Most poets don’t name Harriet the Spy as one of their greatest influences, but Ashley M. Jones is not most poets. Ashley’s work is highly respected by her peers. In 2015, she received the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, a prestigious national award given annually to support emerging women writers with exceptional talent, and her debut poetry collection, Magic City Gospel, won the silver medal in poetry in the 2017 Independent Publishers Book Awards. Yet, her work is also relatable and relevant to those who don’t consider themselves poet enthusiasts. Perhaps this is what makes her such a great creative writing instructor for her students at the Alabama School of Fine Arts (ASFA) and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), schools that are also her alma maters. And Ashley hopes to share the power of poetry with the entire city of Birmingham as founder and director of the Magic City Poetry Festival, which debuts in April. We are excited to welcome this week’s FACE of Birmingham, Ashley M. Jones.
How did you first fall in love with poetry?
I fell in love with poetry in stages — it began with Harriet the Spy, which was not about poetry, but reading that book and watching that movie inspired me to start writing on my own. It wasn’t until third grade that I really got into writing. Eloise Greenfield’s Honey I Love was particularly interesting to me, as it was a type of writing I didn’t often see as an elementary school student — poetry by a black woman about black things. That book and those poems along with my spy journal were carried with me until middle school, when I wrote for an assignment and my teacher suggested I apply to ASFA. Since starting school at ASFA, I’ve been serious about my craft and discovering new ways to make my voice heard.
What do you do in your classrooms at ASFA and at UAB to try to make your students appreciate poetry as much as you do?
Mostly, I try to present them with works that they can relate to, and I try to open them up, so students feel like they can connect with the piece. That, and I’ve been known to talk, at length, about a line break, and that shows them that even these little things matter, that even the tiniest part of a poem can be loved. Part of my mission as a teacher and a human is to break open the canon to include works by marginalized and living authors — teaching contemporary works by such authors also helps break down the barrier between student and poem. And I encourage them to write about their own lives and what excites them. If a student learns that they can, in fact, find poetry in their favorite basketball star or in their views on racism in America, that student might find some excitement in the poetry that they didn’t have before.
How did the idea for Magic City Gospel come about?
The idea, I think, was always there — I just didn’t know it. Growing up in Birmingham, or really, in any part of the American South, you always have a love-hate relationship with where you’re from. You love it for what it gave you — your family, grits, slow traffic. But you hate it for what it was/is — its shadows of the Confederacy, the lack of resources, abundance of poverty, slow traffic. That battle reached a critical turning point once I left to attend grad school in Miami. Being so far away, physically and culturally, from everything I knew and loved really forced me to think of the South as good and worthy of my praise. And to praise something is to also recognize what it really is. That thought process, and a desire to feel closer to home and family (even if that just meant close through a memory or poem), drove me to write the poems that eventually became Magic City Gospel.
What has it been like getting all the attention you’ve been receiving for your work?
Stressful. Wonderful. Scary. Exciting. Humbling. I’m a middle child, so I guess you can say I’ve always wanted attention, but I’ve grown to be able to live without it, so it was really strange at first to have so many people paying attention to me and to my work. I feel extremely validated in my work because of the attention and the kindness that’s been shown to me, but I also feel a responsibility to not forget why I write and to remember who I am, aside from any praise I might get.
How did the idea for the Magic City Poetry Festival come about?
I have to give some shouts to Alina Stefanescu and Scott Cunningham, for one. Scott is the director of the O, Miami Poetry Festival, one of the hottest festivals in the nation. He is an alum of the Florida International University program, like me, and he and his team have created a community-driven movement where poetry is alive for the entirety of National Poetry Month. I saw that and thought, “If it can happen in Miami, it can happen in Birmingham.” I envisioned a festival that served my Magic City and showcased the talent we have right here. Alina Stefanescu, who is a board member with me at the Alabama Writers’ Conclave (and a friend and poetry-sister), got us in contact with PEN America and their Press Freedom Incentive Fund, which would allow us a grant to put on one event here in Birmingham. The AWC so generously agreed to jump on as a sponsor as well, and the rest is, hopefully, history! We’re partnering with a few local organizations — Desert Island Supply Company (DISCO), Studio 2500, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Church Street Coffee and Books — to help us put on this event.
Why do you feel Birmingham needs a festival like this?
Birmingham needs every good thing. This city is so special, not only to me but to all of us who call it home. We have the history, the culture, the artistic spirit to support a celebration like this one, and I’m glad I could be a part of making it happen. This city has inspired so much art, and this festival is just one small way of showing it off.
What are some of your favorite things to do and favorite places to go in Birmingham?
My most favorite place to eat is Taj India.
Do you have any personality quirks that people would be surprised to learn about you?
I sing all the time (I’m not a singer, per se, but I do sing often). If you see me driving down any street, you can bet I’m belting something out or ad-libbing a song out of nothing. I’ve been known to gospel-ify songs, too.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
“Don’t start what you can’t hold out.” My grandmother said this to my mom, and it is so very true in literally every situation. It especially applies to me in my personal life and my professional life, as I’m someone who will overcommit and leave myself and my needs dead last. Don’t start anything that you can’t or shouldn’t keep up. Don’t jump in too soon. Lift a little at a time until you’re strong enough to hold it all.
What are three things you can’t live without?
Online shopping, Gregory Hines and ’90s R&B.
Thanks, Ashley! To learn more about Ashley’s poetry and more, visit ashleymichellejones.com. And to learn more about the Magic City Poetry Festival, taking place April 2-7, 2018, visit facebook.com/magiccitypoetryfestival.
Thank you to Eric and Jamie Gay of Eric & Jamie Photography for today’s beautiful photography of Ashley.
Meet more amazing Birmingham women in our FACES archives. Prepare to be inspired!