contained within that memory and that step can feel insurmountable.
When I came to teach earlier in the week, one of my students J who had initially been resistant to writing told me he was now helping other kids in his pod write to their loved ones back home. When Horton mentioned getting his BA and MFA in Poetry before completing his PhD in creative writing, J responded, “Hell yeah.”
“Yeah,” Horton said. “I would come in front of people with those degrees. But I still had to tell them about the seven felonies. And ask: will you hire me?” He spoke of how much he had to do to show people he had changed. For those who judge him based on his convictions, he says, “I'm here to prove them wrong every day.”
He recounted his father coming in to be a character witness in the process of attempting to have his sentence commuted. He recalled how his father cried while describing his son as a child and young man, all the hopes and dreams he had, how he hoped his son would do more than he had. “When you go to prison, you take the people you love inside with you,” Horton said. “I took my parents with me to prison.”
“What we did, we can't take it back,” he continued. “But we can move forward, hold our head up.”
As he spoke about his life and experiences, students nodded their heads in recognition. They burst into laughter at his jokes. Some detention officers did too. For a short period of time, some ease entered the space.
When Horton was first in jail, he entered a program with regular group activity that centered writing. In an interview he said, “We were often given assignments to write about the pain and harm we had caused others, which forced me to deal with myself and what made me tick as a human being. By reliving my narrative for various points of view, I was better able to deconstruct and reconstruct my life’s purpose. Over time, the power of the imagination— thinking creatively and drawing upon my past at times—it has all allowed me to come to grips with my past.”
His case manager Bunnie Boswell, who later encouraged him to try to get his sentence commuted so he could enter an alternative program, read Horton’s writing and told him: “There's something there. Keep writing.”
That encouragement took root and when Horton entered Maryland state prison, he wrote every day. "Writing was the only thing that made me feel whole, made me happy and confident, made me feel like I was doing something,” he told students.
Horton read to the class from “Notes from a Prodigal Son II”: “Forgive memories/ bringing forth a boy,/ whose thirteen-year old hands/ run smooth/ over the gun barrel,/ load & unloads/ the clip/ until bullets burst/ black sound. On every street corner/ find fragments/ of what I leave behind/ pieces of a man/ who forgot/ where smiles originate.”
When he completed his reading and students snapped their fingers in appreciation, Horton explained the legacy of that gesture. He told them that in New York City in the beat era, poetry readings were held in someone's apartment. A baby lived just upstairs and that baby’s parents were none too pleased about beatniks waking their child. So "friendly snaps" were introduced. "Remember that," he said.
We passed out pencils resting in a wood block, numbered to keep track of them, and looseleaf paper.
On the whiteboard, Horton wrote, “Forgive..., Forgive..., Forgive..., Forgive..."
“There’s not a person in this world who doesn't regret anything or need forgiveness for something,” he said. “Here's what we're gonna do: We're gonna talk about forgiveness. We all got our story. I stood up here and told you mine. I’m just asking for a little piece of yours.”
Students moved their pencils across the looseleaf.
After some time, he invited them to share. After each student read, he went up and shook their hand. To one student who had a hard time getting started, he said, "Thank you, son. I knew you had it in you." One student didn’t want to read hers aloud but asked Horton to read it: “Forgive the wrong I’ve done and the/ things I did to tear you down/...forgive all the harm and all/ the damage the way I/ see it I have to change/ all the wrong and all/ the hurt….”
After class, one bright-eyed teenage student with the face and frame of an eight-year-old asked Horton for his autograph. With this idea now in the kids’ minds, everyone wanted one. Horton obliged.
On the work of the student who had been shy to read herself but asked him to share, Horton wrote, "This is great. Please Please Please Keep Writing!”
Lisa M. O’Neill is a freelance writer and teacher based in Tucson, Arizona. She teaches at the CAPE school in Pima County Juvenile Detention through the University of Arizona Poetry Center’s Writing the Community program.