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Jones, Alabama’s new poet laureate, has Black Belt roots

Poet Laureate Ashley Jones

by: Casey Roberts

Ashley M. Jones, of Birmingham, has been named poet laureate of Alabama. Poet laureate is an unpaid, four-year position which largely involves being an ambassador for the literary arts in the State of Alabama.

In its 92-year history, Jones is the youngest poet laureate to be named to the position at the age of 31. She currently teaches at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham and Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Jones is the founder and director of the Magic City Poetry Festival, a board member of the Alabama Writers Cooperative, and the Alabama Writers Forum, co-director of PEN Birmingham, and a faculty member of the Creative Writing Department of the Alabama School of Fine Arts. She is also a graduate of the Alabama School of Fine Arts. After graduating from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, she became a member of the Core Faculty at Converse University’s Low Residency Master of Fine Arts Program. Among her recent accomplishments, Jones served as a guest editor for Poetry Magazine.

Although a resident of Birmingham, Jones shares roots in the Black Belt, through her grandmother, the late Willie Lee Lispcomb of Greensboro. Citing her grandmother as a source of wisdom, Jones not only applies that wisdom to her poetry, but to her life as well. According to Jones, her grandmother was a poet in her own way, but not in the conventional sense.
“Don’t start what you can’t hold out,” is the advice Jones’s grandmother gave her that has become a guiding principle. That in itself is poetry. However, Jones also said the “poems” her grandmother created were present in the lives of her children and grandchildren, instilled with her wisdom.

In a poem for her grandmother’s funeral, Jones wrote, “You who took life’s hard knocks in your two hands and shaped them into roses, shaped nieces into daughters, you who worked the fields, who scrubbed floors, who worked in factories, you who still had love left over after all that work.” Jones feels her poetical works are a reflection of her grandmother’s words.
On Thursday, January 27, Jones spoke at Stillman College at their Spring Convocation in Birthright Alumni Hall. There she told students to take her grandmother’s advice and hold out for their dreams, whatever they may be.

“I definitely think poetry, and art in general, is the equalizer. There’s a lot of difficult conversations that are hard to have the normal way, but when we come together around art sometimes it is easier to enter those conversations. I’m hopeful my poetry can provide that space for people to think through some difficult topics and maybe start some conversations they wouldn’t have before,” Jones said. This highlights Jones ongoing mission for her poetry: to create a path for justice through empathy.

From the time she was seven and read a poem about Harriet Tubman to her class, Jones work has always been centered on social justice and empathy. Jones hopes her next four years as poet laureate will reflect those values.

“This is a huge honor and a huge responsibility.” Jones said. “I wanted to be very true to myself on the page. I wanted to be political on the page. I wanted to serve a leadership position by becoming the poet laureate. I want to hold it out over the four years I will serve. When my service is done, I want to say our State started leaning toward inclusivity in all spaces and we were able to hold it out,” Jones added.