The Plane That We Inhabit: A Conversation with Ashley M. Jones
Reparations Now! is the smart and timely third collection by poet, teacher, editor, and essayist Ashley M. Jones. These poems are often deeply personal, always beautifully crafted, as heartbreaking as they are wry, and, occasionally, outright funny. Jones has lost none of the facility with language, ability to play with form, or penchant for melding history and personal experience so evident in dark // thing (Pleiades Press, 2019), winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry, and Magic City Gospel (Hub City Press, 2017), winner of the silver medal in poetry in the Independent Publishers Book Awards. In Reparations Now! (Hub City Press), Jones clearly has come into her own, offering, perhaps, the most unabashed version of her incisive observations about what it means to be Black, a woman, and sensitive to the connection between history and the contemporary moment. The collection takes on subjects as disparate as the lynching of Mary Turner, an annoying child destined to become a mass shooter, dreams, R&B, hymns, prayers, religion, and contemporary and historical moments of violence against Black bodies. Jones transforms the mundane into religious iconography, all while making the case for reparations to reclaim all that has been lost personally and historically.
Ashley M. Jones is Poet Laureate of the state of Alabama (2022-2026). She received an MFA in Poetry from Florida International University (FIU), where she was a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Fellow. In addition to an extensive list of publications, Jones is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including 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. Jones is also a member of the Core Faculty at the Converse College Low Residency MFA Program. She recently served as a guest editor for Poetry Magazine.
I was thrilled to speak with Ashley M. Jones over Zoom about writing this new collection, the complications of spirituality, and weaponizing words.
The Rumpus: Reparations Now! is a fascinating title. Tell me how it came about.
Ashley Jones: Titles for poems or for books always make themselves clear when I least expect it. For this book, I had a couple of other titles that were all terrible. I was trying to make it something about a hymn or a prayer and it just was not doing it. When I wrote the piece, “Reparations Now, Reparations Tomorrow, Reparations Forever,” it was an intense sort of writing process for me because I had to read George Wallace’s whole speech and that was, whoa, a lot to take and to sort of inhabit his voice. After writing that poem, I kind of thought to myself, okay, this is really what I’m asking for, reparations of all kinds. It’s not just stop cutting our babies out of our stomachs and lynching us [like Mary Turner]. I mean, it definitely is that, but it’s also even smaller than that. It’s not just a check, as I said in the poem. I’d like to be able to drive through a certain neighborhood and not be afraid that the cops are going to come get me, right? Or I’d like to walk into a grocery store and be able to put my hands in my pockets and not feel like somebody’s looking at me any way. It’s those reparations.
Also, looking at all the poems in the book about men or other situations, it’s those reparations as well. I found myself wanting things back or at least having to realize I could take those things back, whether it was if I felt somebody hurt me, I could heal myself, or if I felt someone stole time from me, I could reclaim that time, to paraphrase Maxine Waters.
It’s reparations of all kinds and we need them immediately in our lives.
Rumpus: You play with non-traditional forms quite a bit. I was struck particularly by “Hymn of Our Jesus & the Holy Tow Truck,” a poem in the shape of an analog clock or a wheel. How did you come to use this form that is both simple and complicated?
Jones: There’s a very short story, and there’s a longer story. I first saw this form in Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine. She has a poem called “How (Not) to Speak of God,” and these standalone phrases that are, as the title suggests, how to or how not to name God, are arranged in a shape I think of as a starburst or a sun. In an interview I once read, she talks about how this form comes out of illuminated Bibles (I’m pretty sure that that’s what she said). My limited knowledge from graduate school of illuminated Bibles is that they always had weird stuff, you know?
Fast-forward to two summers ago. Every time I got in the car, I was behind a tow truck. I had never really noticed, because I haven’t had much tow truck experience, they have this cross on the back, which I’m sure has a real usage for grabbing the car. But when I saw it over and over, I was like, that cross is tilted in a Jesus way, you know? And I thought, what is the message, God? During that summer, this is kind of how poems appeared to me; I started to see the geometric shape of the poem and I thought, okay, this is the perfect time to use this form because it’s about the unending mystery of God. Because I saw the thing during the summer, I associated with being at home with my parents, who I associate with God because of how I was raised to believe in God. Everybody’s parents, if you’re blessed to have good ones, are your first example of what God is.
So, the poem came to me in that way. The first line, “Is it that easy? God” came first because I was looking at that tow truck, seeing that I was always following the cross so easily just driving down the road. A tow truck is unassuming. It’s not a preacher; it’s not a church. It’s just utilitarian. Right? Yet, to me, that’s how seamless God can be or God is in all of our lives. God is everywhere: in the tow truck, in the asphalt, in the sky. And then I thought, okay, cool. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were four little points like a cross? What if you could read it in different ways? It took a little finagling to get it done, but I wrote it in an afternoon.
Rumpus: It’s a poem that asks questions that it doesn’t answer, which is marvelous. I’m also fascinated by the way you use punctuation. Is there a word for, and I probably should have looked this up, the double colons that you use?
Jones: I don’t know if there’s a word for it, but I remember it from math, when you’re doing problems where “this is to this.” That’s what it means.
