In the Spotlight
Ashley M. Jones
Creative Writing Faculty, Alabama School of Fine Arts; Director, Magic City Poetry Festival; Board Member and Second VP, Alabama Writer’s Conclave
Birmingham, Alabama Member Since: 2012
About: Ashley M. Jones is a poet and teacher from Birmingham, AL. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers Award, and she is the author of two poetry collections: Magic City Gospel (Hub City Press, 2017) and dark / / thing (Pleiades Press—Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry, 2019). She is a creative writing faculty member at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, and she founded and directs the Magic City Poetry Festival in Birmingham, Alabama
Photo credit: Jennifer Alsabrook Turner
What do your books look like once you’ve finished reading them? Do they have broken spines and dog-eared pages? Notes in the margins? Or do they still look brand new?
When I was younger, my books would look very toiled over—dog-eared pages, notes in the margins, pieces of paper (sometimes with notes, sometimes as a bookmark) stuck everywhere. Now, it’s a little less so. I don’t like writing in books because I might need to make copies for teaching, so I use post-it notes to write things down. I don’t always read books of poetry cover-to-cover; there’s something exciting, sometimes, in letting the book always hold something new. With my copy of the Collected Works of Lucille Clifton, I do overload it with post it notes, but I have never endeavored to read it cover-to-cover because I just don’t want the adventure to ever end. Yes, with poetry, with any literature, you can always re-read and find things you hadn’t seen before, but something about knowing there are poems of hers that I’ve never read, that I can still unlock, as if she were still here, is so exciting to me.
Do you feel influenced by your peers to produce a certain type of creative work, or do you feel free to follow your own interests and passions?
I can honestly say that what I feel from my peers isn’t pressure, but permission. Since graduate school, I’ve made a point to surround myself with poets (and people) who are in the life-giving business. That means, poets who aren’t caught up in creating a flock of sheep who write exactly as they do. That means poets who are writing their authentic experience and who give space for others to do the same. Poets who give life—those who write it on the page and those who encourage that same life-spark in the work of others. I feel, and have felt since my MFA program, an overwhelming freedom to write as Ashley M. Jones instead of as what I thought a poet should be. My peers are writing really exciting poetry, and I want to write poetry that excites me, too. I follow my interests and passions, yes—my interest is humanity, justice, history, and authenticity. I write from that, always.
Describe your writing process. Do you write every day? For how long? Do you listen to music? Do you type at a computer or write in longhand?
I’m not an everyday writer. I have never really been, although I was nearly that in high school—I attended a fine arts school, and we had to produce work quickly and constantly. That training, I think, has allowed me to develop my process, which is based mostly on desire and intention. That, is, I don’t force myself to write. Even when a deadline looms, I try to cultivate a desire to write, I wait (as long as I can) until I’m really ready to get to the page. Maybe that means I have to sort of prime myself by reading or listening to music (which I always do when I’m writing), but I have to work up to readiness. Then, when it’s time to write, I write and try to reach a draft I’m pleased with. I don’t spend months on revisions. I don’t have the attention span for it. My process is intentional—so, I often write because I have something to say or because something is stuck in my mind and I need to write it out. Exercises are fantastic, yes—I’m not saying they aren’t. I’m just saying that over the years, and with my very busy lifestyle, I’ve found that I need to come to the page with a certain level of intentionality or it won’t be a successful session. I write in any medium that’s available to me—sometimes I dictate to Siri if an idea strikes while I’m behind the wheel. Sometimes I scribble something down in a notebook or on a napkin. I find myself, nowadays, writing on my phone, using the Microsoft Word app. That way, I can easily open my computer when I’m able, and I can finish edits quickly. Yes, I listen to music as much as possible. My life, it seems, has an almost-constant soundtrack. And, sometimes, music can help set a certain mood. Or, I play music so I feel a little less alone while facing the blank page.
What is the greatest compliment that you could ever receive about your writing?
So, there are two things I’d like to say here—first, a huge compliment is when someone teaches my work. I know what it means to decide work is useful/skillful/enjoyable/educational enough to share with students, and when someone does that for my poems, I feel so grateful, so humbled, and so fulfilled. Second, when people can tell that I’m heavily influenced by Clifton, I take that as a great, great compliment. Clifton opened a part of my poetry brain that has yet to stop growing, and I’m so indebted to her example for what it has done and keeps doing in my writing life. Bonus: recently, I have been writing almost exclusively in the sonnet form as a way of studying Gwendolyn Brooks’ formal modes, and I imitated her sonnet “Love Note 1: Surely” in a piece I hope to place soon. When I shared with a friend, that friend assumed it was a Brooks piece. That was huge. Huge. Brooks was a master, a genius, a Black Woman Superhero. To even come close to touching the hem of her garment (literary and otherwise) is such a dream.
Would you like to share a project you are currently working on?
Right now, I’m working on a third collection which is mostly written in the sonnet form. I know that has been done before—Wanda Coleman, Terrance Hayes—but I was drawn to the form via Gwendolyn Brooks’ Gay Chaps at the Bar, and the form has really been useful to me in opening new ways of thinking. And I’m very interested (and I explored this interest in my forthcoming second collection, dark // thing) in reclaiming those forms which have traditionally been white and male. I want to, instead of mastering these forms to prove my literacy/worthiness, create space for myself and for accessible poetry (and poetry about people of color) in these forms.
Since its inception, what are some of the proudest accomplishments of your organization?
The Magic City Poetry Festival began in 2018, with a week-long celebration of poetry in Birmingham. We were lucky enough to be sponsored by PEN America, the AWC, and many other local organizations. I’m most proud of our ability to bring this type of poetic event to Birmingham to contribute to what I’m calling the Birmingham Arts Renaissance. There has been such an artistic movement here in the past few years, and this festival is, I hope, a positive addition to that movement! We proved what has been said isn’t true—there is a desire for literary programming in Birmingham. People will show up. People will support, and people are very inspired!
What is your organization’s vision? How do you see it growing ten years from now?
Our vision, with the Magic City Poetry Festival, is to deliver quality poetic and community-centered programming to the Greater Birmingham area. We want to nurture the poets who are here in our city, we want to create new lovers of poetry, and we want to cement Birmingham’s place as a poetry destination. Ten years from now, I hope for the festival to be bigger, to attract big names, to amplify local poets to a national audience, and to become a tourist destination to bring folks into Birmingham to see what we’re doing down here.
Do you offer any free events to your community members?
Yes! All of our events are free free free—we believe in providing programming that is accessible to all. It is vital to me that we bring in as many people as we can from as many different backgrounds as possible. Once we have them, I’m certain they’ll fall in love with poetry and its power.
What is your favorite AWP Conference memory?
This one is sort of embarrassing, but we’re all friends here, so here we go: A couple AWPs ago, I was prepping to release my debut collection. I was still rather sheepish around writers I admired, and it was no secret that I had a deep love for Kevin Young, on-page…and…well, let’s keep it at on-page. My dear friend spotted him at the bookfair and walked me to him. I was so scared! I had met him briefly before, but my friend wanted me to tell him about my book. Turns out Kevin is actually super nice and didn’t make me feel like the weirdo I was, and that was so lovely. I know that conferences can sometimes reveal that your favorite writers are, in fact, flawed and/or not-so-warm humans, but this was one of those moments where I thought—this would have never happened if I weren’t at this conference, on the bookfair floor, where everyone is sort of equalized. We are all, while we’re walking there, away from our booths and stages, just humans floating among all those other humans.