Poetry flowed through an HBCU thanks to a history making poet-laureate. Learn more in the story from Donna Thornton at The Gadsden Times.

Ashley M. Jones made history in 2021 when she was named Poet Laureate of Alabama — the first Black poet to hold the title since its creation in 1931 and, at the age of 31, the youngest to carry the designation.

And Jones made an impression in Gadsden this week, reading from her works at Gadsden State Community College at a midday gathering, and later at Jake’s Music Room.

Jones is a creative writing instructor at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. She’s one of six women authors who’ve received a Rona Jaffe Writers Foundation Award, taking the honor in 2015.

She received the Silver Medal in the Independent Publishers Book Awards, the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry, a Literature Fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts, the Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize, and the Lucille Clifton Legacy Award. 

Ashley Jones, poet laureate of Alabama, reads from her works on Wednesday at a midday gathering at Gadsden State Community College.
Ashley Jones, poet laureate of Alabama, reads from her works on Wednesday at a midday gathering at Gadsden State Community College. (Photo Credit: The Gadsden Times)

Jones was a finalist for the Ruth Lily Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship in 2020, and her latest collection, “REPARATIONS NOW!,” was on the longlist for the 2022 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry. 

She published two earlier volumes of poetry: “Magic City Gospel” ( Hub City Press) and “dark // thing” (Pleiades Press).

The Gadsden Public Library partnered with Gadsden State’s Cardinal Arts Journal to bring Jones to Gadsden.

Jones’ poetry addresses many topics, from family relationships to police shootings, with evocative imagery and clarity in the ideas she expresses.

In poems she read Tuesday at Gadsden State, her words combined the universal themes — her loving relationships with her mother and her father — and the specific. She wrote of the confidence her mother instilled in her as a Black woman; of her father’s work in his garden — a garden and labor that he owned and used to feed his family, not that of a master or landlord.

“She brought me baby and Barbie dolls that shared my skin, brown beauties who smiled back at me …” she wrote in the poem about her mother.

Jones explained that her mother would only allow her to get dolls “that looked like us,” because when her mother was young, the only dolls she had were hand-me-downs from an employer’s white children.

Her poem for her father, “Photosynthesis,” tells of her father teaching her how to prepare soil for seed, the infant bud and “how the dark could nurse it till it broke its green arms out to reach the sun…”

At least 12 people have held the title of poet laureate of Alabama since 1931, when Samuel Minturn Peck became the first. It was established as an unpaid position to help promote creativity and the arts across the state.

Five women have held the title before Jones, but hers is the youngest and the first African American voice to be heard from this platform.

Jones joked with the group at Gadsden State that she had a list of “husbands,” and the second was Sammy Davis Jr., before reading her poem “What the Glass Eye Saw.” The poem gives a view of the segregated world that even a star like Davis saw in early days of his career.

Ashley Jones, poet laureate of Alabama, signs copies of her works on Wednesday during a midday gathering at Gadsden State Community College. (Photo Credit: Donna Thornton/The Gadsden Times)

Some of her poems look at other historical figures, such as Harriet Tubman and Sally Hemmings (the latter inspired after hearing a throwaway reference to Hemmings in the musical “Hamilton”).

Other poems look at the present, and modern relationships.

In “Stephon Don’t You Moan, or To Protect and To Serve,” she writes of the police shooting of Stephon Clark in Sacramento in 2018:

“is there a police protocol for grace,

for the moment between show us your hands and shoot? that night,

policeman, servant of the gun, did you give     space

for a man’s innocence to bloom? despite

the loaded weight of your finger on the trigger,

despite             how the night

painted that man bigger,

made him a giant with a fireball in his hands? despite the loud explosion of your fright?”

Another poem’s title says it all: “For the Men Who Made Sure I Knew They Didn’t Love Me.” Its tone goes from playful to poignant from one line to the next.

“No one asked you for kisses so wet I had to towel down after

For kisses so stolen I had to call the police

For kisses so sweet I almost believed them.”

Jones’ three collections are available at book stores and online.