A Conversation Between Ashley M. Jones and Lesley Wheeler
Ashley M. Jones, Poet Laureate of Alabama, is the author of Magic City Gospel, dark / / thing, and REPARATIONS NOW!. Her awards include the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers Award, the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry, a Literature Fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts, and the Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize. She teaches Creative Writing at the Alabama School of Fine Arts and in the Low Residency MFA at Converse University. Jones co-directs PEN Birmingham, and she is the founding director of the Magic City Poetry Festival. She recently served as a guest editor for Poetry Magazine.
Lesley Wheeler is the author of five poetry collections, most recently The State She’s In. Her first novel, Unbecoming, was published in 2020, and her first essay collection, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, will appear in 2022. She has received fellowships from Fulbright, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and other grantors. Poetry Editor of Shenandoah, she can be found online at @LesleyMWheeler and lesleywheeler.org.
Lesley Wheeler: Congratulations on becoming the Poet Laureate of Alabama, Ashley! That honor converges with the publication of REPARATIONS NOW!, your powerful third collection and an intensely place-based book. It contains lots of poems about the beauties of the deep South—the accents, the land, the heritage of Black resistance—but also about the region’s brutal history as it intersects with U.S. racism more broadly. Or, at least, that’s how I’m reading it. How would you describe this book’s message about Alabama?
Ashley M. Jones: Thanks so much! Becoming Poet Laureate of Alabama is an honor, yes, and it’s also so dizzying to think that I’m a “first” like those we learn about in history books. I’m the first person of color and the youngest in the state’s 91-year history of the position. Almost a century. And our country is what, only 200-something years old? Are we so removed from those halls in which racist laws were written in ink and sealed with blood? The very room in which I received my Poet Laureate commendation was the room in which Alabama lawmakers voted to secede from the Union. There’s a plaque declaring that. Everything is connected, always. We aren’t so far progressed from the darkness of our country’s past. And yes, the book certainly attempts to describe and display the ways in which the South’s story is very much the American story. There is no magical separation or line of demarcation. There is no place in this country where I am not Black, where I am not subject to the indignities of racism and discrimination. No place where the laws don’t claw their way all over my body, across my beating heart.
But the book is also, as all my books are, a love song to the place which raised me. I am a Southerner quite proudly—does this mean I think it will “rise again” or that we’re done with all the schoolhouse door stand-ins and Bull Connors and and and—of course not. I love being from the South and I think we are worthy of celebration. We have a rich culture, we have a beautiful landscape, we are a place just like other places. This book recognizes the worthiness of the place and the history of the place. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive—a place can be troubled and beautiful, simultaneously. I can love a place and scrutinize it, simultaneously. I want readers to understand that their scapegoating days need to come to an end when they think about the South. It’s America. So yes, America is flawed and in need of repair.
Your book, The State She’s In, is similarly concerned with place and politics—how do you want readers to view the South through your poems? What can history become in the hands of a poet?
LW: History is full of gaps and elisions we’re unlikely to fill in through conventional kinds of research, but research-grounded literature can give us ways to imagine what’s been lost. Poetry in particular is an art of the gap, so among literary forms, I think it’s particularly good at representing absence. That was the key to writing an older book, Heterotopia, about my mother’s childhood in Liverpool, England in the forties and fifties—I’ve been thinking about those poems a lot since my mother’s death last spring. Toward that collection, I conducted interviews, read books, visited museums, and all the rest, but the poems didn’t work until I found ways for them to acknowledge what I didn’t and couldn’t know.
As someone who grew up in New York and New Jersey with an immigrant mother, there’s no way I could have the deep connection to Virginia that you have with Alabama. But the poems in The State She’s In represent my effort to come to terms with where I was never sure I wanted to live. Virginia history was shaped by many kinds of violence, and it was past time for me to acknowledge that I was complicit in that violence and benefiting from it—my salary is paid by Washington and Lee University, after all, whose endowment comes partly from the sale of enslaved human beings. Doing research for the documentary poems felt like citizenship. At the same time, as you say, the South is a beautiful place, and the woods and mountains have mattered to me a great deal, even more so during the pandemic.
I love your phrase “troubled and beautiful, simultaneously.” I also appreciate you referring to REPARATIONS NOW! as a love song. In addition to the gorgeous poems about place, I was struck when rereading it for my class by how many kinds of love permeate the book: spiritual, familial, romantic, and self-love. Is that theme connected to the frequency of the sonnet form in this collection?
