2020 Summer Contest interview Issue 26

On Mentorship, Subverting Form, and dark / / thing: A Conversation with Ashley M. Jones

by Brianne Griffith

Creative Nonfiction Editor Brianne Griffith spoke with author (and 2020 Summer Contest poetry judge) Ashley M. Jones at the 2019 Miami Book Fair to discuss her latest book dark / / thing, craft, and how it feels to have her former professors teach her books.

Ashley M Jones – Photo by Cary Norton

I saw you read at The Betsy Hotel in 2019, and if you had read all night I would have stayed and listened the whole time. How do you decide what to share at a reading?

I try not to take it too seriously. I believe a lot in spirits, so I always feel that whatever’s supposed to happen will happen, and that’s also true with what I have to read. I try not to read the same thing every time because it gets boring for me. If I’m excited, it’s going to come through and the audience is going to respond, so I try to pick things that I actually want to hear myself, or things that I think will introduce me the best to the audience. I try to balance between each book. Denise Duhamel once told me, “Whenever you pick what you’re going to read, stick with it. Do not change at the last minute.” I’ve been abiding by that.

Speaking of Denise, she taught your book dark / / thing in our poetry workshop at FIU. What are your thoughts on knowing that your book is being taught, especially by someone who’s taught you?

It’s very weird. Campbell McGrath also taught my book, and I think Julie Marie Wade did, too. They’re all just angels. They don’t have to do that! For my teachers to recognize, or to decide that my work is good enough to be studied that closely by graduate students, means everything. To me, that means more than winning an award. Obviously I love to win awards, everybody loves winning awards, but to have a mentor, a peer, or someone that you respect in your field decide, “This is good enough, I want my students to see it, and I’m going to use it as an example”—that’s incredible.

You write in form a lot, but you’re experimenting within form and you’re using some visuals. I noticed this in your poems such as “XYLOGRAPHY” and “Proof at the Red Sea.” With the latter, do you have a way that you read it aloud versus how other people might approach it on the page?

I don’t read that one because how could I read it? I mean, maybe there’s a way for me to read it. I should say that. I didn’t invent this form—the geometric proof—someone smart invented it! I got the idea from Maurice Manning’s book Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions. He has a proof in there, so I decided to try it out.

Will you continue to experiment with form?

I really love playing with words. I used to hate form completely. If you had asked me ten years ago, I’d say, “I hate form. I think no one should write form. It’s terrible!” It helped me to go to FIU and learn that form is not this ridiculous cage-like thing, and we don’t have to treat it as if it’s the only way to write poetry, and that you’re not smart if you can’t do it. When it just became another option, I thought, “Oh, cool. I could do this or I could do that.” For the last few years, I’ve been playing around with forms and subverting them, and a lot of that has to do with reading people like Gwendolyn Brooks who invented her own forms; she would do a sonnet adjacent. Also reading Patricia Smith who does meter perfectly. She’s the most perfect metrical writer I’ve ever seen, but you wouldn’t know it. You can’t immediately tell that’s what she’s doing. It’s a long tradition, especially writers of color—taking the form that was basically imposed upon us and saying: “Okay, I can do that exactly like you, oppressor, and I can do it even better because I can change it.” I really want to be a part of that legacy, too—doing the form, but also saying: “We can flip this.”

I’m curious about your use of punctuation, especially your use of slashes. Could you talk about how you’re using punctuation in your book dark / / thing, and the role of punctuation in your work as a whole?

Punctuation is fun. I love a slash and a dash. I like reading work by Gwendolyn Brooks and Lucille Clifton —they don’t care about the conventions of grammar all the time. I think Brooks has in a poem a question mark and a dash together, or something like that. You can do that. The point is to get to the most exact representation of whatever you’re saying, whatever picture you’re creating, or moment you’re recreating, and for me that even comes down to the punctuation. If the feeling I’m trying to create is a questionable pause, then it works to do a question mark and a dash. It doesn’t exist in the traditional grammar, but the traditional grammar isn’t really serving me anyway. It wasn’t created for me anyway, so I can toss that out. Not completely, of course. I’m a teacher. I value grammar, but I think, as a poet, we’re creating art, and that doesn’t follow rules all the time. Even if it is following rules, it doesn’t have to follow all the rules.

In the title of dark / / thing, the slashes are doing two things at once. On the one hand, a slash can be: “It’s either this or this, or it’s both of these things.” It can be like a connector. People of color are often synonymous with objects to oppressors, so one of the slashes is that. The other slash is like a breaking; we use the slash to denote a break if we’re writing about a poem, so it’s separating “darkness” from “thingness.” To me, the title needed both slashes to do both of those things.

What’s the story behind the cover?

I’ve been very lucky with both of my books that the press has brought me this plethora of beautiful artwork to look at. Pleiades Press gave me some options of artists, and I found David Michael. He’s an Ohio-based artist, and he has a lot of different kinds of art, but when I saw this photo, I thought: “Okay, obviously this is my book cover, like this is it.” The first thing I think of is: “This is how we’re seen by society, as just targets, not even real humans.” There are no faces at all. It’s dark. It’s black.

How did you decide to start your book with this poem “Slurret”?

This might be one of the oldest poems in the book. I wrote this one for Campbell’s class; he assigned us a sonnet in meter. I wanted to start with it because it sort of lays out the groundwork for what I think Black people have been through. Of course there’s all the slurs that we’ve been called and are still called, but at the end, it takes the volta and shows that we’re actually very resilient despite all of the stuff that’s happened to us. But, the resilience isn’t without the mark of what has happened. It’s not that we’re somehow impenetrable and inhumanly strong—we’re still scarred by some of these things that have happened.

I noticed there are a lot of poems “after” people in dark / / things. I saw Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, Kevin Young, and Ross Gay. When I first started writing poetry, I found that I was writing imitation poems—taking a poem and finding a way to write like that poet. What are your thoughts on doing that as a way of finding your own sort of style or creative voice?

I think, in general, poetry is a conversation. At its core, all I’m really doing is talking to the reader, to the world, to myself, whomever. It kind of is the same thing for me with doing poems in the style of, or inspired by, somebody else. I want to be in conversation with that person, or maybe I need their strength to get through whatever it is I’m writing. I definitely think doing that does help you find your voice because, again, if it’s a conversation, you have to be talking to somebody to know what you’re saying. It has helped me to keep discovering my voice. It’s also nice to just call back people, and let people know, “I’m in conversation with all these people. Here are their names. I’m in the lineage with them. I’m putting myself in this space with them.” I’m not an island. Nobody is.

Ashley’s latest book REPARATIONS NOW! is forthcoming in Fall 2021.

Ashley M. Jones is the author of Magic City Gospel (Hub City Press 2017) and  dark / / thing (Pleiades Press 2019). She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers Award and the Silver Medal in the Independent Publishers Book Awards, and was a finalist for the Ruth Lily Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship in 2020.

Bri Griffith is the creative nonfiction editor of Gulf Stream Magazine. She earned a BA in creative writing from Carlow University in 2018. She’s a current MFA candidate in poetry and an instructor at Florida International University. Her work has appeared in Glass Mountain, Columbia Poetry Review, Small Orange, and elsewhere.