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How Ashley M. Jones Became the Most Influential Poet in Alabama

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Ashley Jones, in downtown Birmingham's Railroad Park, with her most recently published book, REPARATIONS NOW! (Amarr Croskey, For The Birmingham Times)
By Javacia Harris Bowser
For The Birmingham Times

At the center of all she does from serving as founding director of the Magic City Poetry Festival to teaching creative writing at the Alabama School of Fine Arts (ASFA) and holding numerous other board positions, the mission remains simple for Birmingham’s Ashley M. Jones—make poetry accessible to all.

“For too long, poetry has been deemed a purely academic pursuit, and it has been kept behind an ivory gate, but where the heartbeat of poetry has always lived is in the souls of poets,” Jones said. “I hope to celebrate that soul-work for the next four years and beyond.”

Last month, Jones made history when she was named the first Black Poet Laureate for the state of Alabama. Jones, 31, will also be the youngest person to ever hold the post, which officially begins for her in 2022 and will last until 2026.

“Poetry is, as [writer and activist] Audre Lorde told us, that quality of life we need for our survival,” Jones said. “This light, this way of making connection and meaning in this ever-darkening world is so necessary for every human.”

Since being named Poet Laureate, Jones has been fielding interviews from local and national media nearly every day.

“It’s dawning on me the bigness of all this,” Jones said in an interview with The Birmingham Times. “It’s so easy to just say, ‘I’m doing this. Check,’ and keep working. But I’ve been forcing myself to stop and understand what this really means not just to me, not just to Alabama, but I think for the country.”

Making Plans

As Alabama’s Poet Laureate, Jones is already making plans.

Along with continuing the work she does with the Magic City Poetry Festival and the Birmingham chapter of PEN America, an organization dedicated to promoting and protecting freedom of expression through the literary and media arts, Jones hopes to partner with libraries across Alabama to develop programs that encourage people to read and write poetry. She plans to do readings, teach workshops, and visit schools. In addition, she intends to seek funding from the Academy of American Poets that will allow her to create more paid opportunities for Alabama poets.

“[Jones] is the rising tide that floats all boats in the Birmingham poetry community,” said Alabama-based poet Tina Mozelle Braziel. “And she works like water filling every space with support.”

Just two weeks after Jones was tapped to be Alabama’s next Poet Laureate, she released her third collection of poetry, “REPARATIONS NOW!”

Jones considers her latest book her strongest and most authentic work.

“I think this book is different because I feel more fully realized. I felt like I was really myself. With this book I felt a little more uninhibited,” she said. “I wasn’t trying to prove anything to anybody.”

Her goal was to convey a simple message: “Reclaiming my time,” said Jones, noting that this phrase from U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., has become an anthem and rallying cry for many since 2017.

“When I say reparations, I don’t only mean it in the political sense, but I also mean other opportunities for repair in our interpersonal relationships or things that we’ve been through,” Jones said. “I’m trying to repair those things, heal, and reclaim those parts of myself that I think have been stolen or lost in some way.”

“REPARATIONS NOW!” covers a wide range of subject matter. While some poems delve into the horrors of lynching and police violence, others celebrate family, music, and spirituality. Some pieces demonstrate society’s demonization of Black women, while others remind readers that “It Is Entirely Possible For A Black Girl To Be Loved”—by others, by God, by herself.

Jones has also used poetry to repair her relationship with Birmingham. Her first book, “Magic City Gospel,” was a love letter to the city that also called out it’s dark history of racism and violence. Jones said it took leaving Birmingham to learn how to love it. When she went to Florida International University for graduate school, she realized how much she loved Alabama. So, after getting her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in poetry, she returned home.

“When you love something or someone or someplace, you have to love them completely, which means you love them enough to tell them where they’re wrong and you try to help them to fix that thing that is wrong,” she said.

