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Influential and Indestructible

He’s moving into the breadth of his powers

According to Julian Randall ’15, “Midwest kids don’t do a lot of stunting on the same achievement.”

According to Julian Randall ’15, “Midwest kids don’t do a lot of stunting on the same achievement.”

So envisioning just what’s next for this dazzling poet—his first book, Refuse (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for 2017—tests the imagination.

“I’m just trying to keep getting better, feel me? That’s all I’m trying to do with whatever time I have left,” says Randall, who writes at least 500 words a day. With Refuse out in the world, Randall is immersed in exploring a new tone. The 2019 NAACP Image Award nominee for Outstanding Literary Work–Poetry (alongside the legendary Alice Walker) says writing his first book was a navigation.

“You don’t quite know what those poems—and by extension you—are fully capable of,” he says. “I’m just trying to move more fully into knowing the breadth of my powers.”

Those powers tend to pulse on the page, such as in his poem “Flex”:

Trees feathered with their hollowed offspring

Here the wind don’t howl just blooms a militia

Starting out, the Chicago native knew he had something to say, but he wasn’t sure how to be heard. “What surprised me was learning that I was not alone,” says Randall, who turned to poetry in college as a means of managing his anxiety. His best friend Noel Quiñones ’15 invited him to an open mic through Swarthmore’s slam poetry group, Our Art Spoken in Soul (OASIS), where “I found what I needed to to give voice to a hurt I hadn’t known others were feeling at such a huge scale.”

Winning the Cave Canem Prize was a dream realized, says Randall, but his focus has stayed intact. “I don’t think the recognitions really separated me from my voice at all,” he says. “The day I was named an Image Award finalist, I bought myself a book to celebrate, and went back to work on my novel.”

Especially supportive in Randall’s early work was Nathalie Anderson, the Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor of English Literature and director of the creative writing program, who “helped me learn more about what I actually wanted to explain in a poem and what I didn’t.”

As a Black studies and literature major, Randall says he views the humanities as the indestructible moral center. “I might sound mad corny saying this, but poetry is really a priceless thing in this world,” he says. “I don’t know how it could ever be properly valued.”