interview with Steven Salisbury
Ashley Jones is a poet known for her books Magic City Gospel and dark // thing. She received her MFA from Florida International University, directs the Magic City poetry festival, and teaches at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham. I reached out to her to talk about her contributions to Hoxie Gorge Review and her experience as a poet in current times.
SS: As a young writer, it is important to me to take bits of all the writers I get to talk to and try to implement their habits to see what works best. That said, I suppose I’ll start with the question that I ask all professional writers whenever I get the chance: what does your process look like? How do you decide what to write about? How often do you write, and how long does revision usually take you? I had a teacher tell me to write in silence, by hand, writing the poem out 5 times before beginning to make edits. This did not work for me. What works for you, and what can others try to experiment with in order to figure out the best way for them to write?
AMJ: I’ll definitely start by saying that it is, as you said, so important to see what works best. Practicing what you want to do and having the assurance that that is just fine is a huge part of what makes writing enjoyable for me, and what helps me to produce the best work. I’ve also had teachers give me those kinds of prescriptions for writing, but they don’t always work. As for me, I write when I feel like I have something to say. That is, when I’m prompted by something I see in nature, in the news, in a book I’m reading, in the face of someone I love—that’s when I take to the page. I am very intentional when I make it to the page, and I like to work away at the piece in the moment I’m writing it. This edit-as-I-go method doesn’t work for everyone—it doesn’t always work for me. But often, I’m writing and editing simultaneously. I do go back to edit, but I don’t like to spend months or weeks on one poem. I like to write it and get it to a finished state as efficiently as I can. Sometimes, I’ll sit with the idea for a poem for weeks, if it seems like I can’t get it on the page in the way I had envisioned, but when it’s time to write, whether the idea came in an instant, an hour, or over a month, I’m ready to get to writing and get it done.
SS: In an interview with The Rumpus, you talked a bit about the difficulty that writing prose, particularly fiction, presents you. Can you talk a little bit about why all three of the poems you submitted to Hoxie Gorge are prose poems? What do you think that form affords writing in general, and more specifically, the poems in this journal?
AMJ: It’s so interesting that you’d ask me this about prose, when I think I’m starting to enter a more prosaic phase. Maybe because I’m trying to start writing essays for a new collection, maybe because I’m starting to have more to get out that a line can’t contain, or maybe because I’ve been teaching prose this semester. Either way, I’m definitely entering a more prose-centered mindset at the moment, but I definitely still feel like writing fiction is extremely challenging to me. Creating worlds, characters, problems to solve—all of that is hard for me to do in a fictional sense. I find that I always return to nonfiction stories, to people I really know or situations about which I’ve read. I take my hat off to those who are out here writing stories and novels and plays—I admire the form quite a lot, but it just doesn’t come naturally to me. Maybe waaaaaay way down the line, I’ll have the patience and dedication to write some fictional prose. For now, I’m really interested in what the prose poem can do and what the essay can do.
Regarding the poems that appear in this journal, I think the prose poem form offers me a container which I can fill, to the brim, with words or emotion or questions or images. In “The Self Returns, A Year Later,” what I wanted was the space to create memory. Not that it can’t happen in a traditionally lineated poem, but with this particular memory, which was one I had been struggling with for a year, I wanted space to fully explore everything I felt, everything I saw. I wanted to tell a story. The separation of the final line is an attempt at a sort of volta, even in a prose poem, and a physical representation of how I felt my real self separated from the self that stood there with that man in that moment. In “In My Dream, I’m Shot Again and Again,” I wanted to create the dreamscape. Re-creating dreams is, perhaps, the hardest thing anyone can do. Dreams are so unwieldy and untrappable, and I wanted, again, the space to really repaint the dream. This dream is a variation of a recurring nightmare I have about getting shot, and I’ve wanted to write about that for a very long time, but whenever I’ve tried in lineated form, it hasn’t really worked. This is the first successful dream recreation I think I’ve ever done, and I think I owe part of that success to the prose poem form. Finally, in “Words with Friends,” I wanted to tell another story—yes, about failed attempts at romance, but more of a collage of a few men, not just one in particular. I also wanted to recreate the blocks you play with in Words with Friends. Everything about this feeling I describe in the poem seemed trapped, in my memory, in the space of an impenetrable wooden block (a la Scrabble or Words with Friends). I had actually forgotten about playing this game with a man until, on a plane somewhere this fall, I played another word game (alone) and the memory buzzed through me in an instant. This form allowed me to not only create the block shape, but to trap those memories and funnel them out of my brain, even if just for a little while.
SS: Can you talk a little bit about how the MFA program at Florida International University helped you grow as a writer and student? What part did you find most helpful? Least enjoyable?
AMJ: Attending graduate school at Florida International University was, perhaps, one of the best and most difficult decisions I’ve ever made in my whole life. It was my first big move away from Alabama, and that was really hard for me because I’m extremely close to my family. That heartache and homesickness, however, made way for my desire to write about the South, about being Southern, being Black, and about the history of my home state. That desire to recreate home on the page made way for my biggest push into being a more authentic poet. My instructors were amazing, and my cohort was supportive and vibrant. Campbell McGrath, Denise Duhamel, and Julie Marie Wade taught diverse and living authors in addition to those from the Old Guard—they made space for each students’ individual voice and they wanted to help us be the best version of ourselves in our work. That is invaluable as you move through the MFA process, which I know isn’t always as loving as the program which I was fortunate enough to attend. Dr. Donna Aza Weir-Soley has become an important mentor for me, from her graduate course on Audre Lorde at FIU to the present. I’m still in touch with all my teachers, and they are still helping me figure out Poetryland and the great big monster that is academia. I honestly believe if I hadn’t attended FIU when I did and with the teachers I had, I wouldn’t have been so successful in placing my first two books. But, just like I said with writing process, how you choose to study writing or take time to write is individual. Unless your goal is to teach, an MFA isn’t necessary for poets to really understand their voice and find examples in published writing. I know some poets who do not have the MFA education and whose writing is still brilliant, whose minds are still full of literary knowledge, whose stories are being told in published books and in journals. But for me, I needed the structure of the graduate program. I needed the networking and connections the program provided me, and I needed to be far away from home to finally see it clearly.
SS: There are many different ideas as to what poetry should be trying to do, what direction it’s going in, and how to use it. What do you see as poetry’s “job”, so to speak? Has poetry’s role changed over time?
AMJ: I think, for too long, people have tried to tie down poetry and art in general—US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo has talked about the ways in which poetry has been stolen by academia and trapped by what we sometimes call the Ivory Tower, and how poetry is finding its way back to its rightful owners: the people. I align with the Poet Laureate—I think poetry’s job is to exist as record, as conversation, as song, as story, as the political, as an exploration of language, as a mirror to society. I think poetry is too multifaceted, to alive to abide by any one definition or school of thought. I’m grateful to be writing in this current age of poetry, which is opening doors for more diverse voices and practices. I’m grateful to write in a time when I feel like the poetry landscape is on fire in the most beautiful and restorative way—poets are telling us that we don’t have to aspire to “measure up” to only those who hold language hostage in their towers, ivory or otherwise. We can aspire to be ourselves and be poets in the way that comes most naturally to us. We can tell our stories, we can use old forms or reinvent them, we can invent new forms, we can see the blank page as an opportunity instead of a curse.