Interview with Ashley M. Jones: Official Poet of the Sunrise Little Free Libraries Initiative
By Ellene Glenn Moore
The Little Free Libraries initiative is a national project that brings free library boxes to cities with no libraries or libraries with limited selections. In early 2013, still in her first year as an MFA student at Florida International University, Ashley M. Jones responded to a call for a poet to read at the City of Sunrise’s Little Free Libraries Ribbon Cutting Ceremony. In the following months, she has continued to contribute to the poetry community of Sunrise. Last month, we spoke over email about Little Free Libraries, the poetry community of the City of Sunrise, and her upcoming workshop for high school poets.
Ms. Jones is now in her second year at FIU, where she is a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Fellow in Poetry. She is originally from Birmingham, Alabama, and her poetry has been published in Aura Literary Arts Review, Sanctuary Literary Magazine, and the Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy.
Ellene Glenn Moore: How did you become the Official Poet of Sunrise, Florida?
Last year, there was an email sent out to the [Florida International University] MFA listserv from the City of Sunrise—the City needed a reader for their Little Free Libraries Ribbon Cutting Ceremony. Little Free Libraries is a nationwide initiative which provides free library boxes (à la newspaper distribution boxes) in areas in which there aren’t libraries, or in which there aren’t a lot of selections in the library. The Sunrise Leadership Academy Class of 2013 initiated this project, and along with the help of Miami based artist GG, it all came together beautifully. I responded to the call for a reader, and, after sending some of my work, I was chosen to read at the ceremony. Not only did I get to read my poems alongside award-winning author Edwidge Danticat, but my work was put into a booklet that was distributed in each of the four Little Free Libraries in Sunrise. Since that ceremony, I’ve remained involved in the Sunrise community and, before my first free workshop, the lovely people in the Sunrise government office named me Official Poet of the program.
EGM: What are the responsibilities of the position?
AMJ: Basically, as Official Poet, I’m involved in the City’s poetry initiatives. So, I provide free poetry workshops to local high schoolers every semester. My first workshop occurred in May 2013, and my upcoming workshop is scheduled for November 16th. Recently, I participated in the Word UP! Spoken Word Competition, co-sponsored by the Jason Taylor Foundation and the Omari Hardwick BluApple Poetry Network. I was originally a judge for this initiative, but ended up not being able to judge because I attended all of the workshops leading up to the slam to connect more with the students and witness the process of preparing for this event—I was just trying to have my cake and eat it, too, because I love being around the students so much.
EGM: On a broader scale, what do you think are the responsibilities of poets to their communities? Why do we have Official Poets and Poet Laureates?
AMJ: I think it’s important for artists, not just poets, to stay grounded. It’s easy to get wrapped up in line breaks and word choice and just the right sprinkling of simile. Although the artiness of poetry is important, I think it's also important to do something with that talent and spread the joy of your art throughout the community. This not only shows the world what wonders are found in poetry (it’s more than stuffy wordplay to me, and I think if more people realized [this fact] the world might be more full of beautiful words than harmful ones), but it also provides an important outlet for people who don't know where to turn. This idea of writing as an outlet has manifested itself most frequently, in my life, through my work with high school students. Students find a way to channel their feelings and their passions into words, and that, I think, is a lot more helpful than channeling those feelings and passions into hurting themselves or others.
Taking poetry into the community can also be a useful tool for literacy training—showing students that they can play with language on the page makes them want to interact with words a lot more, which is great for their reading and writing lives. The task of an official poet or a Laureate is to reach people with poetry. However that might happen is up to the poet, but it must happen. Even if I never write a work of poetic genius or receive hundreds of prizes to stack on my CV, I will be perfectly happy—more than happy—to take poetry into my community and make a positive difference with words. Words!!
EGM: Is your role as Official Poet in dialogue with your own work as a poet and a student? Has the experience informed your work, or vice versa?
AMJ: That's an interesting question...I think my role in Sunrise is definitely in dialogue with my own work as a poet and student. Like I said before, it’s easy to get caught up in the brainiac world of poetry. When I read at the Sunrise Little Free Libraries ceremony, a lot of people came up to me afterward and told me how my poems made them happy, how they made them reminisce on their own childhoods, and even made them cry. They asked me—me, little old nobody Jones from Birmingham, to autograph my booklet of poems that was passed out to the audience. These and other real-life reactions I've received really give me the confirmation that what I'm writing means something to people. I write about my life and I communicate my emotions in the best way I can—through poems. It’s good to know that the communication I'm offering isn’t dropping off into the literary abyss—people are listening and they hear what I'm saying. I've been in the academic writing world for a while, and sometimes I get down on myself because I'm not always as “poemy” as other poets—I write about the way my hair curls and the way my mom taught me to make biscuits. I'm glad to know that real-life people respond to it well.
