“I spend my days living, thinking, doing the poem stuff off the page, and when it’s time, I take to the page and do the work.”
Magic City Gospel (Hub City Press, 2017)
dark / / thing (Pleiades Press, 2019)
Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?
I’ve been writing for a very long time—when I was growing up, my mom stayed at home with me and my siblings, and we were steered, quite deliberately, toward reading, writing, and art. I remember what a fun day was like when I was three years old—after dropping older sister off at school, we’d come back and I’d watch PBS while Mom did whatever moms do in the morning. Mr. Rogers and Big Bird and Arthur were my friends—they taught me how to read, write, and be kind; then, after breakfast, Mom would show me how to do something. Maybe it was tying my shoes. Maybe it was writing my name. Maybe it was reading. Then, for playtime, I’d either do something artistic (Mom would make us homemade PlayDoh, or I’d color or draw), or I would read.
As I grew older, I kept reading, but when I went to school, writing became a part of my regular life. We had to write our own books and publish (read: laminate) them for school projects very regularly at EPIC Elementary School in Birmingham, AL. Back then, I wanted to be a writer of novels, but I eventually landed on the shores of PoetryLand (that’s Campbell McGrath’s term, not mine) and haven’t looked back. I attended the Alabama School of Fine Arts as a Creative Writing Major from 7-12th grade, and I went on to major in English with a Creative Writing Concentration at UAB (the University of Alabama at Birmingham). My undergraduate thesis director and good friend Jim Braziel encouraged me to apply to MFA programs, and I ended up at Florida International University on a Knight Fellowship, and, well, here I am! Teaching and writing for a living.
How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?
That’s actually a hard question to answer, as I write in so many different places. What I’m about to say is in no way meant to create a hierarchy of writing styles or practices—I don’t believe in hierarchies in any facet of my life, and certainly not hierarchies that continue to serve a patriarchal, my-way-or-the-highway view of art. There is no one size fits all for anything—certainly not art. I write wherever I can—sometimes that means I write at my desk at home, on a pad of paper while I’m sitting on the couch, as a dictation to Siri while I’m driving, on a scrap of paper while I’m at dinner or at a reading. So, the way the space is decorated has a lot less to do with my process than the space I create in my mind to let the poetry happen when it’s time for it to happen. I don’t write poetry every day—that’s never been my process. I spend my days living, thinking, doing the poem stuff off the page, and when it’s time, I take to the page and do the work.
Could you share a representative poem from your book? Perhaps a poem that introduces the work of the book, or that invites the reader into the world of the book?
Representative poem…hmmm, from MCG, I’d say “On Martin Luther King Day, a Noose is Hung on a Tree in Blount County,” and from DT, “Xylography” or maybe “Dark Water.”
Why did you choose these poems?
I tried to choose poems that reflect the nature of each book—MCG is a book about home and history, and I wanted to choose a poem that seemed to bridge the two. “On Martin Luther King Day, A Noose is Hung on a Tree in Blount County” is a golden shovel variation (using end words only, not the full poem) after Lucille Clifton’s “what the mirror said,” which is my favorite poem (and she’s my favorite poet). I needed her guidance through this piece because the situation was so horrific—my good friends Tina and Jim Braziel told me this story about their former neighbor’s disgusting method of commemorating Martin Luther King Day, and I felt the full weight of this racist act, so I needed backup. What better backup than my favorite poem by my favorite poet? What better support than a poem which tells me, despite what people might do or say, that I’m “some damn body!”
“Xylography” is one of my favorite poems I’ve written, despite its sadness. I wanted to use a nontraditional form to illustrate the facts—the disproportionate number of lynchings of white vs. Black people was best shown, I thought, in a graphic form. This is representative of the second book, and really of my whole project when I write poetry, because it uses form to support content, and it’s telling a story which could be easily obscured by the white patriarchal history we’re taught and told. “Dark Water” is similar—it uses the ghazal form to highlight the idea of the body as it relates to darkness/ otherness/ worthiness to live.
What obsessions led you to write your book?