“How She Was Raised”

Jones has been planning to live the life of a poet since she was a child growing up in the Birmingham-area neighborhoods of Midfield and Roebuck. Her parents encouraged her and her three siblings to be creative. She recalls even being allowed to draw of mural of the fictional town of Bedrock on her bedroom wall when she and her siblings loved “The Flintstones” cartoon

“I was so lucky to have the best parents anyone could ever have,” Jones said. “From the very beginning, they just let us be ourselves.”

Today her brother Julian, 23, is studying sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), sings in concert choir in his free time, and never misses one of Jones’s readings. Her younger sister Jasmine, 27, enjoys writing and visual art and is currently studying curriculum design at UAB; Jones calls her “effortlessly cool.” And her older sister Monique, 32, is also making waves in the writing world: She’s a news editor for the TV and cinema website Shadow and Act, a contributing editorial writer at Netflix, and the author of “The Book of Awesome Black Americans.”

“People are often surprised to hear that I’ve dreamed of being a writer since I was so little, but it’s because I was never told that I shouldn’t,” Jones said.

After attending the EPIC Elementary School and W.J. Christian Middle School, Jones was accepted into ASFA’s Creative Writing program in 2002 for her seventh-grade year. Soon thereafter, she learned that Toni Morrison—one of her favorite writers—was a Nobel Laureate, so Jones added that to her list of goals. She also knew then she wanted one day to be the Poet Laureate for Alabama and eventually for the United States.

“Ashley has always been an old soul, even as a seventh grader,” said TJ Beitelman, chair of the Creative Writing department at ASFA and current president of the Alabama Writers Cooperative (AWC), the organization that selected Jones for the Poet Laureate post. “It’s no surprise to me that, at such a young age, she is taking such a prominent role in shaping the cultural moment in our city, our state, and beyond. She’s always had a sense of purpose that is larger than her individual self. That’s just how she was raised.”

Along with cultivating creativity, Jones’s parents also encouraged their children to help others. When Jones’s father, Midfield Fire Chief Donald Jones, died unexpectedly in April, Jones and her family turned the tragedy into an opportunity to serve. Through the Magic City Poetry Festival and with donations from people across the country, the family established the Chief Donald Lewis Jones Memorial Scholarship.

“My dad’s mission in life was to help everybody, so that’s what we’re doing,” Jones said.

Myra Grizzard, one of Jones’s former students and a recent ASFA graduate, was the first recipient of the prize.

“Receiving the Chief Jones Memorial Scholarship meant the absolute world to me,” Grizzard said. “Similar to Ms. Jones, I had lost my father last school year, so receiving this scholarship made me feel like I had two legacies to carry out.”

“Literary Arts Advocate”

As Alabama’s Poet Laureate, Jones has proven more than qualified. She received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award in 2015. Her debut poetry collection, “Magic City Gospel,” was published by Hub City Press in 2017 and won the silver medal in poetry at 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 also is a recipient of a Poetry Fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts, as well as a host of other awards.

Jones isn’t only busy writing her own poetry, but she works tirelessly to inspire others to write poetry, too. She’s founding director of the Magic City Poetry Festival, a board member of the AWC and the Alabama Writers Forum, and co-director of the Birmingham chapter of PEN America. She also recently served as a guest editor for Poetry magazine and has written an editorial for CNN about the importance of poetry.

And none of those are her day job.

Jones is a faculty member in ASFA’s Creative Writing department and a member of the Core Faculty at the Converse College Low Residency MFA Program. She’s also taught classes at UAB, her alma mater.

“It’s no stretch to say that [Jones] is the most dynamic poet and literary arts advocate working in the state today,” said Beitelman, who’s had the opportunity to be both a teacher and a colleague of Jones.

“She’s everywhere, all the time, doing everything she can to promote Alabama writers and their writing,” Beitelman added. “And she’s not bound by the state’s borders. Her recent work as a guest editor with Poetry magazine is a case-in-point—she’s used that platform to gain a wider audience for Alabama poets like Jackie Trimble, Jennifer Horne, and many others. I know the Poet Laureate selection committee was very impressed with that, as well as with the high quality of her own work.”

