By Randall Horton
A bedraggled man sits on the steps of the Bleeker Street Station in Manhattan – one shoe on, one shoe off. He talks to himself so fast the words in his mind cannot possibly keep up with the words in his head. Language outruns itself. His world has crumbled into indecipherable utterances and primal grunts.
I pass him on the ascending steps going to do a workshop on Broadway with Scholastic and their Alliance for Younger Artists and Writers. The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services have partnered with the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers to launch the National Student Poets Program (NSPP), the country’s highest honor for youth poets presenting original work.
Five outstanding high school poets whose work exhibits exceptional creativity, dedication to craft and promise will be selected annually for a year of service as national poetry ambassadors. They are providing a poetry workshop for talented high school students interested in applying for a chance to be one of the five students appointed as poetry ambassadors.
I see the man before I see the students, and cannot help but remember that precarious state, the moment where life refuses to offer a lynchpin – something tactile and tangible to grasp. A time when everything slips and there is no scream to articulate the voices echoing inside your head.
The lack of foundation makes each day slip further into an opaque hole that is really a cage. The world that is supposed to be an oyster turns out to be nothing but a barren wasteland. Homelessness is a life-altering event one does not forget. It can be the closest thing to living in a state of “insaneness” ever encountered.
Struggling to consume food, sleep, bathe and negotiate the necessities of life while trying to satisfy a crack habit through the stem of a straight shooter should have pushed me over the edge of my disintegrating cliff. Yet, somehow, I survived.
I do not know if the man I passed on the steps is at war with himself, or will survive his eternal battle, but I remember how hard it was to perceive myself as normal. I also remember when the judge commuted my five-year prison sentence in Maryland and sent me to Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers (T.R.O.S.A), a two-year drug program in North Carolina.
While in prison I had been in contact with the poet/memoirist E. Ethelbert Miller, who worked at Howard University as the Director of its African American Resource Center. I sent Ethelbert my poems while in Roxbury Correctional and he responded with feedback and suggestions, which in turned fueled my hunger to learn more about the poetic process. At night, while in T.R.O.S.A.’s dorm area for men, I often recited poems in a full-length mirror, hoping one day I to perform on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam or perhaps enter a slam competition.
After having been there a year and wanting desperately to learn all I could about poetry, I saw Samantha Thornhill as a featured poet in Hillsborough, NC, at a cafe called Vague Metaphors. Having already been heavily influenced by the poets Patricia Smith, Saul Williams, Regie Gibson and Roger Bonair-Agard, I became enamored by her attention to lyrical cadence, her stunning command of imagery, and a disposition that spoke to her living her life’s passion through poetry. However, what caught my attention the most was her mentioning that she was getting an MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis in Poetry from the University of Virginia, and that the former United States Poet Laureate Rita Dove was mentoring her.
Samantha did not shake my hand or talk to me that night because I was too self-conscious in my own inadequacies as a writer to introduce myself. But more than that, she did not know I had been at Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers less than a year and was being escorted by one of the counselors in the program to her reading.
Years later I would meet Samantha at the Gwendolyn Brooks Conference for Black Literature and Writing at Chicago State University, and would confess how profound her reading and listening to her narrate her life’s journey affected and inspired me that night in North Carolina.
I consider today a small miracle. Our paths have come full circle and so we meet again, with me having followed in Samantha’s footsteps to pursue an education and fulfill a love of writing. When I look into the eager faces of the high school students who are waiting for Samantha and myself to reveal the secrets of poetry, of language, I know we are making a difference. It has taken the summation of my life up until this point to have the language to help inspire young people, to be a role model. Poetry has allowed me to interact with the world in a way I never could before.
Randall Horton is the recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award, the Bea Gonzalez Poetry Award and most recently a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in Literature. He is a Cave Canem Fellow, a member of the Affrilachian Poets and a member of The Symphony: The House that Etheridge Built. He is Assistant Professor of English at the University of New Haven. An excerpt from his memoir titled Roxbury is published by Kattywompus Press. Triquarterly/Northwestern University Press in the publisher of his latest poetry collection, Pitch Dark Anarchy.