I’m eternally obsessed with Black people, the South, religion, women, and history, and that has manifested itself prominently in both of my books. Both of them are primarily focused on telling stories of Black women, Black people, and me—a Black Southern woman.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
I actually don’t know if I can confidently identify a misfit—each poem has a purpose, and each poem contributes to the multifaceted story I’m trying to tell. I’m Black, yes, and I’m very concerned with Black liberation in America, but I also think about collard greens and boys I like and music and and and and–
Did you have any rituals while writing these poems? What were you listening to when you wrote these poems?
So, as I’ve said, my writing process is pretty sporadic, but one thing that remains true for most of my writing sessions is that I try to listen to music. The type of music varies depending on what I need, emotionally, for a poem. When writing the poems about my grandmother, I listened to gospel music—my favorite of all time is “I Won’t Complain” by Rev. Paul Jones, but I also remember listening to “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” by PJ Morton, which isn’t technically a gospel song, but it has a certain sound and message of encouragement that I really needed while I wrote about her and grieved her passing. Other times, I just put on whatever music I’m loving at the moment and that’s what I write to. If you want a sort of top ten songs of the moment, I’m happy to give it.
I’d like that! What are they?
1. K.R.I.T. HERE – Big KRIT
2. Bad Idea (feat. Chance the Rapper) – YBN Cordae
3. Vehemence – Thad Saajid
4. Lord is Coming – H.E.R.
5. Say So – PJ Morton & Jojo
6. Not Just Knee Deep – Funkadelic
7. Playground – Steve Lacy
8. Riverside – Kirk Franklin & the Nu Nation Project
9. Black Man – Stevie Wonder (and, who are we kidding, the whole Songs in the Key of Life album)
10. Enough – Fantasia
Bonus: Yesterday (Donny Hathaway’s version)
BonusBonus: Simply Beautiful – Al Green
What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?
I have been so very fortunate in my editorial and production experiences so far. Both presses I’ve worked with have been so supportive and careful with my work, and I’ve only worked with female editors and publishers, which is such a gift. I don’t feel like I have to “prove” myself or defer to a loud male voice. Hub City and Pleiades have involved me very heavily with the editing process, and both have been so very transparent with each step toward publication. I was able to approve cover images for both books—I didn’t have an artist or even really a specific image in mind for either cover. I had a feeling about how the book should look, and I was able to convey that to both presses, and they supplied me with choices of cover art. I’m absolutely in in love with the art on both books—and they’re both pieces by Black artists! Really a dream. And, both books are in Garamond! My favorite font! And I didn’t even have to ask for it.
What question do you wish you would have been asked about your book? How would you answer it?
Maybe I would want to answer: what are you afraid of? And my answer: I’m afraid people will misunderstand me. I’m afraid people will write me off as “just another political poet.” I’m afraid of a world in which political poetry isn’t always seen as valuable. I’m afraid people will learn things about me that change how they view me. I’m afraid to be viewed as a flat, static being. I’m afraid to not be seen as all that I am.
What are you working on now?
Another book! I’m trying to write more about love/lack thereof and the experience of being a woman. It’s a little scary—I already write about very emotionally charged and difficult topics, but there’s still a level of separation. When I write about my actual body, my actual heart, it gets a little close. People can actually see my face when they read the poem. It’s a vulnerable place, but I think it’s so valuable, especially if I’m committed to the liberation of my people. Our full humanity has to exist, always, if we are to ever be able to live without the white patriarchy devaluing our lives and stealing every avenue we have for joy.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, etc.) what would it be and why?
I. Would. Be. A. Tap. Dancer. Period. Not only because Gregory Hines is my #1 imaginary husband or because Sammy Davis, Jr is my #2 or because Savion Glover is #3, but because I’ve always loved dancing, and tap is such an amazing form of it. I am in tap classes now, and I can honestly say that tap dancing is one of the greatest creative releases next to writing. Who knew so much life could live in an ankle? In the steel-bottomed ball of my foot?
How has your writing and writing practice evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?
