Local Spotlight: An Interview with Ashley M. Jones
Ashley M. Jones received an MFA in Poetry from Florida International University (FIU), where she was a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Fellow. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in many journals and anthologies, including the Academy of American Poets, Tupelo Quarterly, The Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, pluck!, and many more. She received a 2015 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and a 2015 B-Metro Magazine Fusion Award. Her debut poetry collection, Magic City Gospel, was published by Hub City Press in January 2017, and it won the silver medal in poetry in the 2017 Independent Publishers Book Awards. Her second book, dark // thing, won the 2018 Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry from Pleiades Press. She currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama, where she is founding director of the Magic City Poetry Festival, 2nd Vice President and Membership Chair of the AWC , co-coordinator of the Nitty Gritty Magic City Reading Series, and a faculty member in the Creative Writing Department of the Alabama School of Fine Arts.
Interview by JACK SAUL
Black Warrior Review: What are some questions you’re tired of getting in interviews, on panels, and at readings? What do you wish someone would ask you instead?
Ashley M. Jones: Gosh, the answer to that question might be different day by day. At readings, my least favorite question would have to be “who are 10 writers to read right now” or “name your top x-number books of all time.” It’s not that I don’t read—it’s just that it’s hard to come up with those names on the spot, and whenever I’m asked right then, right there, my mind goes absolutely blank!
What I first thought of, however, is less of a question I hate but a sentiment I’d like to interrogate. Once, I gave a reading for Black History Month. Let’s say the audience was pretty racially homogenous. Let’s say I was not part of the majority. Let’s also say I read poems about horrific acts of racial terror in America. After this reading, let’s say a man congratulated me on “not being angry although I certainly could be with the stuff I write about.” That’s something that just doesn’t gel. For one, anger looks different all the time. It isn’t always yelling and blood spilling from the eyes—it can be controlled, it can be direct and quiet. My poetry is made of many things, and anger is one of them. Am I angry to learn and write about the myriad instances that black women have been and continue to be brutalized in America/the world? Yes. Am I angry when I think about how easy it would be for me to become a hashtag? Am I angry thinking about the men who have hurt me? Of course! My poems aren’t devoid of anger and it certainly isn’t up to my readers to pat me on the back for not making them feel bad about racism or sexism in which they feel complicit. If you don’t feel the magnifying glass on you when you read my poems, any poems, you’re probably not really comprehending what’s on the page. So that’s what I don’t like—sure, it’s impossible to control how people interact with your work once it has left your mind or your fingers or your lips, but it isn’t too much to ask for readers to consider what they say to writers in-real-life. Especially if what you’re saying is an attempt to police what you think is acceptable forms of anger.
BWR: What assumptions do people need to put aside with regard to writing out of the South in general and Alabama in particular? What should people know about Birmingham literary culture?
AMJ: The South is a changing place. It’s not a novelty item and it’s not representative of the “worst” of America. The South is, in fact, in America. We wear shoes. We have teeth. We don’t all marry our cousins. These seem like very outdated stereotypes, but they’re still very much alive for many people who have never been here. Alabama, especially. It doesn’t help that Jeff Sessions is ours, but really, he’s everyone’s. If the nation welcomed him (and I use that term loosely—not sure anyone up there was particularly “welcomed…” but votes do speak for themselves…well, I guess if you don’t count the electoral college’s blurring effect…), that means he’s representative of what the nation wants. Maybe other places try to mask what they’re really feeling. Maybe other places just poison the water instead of hosing people down with it.
People should know that Birmingham is AFLAME with literary culture, and it’s only spreading faster. This April, I directed and founded, with the immense support of the AWC, PEN America, and many local sponsors, the inaugural Magic City Poetry Festival. Our goal with this annual event is to really solidify Birmingham as a literary destination and to showcase the thriving literary and artistic impact Birmingham has on itself and on the nation as a whole.
BWR: You do some interesting play with inherited national language, as with “Election Year: ‘The Motto’.” Maybe tell us some more about your approach to that and, perhaps relatedly, your relationship with inherited poetic forms.
AMJ: So, forms, in general, are super interesting to me. When I was younger, I was soso so against form. They seemed nothing but old and crumbling containers for old and crumbling words. But, during graduate school, I was taught form in a way that made it open and resurrect-able. That is, form can work with content instead of against it, it can house poems that talk about people who look like me, and it can lead to invented forms and found forms.
With “Election Year: The Motto,” I was really stuck on Thomas Jefferson’s assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” and that this idea was “self-evident.” It’s true that I think this fact is self-evident, but in 2016, when the country focused on a presidential race that was far from “normal” and a continued assault on unarmed Black humans, I just didn’t see that assertion ringing true. I’ve always had a bit of an issue with the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson specifically, because of the duality of their beliefs. Men are equal, yes, but only when those men are white and own land. I wanted to use those words over and over to show the ways in which they (and many of our founding documents) have so much fine print that is never stated but is always illustrated in the bloodshed and unequal treatment of othered people in this country.
BWR: What can you tell us about your experience publishing Magic City Gospel with Hub City Press? How do you think the facts of their independence and their Southernness have factored into the final product of the collection and how it has come to find an audience?
AMJ: First things first, Hub City Press is one of the very best presses on this blue earth. It was truly a dream to work with them on my first book, and I absolutely think its success (however you choose to measure that) is directly related to their dedication, their independence, their southern-ness and their commitment to literature.
