How to Become a Poet: A Conversation with Ashley M. Jones


In Spring 2014, Ashley M. Jones—then a poetry MFA student at Florida International University—enrolled in my inaugural Lyric Essay seminar. I remember her quick intelligence and her close consideration of every text we read. I remember her openness toward the experiments of her peers, the thoughtful advice she offered fellow writers. I even remember a startling line from one of her own lyric undertakings—“The Virgin Mary was deflowered through the ear.”

Ashley went on to receive a 2015 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and then to place her MFA thesis, Magic City Gospel—also a finalist for the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award and the National Poetry Series—with Hub City Press, where the book debuted in January 2017. In 2018, she won the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for her second poetry collection, dark // thing, due out from Pleiades Press in 2019.

I’m fortunate to have kept in touch with Ashley over the years and to have watched her rise as a young poet of purpose and vision. This summer, she took time to answer some of my questions about art, activism, and identity, and their joyful intersections in her life and work.


The Rumpus: Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” I wanted to start by asking in what ways you feel you were born a poet—if you do—and in what ways you feel you have become a poet?

Ashley M. Jones: I do think I was born a poet. No, I won’t attempt a discussion of genetics and other science-y stuff, but I will say that I think being born Ashley M. Jones, a sensitive (but I hide it!) and introverted (but outgoing!) middle child contributed greatly to my poet-self. I am a people watcher—people interest me. I don’t always like talking to people, but since I was a child, I’ve always been so fascinated with what I now know to be called the human condition.

In grocery stores, my mom would always try to make me stop staring at other people, especially when they discovered my stares. It wasn’t that I was trying to creep that other person out—really I was just so interested in that other human being and the way they moved through the world. It helps, too, that I was born into the Jones family in Birmingham, Alabama. My parents fostered a nurturing and art-full home environment. Reading and creating was what we did for fun, so I sort of knew this is what I would end up doing as an adult. I have become a poet by growing older, by reading more, and by trusting my own voice. That is, with any art form, practicing it over time is what creates growth and more confidence. Now that I’m two books in, I’m feeling more comfortable with poetry—feeling like I can really try anything and say what I want, exactly how I want to say it. Becoming a poet has meant gathering information, writing and writing and writing some more, and really diving into what an “Ashley Jones” poem can be.

Rumpus: I’ve always been impressed by your poetic range: free-verse and neo-formalist, lyric and narrative, left-aligned “poem-looking” poems as well as experimental shapes and structures. Your subject matter spans the personal, historical, contemporary, and cultural, as well as many sites of intersection among them. How has your poetry has evolved over time?

Jones: When I was a young poet, I think I danced around (and not in that good, Gregory Hines way) my most honest and authentic voice as a Southerner, as a woman, as a Black Southern woman. That is, I was trying to write from any place but the realest place. I wanted to sound “like a writer” so I tried to write about things “writers” write about. I wrote bad love poetry without having experienced the emotion. I wrote about coffee shops. I didn’t do too much exploration with form. This was high school—I attended the Alabama School of Fine Arts, so I’ve been studying writing seriously since I was twelve years old.

In college, I started to edge closer to writing things that felt honest. I still hid behind narrative poetry about characters I’d invented, but I started to write about emotions I could access, and I wrote about issues of race as well. In graduate school at Florida International University, I really missed home, and that homesickness made me finally write about the things I knew, loved, and loved to hate—my home state of Alabama, the complicated history of that state and of our country, Blackness, womanness, Americanness. I read more widely in my courses, and that trickled down into my work—more forms, more confidence on the page (confidence to say what I wanted to say and to use the page however I wanted to use it). What you see in Magic City Gospel is a reflection of a true discovery of my voice and the power of that voice on the page.

Rumpus: I suspect it takes a tremendous amount of energy to be and to sustain Ashley M. Jones. How do you keep your inner art-making and educator light strong and bright? How do you find/maintain balance in your life—your version of Eliot’s “still point in the turning world”?

Jones: Let me start by saying yes, it does take a tremendous amount of energy to be and sustain Ashley M. Jones. And also Ashley Jones, the regular human without the “M” and without the writerly commitments/persona. I’m not, despite my mother’s claims that I most certainly am, an extrovert. I’m an introvert who is outgoing and who does enjoy talking to people, but who also needs that quiet space. I don’t thrive on the energy of full rooms all the time. I’m a Leo, so there is a level of enjoyment I get from being given attention, but again, it’s not a constant thing for me. Balance, I’m not sure, is quite mine—I find myself fatigued more often than not.

