Believe in the Power of Your Voice: An Interview with New Converse MFA Faculty Member Ashley M. Jones

Converse MFA: You have a forthcoming book out soon. Can you tell us a little about your book and the process of writing it? How long have you worked on the collection? When and where can we find it? 

Jones: My newest book, REPARATIONS NOW! will be published in September by Hub City Press–the pre-order link is here.This book, like my other two, took three years to write–I keep a pretty steady rhythm with writing poems, and it always turns out that three years is the magic number. This book, my third, examines the things we are owed: love, apologies, humanity, respect, and atonement by our nation and by white supremacy. Reparations of all kinds are in this book–so there’s something for everyone to sink into, and to wrestle with. A mentor once told me that your third book is really your first book, and I really do feel that way–I love my first two books, and they represent me well, but this book found me in a place in life and career that left little room for the anxieties of self-doubt and left much more room for a confidence and appreciation of my own voice and perspective. I’m not looking to “prove myself” or “secure” my place in the literary world. Some of those anxieties existed with my first and second book. Now, I’m writing because the spirit leads me to it–no worries about the world around me and how I might fit into history. Just a poet with her words and the way those words move. That is, of course, not to say that I’m not concerned with the world around me–of course I am.  I just mean that I feel like the world is big enough for so many of us, and I want to reject the traditional “fight for just one spot of shine” mentality by feeling confident in my literary existence and allowing the art-making not to be tainted by that. 

Converse MFA: Can you talk a little bit about how you shaped this collection, the decisions that went into arranging the poems and selecting them? 

Jones: I did not know, when I began writing the poems in RN! that they would become this book. My process, usually, for writing books is to just focus on each poem as it comes, not spending too much energy on what it could be. And, before I know it, there it is. Often, my poems speak to each other by pure virtue of the fact that they came out of me–I’m a rather obsessive person (I think, perhaps, all writers are) and what I write about for three years, yes, revolves around the same themes. So, shaping and selecting aren’t too challenging for me. When ordering my books, I hold fast to what Denise and I worked on with my first book–telling a multilayered story through interweaving poems about history and the present. I like to give the reader the sense that all of these topics–the lynchings of Black people, having unlucky romantic love, loving God and family, asking for reparations–are related and inextricably linked. In my own body, all of these things have a place, and I work to erase this idea that we aren’t multifaceted beings–Whitman said it, we contain multitudes. 

Converse MFA: Can you tell us what informs your writing? How do you start a new poem? A new book project? 

Jones: The whole world informs my writing–by which I mean that I’m influenced by so many things. Sometimes a poem gets born out of a song. Sometimes out of a 90s TV sitcom. Sometimes out of pain, and sometimes out of joy. Anything I encounter in the world goes into my art. My process is, perhaps, unconventional–I’ve never been able to write every single day at an appointed time. It’s just not good for me. Instead, I just live my life as normal, taking in whatever comes my way or whatever I seek out. Ideas or lines for poems, or, even more exciting, the shape of a poem will start to form in my head, and when that shape starts becoming clear, that’s when I know it’s time to get to the page. Maybe it sounds a little new agey to say so, but I’m governed by Spirit in my art practice–I believe everything is spiritual, and I do think my writing talent was given to me by God. All of us have our own special gift, and this one is mine. So, I listen–I wait for that shape or those lines to come into view, and I obey the spirit that brings that poem and I write it down. 

Converse MFA:  When did you know you wanted to be a writer? 

Jones: I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was seven years old. I remember, quite vividly, reciting “Harriet Tubman” by Eloise Greenfield, dressed as Tubman, in front of my second grade class. Speaking those words ignited something in me, and I was already a rather bookish child. We read a lot at home, and I had written some storybooks for class assignments, but when I recited that poem and the power of Tubman and Greenfield and the great expansive landscape of Black poetry washed over me (certainly I did not know all of this at seven–this is thirty year-old Ashley assigning language to what I felt), I knew I wanted to create that kind of art, too. I started carrying around a composition notebook after that–my “spy journal,” as I had also been very attached to Harriet the Spy, which I had read around this time–and I do still have it. In it are little poems which are, I have to admit, way too angsty for a seven-year-old. I’ve been studying writing ever since–I went to the Alabama School of Fine Arts from 7-12th grade, and went on to study English and Creative Writing on the undergraduate and graduate levels. 

Converse MFA:  Is there anything you would advise an aspiring writer to do or not to do? 

Jones: I would advise an aspiring writer to believe in the power of their voice. That’s so much of the battle as a writer, believing that what you say has value and can impact someone. Staying authentic to yourself and to your unique voice and perspective is key, I think, to a fulfilling career as a writer. I’m not a veteran yet, so we’ll see if my theory continues to hold true! 

Converse MFA: You studied writing in college and received your MFA. What do you think you gained as a writer when you participated in a writing program? 

