Rachel Nix Interviews Guest Editor Ashley M. Jones

Rachel Nix: Thank you so much for joining us for this issue, Ashley. The idea behind ‘Witness’ was completely yours; what about this prompt nudged you to set this word into a call for art?

Ashley M. Jones: I’m so ready to answer this question! So, about the time I got the email asking me to guest edit, I had just read (and I can’t remember which friend steered me toward this story, so if you’re out there, writer friend who gave me this amazing suggestion—thank you!) James Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man,” which is a remarkable short story that explains the complicated nature of racism and the body and sexualized racism and and and and—and after reading this story, I couldn’t stop thinking about witness, and how that story shows a rather unconventional perspective (it’s from the perspective of the racist lawman of a town), but it highlights the importance of witness in life and literature. The views that character has about Black people are a direct result of never having seen a Black person as a human being.

It’s also the result of what this character witnessed as a child—witness can mean many things. It can mean witnessing your parents discriminate against others by burning a cross or crossing to the other side of the street when they see a Black man walking their way. Witness can mean telling the story of your people—it means when I write about my Black experience and about the history of this nation. All of that is witness and witnessing (by which I mean seeing and reporting) is what starts these very important conversations that we need to have in order to make real change in our society. All of that to say—I wanted to encourage the publication of work that does witnessing work—sometimes literary folks like to think of writing as only an escape from the real world, but I like to think that it is also a way to deal, directly, with the real world. I wanted to see works that made a conscious effort to see and think about what is seen and experienced.

RN: Congratulations on the release of dark / / thing, your second book which is already racking up some incredible praise! Would you tell us about the collection—your aim for it and the inspiration behind it?

AJ: I’m so excited about this book! I’m so proud of the work I was able to write, and how the work still makes me feel when I read it aloud. I think I’m really just settling into a writing practice that privileges my creativity and imagination over anything else—that is, I’m not looking over my shoulder and wondering if this will be seen as “good,” if it’s too weird, if I need to hide behind my words a little more—I’m writing what my brain creates, thinking through things I want to think through, and drinking in inspiration from older writers, contemporary writers, and any poems or non-poetry forms I come across.

My aim for dark / / thing is to tell the truth. Just like MCG, it is vital to me as a writer/educator/activist that we keep telling the truth truth truth. I want to talk about my own experience as a Black woman from the South, a non-traditional, liberal Christian in the very traditional South, a girl who can never quite seem to find the right guy, a Black person who lives in constant rage, fear, confusion, and frustration with white supremacy, as a Black person who is immovably proud of her history, her people, her family, her God, her little life carved out from all this foolishness we call America, 2019. I want this book to shock you. I want it to educate you. I want it to inspire you. I want it to bring light.

RN: Magic City Gospel, your first book of poetry, may have been my favorite release of 2017. The collection is considered a love song to Birmingham: a place of history and harm, but also of warmth and character—with your work focusing on how you grew up as a young black woman in all of those ingredients. What led you to write this collection?

AJ: Simply put, this collection came out of a profound homesickness. When I wrote this collection, I had started the Master of Fine Arts Program at Florida International University, which is in Miami. Up until that point, I had never lived away from Birmingham. I had only been away from my family for maybe a week at most. I was 21 years old and was (still am) a tee totaling, rule-following, mom and dad loving, home before the street lights come on kind of girl. To go from that to Miami, which is, to say it nicely, a city that never sleeps, and certainly never sleeps politely, was a huge transition. I had to learn a lot about taking care of myself, about being an adult, and about how to be a writer outside of Birmingham and my safe circle of home. It was one of the hardest times in my life, but it was also one of the very best times I’ve ever had. All of this—the homesickness, the self-discovery, the amazing (and individuality-focused) instruction of the professors at FIU—led to MCG. I missed home so I wrote it on the page—every poetry assignment (heck, even the fiction and nonfiction ones) brought me back to what I knew and what I wanted back: my home, my history, that Alabama air. I discovered my love for Birmingham and for Alabama by immersing myself in a culture that was totally different, totally the antithesis of what I had always known. I realized that my home wasn’t something to run away from, screaming, but something to run to, knowing that I might be running, in some ways, back into a fire, but also knowing that a thing that burns doesn’t extinguish itself. And, that’s also to say that fire isn’t always bad. That burning can be turned toward progress. Sometimes you have to burn down the old to build something new.

RN: With a new book comes a tour and you’re teaming up with another brilliant writer from Alabama, the always lovely Tina Mozelle Braziel. Would you tell us a bit about what y’all are calling the Dark Salt Sisters Tour?

