When Birmingham-bred poet Ashley Jones was in graduate school at Florida International University, she made a promise to herself: She promised herself that she would produce a book of poetry by the end of her MFA program. Jones kept her promise and on Friday, December 2 she will host a reading, book signing and early release party for her debut collection Magic City Gospel. The poems in the collection, which officially releases in January, are largely inspired by Jones’ experiences as a black girl and woman in the South. This special early release event will be held at 7 p.m., Friday, December 2 at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in downtown Birmingham.
Jones burst onto the poetry scene last year winning the prestigious Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award (a national literary award only given to six women each year that includes a grant for $30,000). Last year Jones also returned to Birmingham to teach creative writing at the Alabama School of Fine Arts (ASFA) and this year began teaching at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) as well.
But Jones believes poetry should be in the community and not just the classroom. She recently helped produce the 100,000 Poets for Change in Birmingham event to raise money for the Smithfield-Dynamite Hill Community Land Trust, which works to keep the Smithfield Community in the ownership of its residents and fight against gentrification. She’s also coordinator of The Nitty Gritty Magic City Reading Series. The brainchild of Alabama poets Katherine Webb and Daniel DeVaughn, NGMC seeks to create a unique literary space in Birmingham where people can tell their stories through their art.
In a candid conversation, Jones discusses Magic City Gospel, her writing practice, writing as a form of activism and more.
Many of the poems included in Magic City Gospel were originally written for graduate school assignments. Tell us a bit about the process of compiling these class assignments into a complete work.
It sounds super un-glamorous to tell people that Magic City Gospel started as simply an assignment—that is, people like to think that every work of art is plucked from a magical stroke of lightning or something, but as is the case for many of us who had to write a book for our graduate thesis, MCG was the product of three years of hard poetry work in the MFA program at Florida International University. The making of the pieces was fun, above all else. Yes, I was completing homework assignments, but I was also discovering a new voice. Each prompt challenged me to throw some Ashley sauce on whatever I was told to do. Sonnet? Throw some Ashley on it. Villanelle? Put a little Ashley behind its ears. Love poem? Write it about a love for Alabama, for my family, for Gregory Hines. So, although each assignment was different, each piece was a method for me to dig deeper into my own poetic identity, and because that was the driving force behind everything I did, mostly every piece I wrote spoke to the same themes. When it was time to compile everything, I selected 50 pieces that all spoke the same language, and, believe it or not, most of the pieces I wrote were fluent in Ashley, and I just had to weed out the ones that weren’t as strong. I wrote some new pieces, too, but mostly I used the work that I’d toiled over during the first two years of my graduate program. I’m a big believer in a student’s ability to create their own educational narrative, using every experience and every lesson to build the knowledge-bank, the creative body of work, the critical vocabulary they hope to have by the end of it. That’s how I treated (and still treat) school, and that’s why my thesis/book-making process was so organic. Everything worked together because that was the mindset I put myself in before I even stepped one toe in the graduate classroom. My mind was ready. I try to tell my students that their homework (creative or critical), can be useful for more than the grade, too—I want them to think about their education as a narrative they’re building rather than a one-off for 100 points. Then they, too, can reach those unreachable goals—writing a book, becoming a scholar, etc.
We have to announce ourselves to the world, and, in that declaration, we tell those who have refused to hear us that we will be heard. – Ashley M. Jones
Magic City Gospel is based on your experiences as a black woman in the South. Can you speak a bit about why it’s so important for women to share their stories — whether through poetry or prose?
I could speak forever about that. I am a HUGE believer in the power of a story. Marginalized people (women, POC, LGBTQ+, etc.) are often left out of stories or misrepresented in the Great White Male Histories we are taught and surrounded by in our patriarchal, colonial society. Because of this erasure, it is vital that women and other Others tell their unique stories—we have to create space for ourselves and for those who come after us. We have to announce ourselves to the world, and, in that declaration, we tell those who have refused to hear us that we will be heard, and we make connections to other people who feel like their stories aren’t being told. I can still remember how thrilling it was to read the poem “Harriet Tubman” by Eloise Greenfield. I was seven years old, just getting over a fear of black oppression that hit me pretty hard at age three (see my poem “The First Time I Heard About Slavery” in my book), and the prospect of a Black female author singing the praises of a Black female hero set me ablaze like nothing had before. I was affirmed in my little black girl body, and for the thirty seconds or so it took me to recite the piece in my second grade classroom (see my poem “Recitation” published at Connotation Press) was enough to make me feel big, important, beautiful, smart, and all the rest. If that story hadn’t been told, I wouldn’t have had that moment. If Lucille Clifton had never celebrated Black womanness the way she did, I might not have recognized my own magic and my own ability to spin something special with words. These words and stories create something like a mirror: I saw myself staring back, powerful and validated in all the poems and books I love, and I was empowered to create a mirror for other word-loving weird Black girls out there. If one person stumbles across my work and says “I understand that; that speaks to my life,” I’ve done my job.
