An Interview by Jennifer Maritza-McCauley
I’ve known Ashley as a friend and writer for some time, and I’ve always admired her generosity, commitment to the craft, activism, and mesmerizing grasp of language. In her newest collection Magic City Gospel, Jones explores the joys, complexities and ghosts of Birmingham, and her experiences as a black woman growing up in Alabama. Jones’s unique voice electrifies, teaches, consoles and motivates readers to action.
Jones is receiving the praise she deserves. Publisher’s Weekly has called Magic City Gospel “…a terrific debut collection, exhibiting pride of place as well as unflinching honesty about the traumas of its historical legacy…” Edwidge Danticat, in The New Yorker, thought Jones’s “carefully crafted, insightful…elegiac words…” was a salve from tumultuous political discourse. Jones was also a finalist in the Hub City Press New Southern Voices Contest, the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award Contest, and the National Poetry Series. She received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award in 2015.
Here, we discuss Jones’s origins as a writer, finding a poetic voice, Southern history and her influences, among other topics.
Our journal is interested in your "origins," i.e. where you’ve come from and where you want to go as a writer and individual. Would you talk a bit about how you became invested in creative writing, and poetry in particular?
My origins…what an interesting question. I think creative writing has always been a part of my life. My mom taught me how to read and write when I was very young (three, I think), and creation and learning were always encouraged in our household. I was reading lots of books and getting excited about art from the beginning. I started writing “books” in second grade—I use quotations because they were handmade with my little drawings, laminated, and tied together with yarn. Our gifted teacher had us to write a lot of those, and I decided, then, that writing and making books was something I really liked. Poetry sort of popped up after that—I recently found a notebook from my 8-year-old self, a “spy journal,” part of my obsession with Harriet the Spy (the book and the movie, because I was pretty militant when it came to reading the book before seeing the movie in those days). In that notebook, alongside spy entries, are poems—rather angsty poems, but poems, nonetheless. In those days, I was pretty into Eloise Greenfield, too—I memorized her poem “Harriet Tubman” for a school project, and I distinctly remember wishing I could talk like the speakers of her poems—they were so sure of themselves, so Black. I wanted to live in that voice.
I wrote poems here and there until 6th grade, when my Language teacher had us write a piece about the morning landscape outside our school. My piece, “Autumn Morning,” was, apparently, good enough for her to suggest that I apply to the Alabama School of Fine Arts (where my older sister already went for visual arts). My mom agreed—she had that poem framed and hanging in our house for way too long—and I applied, and from there, I spent six years studying creative writing, and the rest is sort of history, I guess.
I decided poetry was my bread and butter toward the end of high school—we had to write a senior thesis project, and I modeled mine after Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah—I had a copy of Dove’s selected/collected works that I read and re-read and re-re-read for like two years straight—and I realized that that was how I wanted to tell stories in the world. I wanted to use poetry to say something, and although I wouldn’t really find my grown-up poetic voice until grad school, I was certain that poetry was my medium.
W.E.B Du Bois’s “nation within a nation” came to mind while I was reading Magic City Gospel. You mythologize, complicate and give praise to the African-American community—its legends, its ghosts, its loves and language. You also explore how Birmingham has presently and historically treated black people, while weaving in your own experiences as a black woman growing up in Alabama. What are some of the challenges/advantages to writing about a city that is so close to you, that is culturally rich, but historically fraught?
Goodness, to be in conversation with Du Bois!