I think what sustains me, and what keeps me working besides deadlines and a need to pay my bills is that I’m honestly really truly excited about writing and reading and spreading poetry. Sometimes when I’m super tired and ready to veg out and not read another line ever again, I’ll go teach a class or go to a reading and then I’m right back in it—ready to be a poet once more! I also try to let everything I do feed into itself. So, as a teacher, I’m trying to work my poet muscles—reading poetry with students and reading poetry my students write. As a poet, I try to work my community service muscles—writing poetry that speaks to my community and that (hopefully) breaks open barriers between communities. There are barely still points in this turning world, but I also try to find times and places to be invisible—sometimes I’ll duck off of social media or I’ll spend a day where I don’t respond to email. But it’s also true that staying busy keeps me going—this world is such a painful one, but it does help to keep myself doing something so I’m not always sitting in that pain.

Rumpus: Your first book, Magic City Gospel, came out just two months after the inordinately painful presidential election of 2016. I find that most of the poems in this collection are reckoning with history—poems like “Rammer Jammer,” “What It Means to Say Sally Hemings,” and “The History Books Have Forgotten Horace King”—with an ardent devotion to seeing the past clearly, even when it hurts to look. Could you talk a bit about your vision for this book, your research process for writing it, and your interaction with readers as what I would call a “poet-historian”?

Jones: So, as far as research for the book, I did some reading and viewing of historical materials to situate myself in the time of the event about which I wrote. For example, for “Rammer Jammer,” I watched the video coverage of George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door, I looked at photos, I read historical accounts—all so I could find the human moments, the pieces that would make the poem seem as if it really did come from that moment. I saw, in one of the photos, that George Wallace’s suit jacket was buttoned incorrectly. That little detail, coupled with the facts of his changing politics (he didn’t start as a segregationist, but after a failed gubernatorial race, he changed his platform and got endorsed by the KKK to win the next race) made me see him in a new way—not a good way, necessarily, but a way that allowed me to write the poem. In “Sally Hemings,” reading the history printed at Monticello was extremely helpful. I gathered as many facts as I could in order to present them in the poem. It was very important, in that poem, to present the facts exactly as they were recorded, in order to paint a more realistic picture of Hemings’s life than what we often learn. I try to use my role as poet to also spread knowledge—sometimes people are more receptive to facts (especially darker ones) when they’re presented in an artistic form. And that’s the goal—to educate as many people as possible by disarming their prejudices and preconceived notions.

The current zeitgeist has definitely changed my writing—living in the age of #45 and all the horrors he brings has made my poetry angrier, but also less afraid to say the things I feel and feel the things I feel. I’m upset, to be frank. I’m holding on to joy because it’s the only thing I can count on.

When people ask me how this new book is different than Magic City Gospel, I often say “it’s not cute,” by which I mean I’m not holding anything back. Yes, the technique and formal elements are still there, but I’m not concerned with making anything a sweet pill for readers to swallow.

Rumpus: Having been granted a sneak preview of dark // thing, I want us to dive into this stunning second book of yours. There are a couple of poems that speak directly to our cultural moment—“Election Year 2016: The Motto” and “Who Will Survive in America? Or 2017: A Horror Film.” How is it different writing about the history of the present, as it is unfolding, versus writing history that has been codified in some sense by time. I want to learn more about how you personally work to maintain a balance of emotions and aesthetic control when our present is so palpably raw with racism, misogyny, and xenophobias of all kinds.

Jones: For me, writing “history” and “present” are rather equal in their difficulty, as they seem to coexist within me. In some ways, historical poems feel like “present” poems because, unfortunately, the veneer of “time gone by” and “we are past all this” or “never again” has washed away (read: never really existed for me—I learned about the way the world sees me when I was five years old). It’s important to write about the past and present together to really show that these things have never truly stopped. We have been, instead, distracted by empty policies and “colorblindness” and the well-placed, saxophone-playing president here and there. Those two poems you referenced in your question were born, directly, out of an anger and a frustration with the constant, unrelenting cycle of oppression we face as Others in this country. These truths have always been self-evident: being created equal means nothing to those who are in power. No one will survive in America, it seems, when those who are in power are hell-bent on destroying every kernel of joy and freedom we have.

Now, on to joy—I do think, despite the general awfulness of wading through the daily micro- and macro-oppressions we face as citizens of the USA, there is room—necessity—for joy. Life cannot be survived without joy. And joy is, despite it all, everywhere. It’s a mistake, I think, so paint the existence of the oppressed as only full of despair. That negates our full human existence and it takes away our capacity for complex lives and thoughts. That reduction is what makes it possible for bigots and Presidents to call us dirty and worthless and killable. Joy makes us feel human and maybe it can also make us appear human, too. And when I say joy, I mean the joy that comes from a deep inside-place, not a painted smile and whites-of-the-eyes and shuck and jive. That’s sadness, not joy. All of this is at play when I write. I’m a human, so I feel all kinds of emotions. All of those show up in my work. Happiness is real, and I have to put it in my poetry because it exists in me. Anger is real, so, again, it comes onto the page.

