Ranger Introduction: Welcome to We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights. Close your eyes and imagine a National Park. Are you picturing waterfalls and mountains? Or do you think of Dr. King's childhood home, Japanese internment camps, and a school that became a battleground for racial integration? National parks aren't just wilderness. They are spaces of remembrance, founded to preserve the stories of who we are and how we came to be. National parks inspire us to do better, be better. To climb mountains, both physical and figurative. Join Park Rangers, researchers, authors, and activists as we discuss what liberty and justice for all means on our public lands.
Kat: All right. Well, here we go. From our, like, 8 feet apart.
Ashley: Yes. Very COVID safe.
Kat: Very COVID safe, wearing our masks. And I want to say welcome. My name is Kat, and I'm a Park Ranger at Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. I also work at Freedom Riders National Monument as well. But I'm based here, and I'm so honored to welcome you here today, Ms. Ashley M. Jones, the poet laureate of Alabama. Truly it is just such a joy to have you here. Ashley holds an MFA in poetry from Florida International University and is the author of a number of poetry collections. And I hear that you brought a few of them in your purse.
Ashley: I did.
Kat: So thank you so much for joining us today.
Ashley: Thank you for having me. This is so fun.
Kat: Yeah. I'm glad that you're here. Well, I want to start first and foremost with the poet laureateship because that's, like, the big news in your life. And I'm curious, could you set the scene for us as to how you found out that you were awarded this honor, if you knew you were going to be considered? What you felt and experienced when you found out? Where were you when you found out and how the people in your life responded to the news?
Ashley: Well, it's interesting. A lot of people assume that it was like the Oscars or something like, you don't know if you're going to get it. And the moment is, the moment you're like, oh, wow, what a surprise. And it's a little bit different than that. At least in Alabama, the process is pretty long. So I knew that I was interested a few years ago. I knew that it was a four year term for each laureate, and I knew that the previous laureate didn't express an interest in doing it again. So I thought, okay, here's an opportunity. Hopefully, somebody wants to nominate me. And so last year, several people from the community sent in nomination packets on my behalf. And so what that entails is they asked for my consent. First of all, it's not a surprise at any stage, like, you have to be willing, which is great. So they asked me for my consent. And in the packets, there is a little demographic portion, and then there's a letter of support from them, and they could also ask others to write letters in that packet. And then there's also a writing sample in that packet. So there were, like, I think four or five people who nominated me. Those nominations then went to the Alabama Writers Cooperative. And the Alabama Writers Cooperative is an organization which serves writers here in Alabama. It's the oldest, fairly certain it's the oldest writing organization in our state. It was founded in 1923, and they shepherd this process for the state of Alabama. So the packets were sent into them to a committee that was assembled by the AWC President, TJ Beitelman. And the committee is made up of different writers and professionals from across the state. They deliberate on all of the nominations. I believe there were a total of four people nominated last year, and I was chosen unanimously as the selection to go forward before the membership of the AWC. And they had to then vote me in as the official selection. From there, I'm awaiting my firm date from Governor Ivy's office to be commissioned by her. So that's the whole process. And like I said, it's a lot longer than most people realize. And then, so as far as my surprise, I wasn't surprised for the whole year that it was all happening because I was a part of the whole process. But I was surprised, and I did not think I would be, but I was very surprised during the voting process. So it was over Zoom, obviously, because you know how it is. We were on Zoom, and I knew all the people who were voting because I'm a board member of AWC. So these were friends of mine, which doesn't mean that it was like nepotism, by the way. It just means I know the people. That's kind of part of the job as poet laureate, you know the people. So I saw them voting. And as I was looking out into the Zoom, and of course, I had on my special voting day outfit. We can get back to that later. I was in my parent’s house because that's where I've been staying for a while since my father passed in April. We've all just kind of converged at my parents house, which I mean, we always were there before, but now it's a different sort of togetherness. So I was there and I knew my mom and siblings were upstairs watching the Zoom in another room. And we all just kind of were waiting to see, like, okay, are they really going to do it? And so seeing the people raise their hands, that just sort of threw me in a way that I wasn't expecting. I really felt…it's hard to really put into words. I felt just thrilled and then also a little nervous and really just honored and humbled that all these people really believe in me and believe I can do the job. And then the gravity of the history of it started to sort of descend. I knew for months, okay, I'm going to be the first Black one, blah, blah. It’s kind of like, whatever, that's cool But I didn't really understand, like, oh, wait, this is a whole paradigm shift happening before my eyes. And I'm the one. I think it started to hit me that I was the one who had to do the thing before. I was like, oh, yeah, I'll do it. But in that moment, I was like, oh, I'm going to do it. Who am I? What said that this was my destiny. It's moments like those where you just really start to step back and say, wow, was I really put here for a purpose? And is it right now that I'm realizing I'm walking in it? Anyway, so I had this whole moment and everyone was so proud. And what I didn't say too, is that TJ, the President of the AWC, he also is my Department chair at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. And he was one of my first teachers when I went to school there. So I've known him since I was twelve years old.
Ashley: So you see where I'm going here, the layers are just unreal.
