The South Still Got Something To Say: Ashley M. Jones Becomes The First Black Poet Laureate In Alabama History

·10 min read
Ashley Jones
Ashley Jones

Source: Amarr Croskey / Courtesy of Ashley M. Jones

Ashley M. Jones is an award-winning poet and the first Black poet laureate of Alabama. Her four year appointment will begin in 2022. It was an absolute honor to speak with Ashley via Zoom on October 4. Our interview started out with the usual technical difficulties common in this era of social distancing, yet we persevered. Our discussion resembled two cousins with a shared passion for progress and poetry. We were two Black women poets delighting in our love for the late poet Lucille Clifton, our Alabama lineage, bold lipstick, our failed attempts at gardening, and our disdain for Thomas Jefferson’s Notes from the State of Virginia. Ashley’s work reflects an ability to seamlessly acknowledge her inherited legacy of Black poetry while keeping her pulse on the present. Our expansive conversation explored topics like the generous vision for her role as poet laureate, her latest collection of poetry Reparations Now! (Hub City Press, 2021), her father’s recent passing, and her relationship to rest and self-care. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

MADAMENOIRE: I read in another interview that you said it should not have taken this long. What are some of your plans or vision to ensure that it does not take another almost 100 years for another Black poet laureate to be appointed in your state?

Ashley M. Jones: I have to say that it’s just not Black, I’m the first non-white person which is a lot to think about. I mean it’s one thing to be the first Black person. That’s a thing we know about. We’re used to it. But the fact that there has literally been no one else for 91 years. And when you think about that I’m the thirteenth poet laureate, the math starts to add up a little bit. It has not been the most accessible position over the last 91 years.

What I hope to do, for one I don’t want to have this position forever. There have been some poet laureates that have just stayed until they died . That is not my intention. I am trying to get in there and get some things moving. And move right along and let someone else do what they need to do because I just don’t believe in “I’m going to dominate this thing for forever.” That’s very colonial. That’s not what I’m here for.

When people think of the south, particularly a state like Alabama or more specifically, a place like Birmingham, they instantly think of a legacy of terror but can you tell me about your Birmingham, Black Birmingham and growing up there and perhaps even now.

I love the phrase you used, a “legacy of terror.” I really think everyone that lives in the United States of America or the world, if we’re being honest, needs to understand that’s a legacy that we all have. There’s nowhere, absolutely nowhere, you can go, especially as a Black person that there isn’t some dark and scary thing out to get you.

For me, Birmingham, and I hate to be cheesy but it’s called the Magic City for a reason. It’s magical. I mean of course, it was called that for industry reasons but there is really a spirit that I have not found anywhere else that I have traveled in the US. That magic is the history. Growing up, I knew about what happened here. You couldn’t walk two steps without somebody saying “Hey, 16th Street Baptist Church is right over there.” At least when I was growing up in the 90s. I don’t know how it is now for the younger folk. As a child, it meant so much and to live in a city like Birmingham, where Blackness was fought for literally.

Birmingham is just full of this infinite possibility. We have the ability to see our history everyday as we walk down the streets. All over Alabama, really. The history is just here. The ghosts are here. We also have this incredible potential to continue impacting the world the way that we have in the past. If we look at everything that has ever happened in our country, it all comes back to the south. You cannot escape that.

Thank you for that. I was absolutely hoping that you would get to the texture of those things because as Malcolm X said, “if you’re below the Canadian border, you’re South.” I want to ask you specifically about your latest book, Reparations Now! One of the poems I really enjoyed was “Photosynthesis.” You talk about your father’s inheritance of his mother’s green thumb. Did you inherit your father’s green thumb?

Ha! I inherited a lot from my dad but the love for gardening, I did not inherit from him. I loved watching him do it. I could watch him for hours. I harvested food with him. I’m so glad my mom did her annoying mom thing and took pictures while we were harvesting greens one Thanksgiving. And I loved to eat the things that he grew. I’m so glad that this past summer we were able to eat his last crops. It’s what we needed right after his passing. We needed to be fed by him.

I don’t garden. All the plants that I have had have not made it and have crossed over into plant heaven.

But I did inherit from him, maybe not a literal green thumb but the spirit of growth, in general. I’m very invested in helping people to grow. My dad is someone that took care of people, as a fireman and paramedic. He taught me how to make space for others. How to serve others. It’s the reason why I see this position as a service position because I watched my dad serve. He was the first Black chief of his fire department. I guess this first Black stuff runs in our family.

Your poem “Photosynthesis” is also rooted in Black folks’ relationship to labor and the land and with the title of your book, what might reparations look like if applied to those two areas?