I love Birmingham. I love Alabama. I haven’t always felt that way. In fact, as a child and adolescent, I was so sure I’d leave this place and never return. I hated our history, I hated the way racism still bubbled up in my life, in our government. I hated how people expected me to have an accent. I thought of my hometown as backwards. I saw it as a rotting place. But, when I left for grad school, I realized how wrong I had been. How I needed to leave my beautiful home to see its beauty. I needed to see Alabama for all that is, not only the horrors of it. Yes, we have a racist past and present. Yes, we have a long way to go in our business and industrial endeavors. Yes, we have a long way to go in terms of civil rights and acceptance. But, we are also a place of great warmth and beautiful culture. Our history is so very historically fraught—I live in a place where my existence as a Black woman is marked by the murders of four girls at 16th Street Baptist Church. My place as an academic is marked by George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door and by my dad’s (and many others’) experiences integrating our schools. My role as an educator is marked by the highly suspect (read: racist/classist) re-zoning of public schools in my area to exclude Black and Brown students. But that existence is also marked by a Southern culture that, although it was created by a slave trade that is so horrific and ugly and terrifying, is something that makes me who I am and something that I love. I love saying “ya’ll.” I love potato salad and pound cake. I love the hills and trees and lemonade sky of Alabama. I love red dirt and grits and Black church choirs and my southern mother and my southern father, and I love flying back home from a reading or a conference and seeing how green and spacious Alabama is.
So, all of this, these conflicting feelings of anger, shame, pride, and love come to the surface of my writing. I had to make my way to this Southern voice—I didn’t write about myself or my home until I got to grad school, and I realized that this Southern Black identity was what I needed to express. It is my most honest truth, it is my specific and magical experience. I write about our past, which is not pretty, because I firmly believe two things—first, that love must be whole, complete, and it must consider every part of a thing. So for me, loving my hometown and my home state includes a knowledge and a desire to investigate and interrogate our history and all of our failures and setbacks. I can’t step into a classroom without knowing that my parents, grandparents, etc., wouldn’t have been able to learn, much less teach, in a room with mixed races and quality materials and peace of mind (no one is throwing spitballs at me or waiting to beat me for simply darkening their schoolhouse doorway). I can’t step into a voting booth or tell my students to vote if I don’t recognize the violent history of Black voter suppression in my state and many others. I can’t love this city without acknowledging all that it is. Second, I believe it’s impossible to move forward or to progress as a city/state/nation without recognizing the past. All of us carry the past (our own and larger histories) with us every day, in every moment. So, I write about my past and present, because that’s a whole representation of my whole self.
It can be challenging to strike a balance, however, between past and present, and misrepresenting either of them. It can be easy for people to look at Birmingham and say “they did it, they faced racism and racism lost.” Or, “they had bad police and now they don’t. They did it!” Or, “the past was full of church bombings and bad times, only.” These things simply aren’t true. I want to convey, in my work, that there is nuance in everything. Yes, the past was full of bad things, but it was also full of good. Yes, our present doesn’t necessarily look like our past, but that certainly doesn’t mean “racism is over” or that we all exist happily and we’re all integrated and we’re not gentrifying…
One last thing I’ll say re: Birmingham is that I love writing about it and the South because it’s my truth. I tell my students that it’s most important to find your specific voice, find your truth and write about that. I used to think I wasn’t Black enough or that my upbringing was too this and not enough that, but when I just wrote my story, I realized that lots of people identified with me, and that my existence was valid, and that the honesty I brought to the page was ringing true for many readers all across the country. Being specific to your own story creates work that can reach people on a universal level, and that’s what’s most important!
While I was reading Magic City Gospel, I heard the voices of Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks and Audre Lorde. Impressively, your voice is your own, it’s consummately Ashley M. Jones. Would you talk a bit about how you craft voice in individual poems and how you created a cohesive voice in the collection?
That’s a hard question to answer. Finding one’s voice is one of those things that’s almost impossible to explain and articulate. But, the simple answer is that I stay honest. I’ll explain that in a second, but let me also say that it is an extreme HONOR to be thought of in the same sentence as Lucille Clifton (my poetrymother), Gwendolyn Brooks, and Audre Lorde. Like, you don’t even understand. Those are real life idols. They have shown me my own possibility, and they continue to guide me throughout my journey.