AMJ: I think it is—as I mentioned to your class, this book was supposed to be a book of (only) sonnets. I had become reinvigorated to study Gwendolyn Brooks by some poet friends of mine, and I was taken with her sonnet “Love Note: Surely” from “Gay Chaps at the Bar.” And yes, the sonnet is often used for love—perhaps, and maybe we don’t say this enough, because it holds room for so much uncertainty. The volta is that uncertain beast. And, thinking about the sonnets that are in the book, they do seem rather focused on love. Even those that don’t seem like it at first. I’m thinking now about the Mary Turner / Stephon Clark sonnet pair. Love is at the root of those histories and those poems for me. I am unmoored by the reality of these murders. The brutality of them. The fact that human beings did what they did to those two Black people. It’s horrifying and enraging. It hurts. But for me, the poem offered me a chance to write an additional reality. For Mary Turner, I wanted to resurrect and deify her. I wanted to save her baby’s memory from its bloody start and end on earth. Not to erase the murderous truth of what happened, but to double down on Mary Turner’s humanity. To celebrate how she could still be powerful, even in the face of the American citizens who decided she was unfit to live. And I say American citizens quite deliberately here—it’s important for us to understand that this horror is an American institution. We can’t pretend this country was founded on peace and love. It exists on blood and money. Plain and simple. With Stephon, the love is for what he was to those who loved him. Those bullets from the policeman’s gun could not name him guilty, criminal, monster, vermin—they only named the man who held that gun a murderer. The poems helped me process those murders. They helped me see beyond the terror (not forgetting it, certainly) and return to the ever-present truth that Black people are not more killable than other people. We don’t deserve extermination. We don’t deserve to be presumed expendable or guilty. We deserve life.
I want to ask you about what poems can do to transform and create—new realities, spells, wishes. We met, if memory serves, because of a panel on spells—does poetry do this work for you, too?
LW: I so appreciate that you placed those sonnets—“Mary, Don’t You Weep, Or, Mary Turner Resurrected” and “Stephon Don’t You Moan, Or, To Serve And Protect”—near the beginning of REPARATIONS NOW! (I nearly typed Resurrections Now!). They’re hard to spend time with because of the terrible murders they compel me to remember and dwell on. Yet they tune the book and set my mind right: there’s no possibility of anything remotely like reparation without steady regard for people who lost everything in the worst ways, for unconscionable reasons.
Your love for Mary Turner and Stephon Clark shines through those poems, with all their unlikely beauty, and is such a powerful way of answering the hate behind their killings. Rereading “Mary,” I’m struck by how central transformation is to the language: camellias become “white hurt,” “her baby, a fire, / its single soft cry still igniting the air.” And that emphasis on metamorphosis calls back to our panel at the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference in 2019 with Anna Maria Hong, Hyejung Kook, Anna Lena Phillips Bell, and Jane Satterfield. I do think a great deal about poems as spells, prayers, curses, and charms. I titled the panel “Uncanny Activisms” (also the subject of a recent poetry portfolio in Shenandoah) because some protest poetry has supernatural or spiritual dimensions. Instead of or in addition to asking human beings to change their minds, poems that are spells and prayers petition for change by addressing more-than-human forces. There are some poems in that mode in The State She’s In—“All-Purpose Spell for Banishment,” “Invocation,” “L”—and even more in the manuscript I’m writing now.
Your work often invokes your deep faith, and I’d love to hear more about how religion shapes your life as an artist. The poems in the new book that seem most prayerful to me also use sound in especially powerful ways, like songs or litanies. I’m thinking of “Hymn Of The Dogwood Tree” and “Summer Vacation In The Subjunctive.” As well as addressing spiritual inspiration, could you describe the role of sound and music in composition and revision?
AMJ: Well, yes, Resurrections Now.