As far as learning from my Sunrise experience, my students teach me a lot about being fearless—just this weekend, a student wrote about what I think was her childhood rape experience. It took me 10 years to finally write about my own truth—and it’s not a gruesome truth. Seeing this 16-year-old get up on a stage and perform such a personal piece tells me that I should stop being so afraid of being me on the page. I've gotten a lot more honest in my writing, and I'm going to keep on doing it.
EGM: How did you come to poetry?
AMJ: Well, I’ve always liked reading, writing, and inventing stories. When we weren’t reading books or watching public television, the siblings Jones would spend time playing make-believe or constructing complex, soap-opera style plots for our Barbies to act out. I bought composition notebooks and wrote notes on everything I saw—spy missions, a la Harriet the Spy. These missions sometimes engendered poems about my family—little, awful, rhyming things. I once got so angry about something that I wrote a poem about how everyone hated me, and I posted it in the hallway at my house. My mom was not pleased... […]
EGM: Who are you currently reading? Who do you keep coming back to, and why?
AMJ: Hmmm... a better question might be “who do you wish you were reading?” because I barely have time for recreational stuff anymore. I've got a huge stack of library books waiting, unread, and a few books I bought last semester that are waiting for my attention. The last non-required new book of poetry I've looked at was actually Denise Duhamel's Blowout. Denise is my professor, so I’m always excited to see what she’s writing. Blowout, like a lot of Denise’s books, is one about real life. She’s able to write in such an everyday tone while keeping her poetic muscle moving. It’s great—I’m glad to be learning from a professor whose writing style seems so close to my own.
As far as my old standards, Lucille Clifton and Kevin Young are in constant rotation—I’ve been reading them a lot lately as I prepare to guest teach in a friend’s creative writing class and as I prepare for my workshop in Sunrise. […] Lucille Clifton is my favorite poet of all time—I was first struck by her use of lowercase letters (cummings was a fave of mine in the early years for that reason, too—I used to write in only lowercase letters). Then, when I actually paid attention to her words, I was doubly struck.
Clifton’s ability to craft language into an effortless punch never ceases to amaze me. Her poem, “what the mirror said” is a constant mantra of mine—if you're in need of quick empowerment, check that out. Kevin Young is just the man. I loved him for Jelly Roll and the way he managed to make jazz on the page while still using poetic technique. His playful voice is one I always want in my ear. Terrance Hayes is a new addition to this rotation—I absolutely love his voice and the way he makes me swoon with his words. He’s basically in the Ashley canon now. But I return to these poets because they refresh me when I'm feeling lost—they remind me what good poems look like when I'm in a slump, and they speak to me when I need someone to spell out my pain/joy/confusion/anger.
EGM: If you weren't a writer, what would you be doing?
I used to want to be a counselor (in schools or otherwise), so maybe I’d do that. But I also have dreams of being a university president, so maybe I'd still be on that path, just minus the writing. I’d also love to be a personal shopper (the mall is my friend, and I love helping people express themselves—affordably—through clothes) or a restaurant owner (I love to cook). If I weren't doing the MFA right now, I would be in Birmingham, working in the Administration or Admissions department at my alma mater. I was a part of the Stewardship team and I was a tour guide as an undergraduate—both would have panned out into good careers if I hadn't hopped the crazy train and pursued my dreams to get an MFA.
One interviewer at Redivider Journal likes to close interviews by asking the interviewee for a favorite recipe. I am happily aware that you are an excellent baker, so I will ask if there's a favorite recipe you'd like to share here—Biscuits? Cookies? Banana bread? The floor/ counter is yours.
Gosh, a favorite recipe! I’d LOVE to share my recipe for biscuits. Here it goes:
2 cups all-purpose flour (If you're into it, you can substitute one of those cups of flour for whole wheat flour—it tastes just as good)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 stick of cold, unsalted butter cut into cubes (No getting around this, folks. Butter or nothing)
3/4 cups of lowfat greek yogurt (Or buttermilk, or whole milk, or whatever milk you’d like)
*you can add herbs and cheese if you want to make these for fancydinner
-Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F-
1. Measure the dry ingredients into a food processor (or a bowl if you've got the muscles for hand-cutting). Add the cubed butter and pulse until the mixture resembles cornmeal and the butter is incorporated. If you're using a regular bowl and biscuit cutter, work it until you can't work it anymore!
2. Add your greek yogurt/buttermilk/milk and mix until the dough becomes a ball.
3. Dump mix onto your floured counter and flatten it.
4. Fold the dough onto itself and flatten again. Repeat a few times.
5. Flatten dough to your desired biscuit thickness (an inch, at most)
6. Cut the biscuits using a biscuit cutter or some circular object. Put the biscuits into a greased pan.
7. Bake for 15-20 minutes (start checking at 15) until the biscuits are tall and lightly brown and beautiful!