Photo-illustration by Stacy Reece
Photo-illustration by Stacy Reece

I Heard Them All Speak

Alabama Poet Laureate Ashley M. Jones creates entire worlds in three new poems and affirms the power of poetry to help us see others and ourselves.

Google Ashley M. Jones,  and you’ll quickly see two superlatives: “first” and “youngest.”

Both apply to her position as Alabama’s Poet Laureate: she is the first person of color and the youngest to serve that office’s history, which dates back to 1930.

Groundbreaking is absolutely an accurate description. She published the first of her three collections of poetry when she was only twenty-seven and became her home state’s thirteenth Poet Laureate at age thirty-one.

Jones is grounded, too. Listen to this conversation with Jacqueline Allen  Trimble on The Poetry Magazine Podcast, and you’ll begin to understand how steeped in tradition and how loving of her poetic elders Ashley is.

When a writer is that young, that well-read, that learned, and that accomplished, we best pay attention. 

Couple that grounded quality with how dynamic her work is. As I similarly noted with Junious Ward last week, Jones’ third book, 2021’s Reparations Now!, is as formally wide-ranging as it is thematically deep-reaching. She dedicates that book to “Dad, who taught me how to love and how to fight.” The title echoes a centuries-old call across the African diaspora for compensatory justice in the wake of slavery, colonization, and apartheid. In the book’s title poem, she pointedly asks, “What, you think money can ever repay what you stole? Give me land, give me all the blood you ripped out of our backs, our veins. Give me every snapped neck and the noose you wove to hoist the body up.”

She challenges us again in the three poems Salvation South is publishing today. The first poem here is “A Map of the Capitol—Montgomery, AL, USA.” Like “Hymn of Our Jesus & the Holy Tow Truck” from Reparations Now!, it is a concrete poem, where the lines are arranged to resemble a shape. While “Hymn” looks like the spokes of a tire, or the rays of the sun, “A Map of the Capitol” represents not only the intersections of streets, but also of past and present, not to mention conflicts and hypocrisies. 

Like many concrete poems, the reader must literally shift how they read, turning the screen or page at times, deciding in which order to read the sections, and considering their relationships to each other. Depending on which part you consider the “end,” the poem comes to rest like this: 

i heard them all speak
heard the streets scream all at once,
and yes, i listened—

the sharp traffic of
so many intersections,
and my voice cut through

The groundbreaking voice of Ashley M. Jones does indeed cut through. Lend her your ears.

—Andy Fogle
Salvation South Poetry Editor

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Ashley M. Jones reading her poem, "It Is Entirely Possible for a Black Girl to Be Loved"

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A Map of the Capitol—Montgomery, AL, USA

For one hundred thirty-one years, a street in Montgomery was named after Jefferson Davis, the first president of the Confederacy.

For thirty five years, Jefferson Davis Avenue was a cross street of Rosa Parks Avenue.

In 2021, Jefferson Davis Avenue was renamed Fred Gray Avenue.

In 2021, I became the first person of color and youngest person to serve as Poet Laureate of Alabama. The Office of the Poet Laureate in Alabama has existed since 1930.

a map of the capitol map only

When You Ask Me From Where My Help Comes

“My help comes from the Lord”
help—Psalm 121, The Holy Bible

“God is God / is God”
help—Faisal Mohyuddin, “Allah Castles

the face of God was shown to my people
in the dark and vast nighttime sky
in a town just like this one some four centuries ago.
it does not matter where in this country you are.
my people were there, and they searched
my people were there, andfor God
my people were there, andwho they knew before the sin of those ships.
my people were there, and they sGod is God no matter the continent. 

the stars are windows to heaven—
we can follow them to glory, and so can you.
do you think the face of God is a human face?
how can something as big, as world-making,
as ocean-building, as mountain-moving,
as look-how-this-earth-knows-to-keep-spinning,
be contained by such inconsequential instruments as skin and bones?

God wears many faces, all of them you and all of them me,
all of them all of us, always. a face as singular
and as varied as all the spears of grass
making a whole holy green. 

it’s true, my people saw the face of God
and it looked like the cool river opening up to welcome their feet,
to erase their scent as they were hunted
by people who maybe were our great great great grandfathers and their sons,
by the dogs which did nothing but what they were told. 

the face of God in the sunlight warming the backs of ants
as they build their hallways made of earth,
grain by grain. the face of God in the owl’s haunt,
in the space between our palms as they meet in prayer.
the face of God in our prayers—in the breath
on our anxious and grateful lips,
in the many names by which we call God,
in all the languages made for us to speak.
God in truth, unmitigated, painful, and real.
God sees us now. What will we show Him?