Ashley: And to see the pride on his face too, meant so, so much. Here's someone who has really been with me from almost the start of my writing journey. And he was such an important teacher for me in school because he encouraged me so much and I felt like he really saw me. And that's so important as a teenager to feel like an adult actually acknowledges you as a human being. And then the media started coming in and that's when I really was like, wait a minute, what am I doing? What have I signed up for? But it really was what you dream about when you're a little person wanting to be a writer. You hope that people care about what you say. You hope that you can make a difference. You hope that the little person that you were has someone that they were looking for. I was looking, I think, for me as a little girl. And it's just so incredible to think sometimes we are the ones that we are looking for. I think somebody maybe has said that before. So whoever's quote that is, thank you for the quote.
Kat: I think it's in the movie Frozen.
Ashley: Oh, no.
Kat: I'm sure someone else set it besides, but I just remember it very distinctly because many little girls do love that movie [points at self].
Ashley: Wow. Maybe I'm like a 90s Disney purist.
Kat: Okay. I can respect that.
Ashley: I don't know. I hate to be a purist in any way, but I just…really nothing quite hits like those movies of my youth. And I don't have kids of my own, so Frozen never quite made it for me. And I love watching kid’s stuff. But something about Frozen just hasn't quite…maybe because everybody likes it. I'm like kind of a hipster, which is maybe embarrassing to say, but everybody loves it so much. I'm like, okay, yeah. Something's got to be amiss, right? No shade to Frozen, though. We love Frozen. The twist ending, my goodness. Right?
Kat: Yeah, for sure. Yeah.
Ashley: But anyway, I just have been feeling a lot of feelings, and I'm so glad that my dad did know that it was going to happen before he passed away. And of course, the first thing he asked was like, oh, how much does it pay?
Kat: Because he's your dad. Right.
Ashley: But he was very proud. He was proud of us. If we just took a breath, like, you could do anything. And he was just so proud that we existed, which is what you want in a parent.
Ashley: We have been me and my siblings, we've been so blessed to have our mom and our dad. I would not be anything if I didn't have them, honestly. They laid the path for us in every way, truly, from little babies, making sure we're cared for, making sure we could read and write and imagine. Gosh, I can go on a tangent about that.
Kat: Well, actually, I do want to ask about your parents, so I can skip to those questions, actually, because I read about your parents and how much they valued creativity. And I read that your father did pencil drawings.
Kat: And I know your mother encouraged reading and writing, and I'm sure had a creative practice of her own. And I wonder if you could speak a little bit to where they absorbed that love of creativity from, and if there's something in particular that they created, particularly your dad or your mom, like a pencil drawing that is meaningful to you or has informed your work in some way.
Ashley: Well, yeah, there's a lot of answers I have to give now to this question. I'll start with my dad, who, as you said, he could use a pencil to create, like a photo realistic portrait. He had no lessons ever. When we asked him, how did you know you could do this? He said, well, I just picked up a pencil one day, and I was bored. And I said, I want to draw Mickey Mouse. And so I did. And it was only when I think his mom said, oh, that's really good. He realized I'm good at this thing. And he never really made a career of doing art. He would help us with our projects. Both of my parents are very hands on, like, super hands on parents, but he would, like, help us draw things for school. And actually in our house, we have these portraits of all the kids, so me, my sisters and my brother that he drew by hand and they're hanging up in the living room. But other than that, he didn't really draw very often at all, even though he had this amazing talent. But he did do a lot of things in the garden and that was sort of the way his visual arts manifested, creating beautiful… How do I say, I'm not a gardener, but you know how the flowers are arranged in the little plot. He did that thing.
Ashley: And he built things out of wood. We have these herb… I'm not a gardener. The things that herbs grow in, like the planters. People assume that I'm so good at gardening because of my dad. That was his thing. I enjoyed the fruits of his labor and did what he told me to do when I was out there.
Kat: There's a lot of weeding.
Ashley: Yeah. That was not something that I enjoyed at all. But he built these things by hand and he loved imagining how to rig something up. He could fix literally anything. We rarely had to call any sort of repairman. That's why now it's like what do we do when something breaks? Who do we call? Because usually dad would just fix it even if he didn't know what he was doing as a kid. I thought he just had all this experience in fixing, but he just was figuring it out by himself because he was brilliant. I don't know where that came from for him, honestly. He wasn't raised in a particularly creative household. He was one of twelve children and he endured abuse from his father. He was a terrible man. I never met my grandfather at all. But my aunts and uncles and my dad tell these horrible stories about him. Clearly a very hurt man. There's no way you can do things like that to children or to your wife if there's not something broken inside of you.
Ashley: So I have always wondered what that is and what of that lives in me because it lived in my dad too. He spent his whole life fighting the history of that and the shadows of that.
Ashley: He did a great job of not repeating what his father did. That was very clear in his mind that he would not be that kind of father and he was not at all. But I can't imagine what he was carrying. Anyway, so I'm not sure why he decided to draw that day if it really was just I'm bored and want to do something. I don't know. I would say that it was given to him. I believe all of us are given something and I believe that God or the universe or whatever you call it reveals that to you at whatever time you need it. And so perhaps he needed to escape or to feel valuable because his father was one who told him that he was not valuable, told him he wasn't smart all these things. And so maybe being able to draw gave him some sort of confidence. I don't know. And then my mom, I'll transition. My mom, she is not an artist in any traditional sense. She doesn't draw or sing. I mean, she sings, but she doesn't sing very well, which I love.
Kat: [laughing] Do you want me to edit that out in post?
Ashley: [laughing] Oh, she knows she can't sing because I told her. I'm so nostalgic for her bad singing, like she would sing us lullabies terribly and she was kind of making it worse for fun.