Rumpus: I love that it comes out of math but works in poetry. That goes along with this sense that you are calling on all of your intellectual and artistic resources in this collection; it feels as if Reparations Now! is the most you and most free of all your books. You seem to say exactly what you want to say about everything, including a very complicated and sometimes critical view of religion. For example, there are lots of hymns in the book, and repeated references to religious figures.
Jones: I could talk for years about religion and how complicated it really is. I’m so glad to hear that this book feels like me more authentically, because that’s how I felt writing it. For the first time, I didn’t feel that I had to prove anything. I didn’t have to be afraid of anything; I could write about anything that I wanted to write about. And that included God. In the contemporary academic space, religion is off-limits. It’s not on the table exactly unless we’re looking at it from a literary perspective. There’s no room for it if you’re Christian. And maybe if you’re something else, too. I definitely understand why people would pause if Christianity were privileged because in our Western world, people have just totally weaponized religion.
Rumpus: Right. That’s a great way to put it. “Weaponized.”
Jones: Yes, it is a weapon, a poison in the hands of humans. In this book, I said to myself, I’m going to write about everything, including God. And the God that I write about doesn’t have to be the God that I think everybody else wants to see. It can be the God that I actually interact with, which is maybe different from somebody else’s version of God. But that’s all right. So that’s where you get poems like “God Made My Whole Body.” Sometimes I felt, I feel, when I read it, am I going to alienate people by talking about God? And I’m like, well, no, I’m talking about me and God and what I think God is doing for and with me. That can be different for other people. I’m thinking right now of “Hymn of the Dogwood Tree.”
Rumpus: Another great poem, by the way.
Jones: Thank you. The complication there is that I love God, I think God is great, but I don’t think humans are so great and that’s usually where the tension comes. Somebody once asked me, “How do you reconcile bad things happening and God existing?” And I’m like, well, I’m not God, so I don’t know why things happen. That’s not for me to understand or to explain to anyone, not even to myself. I think the work has to reflect that same tension, especially, for me, when I’m writing about issues of race or violence. God is still there. But there’s also still the blood and the murder and the X, Y, and Z. They have to exist on the same plane because that is the plane that we inhabit. I don’t live in heaven, so I don’t know what it’s like to not have that stuff around me while I’m still trying to praise God, serve God.
Rumpus: “Hymn of the Dogwood Tree” combines your interest in Christianity with your interest in what happens to Black bodies because of white supremacy. Why do you think that’s important to write about?
Jones: That’s a good question. Maybe the simplest way to answer is to say I write about what I experience, and that is what I have experienced. Now, obviously I’m not Mary Turner. I’m not actively being lynched right now and hopefully I never will be. But all of what has happened and what is happening to Black people in this country impacts me deeply. It’s hard to go ahead.
Rumpus: What’s great about that Mary Turner poem is it ends on a question that asks how you can call a place home that would do this to you. That is the ultimate question, right?
Jones: Gosh, yeah. I’ll try to loop back to the Mary Turner, because that poem was actually very interesting to write. All of these poems have a story. I hope every poet can remember exactly where they were when they wrote a certain poem. But regarding writing about violence, because it can seem at a certain point, like you are just traumatizing yourself over and over, or some people could read it as trying to ”profit” off of Black death (I don’t think they know how publishing poetry works).
Rumpus: Profits? That’s a poetry joke right there.
Jones: Right. I’m very concerned with telling the truth and also sharing what it’s like to walk in the world as a Black person having all this history in my body. You know, there are all these studies that have been done to say that we carry genetically the memory of slavery. And it’s really palpable. I can’t do anything, go anywhere, and say anything without some part of it coming into my path. I certainly can’t learn about somebody like Mary Turner and then just say goodbye. To read what they did to this woman—it’s unreal, truly. And so I’m like, okay, we can’t just keep living our lives like everything was in the past. Everything’s good. We got Barack Obama. We’re done. Right? We need to face the history. We have never faced it before. Never.
Rumpus: Speaking of history, in “Soul Power” you also connect your own love life and some of your disappointment in these men whom you “did not love” to R&B singers who are icons of masculinity. For example, you mentioned Al Green with his shirt off earlier. But he was also a human being with his own history of domestic issues. Are you connecting the disappointment with these men and the romantic fantasy created by the music?
Jones: I think, on the one hand, I do have a certain association with male artists as those men I did not love. No offense to artists who are men, but I think artists who are men need to understand the history that they come from. Just like we were saying before, thinking about James Brown or [insert artist here], who would either be violent in their lack of commitment or violent with their hands or with their money or whatever. Maybe I have that association already because in my regular life, I have learned maybe I don’t need to date artists. Maybe that’s a fact of life that we need to accept—to get away from them, you know. But the songs do lead me there.
“Soul Power” by James Brown took me into that moment because in the poem, I say it’s like a time warp or a time loop that sound is so full of energy. And you can put a lot in that energy. It’s angry. It’s happy. It’s sensual. It’s excited. It’s Black. There’s so much in there. And the sound, the repeating, the sound of his voice, the sound of two men singing back to back, like somehow that all just clicked as, okay, I am now in this loop of men who are creative, men who are amazing in every other way except the way that matters to me right now. So, maybe it’s not a conscious thing.
Photograph of Ashley M. Jones by Ashley M. Jones.