As I’ve grown older, the biggest habit I’ve dropped is caring about what “real” poetry talks about. I say what I want to say, what I have to say. I don’t think about the canon (because I don’t believe in it—it was created to edge out so many of us). What I do focus on is the truth and my own creative expression. I focus on the joy I feel when I find a new way to say something, or when I’m able to recreate my exact feeling or exactly what I saw in words. I’m much more trusting of Ashley’s voice. I care what she has to say and I want her to say it, always.
dark / / thing examines racial trauma in America from the nineteenth century to today. How does the order of poems in the book add to or complicate its historical narrative?
It’s actually very similar, the ordering strategy, to the first book. In both books, in all my work, I’m very concerned with the interplay of past, present, and future. It’s easy, and it’s safe to say that history moves in one direction, that our past is always our past and never a part of our present or future. It’s safe to be able to say, “slavery is over, so it will stay frozen in 1865.” But what’s harder, what’s more true, is that history is always at play, that we’re always struggling with the same issues. I may not be enslaved in America in 2019, but the effects of slavery, the systems that were set up, the attitudes that were established, are all still very real in my life and in the reality of our country. In my book, there isn’t a chronology, and that’s intentional. Sometimes, work is organized by theme, which means histories can be crossed and arranged out of chronological order. Sometimes, I arrange according to feeling or mood–and sometimes, I’ll put a poem in place to serve as a dismount/breather from another poem.
Religious themes show up in dark / / thing multiple times, often in relation to the body. Is there a connection between the physical and the divine that you could say more about?
In my life, yes, there is a connection between the physical and the divine. In my life, God shows up in everything–I find that connection on a constant basis. I don’t think it’s useful for me to spell out all my specific religious beliefs, but I’ll say: for me, in my life, all my life, the presence of God has been real. In poetry, in my grandmother’s laugh, in the vegetables my dad grows in the backyard, in the way a student discovers her own magic, in the still Alabama morning. I find it hard to survive the world without finding the ways in which God cuts through all the mundane and murderous things in this world. And yes, that connection also exists between my own body and the divine. There’s something glowing inside of me–the will to keep living, the drive to do good by the world and its people–there’s plenty of divine in that. I’m glad to know that it’s showing up in my poems, too–poetry is part of my effort to connect to God, too.
What are your techniques for weaving personal experience with history and culture? Does the form of a poem influence the perspective you use?
I guess my weaving technique has a lot to do with how I view history/ culture/ personal experience–as I said before, I think history is always at play. I often say that we all carry histories with us, always, and that is true in the poem, too. For example, in the poem “Uncle Remus Syrup Commemorative Lynching Postcard #25” I have created a history based on historical fact. I knew that the facts about lynching and lynching postcards would be easy to ignore as “bygone” if I didn’t add a beating heart to it. Or if I didn’t use the form to convey the big, real, ever-present hurt of this practice in the past and present (also see “Xylography”). So, I created a more personal story–personal, not in that it’s my personal story, but personal in that it takes abstract factual information and makes it have skin, blood, teeth. It’s also true that I do the same sort of blending with my own personal histories and larger histories–I guess the real key is that each poem needs to have a heartbeat, something with which the reader can relate on a human level.
The form of a poem absolutely impacts the poem and the poem’s perspective–using those same two examples, Uncle Remus and Xylography, you can clearly see that the form does a lot of work in the poem. It isn’t a background element. Instead, the form works, I think, equally, with the content. With “Uncle Remus,” the form is working in two ways–there’s the shape of it, for one. It’s a prose poem, in a block form, reflecting the shape of a postcard. The repetitive nature of the text creates an inescapable picture show (pun intended–pictures just like the photographs of lynchings) of horrors. In “Xylography,” I wanted to present the facts in a way that would show, visually, the disparity between the number of white lynchings vs. black lynchings in the US. The bar graph format seemed perfect for that, and the footnotes allowed me to create those personal stories based on the facts.
You have a gift for ending your poems on brutally poignant notes. One of my favorites is the end of “Who Will Survive in America”: “but not even our spectacular, crystalline glitter makes it easier / for them to believe that we have any inalienable right to breathe.” Do you even begin with the end of a poem in mind, or do you find that the writing process guides you to the right ending?
