I met Allyson Horton as a graduate student in Butler’s MFA program, where we were both in our first year. From our first poetry workshop, I realized that she was no novice to the practice and performance of poetry. Her experience with performance poetry, a deep and abiding respect for the Black poetry tradition, and a love for music has inherently shaped Allyson’s work. Over the years, I have seen poems from her that run the gamut. Some are Lucille Clifton-esque: wise, sparse, and arresting. Other times I have understood her poems to be political yet balanced with a restraint and clarity similar to the work of Langston Hughes.
As she informs and questions, Allyson celebrates too. Her wit and joyful sound play reminds me of a jazz musician. If you ever have the chance to hear her read her poetry aloud, do it. Allyson’s voice is rich and powerful, that of a person who recognizes that what they have to say is of value and must be treated as such. It feels as if she’s giving you a gift, and she truly is. With her book, Quick Fire, coming out in February from Third World Press, even more readers will have the chance to experience her unique perspective.
Read on to learn more about Allyson and her approach to poetry:
LJ: Tell me about your new book, Quick Fire, out in February from Third World Press. What’s the engine that fuels it? Who are you writing this for? What do the poems in the book move toward?
AH: This is a book that has been germinating with me for many years. As a young girl moving into teenage years, all throughout my university experiences—when I felt that I was best in my articulations of myself and the world—I would write poetry. The title Quick Fire came as a result of my often uninhibited responses to the social and cultural fires that Black people deal with on a daily basis.
I am fueled primarily by knowing who I am without a doubt or hesitation. All facets of one’s existence and belonging are met by myriad expectations, roles, and rules imposed by society. Obviously, many of my poems are cultural as I systemically try to answer my own questions as well as seek to raise a few within my readers. In most cultures, people do what they’ve been taught to do. I have been taught to survive and poet. For me, the two are synonymous. I view artists as the most liberated of individuals in all cultures. Growing up, I questioned and continue to question anything that feels, appears, and is empirically unjust. So my poetry is artistically fueled by a deep sense of social justice.
LJ: How do you approach writing a new poem? Do you have to be inspired? Sound and rhythm are always at play in your work. Do you start with that first? You’re also not afraid to write in different poetry forms. Do you chase an idea around or revise endlessly until the magic happens?
AH: I write out a sense of not only trying to find answers, but as James Baldwin writes: “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.” I’m inspired primarily by children and what I mean by this is that in the culture in which we currently live, I fear for their tomorrows. I find poetry—not only mine—but the poets I admire to be a counteractive, transformative force.
The sound and rhythm—well, some of my major influences are music and dance. I grew up in the center of sound whether it was Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston, Prince or Michael Jackson—I absorbed Black culture. One of the first dance companies I witnessed was the Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago, and when I finally had a chance to experience the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre—it blew my mind. One art form influences another.
Different poetry forms—I am actually drawn to less conventional poetry forms while feeling a sense of craft enhancement against the landscape of the cultural atmosphere that I have to deal with on a daily basis. Therefore, my ideas originate around my own life struggle, the struggle within my community that relate to young people and others and I am very cognizant of world struggles in Africa, Central America, Asia as well as the very poor nations of the Caribbean, especially Haiti. I read early about the great poet Gwendolyn Brooks how she had basically internalized all of the traditional European forms of poetry, primarily the sonnet form; however, as she moved into the late Sixties and early Seventies and was encouraged and influenced by the Black Arts Movement, she completely layered her poetry with the temperature and political movements of that day.
LJ: Social justice, concerns regarding race and current events are often explored in your work. How do you balance those concerns as a poet telling truths and as a person in the world? Do you think there should be a balance? Is your poetry political?
AH: My poetry is primarily cultural and political. I have been able to move from being reactive to social ills to that of trying to write about ways in which we can, in a healthy way, address those ills. It is clear to me that if something such as the current White House is not working for the great majority of people in the nation, we as poets, musicians, fiction writers, playwrights and artists of all gradations—if we are conscious of the damage being done by this White House at all levels of human involvement e.g., environment, healthcare, education, employment and on and on, that the only way to address these ills is for artists to be a part of the organizing method to help ensure this “democracy” stays alive and grows for all citizens.
I find balance in writing poetry, reading poetry, and listening to and interacting with other poets. Yes, my poetry is political as well as truth-telling to the marrow.
LJ: I know you’re a big Hip Hop fan, and rappers and Hip Hop artists have historically made the personal political and brought attention to social justice issues through their music. You were published in the book, It Was Written: Poetry Inspired by Hip Hop last year. What does Hip Hop mean to you?
