Ashley Jones appointed first Black poet laureate of Alabama
Alabama has appointed its first-ever Black poet laureate. Ashley Jones will also be the youngest laureate to date at 31 years old. The Birmingham native has published three books 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 walk through to access what I’m saying," Jones said.
More than anything, she believes in the power of words.
"If I were just to stand up and recite the history, people may still hold on to their own biases or their own beliefs more strongly. But if I come with art first, sometimes that opens people up in a way they’re able to actually have a conversation and listen to someone else’s experience. I think that’s crucial for Alabama if we are really going to reckon with our place in history and where we’re going,” she said.
Jones said her relationship with Alabama has evolved over the years.
“I think a lot of us who grow up here have sort of a love-hate relationship with the South. It wasn’t until I left to go to Miami for 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 that I ignore things that are wrong with it. I definitely wouldn’t be the poet that I am without being from Alabama.”
That love-hate relationship is reflected in Jones’ writing. Below is an excerpt from her poem “All Y’all Really From Alabama."
this here the cradle of this here nation—everywhere you look, roots run right back south. every vein filled with red dirt, blood, cotton. we the dirty word you spit out your mouth. mason dixon is an imagined line—you can theorize it, or wish it real, but it’s the same old ghost—see-through, benign. all y’all from alabama; we the wheel turning cotton to make the nation move. we the scapegoat in a land built from death. no longitude or latitude disproves the truth of founding fathers’ sacred oath: we hold these truths like dark snuff in our jaw, Black oppression’s not happenstance; it’s law.
Despite the state’s shaky civil rights history, the poet is clearly interested in the Alabama's history and future.
Kwoya Fagin Maples is a close friend and collaborator of Ashley Jones.
“I would describe her writing style as always intentional," she said. "It is immediate in terms of its impact and it’s always evocative and it’s always very kind of tight looking at it on the page. You’re always like, 'How did she do this?’”
Fagin Maples and Jones met while teaching at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham. The faculty and staff call it ASFA for short. Maples said Jones is a true servant leader.
“She’s a very kind person. She’s the kind of person who shows up. She works tirelessly. Sometimes she works a bit too much," Fagin Maples said. "She’s just the kind of person who, once she sets her mind on something, she does it, but also she helps people accomplish their own goals and their own dreams.”
Jones’ students agree. Katy Hargett was Jones’ student for four years at ASFA.
“Ashley just really empowers us to be the best poets and the best writers that we can be. She helps us engage in the texts in a way that’s just really novel and refreshing. She really makes you believe in yourself as a poet as well,” Hargett said.
Jones is an organizer as well as a teacher. She created the Magic City Poetry Festival in 2018. The annual celebration of Birmingham-born literature and art has grown by leaps and bounds since then. Jacqueline Trimble, a poet and professor at Alabama State University, spoke at the first Magic City Poetry Festival.
“She had everything from poetry reading, poetry slams, public discussions in all these different venues around Birmingham. I thought, 'This is amazing!' And then the fact that she got funding and she got buy-in from Pen America was, to me, astonishing," Trimble said. "It’s very difficult to not only get an audience, but also to get financial support for that. In her very first year, she did this extraordinary job and it’s just grown every year since then.”
Jones came back to Alabama after getting her Master’s in creative writing at Florida International University. Although she’s the youngest Alabama poet laureate, her supporters say her experience with events like Magic City Poetry Festival makes her well suited for the position.
Those supporters include Jacqueline Trimble. She was on the selection committee for the new poet laureate. Trimble thinks Jones is the perfect fit.
“Ashley’s ability to champion writers of all races and ethnicities and religions, and to make connections all over the state," she said. "Because she knows everybody. She sort of knows everybody from Huntsville to Mobile and everybody in between and she sees the beauty of their work. I think that’s what a poet laureate needs to do. A poet laureate needs to express the best of the writing life in their state, and I think Ashley has always done that.”
Jones’ appointment is historic as well. She will be the first-ever Black poet laureate and the youngest to serve in the role. Fagin Maples said it exhibits Alabama’s progress in recent years.
“I think that it is wonderful for Alabama--for the rest of the country to see who Alabama is reverencing and promoting--it being a Black woman is just a fantastic thing," she said. "Racism exists everywhere in this country. Alabama often is kind of put into this box, but as far as the message that it sends to the rest of our country, it makes it a safer place for other people of color, the fact that she is poet laureate.”
Jones started writing poetry at the age of 7. She hasn’t stopped since. To her, poetry is everything.
“Poetry is so much bigger than just a classroom. It’s so much bigger than just a stage. It’s really about the people who love it and who write it. I’m hoping that I’m able to do that work during my four years,” she said.
Jones hopes to champion all forms of creativity as poet laureate. She says art is the root of empathy.
“The poet Audre Lorde said, very famously, that poetry is not a luxury. If you are a human, you need poetry," Jones said. "And by poetry she didn’t mean just what’s on the page. She means that lifegiving power that’s in all of us, that urge to create.”
Jones will officially become Alabama’s new poet laureate later this year. She’ll serve the state until 2026.