Alabama Writers Conclave


What’s happening in the Alabama writing world…

An Interview with Ashley M. Jones by Ashley M. Jones.


When Alina asked me to interview myself for AWC’s website, I was a little taken aback—I’m not someone who loves talking about herself, much less asking herself questions, so I did what any human of the new millennium would do—I sourced questions from my social media friends. Here are a million big questions for Ashley M. Jones, a new board member for AWC.

For so long, “Southern” writers looked a certain way and wrote about certain things, and so many of us are changing that image.

1. What does it mean to be the first Black board member of the AWC?

Since I was very young, I knew that in this country (this whole world), would try to keep doors closed for me—maybe even deny the door’s existence even if I see it squarely in front of me. I knew that to be Black in America, in Alabama, meant to carry the history of our segregated past and the reality of our still unjust present with you every day, in your poetry and on your person. It has been my goal, then, to make room for others like me, to step into doors we’ve broken open and make the doorway even wider. That’s why I returned to Birmingham after grad school in Miami—yes, the world is big place and there are lots of great opportunities elsewhere, but this is my home and I intend to be a part of its betterment. This is one such door—to step into one of Alabama’s oldest literary organizations as its first Black board member is a huge deal for me, and maybe for our literary movement in Alabama. For so long, “Southern” writers looked a certain way and wrote about certain things, and so many of us are changing that image. It only makes sense that the literary organizations would adapt such change, too. And, I take this as an opportunity to open that door even wider so we’re all represented in the literary bodies of our state—it’s vital that we include and reach out to all groups, especially those that are traditionally underrepresented.

So, yes, I’m the first, but one day I won’t be the only, and I certainly won’t be the last.

2. Who do you love? What do you love? 

I love Birmingham. I love cornbread and I love scalding hot showers. I love Lucille Clifton—she is my poetry mother, and I don’t’ know where my poetry would be without her example. If you want to know what it means to say it all without saying too much, to create metaphor in one clean punch, to make a whole world in a single line/break, then read her work. I love Gregory Hines—if you don’t know who he was, get out from under your rock! That man was a living poem—watch any of his tap performances, any improvisational tap he’s done, and you’ll see what a body can really do, how art is truly an explosion. I love Celia Cruz—again, get from under that rock if you don’t know her—she was a powerful force of good in the world, a brilliant singer, and she makes so many Black artists (and other artists) possible. I turn to her for strength and a fierce example of how to stay true to who you are no matter what.

3. Describe the moment you knew you were a poet.

Not sure there was a specific moment, honestly. In many interviews, I’ve said that I’ve been writing poems (at least, documenting said poems) since I was 8 years old. No one told me to write poems. I wasn’t really reading too much poetry back then—I distinctly remember reading Eloise Greenfield’s Honey, I Love several times in the second grade, and maybe that’s what planted the seed. Words have always been my mode of creating art—my parents made sure we were always surrounded by learning and creativity, and I just fell naturally into writing. I do remember deciding to commit to poetry as I wrote my senior thesis at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. Fiction was fun but it was always difficult (and that’s  not to say that poetry isn’t difficult—it is—but fiction was difficult in that I didn’t really desire to create stories in that way, so it was hard to complete them) and slightly unnatural for me—poetry always made me excited in ways no other form of writing did. When I thought of an idea for a poem, or when I saw a new way to create a poem, a jolt of something like lightning (but something less cliché…) surged and still surges through me—it’s a sort of discovery. I’m finding new ways to make language breathe and language is finding new was to shape itself into my experience. It’s thrilling!

5. What’s the subject matter of the latest poem you’ve written?

Right now, I’m writing about Harriet Tubman. I’ve been reading some biographies on her, and I’ve tried to tap into a more full exploration of Harriet the human rather than Harriet the historical figure. It has been really fun writing these poems—I’ve always loved Tubman. I have a poem out with Connotation Press called “Recitation” which tells the story of the time I dressed up as Tubman for a second grade poetry recitation project. I recited Eloise Greenfield’s poem “Harriet Tubman,” and, dressed as Tubman, I felt a sort of power that can only be attributed to the power Tubman had and still transmits through her memory. These poems allow me to draw closer to her and to explore what faith can do—Tubman was very religious, and she believed that she received visions from God about running away/the Underground Railroad after a master hit her in the head with a piece of iron. Although I had to iron to open up my third eye, I certainly feel like I’m being spoken to by the spirit of this incredible Black woman.