Conflict / / War

This is a brutal place. We blame the dead for their dying. We
train our eyes to make their bodies grow to monstrous
girth. We say their blood is a necessary sacrifice. Or
worse, we forget their blood. The pumping that made
them move. The breath that caught before the air filled
with shrapnel. Who can help? I stare into the void of my
cell phone and search for truth. I stare into the void of my
own soul and search for truth. I stare into the void of the
governing body and find a void. There is no truth without
blood. There is no blood in a constitution. There is no
blood in a marbled hall. There is no blood in the gavel
which strikes to signal another bill—also
bloodless—passed against all the blood just trying to stay
within our bodies, trying to do its job. This place is brutal
by tradition. Remember discovery and the murders
necessary for making a whole new world? Remember
Oklahoma. Remember Alabama. Even across the wide
sea, the murders we sanction with money the tanks all
filled with fire. The miles and miles of blood. Some of us
say the children, the children. How do we tell a child her
innocence is meaningless? Her blood irrelevant to the
bloodless powers that bleed the world? Her blood only a
messy inconvenience spilled to fill unfillable hands? Her
blood, my blood, all for sale.

Ashley M. Jones reading Jacqueline Allen Trimble’s “This Is Why People Burning Down Fast Food Joints and Whatnot”

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Nine Questions for Ashley M. Jones

1. Where’d you grow up and what was it like?

I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and it was truly magical. No, it wasn’t always the glittering and growing place it is today, but the magic for me came from who raised me and the environment of creation they made of us. My parents are the greatest to have ever lived, as far as I’m concerned—they made our lives feel like constant possibility and wonder. We made things—books, paintings, homemade Play-Doh. We were allowed to be our weird and wonderful selves. We didn’t have much money, which I didn’t know when I was a kid—they stretched their dollars to make room for our joy. We didn’t ask for a lot as kids because we had every single thing we needed. 

Birmingham itself was a cool place to grow up because the history was so alive. Is still so alive. As a kid, I knew that my city was the place where a major battle in the struggle for Civil Rights was fought. I knew about 16th Street Church and the girls who looked just like me who died there. I knew that this was a place that meant something, and you could really feel the ghosts (good ones, sometimes bad ones) of that history. It made me who I am today—I certainly wouldn’t feel like writing “politically” was a natural thing if I didn’t grow up in a place that didn’t try to act like history wasn’t real. It’s funny to say that now, with all the new legislation popping up everywhere, even here in Alabama. But Birmingham is and, I think, will always be a place that won’t forget its past. 

There’s a difference between loving my culture, my hometown, my people, my Alabama, and excusing it for any wrongs. To love something or someone means we also encourage them to be their best. I feel that way about the South.

2. Who educated you, in or outside of school?

My parents were my first teachers, and I’d say my most important ones. Yes, I’ve had some really incredible teachers in my formal education, but all of that formal education was based on what I learned from my mom and dad. My mom, who earned her degree in social work and education, taught each of us four Jones kids how to read and write at a very early age. We learned that reading was a gateway to the world, and that creation could be a way to understand that world or ourselves better. Both my  parents helped us with homework, listened as we told them about books we read or stories we wanted to write. I remember my parents giving my older sister and me the go-ahead to draw the entire city of Bedrock (with our own creative license) on our bedroom walls. That kind of unlimited creative atmosphere was crucial for me—anything I do now, creatively or academically, comes directly out of that freedom to explore from my early life. 

3. Do you have any early memories of being in love with language (reading, writing, hearing, saying, etc.)?

The day I knew I was a poet is still very clear in my mind—well, as clear as a decades-old memory can be. I was seven years old and in the self-contained gifted class at EPIC Elementary. We were told to take something we’d read, memorize it, and recite it to the class at the end of the week, in costume. I had been reading Honey, I Love by Eloise Greenfield, and that book came to me at a time when I most needed it. I was in a bit of an existential crisis because of my first experience of racism at the age of five and because I was learning so much about what happened to Black people in America throughout history. I felt like there was nothing I could do about the pain I would inevitably face. But that book showed me that there is joy in knowing that as a Black person, I am enough, I am worthy of respect, worthy of happiness, curiosity, sadness, anger, ecstasy—I am worth the full range of human emotions. Anyone who tells me that I’m worthless because of my race is wrong, and they have an issue, not me. I got all of that from this book, and when I recited the poem “Harriet Tubman” to my class, I felt a confidence I had never felt before. I felt my shyness melting away, my insecurities retreating. I knew I needed to stay with that thing which gave me all that strength. Poetry was it. 

4. How do you feel about being a Southerner: proud, ashamed, both, otherwise? Have you ever left the South for any significant period of time? If so, did it have any effect on how you understood the region, or how you understood other regions?

I love being a Southerner, but I didn’t always feel that way. Growing up, I faced the age-old love-hate relationship with the South because of how I was taught to see it. Even here, we struggle with the idea that the South is the only place to blame for any issues our country faces. But that’s simply not true. All of us, in all fifty states, have to contend with what this country does and has done to those of us in the margins. Even during American slavery, there was no place that could claim that they were a true safe haven for Black people. And who all wore cotton, used sugar, used tobacco? 

