Ashley Jones named Alabama’s first black poet laureate
Alabama has named its very first Black Poet Laureate. Ashley Jones will also be the youngest recipient to date at 31. The Birmingham native has published three collections of poems in the past five years.
“When I read a poem, for example, about George Wallace or the civil rights movement, or even the Black Lives Matter movement of today, the poem itself, the art form, sometimes gives listeners a different door to go through to get to what I’m saying, ”Jones said.
More than anything, she believes in the power of words.
“If I were to just stand up and recite the story, people could always hold on more strongly to their own prejudices or beliefs. But if I come with art first, it sometimes opens people up to it. ‘a way that they can actually have a conversation and listen to someone else’s experience. I think that’s crucial for Alabama if we’re really going to consider our place in history and where we are going, ”she said.
Jones said his relationship with Alabama has evolved over the years.
“I think a lot of us growing up here have some kind of love-hate relationship with the South. It wasn’t until I went to Miami to do my graduate school that I realized, wait a minute, I love the South. I love Alabama, “she said.” I realized that loving a place doesn’t mean I ignore the things that are wrong. I certainly wouldn’t be the poet I am without being from Alabama.
This love-hate relationship is reflected in Jones’ writing. Below is an excerpt from his poem “All Y’all Really From Alabama”.
this is the birthplace of this nation here – everywhere you look the roots go straight south. every vein filled with red dirt, blood, cotton. us the swear word you spit out of your mouth. mason dixon is an imagined line – you can theorize it, or wish it real, but it’s the same old ghost – transparent, benign. all of you from Alabama; we spin the cotton wheel to move the nation. we the scapegoat in a country built from death. no longitude or latitude refutes the truth of the founding fathers’ sacred oath: we hold these truths like snuff in our jaws, black oppression is no accident; it’s the law.
Ashley Jones, “All from Alabama”
Despite the state’s fragile civil rights history, the poet has a clear interest in the history and future of Alabama.
Kwoya Fagin Maples is a close friend and collaborator of Ashley Jones.
“I would describe his writing style as always intentional,” she said. “It’s immediate in terms of impact and it’s always evocative and it’s always very tight to look at it on the page. You always think to yourself, ‘How did she do that?’”
Fagin Maples and Jones met while teaching at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham. Faculty and staff call it ASFA for short. Maples said Jones is a true servant leader.
“He’s a very nice person. He’s the kind of person who shows up. She works tirelessly. Sometimes she works a little too much, ”said Fagin Maples. “She’s the kind of person who, once she decides on something, she does it, but she also helps people achieve their own goals and dreams.
Jones’ students agree. Katy Hargett was Jones’ student for four years at ASFA.
“Ashley really empowers us to be the best poets and the best writers we can be. She helps us engage with texts in a really new and refreshing way. She also really makes you believe in yourself. as a poet, ”Hargett said.
Jones is an organizer as well as a teacher. She established the Magic City Poetry Festival in 2018. The annual celebration of Birmingham-born literature and art has grown in leaps and bounds since then. Jacqueline Trimble, poet and professor at Alabama State University, spoke at the inaugural Magic City Poetry Festival.
“She had everything from poetry reading, poetry slams, public chats in all these different places around Birmingham. I thought, ‘This is amazing!’ And then the fact that she got funding and got membership from Pen America was, to me, amazing, ”Trimble said. “It’s very difficult not only to get an audience, but also to get financial support for it. In her very first year she did this amazing job and it has only grown bigger every year since.
Jones returned to Alabama after earning his Masters in Creative Writing from Florida International University. Despite being Alabama’s youngest poet laureate, her supporters say her experience with events like the Magic City Poetry Festival makes her well-suited for the job.
These supporters include Jacqueline Trimble. She was part of the selection committee for the new poet laureate. Trimble thinks Jones is the perfect fit.
“Ashley’s ability to champion writers of all races, ethnicities and religions, and to make connections statewide,” she said. “Because she knows everyone. She kind of knows everyone from Huntsville to Mobile and everyone in between and she sees the beauty of their work. I think that’s what a poet laureate. A poet laureate has to express the best of writing life in their state, and I think Ashley always has.
Jones’s appointment is also historic. She will be the very first black poet laureate and the youngest to fill this role. Fagin Maples said he was presenting Alabama’s progress in recent years.
“I think it’s wonderful for Alabama – for the rest of the country to see who Alabama worships and promotes – being a black woman is just a fantastic thing,” she said. Racism exists all over this country. Alabama is kind of put in that box a lot of times, but in terms of the message it sends to the rest of our country, it makes it a safer place for other people. of color, the fact that she is a poet laureate. “
Jones began writing poetry at the age of 7. She hasn’t stopped since. For her, poetry is everything.
“Poetry is so much bigger than a simple classroom. It’s so much bigger than a simple stage. It’s really about the people who love it and write it. I hope to be able to do this job in my four years, ”she said.
Jones hopes to champion all forms of creativity as the Poet Laureate. She says art is the root of empathy.
“Poet Audre Lorde famously said that poetry is not a luxury. If you’re human, you need poetry, ”Jones said. “And by poetry, she didn’t mean just what’s on the page. It means this invigorating power which is in each of us, this desire to create.
Jones will officially become Alabama’s new Poet Laureate later this year. It will serve the state until 2026.