6. How do you know/ choose what you will write about?

It’s different each time, but often I’m simply reacting to something I’ve encountered in the world. Sometimes that thing is a poem I’ve read, a news article, a historical text, or an episode of Family Matters. A scent on the wind. The roadkill blocking my passage on the way home. The way somebody looks at my hair. Anything that hits me sideways and makes itself almost inexpressible in any other form than a poem is what gets written about. Things that trouble or fascinate me are often best worked out through poetry, too—other than prayer, writing poetry might be the most important version of conversation I  have in this life.

7. Did anyone ever discourage you? How did you overcome it?

Yes. I don’t want to go into the gory details, but yes, there were times in my life when people discouraged my poetry or tried to tamp down my self expression, and it’s hard. It’s very hard. I’m someone who struggled with (and I sometimes still do) low self esteem, and it can be difficult to try to tune out naysayers when they appear in your life, especially if they’re supposed to be mentoring you or helping you on your journey. But, I’m so lucky that I have a strong support system in my family and my chosen family, and they never let me forget who and what I am. I also try to remember that everyone’s journey and everyone’s art and everyone’s version of being a writer is different and that’s absolutely okay. Even if someone feels the need to put my version of writing/ living/ teaching/ talking/ walking/ existing down, I have to realize that I am the way I am for a reason, that there’s room for all of us in the house of poetry/life, and if I don’t live my truth and write the way I do, who else will put my voice in the conversation?

That, and realizing that people who discourage others from being who they are are often deeply insecure, and this is their way of making themselves feel important. I can only hope they find some light within themselves instead of trying to steal other people’s candles.

8. When you have writer’s block, what do you do to overcome that or do you just allow it to pass over organically?

Writer’s block is super annoying. But, I think it might be a false concept—that is, I don’t think we should expect ourselves to always be writing just because we’re writers. Like, we are other things, too. I’m a teacher but I don’t teach every moment of my life. I’m a touring poet but I’m not touring every single day. I take breaks. We are all eaters of food but we don’t constantly eat. We do it when we’re hungry. So, when I’m ready to write, I write. Yes, deadlines do force me to the computer or the page, but even then, I don’t force it. Sometimes, you won’t write or you won’t want to write. Sometimes you’ll sit down and be too frustrated with the blank page to put anything on it. Let that be permission for you to get up from the desk and do something else. Live your life! Watch a movie, dance, go shopping, talk to your mama, cook a meal, sit aimlessly for hours. When you stop thinking of the inability to write as a problem and more of a sign that you just haven’t filled up your life-tank enough yet (because writing requires life experiences, I think), things get a little easier.

That said, I do have some go-to methods if I really can’t seem to write and none of my attempts at living loosen up some of those ideas that are stuck. I talk to people I love—sometimes they give me ideas. I listen to music--if you want some suggestions, find me online, because I’m always sharing music I listen to. I open up the collected works of Lucille Clifton [insert your favorite writer here, although honestly you, too, could open up some Clifton because she’s universally amazing] and read a poem at random. Sometimes, that can work when I feel like my writer’s block is less of a signal that I’m tapped out of ideas but more of a sort of mental blockage.

9. What scares you most when tackling a poem?

I can’t say I’ve ever been scared when writing a poem. Maybe I’m scared if I write about my family, because they’re real people who have to give consent before I send pieces out for publication. But, I’m mostly excited when I’m writing a new poem. I can be scared of where my mind goes when I’m writing—when I wrote a poem about lynching postcards, I was disturbed by how grotesque I was able to get.

10. Which of the poets you admire really knows how to work a microphone when they read?

Danez Smith, for sure. If you’ve never heard them live, you need to re-evaluate your life. I loved Lucille Clifton’s stage presence—so bright and clear and deliberate. I recently saw Tayari Jones, who is a fiction writer, read, and I was struck by the clarity of her voice and the way words seemed to be so cared for when coming through her lips. Similarly, Campbell McGrath is a great reader and speaker—I could probably listen to him talk for the rest of my life just to hear the way he creates sound. It’s hard to describe, but you know that feeling when you swish water or mouthwash around and everything’s being touched, every nook and cranny, by this clean and wrenching sort of feeling? That’s Campbell’s way of speaking. Jonah Mixon-Webster is also an incredible reader (and honestly, just a plain genius—his book releases in February and you’d be doing yourself a great disservice if you didn’t pick it up)—we did a workshop together with The Conversation Literary Festival in Oxford Mississippi, and Jonah recited his poem “Black Existentialism No. 12: Da’ Bad Nigga Blues” and I was absolutely floored by his emotion and emotional precision. His reading in Tuscaloosa during that same week impacted me in the same way. I could, maybe, keep going, but let’s leave it here.

