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Alabama’s youngest, first black poet laureate is a force of southern pride

Alabama’s youngest, first black poet laureate is a force of southern pride

October 15, 2021 at 10:00am

Alumna Ashley M. Jones is the youngest and first person of color to be named Poet Laureate of Alabama, a position created 91 years ago.

Being named poet laureate of her home state was long a dream for Jones, but not one she thought she would achieve so soon.

“This is the first year we have had someone of color, period,” Jones said. “So it is not that I am the first black. It is I am the first anybody who is not white.”

Jones always wanted to go to school in the south, specifically Florida. FIU’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing was a no brainer for Jones when she saw the lineup of professors – ones that would make a lasting impact in Jones’ life. After graduation, the Alabama native went back to her roots. Much of her work focuses on social issues and politics, challenging the narrative that the south is to blame for the sins of the nation.

“Hopefully, as poet laureate, I can shine some light on the work that is being done that is positive and just remind people that the south is still part of the U.S.,” Jones said.

In addition to being the face of poetry, Jones teaches at Converse College and Alabama School of Fine Arts, codirects the PEN American chapter in Birmingham, and runs a nonprofit called the Magic City Poetry Festival. The festival takes inspiration from the O, Miami Poetry Festival – a festival started by fellow FIU alumnus P. Scott Cunningham.

Much of her inspiration stems from her time at FIU.

“The M.F.A. program at FIU is very unique in that the professors don’t force you to write like them,” Jones said. “The professors were very focused on helping us become the best us.”

Denise Duhamel, Campbell McGrath, Julie Marie Wade and Donna Weir-Soley played instrumental roles in the poet laureate’s life. With them, she felt validated in her work – something she’s carried with her into her own teaching career.

“Denise is always showing me new ways to do form,” Jones said. “Campbell is just a genius in every way. Dr. Weir-Soley is a really important mentor of mine who’s been incredible in showing me black women poets and how I can follow in their legacy. Julie is just the hardest working poet on the planet.”

Jones is taking a page out of Wade’s book. She has written three poetry collections: Magic City Gospel, dark // thing and Reparations Now!. She’s not done yet. Jones just signed a book deal to write a book of poetry criticism – something she did not expect ever to do. But the advice of from one professor still influences her today.

“Campbell told us when we were in grad school you have to write a book of criticism,” Jones said. “So I was like, well, Campbell said it.”