But there’s a difference between loving my culture, my hometown, my people, my Alabama, and excusing it for any wrongs. To love something or someone means we also encourage them to be their best. I feel that way about the South. There is so much good here—so many movements started here. So much well seasoned food here. So much lovingkindness here. We don’t have to be ashamed—if there’s something wrong here, it’s wrong everywhere. 

5. Do you have any sense of whether other parts of the United States are starting to see the South differently? And does it matter whether they do or don’t?

It’s getting harder and harder for folks all over the USA to divorce themselves from the idea that there could be, underneath all the progressive yard signs and lack of Southern accents, something rotting at our core from 1619 to now.

I think, even if other folks aren’t starting to see the South differently, they’re starting to see their own states differently. These past several years have shown us so much: we are not considerate of others’ health needs, we are not considerate of others’ right to live, and we’re not immune to living in a place where bad things happen. I think, more and more, people can’t claim that their state is some kind of safe haven from unjust laws, state-sanctioned murder, or racism and oppression. It’s getting harder and harder for folks all over the USA to divorce themselves from the idea that there could be, underneath all the progressive yard signs and lack of Southern accents, something rotting at our core from 1619 to now. 

6. Is there anything you’d like to say about any of the poems we’re publishing (anything about their origin, evolution, or otherwise)?

These poems are from my new manuscript project, which is about grief and the emotions that can emerge during that grief. Personal grief, which I’m experiencing now due to the sudden loss of my father three years ago. Political grief/societal grief, which I’ve experienced forever. It seems we aim to hurt each other, constantly, on Planet Earth. 

“A Map of the Capitol—Montgomery, AL, USA” is a concrete poem depicting Jefferson Davis Avenue, which is now Fred Gray Avenue, and which crossed Rosa Parks Avenue in Montgomery, all set to the tune of my commissioning as Poet Laureate of Alabama. I am the first person of color and youngest person in the office’s ninety-three-year history. 

“When You Ask Me From Where My Help Comes” is a tribute to God and God’s everywhereness. I was raised to believe that God is God, and we can’t contain that idea in human terms. This was written for an interfaith event, and I was raised to understand that we all take our own path to the divine. Every bit of this world can be holy. The grass, the ants, and sometimes, the people. 

“Conflict // War” is a poem questioning our violence, near and far. There is no time when murder is necessary. No time when people should be bombed out of their homes, stolen from their land, robbed of their lives.

7. You founded the Magic City Poetry Festival in Birmingham? How did that begin? And it's been running throughout April: how's it going this year?

The Magic City Poetry Festival began in 2018, and its mission is to share poetry and community conversation with the greater Birmingham community. Every single event is free because we believe poetry is for everybody—accessibility is vital in the arts and everywhere else! Our main event is our annual April festival celebrating National Poetry Month, and you can find all our events here.

8. Being named Alabama’s Poet Laureate—both the state’s first Black Laureate and the youngest—has that changed anything for you? What’s something you’ve been able to change, cause, or create because of that position?

I hope I’ve changed the perception of who a “Southern Writer” is, who a Poet Laureate of Alabama can be, and what it means to serve the whole community, not just a small elite group. I’ve created programming which serves those goals, and I hope my daily life, my very being, is in service to those goals, too. I hope folks can look at my actions and see that they measure up to my words.

I think the arts help us see the human heartbeat of someone else. They help us to understand that we’re all living a life here and those lives are different but equally worthy. They help us see our society, for better or worse.

I will say, in more practical terms, I’ve learned how hard and scary it is to be a “public figure.” I don’t know how real celebrities do it! Being watched, listened to, held to impossible standards! I only experience that on a small, small scale, but it has made me appreciate the reach of writing, but also the ways in which I need to always reach for myself first when I write. 

9. In your poem “Redlining,” you have this memorable, important passage:

[…] Can you hear
the rap I’m blasting down your perfect street? Here,
take it—every beat will fight for me. If you can hear
it, that means I’m winning, that means you can’t hurt me here.
Means I’m belonging if it’s the last thing I do.

I think about how a sense of belonging might be the most foundational
thing people can have. No one should have to fight for it, and yet America has done plenty of things to minimize, compromise, compartmentalize, or outright deny belonging to various groups. What role can the arts and education play in creating ways for people to belong? Do you think they can save anyone from having to fight to belong—or at least chip away at that system, those invisible norms?

I think the arts help us see the human heartbeat of someone else. They help us to understand that we’re all living a life here and those lives are different but equally worthy. They help us see our society, for better or worse. They help us examine our own beliefs and measure them against kindness, understanding, rage, hate, love, fear. They help us hear our own voices, and they provide us ways to use that voice. Sometimes, we can quell the violences we may feel led to enact just by honoring our feelings and processing them in art. Or, by experiencing art and recognizing that we aren’t alone in this life of survival. 


About the author

AshleyM. Jones is Poet Laureate of Alabama. She is the first person of color and youngest person to serve in the office’s ninety-three-year history. Jones is the author of three award-winning collections of poetry, and she lives and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama. 

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