Jones’s appointment means a lot for other Black poets in the state, including Kwoya Fagin Maples, author of the award-winning poetry collection “MEND.”

“Frankly, it renews my hope for this state and for this country,” Maples said.

Poetry for the People

Jones’s mission to make poetry more accessible motivated her to create the Magic City Poetry Festival. Since 2018, the festival has hosted poetry readings, workshops, and panel discussions, among other activities. Her mission also drives her work with PEN America. And as a board member of the AWC, one of her goals has been to fuel the organization’s efforts to welcome and serve a more diverse group of writers.

“[Jones] readily agreed to serve on the board of the AWC and quietly went about transforming poetry in Birmingham, sweeping us all up in her wake,” said T.K. Thorne, immediate past president of the AWC.

But Jones also views her teaching career as another way to make poetry more accessible.

“Sometimes the first time where our dreams are erased or pulled out from under us is in a classroom,” she said. “The teacher holds so much power. We really can change the course of somebody’s life based on what we say, what we teach them, what we show them.”

That’s why each academic year, Jones builds a syllabus of diverse authors for her students.

“I see teaching as a great opportunity to provide access to students and show them that you can be whatever you want to be, no matter who you are,” Jones said. “You can be yourself and be the things you want to be at the same time.”

Grizzard credits Jones with giving her the courage to use writing as a form of activism.

“Ms. Jones was the main reason I ever started writing about the issues I’ve faced as a member of many marginalized communities,” Grizzard said. “She taught me how to be proud of myself as not just a poet but also as a person of color. She always pushed me to be open and vulnerable in my writing, and I will forever be thankful for the impact she’s had on me.”

Maples, a former member of the Creative Writing faculty at ASFA, said Jones has a knack for being able to cultivate a love of writing in almost anyone.

“I’ve seen Ashley teach seventh graders poetry, and I’ve seen her give conference presentations to professional writers,” Maples said. “As a teacher, [Jones] took the time to get to know her students’ writing. They absolutely trusted her.”

To learn more about Ashley M. Jones, visit ashleymjonespoetry.com, or follow her on Instagram @cityofawoman, on Facebook at facebook.com/PoetAshleyMJones, and on Twitter @ashberry813.

Elements of Style

Poetry isn’t the only thing Ashley M. Jones is known for. The 31-year-old who was recently selected to be Alabama’s next Poet Laureate, making her the first Black person and the youngest person to hold the position, is also a style maven.

Jones has had a love of fashion since she was a child. When she wasn’t writing, she was often mixing and matching outfits for her Barbie dolls. Eventually, she decided to use her fashion sense to make a style statement of her own.

On her Instagram account @cityofawoman — a name inspired by a line from a poem by Lucille Clifton, one of Jones’s favorite poets — Jones often posts eye-catching outfit of the day pictures. From hats and headwraps to flowy dresses and wide-legged trousers, Jones posts often look as if they belong on a fashion blog or even in a fashion magazine.

Just as Jones, a University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) graduate, uses her poetry to educate and empower, her outfit posts serve a greater purpose, too.

“I went through some issues with self-esteem during my adolescent years,” said Jones, who attended Florida International University for graduate school. While being away from home helped her learn to love Alabama, those transformative years also taught Jones to love herself, and she started using fashion to nurture that self-love.

“I decided, ‘I’m going to make myself look great every single day, and that’s going to be what motivates me to not fall back into those patterns of negative self-talk,’” Jones said.

And she continues the practice today with her outfit posts.

“People think I’m posting just to be cute on Instagram, but I’m getting dressed so I can feel good, and I’m posting the picture so I can celebrate being alive,” she said. “I hope it makes others feel like they can celebrate themselves, too.”

To learn more about Ashley M. Jones, visit ashleymjonespoetry.com, or follow her on Instagram @cityofawoman, on Facebook at facebook.com/PoetAshleyMJones, and on Twitter @ashberry813.