Ashley: But she's not a singer at all. And I told her, Mom, if you've been pretending this whole time and you actually are a super good singer, I'm going to be so angry. Not because I want the good singing, but I've grown so attached to this terrible singing, right? And then you just do this. But so far she's not pretending, she's not a singer and she doesn't write, like she's not a writer or anything. However, I think if someone had made her do that as a young person, she definitely would be doing it. And she's got such a good eye. I've always gone to her with my work since I was young to ask her, what does it sound like? Is it good? What should I fix? Give me some ideas. And she always is able to do it very naturally. So she never discouraged us. Neither of my parents, we were raised in a household where what we did was art. We were reading by age three, which I think is maybe unusual, I don't know, but we were reading a lot and she taught us how to write very early, made sure we knew how to do sentences and vocabulary and all of that. We watched public TV. We didn't have cable when we were little, which I didn't know was like a marker of economic standing. I had no idea. I was like, oh, well, we just have this channel. It's good. As a kid, you'd never know, right, until you meet other kids and they're like, oh, you don't have this, you don't do that. You're like, oh, well, I don't, but I'm not unhappy. But we would watch Barney, Arthur, Sesame Street and at night we'd watch Lawrence Welk, which I know is like ridiculous for little kids to look forward to. The Lawrence Welk Show, right? But we did. And during the day too, we would be able to do like, little arts and crafts. My mom would make Play-Doh from scratch, which again I thought was just like a cool thing that parents could do. I did not understand that it's because Play-Doh was expensive. Just didn't even cross my mind when I said, we've been so blessed like our parents and are just amazing, providing us with every experience we could ever need and not really letting us know that maybe our situation was different than some other people. So we would do that and paint, draw. I used to draw a lot before I knew that I wasn't good at it. I just did it because again, my parents didn't say like, oh, you suck. They were like, oh, good job, you're doing so great. Keep exploring, whatever. And so, yeah, she and my dad definitely encouraged us to just be ourselves. And I think they noticed all us kids like imagination and reading and that kind of thing. And they didn't say, you need to be more practical. Stop making believe, stop running through the backyard singing, stop reading all those books. None of that. They were very encouraging and put us in schools that fostered that as well. I think I answered the question.
Kat: Yeah, I know I sort of threw, like four questions at you, which I apologize for that. But no, I think that you really hit it. And thank you for sharing more about your parents, because I think that where we come from that just informs so much of who we are. And it's just such a beautiful testimony to your relationship with them that they've given you this incredible gift of always affirming you and then never letting you know that maybe there was a struggle, regardless of the situation, they provided these really wonderful, enriching opportunities for you. And it was never like, oh, we don't have access to X, Y, or Z. How can we be creative, maybe even just in our ability to be parents? And I want to just double check that this is recording so I can keep kind of checking up on it. Cool. [checks podcasting equipment]
Ashley: I'm trying not to move my arm too much because I'm a very much a this kind of talker [waves arms].
Kat: Your bracelet actually sounds really great in the mic. It does. So if you ever want to exclaim and move your bracelet, it's not a bad idea.
Kat: Oh, man. We're building this airplane as we're flying it over here. So you did touch on this. But I do want to return to this because I think it is such an important thing to address. And especially, here I am. I'm a representative of a civil rights park, and I just want to talk about the amazing milestone that you've achieved as the first person of color, but also like, wow, it took that long. Here we are in the year 2021. It's just astounding to me. As I mentioned to you, I have read and listened to some of the interviews that you've done, and in a previous interview, you said you felt honored, but it shouldn't have taken this long. And I wanted to ask you, are there some poets in Alabama's, past or present, people that you feel should have been considered for this honor, whose names you'd like to lift up now?
Ashley: Well, as far as the past, I don't know the names, and I think that definitely says something. I don't know a lot of poets of color who remained here, or at least who were celebrated by the literary community enough that I would know them. And that definitely speaks to how insular it was when all this began. The poet laureate office was started in 1930, which is just seven years after the AWC was started, as well. And you can probably imagine who was eligible to be in those groups. And so a lot of the time of not having a person of color was because we literally couldn't. I mean, it was probably against the law or whatever for us to even enter the physical room and certainly the metaphorical room as well. So I'm not really sure. I'd have to do some research to learn who was making space for Black poets in Alabama throughout all of that time. As far as right now, there's so many amazing poets in Alabama. And I hope after I'm done after these four years, that there'll just be a bunch of people who have the opportunity to serve. I mean, I can think of a few just off the top of my head who are doing amazing work. One is Jacqueline Trimble, Dr. Jacqueline Trimble. I like to give her her respect. I playfully call her the Reverend Dr. Jacqueline Trimble. She's not a Reverend yet, but I feel like she's got to do it eventually. But she teaches at Alabama State University, which is dear to me because where my parents met is ASU. They attended there for undergrad, and that's where they met. So I love that school for that reason. But anyway, she teaches down there. And she has one book out currently called American Happiness, which I highly recommend. If you like my book, you're going to love her book. I mean, she writes about race and Southern-ness and the difficulty of holding those two identities as a Southern woman, as a Black woman, as someone who's politically engaged, as a mother, as a Christian woman. All of these intersections meet in her book. And she has another book coming out next year, I want to say, called How to Survive the Apocalypse, which the poems in there… You want to be ready. That's all I will say. You need to go ahead and seek out the Pre-order link for that book because it's amazing. And you may see a familiar face on the back giving it a blurb. I don't know. You didn't hear that from me, right? But yeah, she's definitely someone who's done a lot of important work in Alabama and represents so many communities. She's also Black, but we have an age difference, too. So she represents those who have families. I don't have any children. She calls herself an emerging poet. To me, she's just like part of the landscape. But since this is her second book and we're not the same age, I'll say it that way. And so she's like, well, I'm just starting. And a lot of people like me who took a long break from getting their degree, she stopped because her mother passed away and she had to raise her family. And she came back to writing poetry after all those years after she had already established her career as a scholar and worked at various universities, she's now kind of returning to her passion for writing. And so I think she does represent people who aren't always celebrated in our community. Like, right now it's all about the hot young virtuoso. And I'm not calling myself that, by the way. I really am not. But that's kind of what's in fashion. And people feel self-conscious if they're not 30 and got billions of books and rising to the top of all these lists and everything.
