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I Create Birmingham: Ashley M. Jones

“I hope to see more literary events spontaneously popping up within the literary community, but I also hope to see the literary community expanding until it’s just the community — no need to modify. “

Poet Ashley M. Jones has not rested on her laurels since publishing her debut poetry collection Magic City Gospel in early 2017. After receiving the silver medal for poetry in the 2017 Independent Publishers Book Awards and garnering positive notices in Publishers Weekly and The New Yorker, the Birmingham native, who is also a member of the Alabama School of Fine Arts’ Creative Writing faculty, began coordinating the first-ever Magic City Poetry Festival, coming up in April.

The 2018 Magic City Poetry Festival will be a week-long celebration of poetry in Birmingham. What inspired you to organize this event?

Well, I’ve wanted to create some sort of poetry festival in Birmingham after seeing what Scott Cunningham did in Miami with the O, Miami Poetry Festival. Attending grad school in Miami allowed me to see the impact of this festival up close and personal, and I want that sort of radical and widespread poetry celebration for Birmingham! My fellow Alabama Writers’ Conclave board member Alina Stefanescu brought the PEN America piece my way last October. We applied for a grant for what became our keynote event, and when we got that funding, I took the opportunity to create a festival (finally!) around that event. It’s a small festival this first year, but I hope to keep growing it until it’s really reaching the whole city all throughout National Poetry Month.

Can you tell our readers about some of the events that will be taking place? What are you particularly looking forward to?

Yes! We have three great events this year — the first, on April 2nd at 6pm, is a networking mixer/open mic/poetry showcase all in one, held at Studio 2500, which is an art gallery run by my fellow ASFA alum and local visual artist Willie Williams, Jr. We have a few local poets slated to warm the mic up, and then we’ll have an open mic for whoever is brave enough to sign up to share their work! Our keynote event is on April 4th, the 50th anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. We will be at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in the Abraham Woods Community Room. It features the writer Kiese Laymon and the poet Jacqueline Trimble. Each writer will share some work, and then they will join me onstage for a question and answer/community conversation. I’ll have a few questions, we’ll take some from our local audience, and we will also take a few questions from those viewing the feed remotely from Huntsville (via Out Loud HSV) and Tuscaloosa (at UA). The final event is a community showcase featuring several local poets and the Alabama State Poet Laureate Jennifer Horne on April 7th at DISCO at 3 pm. I’m particularly looking forward to EVERYTHING! I just can’t wait to see people sharing poetry and enjoying poetry together in Birmingham!

As a poet who is also an educator, how do you juggle the needs of your own creative process with your teaching duties? Do you find that one informs the other?

They are always informing each other. I learn best, I think, when I have to teach — you can’t really know something until you have to explain it to someone else, and that’s so true for me when it comes to poetry. I find new reasons to appreciate poems and poets because of my teaching, and because of how my students receive and interact with the material. And, seeing the myriad of ways my students create poems and stories really energizes me to come to the page with new energy. And, my writing enlivens my teaching not only because it keeps me in the form and keeps me reading and learning new things to share, but also because it legitimizes my place as a teacher of writing. That is, if I weren’t actively writing, I don’t know that I’d be as passionate about (or that my students would believe me) encouraging them to also be active writers.

Who were some of your greatest influences as you were finding your voice as a writer? Any current favorites?

Lucille Clifton. Lucille Clifton. Lucille Clifton. She is the great poet of my writing life, but of course, there are/were many others. Eloise Greenfield led me during elementary school, Rita Dove during high school, Kevin Young during college, Audre Lorde during grad school, and Clifton through all of that, too. Currently, I’m studying and teaching Gwendolyn Brooks — what a powerhouse she was!

And, of course, the younger generation (of which I’m proudly a part) is killing it; lots of their books are making big splashes, and for very good reason. I don’t always have time to read them as soon as they arrive on my doorstep, though I make a point to order everyone’s book because supporting people is key, but trust me when I tell you that contemporary poetry is exciting. If you’re on social media, just keep your eyes peeled and you’ll see what’s being shared — and it is delicious. Check out Winter Tangerine’s Lineage of Mirrors features and you’ll see some folks who just rock so hard! And it’s not poetry, but I’m reading Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage right now — GOODNESS!

Do you have any advice or resources you recommend for aspiring writers in Birmingham? What do you hope to see more of as the literary community in Birmingham continues to grow?

Resources — well, I’d say to try to tap into some writing groups, for sure. If you’re a woman or female-identifying, check out the Sister City Connection. We put on events a few times a year; it’s a community of women writers, and the support and community I’ve encountered since linking up with them is really so invaluable. So there’s one thing — find community. Another place you might find community is at the Nitty Gritty Magic City Reading Series, which I help to put on. You can see professional writers do their thing and meet other aspiring writers. Maybe join a writer’s group like the Alabama Writers’ Conclave. Being connected to other Alabama writers might give you the support and even the tools you need to help propel you on your journey. (There are workshops taught at our annual conference — sign up for this year’s June conference, which will be held in Orange Beach.)

I hope to see more literary events spontaneously popping up within the literary community, but I also hope to see the literary community expanding until it’s just the community — no need to modify. That is, I would love for nonpoets and nonwriters to look forward to and seek out literary events. I want to see the community rally around art and artists in a way this city/country/world doesn’t often see. The expansion of the festival will hopefully do some of that work, but maybe there will be more ways for poets and artists to pour into and represent the community. We are the Magic City, after all, and what is art but magic?

Photo Credit: Joel Brouwer