The Charger Blog

English Professor’s Poetry Collection Wins Prestigious American Book Award

A dark period of his life inspired Randall Horton, Ph.D., when he wrote {#289-128}: Poems. It has now received the same honor that has been awarded to such renowned writers such as Toni Morrison.

Aug 31, 2021

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Randall Horton, at a podium, reading from his work.
Randall Horton, Ph.D., reading at his book launch in New York City.

More than 20 years ago, when Randall Horton, Ph.D., was incarcerated in Maryland, convicted of smuggling cocaine, he began writing as a way to escape his confinement. It was through this writing that he began to reevaluate his life while dreaming of a better one than he’d had before he was incarcerated.

Dr. Horton’s Maryland Department of Corrections number now has a new significance. It is the title of his fourth book of poetry, {#289-128}: Poems, which has been awarded the prestigious American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. Previous recipients of the award include Toni Morrison and Isabel Allende.

“I was quite stunned,” admits Dr. Horton, an English professor who joined the University in 2009. “It is indeed a tremendous honor to be selected – for this award, particularly. While it is always nice to be recognized, I am grateful that {#289-128}: Poems has made an impact in the way we discourse on social justice issues. Given the list of distinguished poets who have received this honor, this award is indeed special.”

‘It opened my eyes’

Created to recognize outstanding literary achievement, the American Book Awards recognize writers without restrictions as there are no categories. The awards honor literary achievements from the entire spectrum of the country’s diverse writers, and winners range from well-known authors to writers who have written their first work. Winners will be formally recognized at a virtual ceremony in September.

In addition to this award, the experimental performance group Heroes Are Gang Leaders, of which Dr. Horton is a member, received the American Book Award in Oral Literature. The group formed after the death of the writer Amiri Baraka as a tribute to his legacy.

Dr. Horton’s work on {#289-128}: Poems began with a series of artist grants and fellowships, including Poet in Residence at Civil Rights Corps, a Right of Return USA Fellowship, and the Art for Justice Grant through the University of Arizona Poetry Center. He drew inspiration from his experience in prison and everything he learned from it.

“I think the time I spent on the inside allowed me to not only reassess my life, but it opened my eyes to the many disparities that often occur to those doing time,” said Dr. Horton, who has also received the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award and the Bea González Poetry Award, as well as a National Endowment of the Arts Literature Fellowship. “At the core of things, I am interested in being a good moral citizen, and that means questioning systems that have the tendency to oppress and recycle oppression.”

A packed crowd listens to Horton speak
Randall Horton, Ph.D., is an acclaimed writer and a devoted educator.
‘I want my students to understand the value in poetry’

Dr. Horton, who went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in English, a Master of Fine Arts in poetry, and a Ph.D. in creative writing after spending five years at the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Maryland, has now written several books, including Hook, his award-winning memoir. In Hook, he shares the story of how he went from a Howard University student to a homeless drug addict, a cocaine smuggler, and, eventually, a convicted felon. Writing, he says, helped him recover and get his life back, and he has since become an accomplished and acclaimed author. He also works with youth who are incarcerated in juvenile detention centers.

In his upcoming book, Dead Weight: A Memoir in Essays, Dr. Horton uses flashbacks to vacillate from the present – the lens of his professional life as a professor, social advocate for prison reform, and poet – to the past. He explores how his past shaped his future, as he was denied college reentry and had a job offer rescinded. The book will be published in February 2022.

“I use my experiences as a teacher, educator, prison reform advocate, and lover of literature and poetry to highlight the challenges of negotiating a meaningful life within the fabric of an American society with seven felony convictions,” he explains. “I have firsthand knowledge of what the ‘dead weight’ of felonies means and how hard it is to change public opinion, no matter how many markers of achievement are displayed to denote rehabilitation and worthiness.”

A devoted educator, Dr. Horton brings his own life experiences and the lessons he has learned to the classroom. He shares his passion for poetry with his students at the University, and he hopes to inspire them to write their own futures.

“I really want my students to know that I will always do my best to understand where they are coming from,” he said. “I want them to understand the value in poetry, whether or not they become poets. Whatever profession they are choosing in their life, I want my students to understand the power of literature as it relates to their lives.”