Thank you–that’s really kind of you to say. My favorite poems eviscerate me with their ending lines, and it is something I strive for in my own work. As far as how the endings come about, it depends–sometimes, I do have an ending already in mind. Other times, I only have a line in mind, and I’m not sure where it goes–I have to construct the puzzle/poem around it. Other times, I see the whole shape of the poem at once, and I have to quickly write what I can see the clearest (beginning and end, usually), then fill in the rest.
The last poem of dark / / thing, “Think of a Marvelous Thing / It’s the Same as Having Wings,” reminds me of rap and Peter Pan. What are your intentions behind correlating these cultural objects?
I still distinctly remember writing this poem–I was sitting outside my sister’s job one night, waiting to take her home after a long night of working on the newspaper. Her office was right across from a housing project, which matters because the poem considers this Black man riding a bike and how his life is so very different than Peter Pan’s or a white young person’s. As I sat there, this Black man came speeding down the street on his bike, his shirt billowing that beautiful balloon that lets you know he’s at bike-flight speed. You know the feeling, like nothing can touch you, nothing can ever go wrong or hurt you as long as there’s more road and breath in your lungs to fuel the pedals. When he disappeared at the end of the street, it occurred to me that no matter how marvelous those wings are, this world will always find a way to clip them, especially if you’re Black.
Do you want the reader to go through a process of finding hope for America’s future in dark / / thing, or be left unsatisfied with the slow progression of American values? Or both?
Definitely both. As a marginalized American, my entire existence is that balance of hope and unsatisfaction. We can’t make change if we aren’t hopeful, but that hope, I think, should be rooted in a deep dissatisfaction for the status quo, and a desire to make hope a tangible thing, finally. I want the reader to learn and feel and yell and cry and at the end, realize that these stories are all true, that they don’t have to keep happening if we would begin by acknowledging them and affirm that our country was built on this horror.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
I would tell any student or any non-student interested in creative writing to work on her relationship with herself. Hearing your own poetic voice is so much of the journey when you’re just starting out. It will take time, and there will be moments where you feel like you just don’t know who you are on the page, but that’s why we expose ourselves to so many kinds of writing. That’s why we join writing groups or writing programs—to meet other writers in person and on page, and those writers and pieces of writing will be, as my dear friend, Dr. Lisa Nikolidakis says, “a door or a mirror.” The doors might not be pieces of writing we love, but they will lead us somewhere. The mirrors validate what we are and they help us hear that faint inner voice, reaching for the surface.
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
I wish I had been told, when I was younger, that there is no one way or right way to be a writer. We all have different processes, and that’s okay. If you don’t write every day, that’s fine. If you do, that’s fine. If you read 10,000 books a year, fantastic. If you closely read 3 books a year, fine. If you work in academia, great. If you don’t, that’s fine, too.
Whose work helped you write this book? What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
Life inspires me. My work can’t exist if I’m not participating in the world. I can’t simply muse on a leaf, I have to encounter the leaf in real life and the leaf may lead me to a memory or a question or a problem or an epiphany about myself or my society. I’m inspired by the conversation that all art really is—I want to be in community, in conversation, with others, and writing is my way to do that.
Ashley M. Jones received an MFA in Poetry from Florida International University. Her debut poetry collection, Magic City Gospel, was published by Hub City Press in January 2017, and it won the silver medal in poetry in the 2017 Independent Publishers Book Awards. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in many journals and anthologies, including the Academy of American Poets, Tupelo Quarterly, Prelude, Steel Toe Review, The Sun, Poets Respond to Race Anthology, and The Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy. She received a 2015 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and a 2015 B-Metro Magazine Fusion Award. Her second collection, dark / / thing, won the 2018 Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry from Pleiades Press. She currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama, where she is Second Vice President of the Alabama Writers’ Conclave, founding director of the Magic City Poetry Festival, and a faculty member in the Creative Writing Department of the Alabama School of Fine Arts.