11. Where do you get your jumpsuits?, mostly! It’s a one-stop-shop!

12. What other new poets should we check out?

Everyone who was on The Conversation Literary Festival tour this year—they’re truly incredible poets. Hasten to your nearest bookstore to pick up Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s Scar On / Scar Off. Julian David Randall (his book, Refuse, is forthcoming). Kwoya Fagin Maples’ book, MEND is forthcoming, and you absolutely don’t want to miss that one—she’s writing about the birth of gynecology and the role Black slave women played in that process. It is haunting and arresting and necessary.

13. What are you working on now?

I’m sending out my second manuscript, and I’ve started another project on Harriet Tubman, and I’m hoping to begin a series of poems imitating Gwendolyn Brooks’ formal pieces. Going to attempt to write love poetry (ick!) for Black women and for a few of those husbands in my head.

14. Do you keep a journal or notes to capture ideas and thoughts? If so, how much do you refer to it or use it as you work?

I don’t keep a journal anymore. I definitely used to keep the traditional tween journal, and my siblings and I have had many a laugh when reading them now. I do keep a notebook in my purse so I can jot things down when they come to me. Sometimes I rely on Siri to take down a note if I get an idea while I’m driving, but mostly I just hasten to a computer when I get an idea and start typing away. I like using the computer because I can do more with the format—I mean, yes, I do write in the format I’d like the poem to be in when I’m writing on paper, but I like to see what it would look like when it ‘s “finished” or printed, so I try to get it in a computer as soon as possible. Also, it’s vital that I save the pieces so they don’t get thrown in a pile of scribbled-on scraps, so the computer is the way to go.

15. How much of your poetry is written from your own experience? When you write from the experience of others, is anything out of bounds? Why?

Most of my poetry is from my own experience—but, even when it’s not from my own experience, I do try to still include my emotional truth. That makes the poetry more human, and it helps me as I endeavor to access whatever topic I’m writing about. And yes, some things are out of bounds when writing about the experiences of others (my family, specifically). If anyone is uncomfortable with any part of their story being told, I can’t tell it—just like we have to get permission before we borrow a material object, we have to ask that same permission when we borrow people’s memories or experiences.

16. What 5 pieces of media do you think a young person should consume?

This is hard….let’s see:

  1. Do the Right Thing and Bamboozled by Spike Lee – regardless of what we think of him as a person/thinker, I do think these movies challenged my way of thinking, and that’s vital as a young person.

  2. “Bemba Colora” and “Quimbara” by Celia Cruz (and the live versions)—I mean, every human, young or not, should listen to Celia Cruz. But these two songs in particular might appeal to younger folks because they teach me two distinct thing I wish I’d learned earlier in life. “Bemba Colora” talks about the ways in which Black people are discriminated against although we have vibrant and beautiful culture and soul. Yes, I knew being who I am was good when I was young, but I don’t know if I knew how to celebrate it with all the trumpets and vocal explosions that Celia does. And “Quimbara” just makes me want to dance, and I certainly didn’t do enough of that as a young person.

  3. Othello by Williams Shakespeare—yeah, blah blah blah Shakespeare is important, but I particularly love this play because of the way it challenges us to sympathize with a murderer. There are layers to why Othello does what he does, and of course the racial/social commentary is great, but I also love that I’m shown a dynamic character (Othello) who makes me love him and feel for him, even as he commits a violent crime. That sort of challenging emotional situation will help young people develop critical thinking and empathy skills. And, it’s good to try to connect with Shakespeare on a level other than the blind reverence we’re trained to have.

  4. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – I grew up on PBS, and Mr. Rogers was a huge part of that. Again, I really think developing a sense of empathy and wonder is so important for young people, and a good dose of Fred Rogers will do that and more.

  5. “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, A Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon” by Gwendolyn Brooks—this poem has stuck with me since I was very young because it so brilliantly paints a picture of pain and injustice, even in the very home of the woman who caused Emmett Till’s murder. Again, empathy, but also such poetic skill. That poem gets in your bones.

Bonus: “Rehabilitation and Treatment in the Prisons of America” by Etheridge Knight –I mean, this is a political poem that hits you in the gut. We need to be made uncomfortable and more aware of the reality we’re living in, especially when we’re young.

Bonus Bonus: Tap starring Gregory Hines and Sammy davis, Jr.—yes, this is a movie starring the top three husbands in my head (Savion Glover is also in this movie), but! It’s also a chance for young folks to see some really great tap dancing. Tap dance isn’t as prominent as it once was, but it’s an incredible artform.  

(Alina thanks Ashley so much for being part of this self-interview experiment. To learn more about Ashley M. Jones--her poetry, her poesis, her activism, her jumpsuits, visit her website. )

Alina Stefanescu