Reparations is such a huge concept and people have made it into “ya’ll want a check” or people are like “ya’ll just want a handout.”

Yes, that language is to just distance us from that inheritance.

Right.

Reparations as it relates to land and labor, I think for one, we are honestly owed rest. We are owed that a million times over. I think about my mom’s mom, doing labor as a sharecropper. Working this land with almost no profit.

Reparations would be that we could finally pick up this burden that we’ve been carrying, called America and sit it down. Or more accurately, sat it in the laps of those who have not been carrying it.

As far as the land goes, I don’t think it’s going to happen. Let me start there. I’d love to see the land returned to itself. What I mean is that none of us need to be like “oh, I own this.” Now we don’t. We don’t own it. It’s a patriarchal, colonial concept that we can own Earth. So I would love for us to just be released to live on the land and respect it and not abuse it.

But definitely rest and an ability for us to own our own lives.

Hearing your mention rest in relationship to reparations, makes me think of the Nap Ministry [https://thenapministry.wordpress.com] and their use of language around rest as reparations.

You explore difficult themes in your work. How did you care for yourself or seek care during the process of putting this collection together?

Did I seek care is maybe also the question?! That’s one of my biggest challenges in life. I inherited being a workaholic from my dad as well. For me, I’m always privileging what the spirit has given me to say in these poems and that sometimes means that I’m letting myself fall by the wayside. In getting it out, I’m not ignoring it. I think that writing can also be a way that we care for ourselves and letting the poem take me there because when I am writing, I do think there is a spirit that is there helping me to say what needs to be said. So there is some care in that.

I do try to give myself a moment after to not just stay in the moment. To write it as quickly as I can and leave it. As I am answering your question, maybe my writing is my attempt to care for myself.

I don’t write every day. And maybe it’s because the poems I write are so intense that I really can’t be in that space all the time. Because if I stayed in “Mary Turner Resurrected”, I don’t know where I would be. That story does to me what the story of Sandra Bland or Breonna Taylor does to me. It makes me so afraid for my own life.

I also don’t spend all of my time in literary pursuits. I like binge-watching 90s sitcoms, listening to music, and shopping. That’s probably the biggest way I care for myself. I’m definitely bad at not overworking myself…but I’m working on it.

Is there a contemporary Black woman poet whose work you can’t get enough of?

I really love Camille Dungy’s work. I’m really interested in what she does with nature.

Courtney Faye Taylor who won the 2021 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. I became familiar with her work while I was the guest editor at Poetry Magazine and she submitted visual poems about missing Black women and girls.

Crystal Simone Smith, who has a forthcoming book of erasure poems.

Jacqueline Allen Trimble, who is an Alabama-based poet whose new book, Surviving the Apocalypse, comes out next year.

Kwoya Fagin Maples, who is also based in Alabama. Her first book, Mend, chronicles the birth of gynecology and Dr. James Marion Sims who experimented on enslaved Black women.

Also, there is a writer/poet, Angela Jackson Brown whose recent book is When Stars Rain Down. Fantastic novel. I love this book. And right next to me is Honorée Fanonne Jeffers new book, Oprah Book Club Selection The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois. I have loved Honorée for a long time. She was the first poet I saw in-person as a 12 year old at my art school in Alabama. She came to read, and I was like “Wow, I can be a poet.”

I follow you on Instagram and love your outfits. Out of all of the style decades you have lived through, do you have a favorite?

Maybe this decade because I can reach back into the other decades. Like reaching back to the 90s or having my little neo-soul moment, which was my favorite. That’s when I really came into myself. I was all about earth tones, wooden shoes, and bracelets.

Listen. I was a bangle fanatic. I love a fierce red lip on a Black woman. What’s your go-to lippie?

For red, I really love the Lip Bar, which is Black-owned and vegan. They have a shade called “Bawse Lady.” It just pops. A close second is “Stunna” from FENTY BEAUTY by Rihanna.

What songs are you dancing to at the moment?

I’m always dancing to something. I’ve been getting back into Earth, Wind & Fire. I was raised on all of the good music. Their song “Can’t Hide Love” has really been hitting me in a special place.

The Clark Sisters—really anything that they do. There is a song they have called “Looking to Get There” which is talking about going to heaven. Before my dad passed, it was still a very good song, I could feel the spirit in it. But there is a line in it where Dorinda says “I’m looking to see my mother when I get there” and now that line is like “yes, I’m looking to see my dad.” I listen to a lot of different music. It all feeds the spirit.