Like I said, it’s all about being myself on the page. I want my poems to sound like me, to sound right coming out of my Ashleymouth. So, I approach each piece as a new way to express myself. And I mean that quite literally—each poem is a new way for me to put me on page, as honestly as possible. Even if I’m writing about someone else, or if I’m telling a piece of history, I want to keep the work as close to my own thoughts and feelings as possible. What do I want to communicate to the world about this topic? That’s the question I’m answering in each piece, I think. And, since a lot of the poems in the book were responses to assignments in grad school, I’d approach each prompt by figuring out how Ashley related to that topic. If they asked me to write about love, the Ashley love vault is either going to come up with something about biscuits, my family, Gregory Hines, or the various anti-loves I’ve had. Every piece is a part of me, as corny as that sounds—whatever poem someone encounters should ring true to and of Ashley Michelle Jones.
On that note, are there any writers or artists who were inspirational to you while you were crafting this book?
Well, of course I’m always striving to capture the brilliance and brevity of Lucille Clifton—I’m always inspired by her. I also read a lot of Kevin Young (Dear Darkness and its southern stories and jelly roll’s rhythm and sensuality were particularly inspiring), too. But, as I said, I was in grad school as I wrote this book, so my peers at Florida International University were also super inspiring. Seeing their work each work at the workshop table, hearing my professors talk about poetry, simply living among such artistic geniuses was fuel to my Magic City fire.
I also listen to a lot of music in my daily life, and that was no different as I wrote this book. I listen to music as soon as I wake up (once I press play on my phone, it’s officially time to get ready for work/the day), and I’m always listening to it as I compose poetry. A few artists that were in heavy rotation during composition of the book were John Legend (the Get Lifted Album, because we all know the other ones are less-than-inspiring), Jill Scott, Marc Anthony, Stevie Wonder and like very Motown artist ever, Usher, Sammy Davis Jr., Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, goodness, I can’t even think of everyone. But, music is hugely inspiring for me.
And, now, Celia Cruz is a source of huge inspiration for me. She encourages me to keep writing my own story, confidently. If you haven’t listened to her, please do. And if you don’t speak Spanish (listening to her has improved mine greatly), please look up her lyrics and get them translated. Amazing.
Finally, the artist who inspires me and keeps me writing the most, over all other humans on this earth, is my mom, Jennifer Jones. I read every poem I write to her, and she tells me if it’s good or not. And, if I’m ever stuck—I made many a call to her while I was in Miami, trying to write for an assignment—I just chat with her and she helps me arrive at an idea. I truly have the best mom in all the world, and she is a constant source of support and writerly advice (although she isn’t a writer, but she and my dad have artistic minds) that I really can’t live without.
Throughout Magic City the speaker is interested in “unshackling” the old and breathing life into new aesthetic forms and forgotten histories. In “Spinster” you define and re-define the word “spinster,” in “nem” you discuss the power and drawbacks of colloquialisms, in the poem “The History Books Have Forgotten Horace King” you memorialize a mixed race slave named Horace King whose accomplishments were largely forgotten by black history’s canon. Why is it important to you to find new ways of giving tribute to traditional history or form?
I like finding new ways to write and new ways to see history because I don’t like monotony in any aspect of my life. I like changing my hair, my clothes, my mascara…it only stands to reason that the same would be true in my poetry. My mind is ever-moving and changing, so the way I approach my art is also ever-evolving. And, certain topics or poems beg to be told in different ways, so I have to listen to the material. So, with “nem,” for example, that poem needed to be a dictionary definition form because I was exploring language, its meanings, and I also sought to define what it means to own words, and what those words mean to different people. And, as far as forgotten histories—I think it’s important for us to give voice to those whose voices have been ignored or silenced—as a Black woman, I know what it means for a voice to be diminished by history, the academy, the canon, by men, by the government, etc., and I want to use my art as a microphone of sorts, to let those of us who have been silenced speak, finally.
