Alabama’s Poet Laureate inspires students

Ashley M. Jones spoke with students about her new poetry collection, “Reparations Now!”

Virginia Laurie

On Oct. 25, Ashley M. Jones, Poet Laureate of the state of Alabama (2022-2026) and author of the 2021 poetry collection “Reparations Now!,” spoke with students in Professor Lesley Wheeler’s protest poetry class on the importance of writing in healing personal and societal wounds. 

Jones, recent guest editor Poetry Magazine, has been featured on CNN and the New York Times. Three days after her virtual visit to campus, Jones appeared on Good Morning America to promote her new book, the title of which comes from “Reparations Now, Reparations Tomorrow, Reparations Forever!,” a poem which appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Washington and Lee’s Shenandoah Magazine.

For Jones, addressing her identity as a Black woman in the South is vital to her art.

“I wanted to try to write more about my experiences, specifically as a woman, and specifically as a Black woman in the southern United States,” she said. 

Jones 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. She told students about the responsibility of being tied to a tradition of distinguished Black women poets such as Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks and Rita Dove. 

“I have to be vulnerable. I have to be able to say exactly what has happened to me, how it made me feel because that’s what they did, and it made me feel possible, like a human with other humans who are like me. It made me feel like I could be a poet, like I could use my voice, like I could dream of loving,” Jones said. “I want anyone who needs that acknowledgement to feel it in my work.”

She explained the importance of balancing her writing with self-care.

“Of course some of the themes are very difficult, having to go into these spaces that are very uncomfortable and violent, so the question becomes ‘How do I take care of myself?’” Jones explained.

“The writing itself does a lot of the reparative work for me. Some people have to analyze and research, but I have to write to figure out what I feel.”

Jones did not initially intend to tackle the ongoing legacy of racism in the U.S. Originally, she planned to write a book of sonnets musing on the end of a negative relationship. 

“As a writer, I do have to write to survive. As all of you know, there’s a lot of trauma within a human lifespan, and some people can run their trauma away, some people can paint, or sing, or build things. I write. That’s what I do to try to make it through life as best as I can,” she explained. “It just turned out all of [the poems] were angling towards the root of repair.”

Jones told students that she believes her work as a poet is her greatest tool for repair and activism. 

“On one hand, I am just writing because I have to for me, but on the other hand, this is my primary mode of activism,” she said. “I am not someone who does well in violent situations, I am not someone who does well in front of police. I am not someone who does well putting my life on the line in that way, and it’s taken me a lot to understand that and admit that because people will have you believe you’re not worthy of a movement if you’re not out there bleeding every single day. I had to think back to the Civil Rights movement here in Birmingham and how expansive the movement actually was. It takes everybody in order to make things move.”

She provided an example from the summer of 2020 during protests against the murder of George Floyd when she and fellow artists wrote poems to raise money for bail funds across Alabama. 

“For me, poetry is the thing. It has been my most successful way I can go into rooms — and it is still scary, it is still putting my life on the line, let me be very clear about that because sometimes travelling to different places, you don’t know what room you’re walking into — but I find the poems can enter someone’s mind and heart in a different way than reading an article or listening to a news story on television,” Jones said. “I find people are able to find a pathway to empathy easier sometimes with poetry.”

During a question and answer portion of the Zoom talk, Jones answered questions about specific poems from the book, including “All Y’all Really from Alabama,” a poem that tackles the misconception that racism exists only in the South. The poem was originally written as a sonnet, but Jones amended the traditional form to fit her artistic goals. 

Hannah Kang, ’22, said she enjoyed hearing Jones’ take on breaking molds. 

“She made me rethink structure as a personal tool rather than a measurement of excellence, which I believe W&L needs,” Kang said. “Her appreciation of difference and her bold demands from oppressive structures are salient in all of her works, and it inspires me to embrace my own identity.”

While Jones’ work inspires readers, she credited much of her production to divine inspiration, saying she considered her poetry practice a spiritual one and herself as a vessel for the message. 

“I feel like this is the gift I have been given, and I have to use it to help liberate my people and all people,” Jones said.