AJ: Tina and I always look for excuses to hang out together because we’re very close friends. So close, we call each other sisters. Our books released within a month of each other, and our work is complimentary—we both write about the South, our own experience of that South, and what family and history can do in one human/poet’s mind and life. We wanted to also take this conversation—the one we always have about anything and everything, on page and in person—on the road and share it with the US of A (or anywhere else if you’ll have us!). We wanted to be together on this literary adventure—I did my first tour mostly alone, and it was an introvert’s dream, sure, but most things are more fun with friends, and so far, touring with Tina has been as lovely and sweet and beautiful as I imagined it would be. You can check our websites [Tina & Ashley] for tour dates, and you can email either of us to book additional dates!

RN: Because our bookshelves are copycats and honestly we’re nosey, we’d love to know: Who are some of your favorite writers? Whose work can you not get enough of lately?

AJ: So, let’s just get this out of the way—Lucille Clifton, my patron saint of poetry.

Now, for some poets other than MotherClifton: I really can’t stop teaching Patricia Smith’s Incendiary Art. Like, I’ve been teaching it since it came out, and I’m sure students will storm my desk one day soon, urging me to just find another book. But that book just keeps teaching me, over and again. And, I think I’m late to the Baldwin train, but I always take things at my own pace. I already love and teach The Fire Next Time, and I’ve mentioned “Going to Meet the Man” (which is also a book of short stories), but I also recently read If Beale Street Could Talk, and WOW. I did not see the movie and I don’t really have interest in seeing it, but the book, y’all. What a ride. Bonus, because it’s Black History Month (which, honestly, never ends for me…I mean, it shouldn’t for anyone, because, America was built by Black people…but I digress): Black Misery by Langston Hughes. It’s a children’s book, an unfinished but completely staggering (and very deceptively simple) poem about the Black experience in America, made understandable for children and tragic for adults.

RN: And because I predicted you’d mention Lucille Clifton, how did it feel to be selected as the 2019 Lucille Clifton Legacy Award recipient by St. Mary’s College of Maryland?

AJ: I feel like I’m living in some ridiculous dream. I mean, last year, I won the 2018 Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize from Backbone Press, this year I win this—I mean, what’s next? I’m so honored to be recognized by Sister Sonia Sanchez, a poetry powerhouse and international superstar (and Birmingham native!), to get to read with her (!!!), and to honor my most favorite poet of all time, Lucille Clifton, at the very college where she worked! I think I’ll probably be overwhelmed when I get to campus, I’ll be overwhelmed the whole time I’m on stage, and I’ll still be shaking my head when I get back home. When I think about this season of recognition I seem to find myself in, I think about those times when I thought (and, let’s face it, sometimes still think) that I wasn’t good enough, that I wasn’t ever going to be a real-real poet. These awards don’t tell me that I’ve “made it,” and I actually hope I never feel that way. What’s sustained me over the years is a deep focus on doing the work, being a good (literary) citizen, writing my authentic truth, and never letting my imagination dissolve into routine/what’s popular/what’s selling/what otherfolk are doing. I am still a little Black girl from Birmingham who likes to read and write and wear pretty clothes. I’m very proud that those things are still true and that I’m able to win awards for that BlackAlabamaWeirdandSometimesMilitant writing. And to feel like I’m in conversation with the spirit of MotherLucille? That’s just the most glorious icing on an already decadent cake. That I get to write and commune with her is an absolute dream and I’ll never ever come down off of that cloud.

RN: When you’re not writing and submitting your work, where are you reading? We’re always on the hunt for more lit journals to dig into and are curious where others look to in appeasing their own tastes. Online or print, which journals do you admire and do you follow any regularly?

AJ: Here’s a dirty secret—I’m not exactly a litmag reader in the way that I’d always been taught I was supposed to be. I sort of just amble along through stacks and pages and (now, thanks to the digital age), websites and online journals, reading cool work and getting excited about it. Now, I do really love what Winter Tangerine has done re: publishing new and exciting voices “from the margins” (by which I mean—those who are traditionally left out of the canon). I’m into Glass Poetry Journal for the very same reason. I do follow Split This Rock’s poem of the week and the poem-a-day from poets.org, which has been very exciting in recent years. I mean, did y’all read Mahogany L. Browne’s “Inevitable” from a couple of days ago? WOWZA.

RN: Where can we see more of your work? Any new projects on the way, recent publications you’d like to link us to or have us look out for?