My journey to publication wasn’t what I expected—I entered contests like everyone else. I spent the money and I waited and waited. I was rejected and I was finalisted, even at Hub City’s New Southern Voices Prize (if you’re a Southern poet without a first book, you need to be looking for that contest to come open), but they held on to the book because they loved it, and I was lucky enough to sign on with them. Even before I was officially a Hub City author, I was treated with respect, and my work was, too. I felt seen and heard and read, and that only amplified when I was officially at the press. Hub City is independent, and that means that they make their own name—they’re not bound by any sort of traditional aesthetic. They are defining what it means to be a Southern author, and I was glad to be on a press that publishes work that’s political, personal, andtraditional—there’s room for everyone. There are, as Clifton said, many rooms in the house of poetry.
BWR: We hear a lot of talk about the creation of literary community online, but given your work with Magic City Poetry Festival, Alabama Writers’ Conclave, and Nitty Gritty Magic City Reading Series, you seem to have dedicated yourself to maintaining physical spaces for literature as well. What do these in-person, in-real-life events and organizations mean to you?
AMJ: Funny you should ask this now—or, that I’m answering it now—because I just talked about this this past weekend at the AWC’s annual conference. I was on a panel about publishing, and we had talked, at length, about social media and its importance in the literary world. One audience member said, “what do I do if I really don’t have the patience for online? What can I do?” I said, “you can go to events, go to conferences, get involved in your community. There’s still value in meeting people face-to-face, in person.” The crowd erupted in applause. It’s true—people do feel like there’s only the internet now—that’s the only way to communicate. But, real life is still real. I find that these physical spaces are so needed, maybe even more needed becauseof the onslaught of online methods of communication. Seeing someone in person, meeting and re-meeting people in your community can make you feel comfortable and really valued in reallife. It’s easy to like and share behind the screen of the internet. But to show up for someone in real life and to hug them and buy their book and get it autographed and to even just be in a physical space listening to a poetry reading with other humans—those are experiences you just can’t replicate any other way. Community is built in person, I think, and it’s definitely enhanced online, but the bones have to solidify in the flesh.
BWR: So much of your poetry has a historical emphasis. Some of the content is familiar to the layperson and cast in a new light, as with George Wallace’s stand in “Rammer Jammer,” but some of it, as in “The History Books Have Forgotten Horace King” and many other poems, sees light it hasn’t necessarily been given elsewhere before. Even the slices-of-life lead up to the grand, national, and historical, to “America,” as with “To the Black Man Popping a Wheelie…” Is history for you a starting point, an endpoint, or simply contained in everything at a molecular level? Do you actively seek out archival material, or is the inspirational subject matter encountered organically and unavoidably?
AMJ: My belief is that history is never really “in the past.” That is, we are all living with history inside us, we are all possible because of the histories we carry. I can’t walk down the street in downtown Birmingham without the Civil Rights Movement footsoldiers on my heels, without the police dogs, without “Whites Only” right next to me on the pavement. Similarly, Tamir Rice doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Emmett Till and so many others share that death, that too-early ascent to Heaven.
As far as my poetry, sometimes I begin with the historical fact—I’ll have read it or seen it somewhere, or someone will have told me about an event, and I find myself becoming obsessed with it. When that happens, I have to do more research so I can try to inhabit the moment, and then I can take to the page. So sometimes I do seek out that archival material. Other times, I encounter it unavoidably and organically—to give you an example:
This past weekend, in Orange Beach, AL, I was on a brunch cruise. Outside our window, we saw some boats parked on the beach. One boat had two flags flying boldly: one was a confederate flag with President Obama’s face turned upside down, the other was Blue Lives Matter. I couldn’t let that go, for (perhaps) obvious reasons. I became obsessed with it. I became entranced by the thought of that flag being pledged to—so, I started to write. I haven’t finished that poem yet, but hopefully it will take shape soon.
BWR: Some of my favorite moments in your work happen when you find the holy in the mundane, as in “Salat Behind Al’s Mediterranean and American Food.” How do you see religion, religious imagery, and religious feeling as factoring into your process and product?
AMJ: Religion has always been fascinating to me—I’m a Southerner, so I can’t really avoid it. I was raised Christian, but rather untraditionally. I won’t get into the gritty details there, but let’s just say I was raised not to be bound by books, buildings, or human perceptions of God. That view of God has led me to see the divine everywhere and in everything—a poem can contain it, a good meal, a conversation, anything. I also love to see religion in my own skin—that is, I was also raised to believe that God could look just like me, and I like to explore that in my work. When I re-imagine the Virgin Mary as a Black woman, I’m doing that. When I talk about Jesus being Black, I’m seeing religion in my own way. I’m certainly not telling others what or how to believe—that’s another part of my own religious practice that I refuse to let go of. Any act of evangelism should be, in my religious worldview, without direct “prescription” or without badgering. I should be kind and that kindness’ spreading means the spirit of God is spreading. My poems might make people think about their own prejudices and practices, and that’s Godly, too.
BWR: What do you hope your readers take out of your collection?
AMJ: Gosh, I don’t know! I guess I hope they feel their time hasn’t been wasted, and that they have something they can imitate or that they can learn something. I hope they feel they can participate in the conversation I’m attempting to start with my poetry (after all, I think art is just that—conversation). I hope they feel that poetic Holy Ghost, that electric YES I feel when I read Clifton, Dove, Hughes, Young, Smith (pick any of them—Danez, Patricia, Tracy K.)…
BWR: We don’t wish to put you on the spot and create anxiety about leaving worthy people out, but as this project of ours is, after all, meant to increase visibility for creators and organizers from Alabama and the Greater South, we wonder if you might share with us some folks you think deserve some more attention.
AMJ: Katherine Webb-Hehn (co-organizer of Nitty Gritty, poet, and journalist)
Alina Stefanescu (poet and fiction writer who does so much community organizing with me)