Do you think that teaching writing (at ASFA and UAB) helps to improve your own writing, too?
YES. Working with students has always fueled my creative life in ways other activities simply cannot. First, there’s the accountability teaching provides you—you’re being trusted to teach students something you know and do (presumably you do it well), and I can’t securely stand in front of any students, telling them to write and explore when I’m not doing it. I want to be some sort of example to them, and I want my writing to be an active practice they can see. Then, there’s the sheer amount of talent you encounter as a teacher—seeing some of the creative and critical work my students come up with absolutely blows my mind and makes me want to take to the page to create something, too. My students laugh out loud at my marginal commentary because it’s often something like “yaaaaaaaaaas line break” or “#done with your brilliance,” but I am honestly amazed by some of the turns of phrase or critical arguments I encounter. But there’s also the joy that teaching brings me that makes me excited to keep doing what I’m doing. I am truly happy interacting with, learning with, and teaching every single student I’m blessed to call mine. That happiness trickles into my poem-making place and makes me want to write. That said, I am often too tired to sit for hours and write, but the desire is a huge part of my practice. If I can store up some warm fuzzies in my teaching and community service, I’ll be ready to bust out a poem when the time comes.
Speaking of community service, do you believe writing can be a form of activism?
Writing is often my form of activism. I think it’s important to be an activist in the best way you can, and for me, including my artform in that activist effort is natural and effective. I’m a huge believer in writing when you have something to say—artists are, after all, history’s most accurate reporters. We read literature to understand the times, and these are my times, so I’m writing to tell how it is and to attempt to understand it. Sometimes people won’t understand an issue until they hear it presented in a poem. Sometimes, the act of standing in a Black body and amplifying the voice society so often tries to take away is powerful, political, and necessary. I write a lot about history (and the present, which will one day be history) because knowing what happened is part of stopping it from happening again. I think it’s sad that some people don’t think writing is an active form of activism—no, sitting at a computer is not the same as standing, walking, shouting at a rally, but writing is also a voice. In Miami, I participated in a poetry protest led by the inimitable Dr. Donna Aza Weir-Soley, and we read poetry—poetry!!!—in protest of the unjust killings of Black men like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. We drew a crowd, we made the news, and we awakened some people. We empowered ourselves, too—that’s part of being an activist, feeling powerful in your own body and in your own voice.
What are some of the best ways a writer can improve her craft?
Well, one of the best ways to improve is to practice. Practice doesn’t just mean sitting at the page and forcing out a bunch of bad poems until you land on a good one. I mean, yes, that’s certainly part of it, but there’s also experiencing the other parts of the craft—going to readings, meeting other writers, taking classes, reading, reading, reading. A lot of writers will say those things—read, go to readings, write, but it’s super important for writers to realize that there is no one-size-fits-all to honing one’s craft. For example, a lot of teachers and writers will just say, plainly, read every day and write every day. But what if that doesn’t’ work for you? Does that make you a bad writer? No! I, personally, have a very short attention span. I have to be doing a lot of things, sometimes things that have nothing to do with writing, in order to stay sane and able to even want to write. So, no, I don’t write every day (gasp!)—not creatively, anyway. Obviously I’m writing lesson plans, PowerPoints, emails, letters of recommendation, random notes, etc, but I’m not forcing myself to write every single day. If I don’t feel like writing, guess what—you will not find me at the computer, weeping into a blank page. If I’m in a writing mood, I’m writing and writing and writing and bugging my mom with all the new poems I’ve written. If I’m stuck, I’ll dive into something else—I’ll binge-watch my favorite telenovelas (La Fea Mas Bella and now Celia!), I’ll listen to music (little known fact—I LOVE music, and I sing along very loudly when I’m not around students), I’ll shop, I’ll cook something, I’ll talk to my mom, I’ll read whatever my super-poetic Facebook Timeline has posted. The point is, honing one’s craft doesn’t always look the same for each writer. It doesn’t have to. And, contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be completely “writing is bae I would never be able to live if I couldn’t write and anyone who comes between me and my books will catch these hands” in order to be a poem-loving, excited about words, can snuggle up with a book and a cup of tea with the best of them kind of person. Practice writing, yes—read books, listen to writers talk about writing, take classes if you can, write (model poems after published authors, free write, try out forms, invent a form, revise work, get lost in language). But, also practice living, because you’ll have no material if you aren’t living your real life and experiencing all of the beautiful non-writing things that life can offer. Now, I hope folks don’t come for me with pitchforks for saying what I said, but I have receipts for my process. It works for me. It gets me results, and I’m a happy writer because I’m living my writing life the way I want to. #sorrynotsorry
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