Jones: I think the MFA gave me some tools I needed to learn who I wanted to be as a writer in a professional and literary capacity. Interacting with my instructors, who are active in the field, really showed me the possibilities of a poet’s life, and meeting classmates whose work was always inspiring really pushed me to keep exploring new ways of creating art and expressing myself. The time I had to write and learn and write this first book was truly invaluable–those three years helped me develop my own writing practice, and it gave me the confidence to step out into the big writing world once I graduated. 

Converse MFA: What advice would you give students for making the most of an MFA program? 

Jones: I think what really helped me was to focus on what it was I wanted to get out of the experience. Some folks just want to meet other writers. Some folks need structured places to get feedback. Some folks need to learn more about the art form. Everyone has something they’re looking for, and staying really committed to that can allow you to get the most out of your time. I knew I wanted to come out of my program with a publishable manuscript and knowledge about writing and teaching that I didn’t have before. So, I learned as much as I could, I taught as much as I could, I volunteered and learned about ways to serve the community, and I took each assignment very seriously. That is, I treated each assignment as a fruitful opportunity, a chance to write a poem which could do something. Focusing in and giving my all to each piece is what I needed from my time, and I think I achieved my desired result! My graduate thesis became my first book! 

Converse MFA: What are the top three things you try to get across to your students when teaching? How do you help them learn that? 

Jones: I try to tell students that 1) they are already real writers. There is no magical diploma or even a magical publication that can make you more “real” than anyone else. Their work is already whole. They are already whole. I’m there to help as they move through that journey, but I’m not there to make them “real.” 2) I try to teach them that writers are actually alive right now. There’s a wealth of great contemporary work being written, and it actually matters a lot to realize that there are folks living and breathing and writing and maybe those people also reflect our backgrounds, too. For me, reading the work of Black writers and living Black writers really opened a door in my own thinking about my possibility. I try to offer this to students as well. and 3), I want students to feel like the learning process is reciprocal–they can teach me things, too–I’m not the keeper of all knowledge and I don’t desire to be that. We all have knowledge to share, and I’m just as inspired by their work as they might be of mine! 

Converse MFA: As a writing teacher, what advantages do you see to working in a low-residency program? 

Jones: The biggest advantage would have to be the flexibility–I did a traditional MFA which was great, but if I were go to back now and get a degree, it would 100% be low residency just so I could continue living my full life in the state of my choosing. And, there is something to be said about living in a place/time away from school–there might be more material to work with because your life is not all-consumed by school or the city in which your school is located. 

Converse MFA: Is there anything about you that you think people should know that can’t be found in a biography? 

Jones: Don’t think so! 

Converse MFA:  Finally, What are you reading right now? Which books might we find on your bedside table? 

Jones: On my mental bedside table, I’m still trying to get through Celia Cruz’s autobiography (in Spanish!)–but most of my reading time is spent in the Submittable stacks at POETRY and Simple Machines, or with drafts of student work. I’m hoping to get back to ALL ABOUT LOVE by bell hooks, and I want to finally start PARABLE OF THE SOWER by Octavia Butler. 

Ashley M. Jones received an MFA in Poetry from Florida International University (FIU), where she was a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Fellow. She served as Official Poet for the City of Sunrise, Florida’s Little Free Libraries Initiative from 2013-2015, and her work was recognized in the 2014 Poets and Writers Maureen Egen Writer’s Exchange Contest and the 2015 Academy of American Poets Contest at FIU. She was also a finalist in the 2015 Hub City Press New Southern Voices Contest, the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award Contest, and the National Poetry Series. Her poems and essays appear or are forthcoming in many journals and anthologies, including CNN, the Academy of American Poets, POETRY, Tupelo Quarterly, Prelude, Steel Toe Review, Fjords Review, Quiet Lunch, Poets Respond to Race Anthology, Night Owl, The Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, pluck!, Valley Voices: New York School Edition, Fjords Review: Black American Edition, PMSPoemMemoirStory (where her work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2016), Kinfolks Quarterly, Tough Times in America Anthology, and Lucid Moose Press’ Like a Girl: Perspectives on Femininity Anthology. She received a 2015 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and a 2015 B-Metro Magazine Fusion Award. She was an editor of PANK Magazine. Her debut poetry collection, Magic City Gospel, was published by Hub City Press in January 2017, and it won the silver medal in poetry in the 2017 Independent Publishers Book Awards.

Her second book, dark // thing, won the 2018 Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry from Pleiades Press. Her third collection, REPARATIONS NOW! is forthcoming in Fall 2021 from Hub City Press. She won the 2018 Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize from Backbone Press, and she is the 2019 winner of the Lucille Clifton Legacy Award from St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Jones is a recipient of a Poetry Fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and a 2020 Alabama Author award from the Alabama Library Association. She was a finalist for the Ruth Lily Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship in 2020. She currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama, where she is founding director of the Magic City Poetry Festival, board member of the Alabama Writers Cooperative and the Alabama Writers Forum, co-director of PEN Birmingham, and a faculty member in the Creative Writing Department of the Alabama School of Fine Arts. She currently serves as the O’Neal Library’s Lift Every Voice Scholar and as a guest editor for Poetry Magazine.

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