AH: Yes, I was honored to my have my work featured in the anthology. I grew up during the emergence of Hip Hop, a culture that is musically, lyrically and consciously evolving. Unfortunately, we will not get the opportunity to see master storytellers like Christopher Wallace or Tupac Amaru Shakur evolve beyond outsiders’ misconceptions of them and their music. As Jeremy Prestholdt, associate Professor of UC San Diego noted in TIME magazine, Tupac had a “global relevance” that was “more complicated and more nuanced than what [Prestholdt] was familiar with from an American Perspective.” This speaks volumes about the impact of Hip Hop as well as its transformative trajectory. In all fairness, much of the criticism associated with the genre must also be taken into consideration because art reflects life, especially popular culture. Consider graffiti art then reconsider hieroglyphics—both tell a story. Rappers tell stories. Personal and political. Hip Hop has my heart because its truth and fiction matters. Ask the next young person you encounter what they are listening to nowadays. I ask my students all the time. I listen to them and I listen to their music. I hope they will listen to mine in return. After all, I was there when the music was discounted and incorrectly confined to the worst cultural and creative elements of the Black community, and I am here to watch it challenge and change the culture.
LJ: If you made us a mixtape of songs that inspired Quick Fire, what would tracks 1-5 be?
AH: Only 5? Come on, let me have six in the mix. Okay, so here’s how it looks in my head:
Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On?”
Nina Simone “Four Women”
John Coltrane “Alabama” / Nina Simone “Mississippi Goddam” (toss up)
Michael Jackson “They Don’t Care About Us”
Tupac “Me Against the World”/Tupac Shakur “Changes” (another toss up)
LJ: You were born and raised in Indianapolis and you currently live here. What are your thoughts on the city as it is now and how have you seen the city change?
AH: The last poem in the book, “Home” actually deals with my thoughts on Indianapolis. If we move to the contemporary, I would say that the city as well as the state under former Governor Pence moved from the contemplation of fairness to the downright absorption of right-wing madness (Governor Pence, who is now the reigning Vice-President, i.e., the president’s chief advisor and wrecking ball for all things religious, environmental and anti-democracy). I grew up not unaware of my own possibilities even though I inherited an unforgiving religion that functioned as if the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were the incubators and examples of true democracy, multiculturism and women’s liberation. I say all this in the context of being influenced heavily by Mari Evans, Etheridge Knight, Black Arts poets, fierce relatives, a few teachers and university professors who did not give up on me. These were people who encouraged the creative side of me to breathe.
LJ: What impact does the city have on your poetry? What are some of your favorite spots in Indy?
AH: The city itself—the good, bad, and the ever-evolving—has had a huge impact on my work and artistic vision. I write out of the tradition of writers who, in one way or another, have paid homage to their hometowns, its people and the landscape—from Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes to Chicagoans Gwendolyn Brooks and Chance the Rapper to Indianapolis writers John Green and Mari Evans. With my first collection of poetry, I hope to join the conversation of Struggle, social optimism, and literary expression borne out of the city’s inspiring host of literary voices—past and present.
Some of my favorite spots in Indy happen to be all Indy bookstores, the new Center for Black Culture and Literature and just about any of the city’s tea shops and Thai restaurants.
LJ: What are you reading right now?
AH: I still can’t put Claudia Rankine’s Citizen down. Run Toward Fear by Chicago poet Haki Madhubuti is a staple go-to because I work with young people. Aside from its collection of relevant new poems grounded in cultural memory, family and optimism about the state of art, it also has an invaluable Poet’s Handbook at the back of the book. Dr. Madhubuti’s purpose-driven points have helped to nurture my own writing, therefore, I see it in and of itself as the gift that keeps on giving. I am also reading The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison. Before picking up Morrison, I was reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essays in We Were Eight Years in Power, which were originally published in The Atlantic. I continue to be inspired by his urgent reflections and analyses on race. And yes, I have given some attention to Fire & Fury by Michael Wolff.
LJ: Who are your favorite poets? Can you leave us with a line (or two) from one of them?
AH: There are so many I admire that I really don’t have a “favorite.” But here goes: Sonia Sanchez, Mari Evans, Etheridge Knight, Gwendolyn Brooks, Haki Madhubuti, Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Lucille Clifton, Adrienne Rich, Robert Pinsky, Robert Bly, Elizabeth Bishop, Langston Hughes, Karen Kovacik, Adrian Matejka, Patricia Smith, Natasha Tretheway, Nikky Finney, jessica Care moore, Kelly Norman Ellis, Tyehimba Jess and Tupac Shakur.
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
–lucille clifton (excerpt from “won’t you celebrate with me“)
LJ: Where can we buy your book?
AH: Indy Reads, Amazon, Butler Bookstore, IUPUI Bookstore, BookMamas, Barnes & Noble as well as Third Word Press Foundation directly: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read Allyson’s poems from Issue 1: Summer 2017 below: