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Trailblazing Alumni Ash Tippit October 07, 2021

Ashley M. Jones, an alumna of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of English, was recently appointed to serve as the next Poet Laureate of Alabama. She holds an MFA from Florida International University and currently lives in Birmingham, where she teaches creative writing at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. She also co-directs PEN Birmingham , is the founding director of the Magic City Poetry Festival , is part of the Core Faculty of the Converse College Low Residency MFA Program, and recently served as guest editor for Poetry Magazine . Her collections include Magic City Gospel, dark // thing, and Reparations Now! 

AJ HeadshotAshley M. Jones, Poet Laureate of AlabamaSo, how does it feel to be the next Alabama Poet Laureate?

Jones: It feels really amazing. I'm very grateful that people trust me to do the job, you know. And I'm obviously very proud to be a Black woman doing the job. I'm the first person of color ever to hold the position in the history of our state, which is something that we need to definitely contend with…I'm just very excited to serve and to represent this really amazing community of writers…I want our state to be a premier literary destination. 

If you want to elaborate on this, what does it mean to be the first Black woman to hold this position?

Jones: It means a lot. It's not lost on me that is taken 91 years for this to occur… Thinking back to being a young person and looking for those role models who looked like me—that was so important to see, you know. I will always remember my first-grade teacher, Ms. Hafeezah Abdur-Rasheed at EPIC elementary school, because she just was so incredible, and for me to see a Black woman who was so smart, so just on point, always…And of course, having my mom be an example to me—those things matter, you know. To have someone who looks like you, who shares your experience, doing the things that you dream of doing… So, I'm hoping that by me existing, as whatever it is that I am, and holding whatever title that I hold, maybe that can help someone else to feel more possible.

What are your thoughts on representation in literature in society? 

Jones: Yeah, I think representation is so very important… For me reading a poem or a novel about Black people by a Black person means more, perhaps…Makes you feel that you can actually tell your own story. If we think back to the slave narratives…sometimes there had to be a preface written by their white benefactor, to say that this is all good; I signed off on it. That does something to a Black reader—and as a White reader actually—you’re being sent the message that this person's voice is only valid because somebody else said it is. But if instead the book is written by the person and we believe it just because they have written it, that says a lot as well…I'd like to walk into the mirror of literature and see myself reflected back.

Do you have any thoughts on or suggestions for how we answer the deep issues in our state and country’s history? 

Jones: I've always been so focused on pointing out what actually happened and on operating in truths only, not in your imagined history…[The system] was made to hurt people—So, with something like this, you know, 91 years of poets laureate and now the first non-white person holding it, I think if we all kind of sit with that for a moment…And then, engaging the full community, instead of staying in your little silo…I think work like that is what can help, because obviously we can't fix the century it took to have somebody hold this position, but we can move forward in a meaningful way.

Do you consider yourself to be a feminist?

Jones: Yes. I consider myself to be a feminist in the lineage of people like Audre Lorde or bell hooks, which is very important to say…Feminism has also struggled with its ties to the white patriarchy. So, I follow an intersectional of feminist model, which allows me to celebrate the issues of my people within the framework of feminism… We have to celebrate those differences that we have, and not play into those structures that oppress in the first place.

What advice would you give to young poets?

Jones: First of all, you're already a poet. Even if you just wrote one poem, you're a poet already. There's not an application process…I also tell students “Your work is already complete.” When you write it, no matter what draft it is, it's complete. So, if we're workshopping it, we're not trying to fix it or make it complete. We're just refining what's already there… So, I would just tell them to learn to value themselves, because that's the thing is going to carry them through. If I had not realized that being Ashley Jones was enough, I would not be sitting here as Poet Laureate of Alabama.

How do you feel that relates to something like publishing? 

Jones: I'll start by saying, the reason I'm able to even think of it that way, I think it's because I teach from a feminist perspective. Because this idea that we are having to work enough or work to a certain level: that's a patriarchal idea. It's not serving any of us well, you know… And as far as submitting to journals, I mean, that's such a subjective process. You just don't know…I encourage the students to submit any place they want to do. But I also try to be realistic with them as well. Like if you're looking to build up your publication history, try smaller journals first. They have less submissions to go through, so they might actually see your work and be able to actually spend time with it. And if they’re submitting to a journal and they're like, “oh, but I'm just in high school. Should I let them know that's where I am?” I say, “well first of all, it doesn't matter where you are: if a poem’s good, a poem’s good.” If they're really doing their job like they’re supposed to, they're not going to be looking at what age you are.

Who have been some of your main influences?

Jones: I always loved listening to my family speak. Like, I mentioned earlier, if you speak Southern, that's poetry. So like hearing grandmothers, aunts, uncles, mom, dad, whatever, speaking; that's always been amazing to me. As far as poets go, you know, Eloise Greenfield was my entry into poetry, then Rita Dove and Lucile Clifton. Kevin Young was huge for me in college… And now it's a lot of my peers and colleagues, who inspire me a lot. And Jacqueline Trimble, who is in Montgomery, Alabama; she is a huge inspiration to me…And then my students inspire me all the time. They are just so creative. When the student is allowed to truly explore and to feel safe in that exploration, they are going to create some of the most incredible, innovative, thought-provoking, emotional pieces that anyone's ever seen. 

RepNowHow are you feeling about the release of your third collection?

Jones: I feel so excited. I love all my book children equally, but this book, I think, is truly the one where I feel the most myself. And I felt that I didn't have to prove anything anymore. I'm just writing as me…I feel like I'm my most self-actualized in life, so in this book I am also my most self-actualized on the page.

What are some of the projects you're working on right now? 

Jones: Well, I am releasing my book [Reparations Now!]…I'm also trying to move into the prose space. I'm trying to write a memoir. I have a few essays out from that already…I'm thinking of doing some [essays] that are partially personal essay and partially critical essay. 

The Magic City Poetry Festival slogan this year was “poetry is for everybody” and you mentioned bell hooks earlier, so I wanted to know, what do you mean by “poetry is for everybody?”

Jones: Well, I mean exactly what it says: poetry is for every single person. There is a belief, I think, that poems have to be super hard to understand and they're just for the learned of us. But that's not true. Everybody interacts with poetry on a daily basis, you know…For me and for the MCPF, we are trying to make sure that everybody knows they have access to this art form and that it can be helpful to them… That's what I love about some of my poetry heroes, like sister Sonia [Sanchez], who I met. She made me a cup of tea—like if you understand what this woman has done in life…all the gifts she has bestowed upon the world. She deserves all the respect ever—The fact that she made little old me, little Ashley from Alabama, a cup of tea, with her own hands? Okay. That to me is the spirit of “poetry is for everybody,” you know…And that's the kind of thing that I want to spread everywhere. I want us to feel like we're all fighting the same fight. We're all here together. 

What are some of your favorite moments from your writing career so far?

The first one deals with my dad. He passed this year, which still seems very not real…When he was still alive, I was commissioned to write a poem for the Southern Foodways Alliance, because they were having their annual meeting here in Birmingham. So, I decided I was going to write about my dad's gardening. So, I interviewed him, and he told me all these stories about gardening as a child and how they did it out of necessity back then…We’ve always had a garden in our backyard and eaten all these amazing vegetables and fruits that my dad has grown. So, I wrote this poem about him, called “Photosynthesis,” and I invited my parents to come…he had never heard it. And it was like right after his birthday too, so I was sneaky…So, I do my last poem, which is the poem for him—and in this poem, I talked about gardening and how he has taken care of us—and is still taking care of us. I mean, we ate his harvest after he passed away…There are so many ways that he planted things for us to reap forever. At the time I didn't know that. I was just writing a poem…So, I read the poem. And I looked out to the audience—and my dad was not a man who cried very often, at least not in front of us. I maybe saw him cry like one time in life, maybe like one and a half—but I looked up and my dad was wiping his eyes, and my mom was like ‘he was crying. He was crying!” and I felt so proud. I was like wow, first of all, I got him [laughs]. But, also, I'm so glad I was able to. There's this phrase “give people their flowers while they yet live.” I could give him flowers, right in front of him. I could tell this group of people, “My dad's awesome. Here is why.” I could tell my dad, “You're awesome, Here is why,” you know. And all of that just from writing a poem.

This article is based on an interview conducted by Ash Tippit for 100 Days in Appalachia, a nonprofit, collaborative newsroom telling the complex stories of the region that deserve to be heard. Read the original story here and sign up for their weekly newsletter here.

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