Rumpus: What role has prose played in your writing life so far, and what role do you expect it might play in the future? In dark // thing, for instance, you have a fourteen-part sequence called “(Black) Hair,” and thirteen of those numbered entries appear to be written in prose. (One is a haiku.) Do you think of this writing as a prose-poem or proem sequence? A lyric essay perhaps? Tell us about the joys—and frustrations if they apply—of genre distinctions for you.

Jones: When I decided I was a poet—or maybe I should say that I realized I was born a poet—I found it harder and harder to write prose. Fiction, specifically. There’s something about creating a story that I just can’t quite wrap my mind around. Nonfiction has always been more natural to me in prose-land—it is, I think, a dear cousin of poetry. My hope is to write a collection of essays eventually. I may have just written the first draft of that collection. It’s a braided essay, for which I give you credit, as you’re the first teacher to lead me down that path. I’m excited to see where creative nonfiction can take me—and yes, I think that poem you mention is a prose-poem sequence. I wrote it, interestingly enough, in my last semester of the MFA at FIU—one of the last pieces from that time in my life that didn’t make it into Magic City Gospel! We were studying Sherman Alexie. (I know, I know—I can barely read his work without thinking about the awful things he did. His fall from grace revealed the shamefully low amount of Native American writers I know. I’m working on that. We all should.) And Alexie has a form in his first book of poetry that is sonnet-like, but it’s made of prose. That’s the form I imitated. And it was freeing! I remember Campbell [McGrath], whose class it was, saying how he loved when I broke open the page in that way, because it allowed me to go places the regular line didn’t allow. I think that’s the mode I’m in now, breaking open the poem in length and in content. So maybe I’m a genre-crossing writer, but only barely. Ask me again in five years. Maybe by then I’ll have made some more progress on that essay collection.

Rumpus: You’re two books deep in your own poetry career, a respected teacher of poetry, and an exemplary literary citizen. What advice do you have to fellow young writers who may be just starting out, to older writers who have come to this enterprise after following a different path for a while? Three writers every beginning poet should read? Three habits every beginning poet should cultivate? Any strategies to ward off discouragement and keep the joy alive?

Jones: I did a little math because I thought, there’s no way I’m that young! Five years ago, I had just finished my MFA, and the magic-train of Good Good News was just beginning! To even be able to say I have a “poetry career” is so humbling and thrilling, and I’m truly so grateful every single day. This is a hard industry. It’s hard to break into it, it’s hard to come back from mistakes, it’s hard to maintain the joy and to maintain whatever hold you have on whatever audience you can claim. Advice—I’ll go with what I always say, which remains true for me, and has remained true since I was twelve years old, just starting to study writing seriously. Be true to your own process and value that process. We are not all alike, as writers or as humans. Being different, being yourself—that’s valuable. Writing poetry (or anything, I’d guess) relies on authenticity, because a lack of it is painfully clear in the work. To be authentic on page means to be authentic in process as well. I’ve always been sort of an anti-academic, academically inclined person. I have not read all the classics, which, as an adolescent, was quite on purpose (my rejection of the canon is a totally different conversation). I do not fill every spare drop of my time writing or reading. I do other things I enjoy. I don’t write every day. I don’t spend weeks, years, lifetimes on revision. I’m not saying my way is right for everyone, but it is right for me. Yes, I’m always willing to learn and to adapt and to try new things, but it’s so important to realize that the kind of writer—person—you are is always already enough. You don’t have to drink yourself into the Great American Poetry Masterpiece. You don’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn to write if that doesn’t work for you. Keeping the joy revolves heavily around this piece of advice—it isn’t fun if it isn’t fun for you, you know? Yes, writing is work. No one is trying to take that away from the craft. But yes, it should be enjoyable, too.

Three to read: Lucille Clifton. Gwendolyn Brooks. And, I’m just discovering (I know I’m late, but thanks to my dear poet friend who knows who she is) June Jordan, whose essay on Phillis Wheatley just ripped me a new one. Bonus: Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, which is not poetry, but is necessary for the writers of poetry. All of these poets are Black women. That is not, readers, a mistake.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of 13 volumes of poetry, prose, and hybrid forms, including the newly released poetry collection, Skirted (The Word Works, 2021), the book-length lyric essay, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020) and the limited-edition, hybrid-forms chapbook, P*R*I*D*E (Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2020), which won the inaugural Hunger Mountain Chapbook Prize. A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, she teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University. More from this author →