Ashley M. Jones’ journey to becoming the first Black Poet Laureate of the State of Alabama began in the second grade. Her teacher gave her the assignment to find a piece of media to memorize and recite for the class. An avid reader from an art-loving family, it wasn’t difficult for Jones to find something to perform. The week of the assignment, Jones had checked out a collection of poems for children by Eloise Greenfield titled Honey, I Love. The collection featured Black characters: something that was incredibly moving for Jones.
“So from that moment on, I converted what was my spy journal, [into] a poetry journal as well. So, I wrote all these little angsty poems as a seven-year-old and I’ve been writing ever since,” Jones said.
The path was not always easy. As a Black woman studying English and Creative Writing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, it was easy to feel like she didn’t belong. Black poets and writers were hardly featured, so Jones struggled with whether her experiences were worth being conveyed through poetry.
“[I started] doing a self-study of Black poets, you know, just spend hours in the library looking for books and reading books and discovering new poets,” said Jones, “Once I saw that [the landscape] of Black poets was way more expansive than what I had been taught… it became a little less difficult for me to understand that my voice needed to be heard, or at least that I needed to value it enough to put it on the page.”
Jones’ self-proclaimed “patron saint of poetry” is Lucille Clifton. Jones’ described Clifton’s distinctive way of writing that made her poetry identifiable even without her name to it. Clifton’s work helped Jones realize her worth and dissolved any fears she had about being herself authentically on the page. Through speaking with Clifton’s daughters and reading her poetry extensively, Jones feels as though she’s been able to connect with her spiritually. Jones was also inspired by Clifton’s demeanor and private life.
“She had a certain [quiet spirit]. And, [maybe] she wasn’t as [spicy] as a Sonia Sanchez, or a Nikki Giovanni. But, she still showed up and did what needed to be done. She still [had a place] at the poetic table,” said Jones, “And so, [I’ve wanted] to be like her on the page, but also in my life, I hope that I can inspire as much joy and belongingness that she inspired while she was alive, but also that she still inspires, now from the beyond.”
Nothing is off-limits in Jones’ own poetry. She’s written poems about watching a young boy play with a toy gun while seeing The Avengers in theaters, history, and social justice, her family, even men she’s dated who were bad kissers.
“I’m inspired by everything,” said Jones, “and I kind of have to be alive, actively in the world to be able to write, it’s hard for me to just kind of sit alone in a corner and have something to say, [I need] to be a part of life to have something to reflect on.”
This need to write about what happens in her life coalesced into her most recent project: Reparations Now! Jones said the project was born of her frustration as a black person, as a woman, and as a human being. The work confronts issues of white supremacy, state-sanctioned violence, and political crises while still encouraging Black joy.
Jones’s conviction comes from acknowledging the past. She stresses the importance of engaging with the work of her ancestors and how it has guided her life. After reading about the life of Harriet Tubman, Jones felt a voice telling her that she was capable of continuing what she started.
“I finally understood, [I] Ashley Jones from Birmingham, Alabama, need to recognize that I’m descended from Harriet Tubman. I can pick up where she left off. I can do liberatory work because she did it for me,” said Jones.
This liberatory work has manifested in Jones’ most recent project. But Jones hopes to accomplish even more with her political poetry.
“There are poets who think that writing about politics or [abandoning] the flowery language that [may] be associated with poetry is [somehow bad] or that it’s a departure from the artform. But I’d like people to know that you can write about politics like I do, like Patricia Smith does like Nikki Giovanni does, [you] can do that and still honor the artfulness of poetry. You can still [write] in form, you can still have beautiful similes, metaphors, etc. So hopefully that is part of the legacy I leave,” said Jones.
Read Ashley M. Jones’s work here.