What’s your favorite poem in the collection and why? What was the poem that you struggled with the most?
That’s a hard question—I love every poem in the book!
My two favorites, or, the two that are jumping to mind right now are “What It Means to Say Sally Hemings” and “How To Make Your Daughters Culturally Aware and Racially Content at Christmastime.” I love the Hemings piece because it is a totally different style for me—I don’t often write in the list format, and this is quite a change from this poem’s original form. It started as a traditional poem, but it was far too moralizing and average, so I stripped it down to just facts in a list, and that gave the piece the power I thought Sally Hemings deserved—a power she didn’t wield in her life. I love reading this poem at readings, too—it makes me feel strong and defiant, like I’m kicking Thomas Jefferson and the white male patriarchy in the you-know-what.
“Christmastime” is a favorite simply because it’s about my family, and anyone who knows me knows how much I love my family. My parents raised us to be proud of our blackness, and to see blackness in everything, even Santa Claus. That poem brings back memories that make me smile, and it, hopefully, shows people that there is a such thing as a black-centric Christmas/childhood/existence.
The poem that was the hardest for me was probably “Birmingham Fire and Rescue Haiku, 1963.” This piece is, as the title suggests, written in haiku form, and although haiku is often hailed as the easiest formal poem, these haiku were more difficult to write than any sestina I’ve ever written. That’s only because I was trapped by the syllable count (which I did on purpose—I wanted to render this 1963 scene in a way that was fresh and distilled to its most important parts to avoid sentimentality and cliché), and I was eager to make a statement without making the same old statements that have already been made about this iconic moment. I have to thank Danez Smith for his editorial eye on this piece—I took it with me to a one-on-one workshop the Ruth Lilly Fellows (of 2015, I think) offered at the Miami Book Fair International, and his suggestions really helped me make the poem better, and that version is what you see in the book. I’m super proud of this piece—it’s everything I wanted it to be.
Carol Hanisch and Audre Lorde discuss this idea that, “the personal is political.” Do you see writing about your life or topics you care about as a “political” act? Do you see yourself as an activist or voice for marginalized communities?
Yes, I’m an activist, on page and in life. First of all, everything I do is political because I exist in a Black body in America. Every piece I write will be seen through that lens, whether I like it or not. I take that responsibility very seriously. No, I don’t think every poem has to fight a huge cause or anything like that, but I do realize the space I occupy in the literary world, in the classroom, and in my community.
I choose to write about political subjects because, as an artist, I feel it’s my job to show what the world is like during my lifetime—that’s what we look for in poets and artists of the past, isn’t it? We study their work in the context of the times in which they lived, and if I’m fortunate enough to be studied years from now, I want my work to reflect the times in which I live. So, I write about real things that are really happening, and those things are often political.
And, goodness, I don’t know if I would say I serve as a voice for marginalized communities. And that’s not because I’m not a marginalized voice—I am. But I hesitate to say I’m “a voice” in the same way that someone much more important than I am might be. I’m still growing and developing, so I’m one voice of many. With that said, I do think my voice is important to people—my students are listening to it, my peers are listening, and my mentors are, too. I’m proud of that, and I’ll keep speaking with heart, honesty, and with a great deal of responsibility.
I love that. Are you working on any new projects?
Yes! I’m writing new poetry right now, and I hope these poems become my second book. One of those poems is published here—it’s about a bell at Morehouse College that is said to have been used not only for official school functions, but also to warn students and faculty of Klan threats. I learned about this bell at the reading series I co-coordinate—the Nitty Gritty Magic City Reading Series in Birmingham, AL. We hosted novelist Gray Stewart earlier this month, and he read from his novel Haylow, which mentions a fictional bell with the same purpose. After doing a little research, I wrote this poem. Many thanks to Origins for sharing it with the world!
And, folks can always find out what I’m doing at my website, ashleymichellejones.wordpress.com, or by following my public Facebook page.