I think I have to answer this question by starting with how I had to come back to embracing my spirituality on the page. I grew up in a deeply spiritual household—my parents were spirit-filled and always let us know that God was ours to discover. It was up to us to take our own faith journey because faith is something you can’t force on someone else. But God was always all around us, and it was only when I started school and people let me know that it was weird that I didn’t attend church and that I wasn’t what you might call a typical Christian, especially in the South. And the same goes for the literary world—I used to write about all the things that mattered to me when I first started writing. I wrote about Black people, Black history, my family, God, all the things. But formal education told me that God was not to appear in highbrow poetry unless it was as a philosophical question. Unless it was a curse. But Black poets showed me the way. I had to reach back to Black poets to understand that I could write about myself in all the ways, and it would be just fine. So, in writing about my full self, there is a lot of God there, too—I’m surrounded, as I’ve always been, by the Spirit and all it can show and do. So my poems do often reflect this. And when I’m writing poems about the horrors my people have suffered, I need God to help me get through it. It’s hard to write about lynching, about American terrorism, about racism and discrimination. I need to cloak myself in the Spirit to move through that.
Music is another part of my full self which I’m so glad to be able to write about and use in my process. I grew up around good music—my parents would play all the good records and cassettes all the time. Ray Charles while we cleaned the house. Al Green on the way home from school, Janet Jackson on the way to Greensboro, Alabama to see our family. Sam Cooke on the way home from Bessemer, Alabama to see family. Even now, I’m always playing music in my house, as I drive, as I write. I use music as sort of a literary lubricant, if I can be so bold…or so corny, ha! What I mean is that I use music to help me stay in the moment of the poem’s composition. I use music to take me to the emotional place I need to be in to write certain pieces—for a piece like “Hymn of the Dogwood Tree,” I might have put on “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” sung by Mahalia Jackson. For the James Brown poems, I put on James Brown. The music does help me stay in the right mindset to fully hear the poem. I wonder, Lesley, if any other artistic medium interacts with your writing practice, too?
LW: Here’s to literary lubricant! Music was a big part of how I came to writing, particularly listening to David Bowie and the Velvet Underground and tracking down the writers they mention in the liner notes as well as thinking about how their lyrics work. I can’t listen to music as I write, though, because words come to me through a kind of listening to myself, and background noise messes with that. Nothing makes me want to write more than walking around museums and looking at paintings, especially work from the last hundred years. It fills me with a sense of common effort. Maybe the silence in museums, too, stirs up voices. And certainly reading fills me up again when I feel emptied out. This year was hard and I feel depleted; I’m pretty sure books and time to read them are the medicine I need.
You’ve experienced grief and struggle this year, as well as the good stuff. What are you hoping for in 2022? Has the laureateship influenced what you want to write or how you interact with audiences? Thinking about your editorship of Poetry, too, do you have editorial aspirations?
AMJ: This year has been unimaginable, truly. I can’t even begin to explain what it has felt like to live through the immense grief of losing my dad—even as I type this, it’s hard to understand that this is my reality. It really doesn’t compute. Then there’s all the happy things that have happened, which don’t eclipse that gargantuan loss. But it’s good to know that my dad was proud of me for everything—just the fact that I was here and alive, and even that I was going to be the poet laureate of Alabama. I’m hoping, in 2022, to be able to continue writing and teaching. I’m hoping to learn how to hear my dad clearly from the beyond. I’m hoping to hold tightly to my authentic self, to my heart, and to my intentions as I move through this new role and new opportunities in my literary career. I’m hoping, as I always do, for peace. Within me and around me. I think the way I think about audiences is changing, as my own audience is expanding in a way I wasn’t quite expecting. When you’re still pre-book, you dream of many big audiences knowing your name, reading your books, etc. Sure, I do want people to read my work and to desire my presence at readings, but I also think I’m doubling down on the audience whose attention I hope to keep. I want to write for the little Black girl I was—the girl who wondered why she didn’t belong, who hoped to grow up and all this non-belonging would be over. I want to write for the people who are tired of screaming their humanity to a world which has always met that humanity with murder. I want to write for those who seek to make empathy and equity real. If all the people who are reading me now are really all that audience, fantastic. If it’s just one person, fantastic. I just hope I’m doing the spirit-work, the soul-work that is necessary in the world, regardless of critical acclaim or sales numbers. As far as editing—that’s maybe a conversation for 2025. My time at Poetry definitely confirmed my belief that I can’t be a full-time editor for more than a few months at a time! That work is hard work, and I was very glad to get to do it, and I still do guest editing spots, too—I know for a cold hard fact that being a full-time editor is not, as the youth say, my ministry. Others are blessed with the patience, time, and stamina for that. Bless them.