AJ: So, I’m now publishing a lot of new-new work from the third project. So, there’s some love poems and body image poems floating around that I’ll link below. I also have a Harriet Tubman suite coming in the Spring edition of Oxford American which I’m very excited about. Those poems appear in dark / / thing, but I’m just so excited to see them on the OA platform, too. And And AND—we’re gearing up for the 2019 Magic City Poetry Festival, which is going to be big and beautiful and whose keynote reader is the one and only SONIA SANCHEZ. We’re excited. Follow us at magiccitypoetryfestival.org or on our social media channels.

Aubade with Lalah Hathaway and Rachelle Ferrell” at Bomb Cyclone, “A Poem About the Body” and “Bestiary of Bad Kisses” at Southern Humanities Review, and “The Kid Next To Me At The 7pm Showing Of The Avengers Has A Toy Gun,” winner of the Lucille Clifton prize, at Black Bone Press. You can also see lots of links and much more at ashleymichellejones.wordpress.com.

RN: Outside of your own writing, you’re incredibly active in the Birmingham literary community. Let me know if I leave anything out here: you’re the founding director of the Magic City Poetry Festival, 2nd Vice President and Membership Chair of the AWC, co-coordinator of the Nitty Gritty Magic City Reading Series, faculty member in the Creative Writing Department of the Alabama School of Fine Arts, and co-organizer of Birmingham’s 100,000 Poets for Change. How’d you get started in all of this community work?

AJ: I have also been teaching seminars in Black Studies and Poetry with the University Honors Program at UAB…and I take tap and am coming to a stage near you, ha! I think I started doing this kind of work because it became a part of my norm when I was in college. I was/am an overachiever, and I found that I really liked busying myself with volunteer work. It was work, yes, but it also made people feel good and helped good causes. So, that’s part of it. The other part is that I just genuinely need to be doing things to have a successful writing life. It’s really hard for me to go to the page when I haven’t experienced anything in real life. And, I really care about my community. A lot. I am so committed to making Birmingham the place I wanted it to be when I was kid, and I’m a true believer in pouring into the place you call home, especially if that place is the place you grew up and you wished and wished it would just be like Atlanta. Now I know, Atlanta is too dang crowded for anyone to live successfully…ha! No, what I know is that I can’t complain about my city if I don’t use that same energy to create programs and opportunities in it. It really is up to us to make the world what we want it to be, and that’s what I’m doing by doing all this stuff here in the Ham. I love writing and I love my community, and I think this is the way I can help the city become the sparkling thing it deserves to be.

RN: I ask this in every interview because it seems like all writers have one book that’s defined them in some way. Any genre, any subject: what’s your favorite book? What book matters to you?

AJ: Okay, let’s see. This is a hard question, and I could very easily say “anything by Lucille Clifton,” which is totally true, but I’m going to take it back, way back. So, the three books I have to talk about are Mumfaro’s Beautiful Daughters, Honey I Love, and Meet Addy. So, when I was young, I became very seriously disturbed by the idea of slavery and the history of violence against Black people in the Western world. I have a poem about it in MCG—my parents had us watch Roots, and I was just utterly terrified. I remember imagining, as I drifted to sleep, angry White men bursting down our door, taking my family, splitting us up, and whipping us because we wouldn’t stop crying/fighting/trying to live. I was afraid, and I didn’t know how to articulate that to my parents or to anyone. So, in the school library, I stayed close to Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott and Madeline L’Engle and C.S. Louis and anyone who wasn’t Black and in pain. My parents thought I was becoming self-hating, that I was being impacted by something that told me white was right. But, really, I was just so afraid that my life would be stolen from me.

I remember reading Mumfaro’s Beautiful Daughters and feeling so elated to see Black girls in all the roles—Cinderella, stepsisters, prince, king! I remember reading Honey I Love (poems by Eloise Greenfield) and loving the way the poems felt when I read them aloud. I even recited her piece, “Harriet Tubman,” and felt a power I had never felt before (there’s a poem about that, too, in the new book). I remember finally reading the Addy books in the American Girl series and realizing that Addy wasn’t a sad and scary story—it was horrific because of slavery, but inspiring because Addy was still a girl with interests and loves and joys, and that made me want to lean into my heritage, bit by bit. I was always taught to be proud of being Black. That was never the issue. These books helped me realize that my pride didn’t mean I was setting myself up for a life of misery. I saw that any injustice that was done to my people was the fault of those people and their hatred and ignorance. And, now, I’m so happy to always tell the story of my people so it stays clear and big in everyone’s minds.


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