The Charger Blog

English Professor Earns Grant to Support Innovative Poetry ‘Band'

Randall Horton, Ph.D., is committed to creating meaningful educational opportunities for those who are incarcerated. His project, Radical Reversal, has been recognized for its innovative approach to fostering change and creativity.

January 24, 2022

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Randall Horton (front), Devin Brahja Waldman, Melanie Dyer, and Tchester Holmes.
Radical Reversal includes Randall Horton (front), Devin Brahja Waldman, Melanie Dyer, and Tchester Holmes. (Photo credit: Thomas Sayers Ellis.)

When Randall Horton, Ph.D., was incarcerated in Maryland more than 20 years ago after he was convicted of smuggling cocaine, he began writing. The experience changed his life. Now an award-winning author and poet and college professor, he hopes his new project will help create a blueprint to reimagine what it means to be incarcerated in America.

Dr. Horton, who has visited prisons and juvenile detention facilities across the country to conduct readings, workshops, and lectures, is often bothered by the lack of creative and educational outlets available to help the incarcerated create a better mindset and feel good about themselves. After his presentations, he is sometimes asked when he will be coming back, and he hopes he now has a ready answer: Radical Reversal.

The project, which Dr. Horton describes as a poetry “band,” is among 50 projects nationwide that have earned a 2022 Creative Capital Award. The grants support the creation of innovative new artists’ projects in disciplines such as the performing arts, literature, film, and technology. Grateful for the opportunity to continue to grow as an artist while making an important and meaningful contribution to society, he looks forward to connecting with other artists and professionals.

“It definitely means a lot to be given the support to actualize years of creative practice,” said Dr. Horton, who joined the University as an English professor in 2009. “Creative Capital asks that you dream the impossible, and then make it possible. They also encourage a spirit of mutual generosity among awardees and foster exchange through their online, regional, national, and international workshops and gatherings. They recognize and understand that artists have the power to push society forward, asking difficult questions and taking personal risks along the way.”

‘Supporting artists who are pushing boundaries’

Hoping to foster civic engagement between artists, educators, correction officials, and social justice networks, Dr. Horton is collaborating with Devin Brahja Waldman, a New York musician and leader of the group BRAHJA. They will start by placing a small recording studio and an array of musical instruments and equipment, such as digital drum machines, in two facilities. They are looking forward to exploring a variety of sounds and incorporating diverse influences and languages in their work.

Dr. Horton is also looking forward to teaching poetry, creative nonfiction, and the intersection of poetry and music and sound. Waldman, who has a literary as well as a musical background, and is the nephew of award-winning poet Anne Waldman, will lead seminars focused on music, including saxophone and keyboards. Their fellow band members will also offer instruction based on their areas of expertise and specialty.

“The fact that our project was selected out of a pool of more than 4,000 applicants only helps to confirm what I already know to be true: This project is a necessity,” said Dr. Horton, whose fourth book of poetry, {#289-128}: Poems, was recently awarded the prestigious American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. “It seeks new ways to address what it means to go through the rehabilitative process within the criminal justice system.”

"Change is a verb. You can’t talk change, you have to do change."Dr. Randall Horton, Ph.D.

Radical Reversal and the other recognized projects will receive varying amounts – up to $50,000 – in direct funding, and artists will receive career development and networking services to support their artistic careers. Creative Capital is offering a total of $2.5 million in support to artists through the awards.

“Creative Capital believes that funding the creation of new work by groundbreaking artists is vital to the vibrancy of our culture, society, and our democracy,” said Christine Kuan, Creative Capital president and executive director. “We are dedicated to supporting artists who are pushing boundaries and asking challenging questions – especially now when new ideas are critical to imagining our future.”

‘Creative practice not only engages the world, but endeavors to shape it’

Committed to social justice, Dr. Horton also has a longstanding relationship with organizations such as the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop and Writers Without Margins, which are providing important support to the project. Dr. Horton and Waldman are also members of Heroes Are Gang Leaders, an experimental performance group that formed after the death of writer Amiri Baraka as a tribute to his legacy.

“This award supports work that challenges cultural and aesthetic conventions and pushes boundaries,” said Dr. Horton. “We will be taking advantage of the many resources that will advise and guide us as we move through each phase of the project. This would include various presentations that will allow us to pursue additional funding to expand our project.”

Committed to fostering diversity, the 2022 Creative Capital award recipients make up a diverse group of artists from a variety of backgrounds, identities, and abilities.

“The selected projects critically and creatively address some of the most pressing issues of our moment, as well as painful historical legacies that continue to shape our present— from abortion, to money laundering in the art world, to the mass graves from the convict leasing program, to the lasting imprint colonization has left on the construct of time zones,” said Aliza Shvarts, director of artist initiatives for Creative Capital. “These artists demonstrate, with urgency and power, the many ways creative practice not only engages the world, but endeavors to shape it.”

‘Pushes the boundaries of the ‘possible’ while inspiring hope’

Dr. Horton hopes Radical Reversal celebrates and fosters diversity during the two to three years it runs. Aware of the challenges that women in prison face, Dr. Horton has written essays on the topic, such as “The Silent Ones: Missing Women’s Voices From the Inside.” It was important to him and his fellow members of Radical Reversal to take the project to a women’s facility and to collaborate with women.

Excited to expand the scope of the project, he also hopes to work with the Yale Prison Education Initiative (YPEI) at Dwight Hall at Yale, which the University of New Haven has established a flagship collaboration to support incarcerated students in Connecticut. They hope the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury will become a site of collaboration and creative ideation.

“In our programing, we will be bringing a host of contemporary creative minds and scholars from diverse communities to talk and perform with these populations,” he said. “I believe placing these creative and educational outlets for those on the inside, while creating new work influenced by practice – and while inciting change – is the ultimate social justice experience, an experience that provides and pushes the boundaries of the ‘possible’ while inspiring hope.”