Kat: I think there's this prevalence to have these lists like 30 under 30 and 40 under 40. And what I'm really drawn to is, like the 80 over 80, like, who are the people who are still creative, still doing interesting things, regardless of the barriers that present themselves as people age? That I think is truly remarkable - for people to set their work aside, set their life’s passions aside, because there are other roles that we play in our lives and then to pick it back up, that is truly inspiring.
Ashley: I can't imagine, truly. Like, I literally cannot imagine stopping and coming back to it after living all of that. I told her this, actually, we were on a podcast together earlier this year and I said, well, it's interesting that you say you're self-conscious because I feel self-conscious being a Southern woman who's now 31, I'm unmarried. I'm not about to get married or anything. I don't have kids. I feel like I'm not whole in some way because of what society has told us about being a woman anywhere but especially in the south. And she said to me, no, you're walking your correct path, so don't even worry about that. So I said back to her, well, so are you. If I'm doing the thing I'm supposed to do, then you had to do what you had to do as well. It all had to happen that way for some reason. I don't know what's going to happen to me in ten years. I don't mean that in a bad way, whoever's listening. But I just mean, like, maybe it's that I'm getting this done now so that I can leave to do something else, have a family or whatever I need to do.
Ashley: But yeah, there are many of us working in Alabama now, and I really just hope if nothing else comes from my appointment, I just hope that it shows whoever is out there that it is possible for them that they can represent Alabama and not feel like, I don't know. I'll say it this way. It can be hard to tell people where you're from if you're from the deep south. People make so many assumptions and most of them are wrong unless they assume that we know how to cook. Usually that's true. But other than that, and it can be hard to be someone who is political and progressive and inclusive. And also I'm representing Alabama. But I'm hoping that through me serving these four years, people of all belief systems of all genders and gender identities, sexual orientations, economic situations. I hope everybody is like, oh, cool. That could be something I could do, too. It is possible. It's not a closed off club. Not to say that everything is solved by me being here. That's the furthest thing from the truth, I think.
Ashley: Which maybe we'll get into. But, yeah, that's the hope. That we'll have so many more names we can say and it won't be some like, wow, it's been almost a century. Hopefully it's well, okay, in this four years we had this person, that four years we had that person, and we have just a plethora of names we can look at.
Kat: Right. Yeah. It's interesting that you brought up the perception that people have of the South. I'm from Michigan and my husband is not white. And his mother, his father passed away, but his mother was so terrified for us to move down here. And she's from the south, and she's also not white, and I think has a lot of her own traumas from growing up as a Black woman in Tennessee. And we've moved down here and like, absolutely, there are so many issues. It's still, in many ways the city is segregated. But we've also been really impressed with a lot of aspects of the city as well. So we've realized it's not an either or. It's an and. And Alabama and Birmingham can sort of encompass so much. And it's sort of almost in this like… maybe if we look cosmically, maybe in this space of limbo, of transitioning from one thing to the next, and it's just a lot is happening, but a lot of good.
Kat: So we've talked a little bit about the poet laureate-ship, and I want to respect your time. So maybe I'll skip the next question that I planned to ask you. Unless you feel strongly about it.
Ashley: I don't remember it.
Kat: It was about tokenism. But do you want to?
Ashley: I think we may have to talk about that a little bit.
Kat: Okay. Let's go for it. Let's go for it. So anyway, I have been thinking a lot about tokenism and how the successes of a few African Americans are often held up to demonstrate change when obviously for so many, the meaningful change is yet to come. And I was thinking about your situation in regards to this, and I'm wondering, too, reading the poems that you wrote, reading a little bit about your background in terms of education, if to you there's any comparison in terms of experiences being the first person of color to hold this position and then thinking back to your days in primary and secondary school where you wrote you were the only Black girl in most of your classes, is there like a connection there? And if so, how would you describe that connection?
Ashley: Yes, I think there absolutely is a connection. And this is the thing that most people don't really want to get into because it makes them uncomfortable, because it's really easy to sort of tie it up and say, oh, well, you're here, we did it. It's done.
Ashley: But if we even look at integration and integrating schools in the, I guess, 50s and 60s and beyond, honestly, we don't have to get into it. But looking at that practice, we know it didn't solve anything at all. If anything, it created new problems. Thinking about my dad who integrated a school in Bessemer when he was a kid, he said it was like going to war every day. People were just fighting them, throwing things at them, and it's like, wow, what am I even doing here? This is supposed to be, quote, unquote, better. But of course it's not better because the actual problem is not being solved. Simply putting two people in the room together doesn't erase what they've been taught, what they're expected to do when they see someone of a different race. It doesn't erase the pressure to perform hatred. I'm sure not every kid who threw something, who threw a rock at my dad, I'm sure not every one of them believed he was worthy of that rock, but they also knew that some other kids or their parents or someone made a situation where they had to do that thing. And that's not being addressed. If we're just, okay, come into our school, that's the end. If we're not changing the curriculum at all, if we're not addressing the ways in which Black children are taught differently than white children, if we're not addressing the homes that they go back to, the redlining that happens, what are we actually addressing? Nothing. And so it's necessary. That's not a step. That's I think maybe apart of it, but it's not the complete solution. And I do think people are way too eager for an easy solution to a complicated problem. Because, again, if you think about where the problem began, it wasn't as simple as a white person went to Africa and was mean to someone. It was a lot more than that. We're trying to repair just a horrible I mean, all the words you use to describe it are just terrible. Genocide, rape, pillage, trafficking, brutalizing, whatever. All of those things are so deep, it's difficult to just say, oh, here's our Black person at our office. We have diversity. It's the end. Absolutely not. And the same is true for me, even though I did not integrate a school like my dad did, just sitting in a room knowing that you're either one of, like, three or five or one, period. It's not a great feeling. You don't feel like, oh, now I've made it. You really feel like, where are my people? Does anyone see me here? Am I a check mark for them? Are people patting themselves on the back because now they have one in their school, in their classroom, whatever. And so a similar thing can happen with some of these firsts, obviously. Again, like I said in the last answer, it is a good thing to be visible as a Black person holding this position. That's fantastic. I'm very proud to do that. But I don't want anyone to confuse that with now we're done. The work is just beginning. Actually, there's a lot more to do. And for me personally, I do feel like it is the case often with these firsts that the first who is allowed to cross the border, this metaphorical border has to be held to such a ridiculously high standard. Yes, and I'm not being boastful at all, but I've been working myself to the literal bone, like, for my whole life to hold myself to an unreasonably high standard, because I know I'm not going to be able to enter any room at average like other people might be able to. That's just not true. Obviously, I'm proud of my accomplishments. I worked hard because I wanted to work hard. But I also understand there's a reason it's me, if I'm put here to be that person, to allow maybe others down the line to not almost kill themselves working, great. I'm glad that I can do that service, but I do want to make sure people understand thinking of someone as exceptional is not a compliment, making it seem like, oh, you are doing well despite your race. That's not good. There's nothing about being Black that has held me back inherently. It's not like my Black brain can't work like other people. It's the society that I'm working against, not my own Blackness. And that's sort of how I think about this whole situation. Not just with me again, just with any first that we've ever studied in school. Those people are always held to a ridiculous standard. And by the same token, those of us who are murdered very publicly are held to an interesting standard as well. When someone is murdered, and I have to say murdered and not killed because it's very important in how we use our language, all of a sudden reports of, oh, they weren't perfect, though. They one time smoked some weed. So that's why they got killed, or they weren't a very nice person. That's why they got killed. They lived in a bad neighborhood. It's ridiculous, truly, that we're still not allowed to just be human beings as Black people. That's really what I'm trying to do with the Reparations book that I just released is just assert that we are human beings, that's it. The sooner we can get to that point, we're not going to have to do all these political gymnastics to justify people's murders or to say, oh, we have our first Black, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, let's be proud of ourselves. If we just understand that Black people are human beings already, maybe we can eliminate some of these problems in the future.
Kat: Wow, it seems like such a big role to step in on so many levels generationally, personally, and then reflecting multiple generations down what the work that you're doing will mean for so many little Black girls, so many people of color. But I think so many Black girls in particular, to have what you're doing and the voice that you're giving to this experience. Not to say that every experience is the same, but the aspects of it that are a collective experience, I'm sure it's going to be really transformative for you and then for the state. Certainly they chose you for a reason. They know your work. They know your voice. So I'm really looking forward to seeing the work that you do in the realm specifically of civil rights, human rights, social justice. Kind of like going back to that idea of ancestry and how the past informs the present, which then informs the future. It's so weird. Someone once said, and I know this was not in the movie Frozen, that the past has never passed.
Kat: And I think that is just such a true statement. In the previous interview, multiple interviews, you've described reciting a poem in class about Harriet Tubman written by Eloise Greenfield. Right?
Kat: And I think it was when you were in the second grade, which is, that's a big deal, as a second grader, because I think you had memorized the poem, like dang, girl, well done. And in an interview, said that you felt a power you hadn't felt before. And I'm wondering if you could describe what that power felt like in your body, and did you feel that transmitting to the people you were reading in front of? Was there something happening there collectively? And then who or what was transmitting that power to you?
Ashley: Okay, I'm going to try to answer each of those questions.
Kat: I'll repeat them, because again, I'm tossing multiple questions at you, which is not fair.
Ashley: No, I mean, this is how the game works. People have been interviewing me and just asked me five questions at the same time. So I'm getting better. Okay. Yeah. That moment is so funny. Honestly, I had forgotten about that moment until a few years ago because there's a poem in my second book about the actual recitation day. And I don't know what it was that made me remember that it happened, but once I remembered it, it all just came flooding back. And I don't think, to answer one of your questions, I don't think anybody in the room but me felt the power. I'm pretty sure the other seven year olds were just, like, nervous about their presentation. Nobody really cared. You know what I’m saying? My teacher, I'm sure she was pleased that I did what I had to do, but I don't know that… I could ask her. She's still in my orbit. I maybe should ask her one day if she remembers. But no, it was definitely just for me, within me, this feeling, and it felt a lot of ways. For one, I'll explain a little bit about who I was at age seven. That's pretty important, I think, to the story, as you may know, I was a very different sort of child. I always joke that I was born an old lady. Like all of my siblings, we're all just little old people always like, weirdly mature for our age. And watching Lawrence Welk unironically. Like, we were literally entertained by the Lawrence Welk Show. If you don't know what that is -
Kat: [laughing] I actually don't. I've been too embarrassed to say it up until now. But now, since it's a theme, that's going to be…
Ashley: That’s because you’re young enough, like I shouldn’t know what it is.
Kat: Well, I'm older than you, so…
Ashley: You’re not old enough to know Lawrence Welk.
Kat: Yeah, I'm definitely not.
Ashley: When you look it up, you're really going to laugh, because it's truly ridiculous that these little Black children were looking forward to the Lawrence Welk Show. It was like a variety show. And I don't even know the years that it ran, but it looked like the 50s and 60s, I guess, all white, like very milk toast, like picture Perry Como, Bing Crosby kind of feeling. And they would do little numbers together, sing little songs, and all very happy. The world is perfect, that kind of thing.
Ashley: And my favorite part was the opening. Like, when they put the title screen up, there was all these bubbles that came across the name the Laurence Welk Show. And we loved that.
Kat: The simple things in life.
Ashley: Well, yes. I mean, looking back, it's truly ridiculous, the things that we were excited about. But you are who you are.
Kat: It's true. Yeah. You might as well own it.
Ashley: Exactly. So that's the kind of kid I was. Watching Laurence Welk and reading all these books and just living in my own world of imagination. And I was in the self-contained gifted class from second grade to fifth grade, which is a really interesting program. I don't know if you've heard of this before, but I think they don't do it anymore. And for very good reason. Actually, it does, I think, a lot of damage to a student on either side because they had what was called the typical classes, the non-gifted, which already you're setting up a weird hierarchy. And then the gifted students who were self-contained. We had a small class of about ten students, and we got to do the interesting stuff, right. We would go on trips and we'd get to read more exciting books than maybe the other children because we were advanced, quote unquote. But for me, little empath Ashley, I was just like constantly wishing I could have friends in the other classes because in the gifted class, there was this sort of competitiveness that I really was not into. I mean, I'm a Leo, but I'm a very different sort of Leo. It's not that I don't like competition.
Kat: We'll ask your siblings later. We'll be interviewing them, and –
Ashley: They would probably be really nice. But also, I'm sure they'd have a take on my competitive nature, right?
Kat: Every sibling does.
Ashley: Yeah. Wow. Anyway, so it wasn't really conducive to who I was at the time to be so worried about my grades. And I think I really learned a lot of bad habits about equating my worth with my grades because we all want to make the highest grade possible. And I remember if you made a 90, it was like, shameful, almost.
Ashley: Not from the teacher necessarily, but just the other kids. They were like, oh, well, I'm in 98. And I'm like, wow, I must be stupid. I'm in a gifted class. I got to stay here. And I remember, too. We would get math assignments that were not what the other kids were learning. And I would take it home to my dad and be like, dad, do you know what this is? Because I don't know how to do this. They didn't tell us. We're supposed to know because we're gifted. At least that's my memory of it. I'm sure if you interviewed other people, they might have another thing to say, but that's how it felt for me. And on top of all of that, I had enlarged tonsils and adenoids. So I was always congested. I had a voice that I did not like because it was just all sick sounding. And I would always look at the other kids, especially the other little girls, who could breathe through their noses. And I thought, oh, they're so pretty. They can just breathe. I'm like, over here heaving. It was terrible. So I had a lot was going on in my mind, and on top of that, I had this proper way of speaking. I couldn't do the amazing, cool way of speaking that I heard my family, like, my aunts, uncles, grandma, mom, and dad, like, they all had amazing, like, the jazz that Black people can bring to a thing. Oh, yes, they had that. The way they even laughed. It was just, like, so free. And I was just very like, oh, my gosh, very structured. Which that's another conversation perhaps. But anyway, all this was in my mind, and I got this book from the library, Honey I Love. And I didn't really read poetry that much back then. Actually, it was mostly fiction books. I was obsessed at that time with the book Harriet the Spy, because I had a little spy Journal that I carried around just like her. And I would spy on my family, which is super creepy, I know. But anyway, for whatever reason, was reading Honey I Love. And it was just, like, thrilling to see Black characters and they weren't in pain. That's the other thing. I had been very afraid of Black history because my parents had us to watch Roots, which I appreciate. Like, now as an older person, I'm like, okay, good. We learned about it, blah, blah, blah. But at the time, I was, like, so scared.
Kat: There was a poem about it in Magic City Gospel. I think you wrote that you were three years old. I've watched Roots. It's really intense.
Ashley: It's extremely intense. And I definitely thought that it was possible to be put into slavery. And that's no shade to my parents at all. They explained all they could. But as a kid, you just can't comprehend. As an adult, you can't comprehend it either. No, but certainly as a child, it doesn't make any sense.
Kat: Well, time also is sort of this hazy concept for a child.
Ashley: It is. Roots wasn't made in slavery times. It's like with these people, Lavar Burton is on Reading Rainbow right now. I love that guy right there. If he is there, then…
Kat: Yeah, if the guy from Reading Rainbow can be enslaved, any of us can.
Ashley: Any of us. Yeah. So I had stopped reading Black books. That was my thing as a kid. Our parents made sure we were always surrounded by Blackness in every single way, which, again, going back to how did we get blessed with these parents? I don't know what I did in the past life to award me these parents, but I took a left from Black history because I was so scared of it. So reading this book where there was none of that, and I saw the Black people smiling in the book. They just were alive. It was amazing. And I felt like, oh, man, yeah, this is great. I'm Black, just like these people. And so I memorized the poem, “Harriet Tubman.” And I remember the day that it was time to recite. My mom came to the school, which was, like, amazing, because you feel protected, because your mom… none of the scary elementary school things can happen to you because there's your mom. And so she dressed me up as Harry Tubman in a white dress. Who knows how to dress like Harry Tubman, truly. But that's what we did. And I got in front of the class and I was ready to go because, of course, I've been practicing over and over again. My mom made sure, she still makes sure we know what we're doing all the time. And I remember standing up there and I began to recite the poem. It began: “Harriet Tubman didn't take no stuff, wasn't scared of nothing neither. Didn't come in this world to be no slave and wasn't going to stay one either.” And it goes on a little bit. But I remember saying the words and just feeling like, oh, yeah, I don't fully realize. I didn't have those words as a seven year old, but I just felt, like, not self conscious. I didn't scrutinize my voice. I didn't feel awkward saying, didn't take no stuff because I was very proper English kind of little girl. But I just felt, like, free in a way. And for me, it just was a clear like, okay, cool. This is what I want to do now. I've done my little stories, but now it's time for the real stuff. I'm going to write like this. And I did write about race as a young person. Somebody just asked me the other day, when did you start? I started as soon as I started writing poems. I was concerned with that as a young person because that poem, that book, was the one that turned me on to it. So I didn't see it as like a problem to write about race at all. And I just felt more empowered, I guess. Harriet Tubman was definitely speaking to me through that poem. She was leading me out of something, maybe not literal slavery, but she definitely helped me get away from whatever mental trap I have set for myself. And then Eloise Greenfield, of course, I hope that she knew what she did for black children with all of her books just to give us something to read that had our faces in it, something that had joy in it. It's vital for us to learn about our history. It is vital, but it's also vital for us to understand that we can be joyful as well for us to know that we're humans as well, because it does get to a point sometimes when you're in school and all you want about Black people is that they may be invented some stuff, and they were enslaved for forever, and everybody hated them. That's all you get. You don't get: and here is the long history of how Black hairstyles have traveled from Africa. Here are the songs that they sang, and here's what they meant. Here is the great history of the literature. You don't get that. You just don't. And so, yeah, those people were speaking to me for sure. And I think I was also speaking to me. Interestingly enough, I think I finally heard myself for the first time. And that's not to say that it was all like, boom, now I'm totally fixed, but it was the beginning of a journey for me. I think hopefully that answers.
Kat: Oh, that was such a beautiful answer. There's so many things I want to follow up on. I'm so glad you brought up Black joy, because one of the things that we've been really wrestling with is we're putting together a Junior Ranger book, which I mentioned to you. And the Junior Ranger book is typically marketed towards young people under 17, but we joke that ours is for kids from three to 93. And obviously, we want to recount the history and not shy away from the harder details. But how do you represent the resiliency and the entrepreneurship and creativity that happened despite that situation, which I think is such a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit, but certainly the creativity of Black culture and all the innovations that have been brought to the United States to the Americas, really, through Black culture. And so we're wrestling with that and wanting to find a balance with it. It's been hard. Yeah.
Ashley: I mean, I do think it has to do with kind of goes back to language. For me, when you think about Black history, there's a feeling that you feel when you hear that phrase. Right. Like you expect a certain sort of thing, you expect some tears, you expect some sad thing to have happened. And I think for me, what I've been thinking about as an educator, too is framing the history not as this thing that happened to Black people as their history, but that the people who did the things, that's their history as well. If we frame it as this is the story of America, here is what these people did to others. It sort of changes it a little bit. It takes some pressure off of the Black kids who are learning it, for one, to not feel like I have to carry now the hurt that was put upon me, because it does feel that way. I think every Black person of a certain age, my age, I feel like I'm talking like I'm old, but most of us.
Kat: Right. A little kid will look at you and be like, you're 45. They have no concept of age. Yeah. I think that that's a really great point. And to me, it's like the difference between passive and active voice.
Kat: It's like this was done to Black people, and it's like, no white supremacy did this.
Ashley: Actively. It wasn’t that it just fell into their hands, like, oh, here we have these Klan robes. What are we going to do with them?
Ashley: They went out of their way to make it. They did that to others and to themselves. Honestly. We also need to start including how white supremacy hurts white people as well.
Ashley: Because that's always left off for some reason. And I guess if you go through, I'm not white. So tell me your experience, I guess. But if you go through life believing that this thing has only hurt others and you're somehow safe from it, what does that do to your mind? There's no way for you to understand how to interact or have empathy or whatever.
Kat: Yeah, absolutely. Well, when I think about the benefits of civil rights and the benefactors of civil rights, a lot of researchers say it's been predominantly white women that have benefited from the legislative advances that were pursued on behalf, in large part because of the African American community. And then you look at the differently abled community as well and all the legislation that was passed to support them. There are so many individuals worldwide who have benefited because of the efforts of the African American community. So.
Ashley: Yeah, absolutely.
Kat: You should look up what female Rangers used to wear because there was like a white gogo boot, like short miniskirt situation.
Ashley: Are you kidding? In the park in the park?
Ashley: How are you going to be outside?
Kat: I don't know. I don't know what they were thinking if, like, maybe a red carpet sort of rolled its way out in front of all the Lady Rangers. But yeah, it's our history.
Ashley: People are so ridiculous.
Kat: Yeah. I'll show you a picture afterwards, but definitely take a look at it. Okay. So let me look through the rest of my questions. Let's pivot to the role of poems, okay? We've talked about human and civil rights, and we've talked about what that means in terms of you holding this position as the first person of color to be the poet laureate of Alabama. But I want to talk about the power of a poem in itself, not the role that you're playing right now, but, like, the poetry that you write and its impact in the world. What have you seen as the power of a poem in terms of achieving human and civil rights?
Ashley: I've seen it in so many ways, and I'm really looking forward to seeing all the other ways as I continue living, because poetry is something I think that's so multifaceted. Like, it's definitely not just some words on the page. The poem is also the spirit who wrote it, the person who's listening, the person who it's about, it's everybody. And I've seen it change me. As I explained earlier, that poem, those words in a book. I did not hear someone say it. I did not watch it on a movie. I read it, and it did something within me. I see it in my students as well, of all ages, not just my young ones. They feel, I guess powerful is another word to use. They feel like their voice is meaningful because they see it there on the page. And then as the teacher, I can say, this is a voice. It's yours. It's worthy of being here. But a story that I like to tell that I think illustrates the changing power of poetry in a very tangible way. I am a part of a lot of different things, we know. But I'm a part of a group, a trio of organizers. It's myself, Alina Stefanescu and Laura Secord, and we're all poets, and we actually all are on the board of my nonprofit, the Magic City Poetry Festival. But before the poetry festival existed, we were just planning events throughout the city, kind of unattached to our organization. And this particular event that we've been doing for the past few years is called 100,000 Poets for Change. And it's a worldwide event where people from all over the world converge on the last Saturday of September. And events are planned and everybody's, town or city or wherever. And those events are centered around socially conscious poetry in Birmingham. For the past few years, we've added a fundraising arm to our efforts. So we not only do the readings, but we try to raise money for a local organization each year. So we've done this for a few years, and we've worked with several organizations throughout our time. But one particular year, I think it was 2018. What is time, honestly? But I think it was 2018. People can Google this once I say all the names of the organizations. It's easy to find. But we partnered up with Shut Down Etowa, which is a nonprofit working to assist those who are detained in Etowa County Detention Center, which is one of the worst in the nation, specifically for immigrant detention. And so we partnered up with them to raise money during our event. And we also partnered with Glass Poetry Press. And we did a commemorative issue where we published local writers and their socially conscious work. So during this particular year, we had two events. We usually just had one, but we had two this year to feature all these writers. And the events were just poetry readings. We asked for donations, as we did every single year. And usually you raise like maybe $500, which in nonprofit land is both big and small, as you know.
Ashley: But it's the best we can do. We just do whatever we can, whatever can help. That's all we want to do. So we set our little goal, maybe raise $500 again, like we always do. And at one of the events, we learned that if we raised $1,000, then that money could be matched by the group and it could be used to actually free somebody from detention. And we were like, okay, well, let's try. We don't know if we're going to make it, but we'll try. So we have our two events, and they're just readings. People are reading their poems. One of the representatives from the organization started reading letters from those who were inside as well. And through our purely just reading things, like, I can't emphasize this enough. We were not doing anything but literally reading poems, letters, whatever. We raised over $1,000, I think around $1,500. So we were able to give that money, which I mean, I don't think we were able to know specifics because legal things. But to know that that money could then be used to literally free a human being. Money raised just by people listening to poems, listening to words written. We are not politicians. We're not salespeople. We're just regular old poets reading poetry. That's it. And like I said, I already knew that poetry was powerful. I knew it. I mean, just looking at the history of our work and of my people, we have used art. The way that we create art is just unlike any other. I mean, my goodness, to survive. Even if you think about the songs that were sung by slaves, enslaved people, language is important. Using the art to literally save people or to give them guidance or whatever. This story is something that I think modern people can understand. Like, we were able to go from nothing, we had nothing to start out with, to let's free somebody with this money that we've raised. And even last year, during the I don't know what we're calling it, the political unrest. People have some PC term for what was happening, but you know what? It was people being angry because we watched a man get murdered before our eyes. During that time, my organization did poems for bail money, and a lot of people were doing it across the country. But in Birmingham, we had just like other people, it set up where if you donated to a bail fund or we broadened it to any liberation focused organization. So that included donating to places that helped unhoused people, places that provided food, etc. And all the places that are doing the work, ACLU, whatever, and the exchange. If you send them your receipt, you got a personalized poem by a team of poets we had assembled and they would write a poem just for you. And we raised gosh, I don't remember how much, but it was like, I want to say $2,000 something for all those different organizations, which again, is like tangible, usable money. One of the organizations that we fundraise for is called Be a Blessing Birmingham, and they work specifically with the unhoused community. And they were able to finally purchase an outdoor mobile shower unit for our unhoused neighbors, which is incredible. I mean, again, I'm rambling, but the point is, poems really can do so much because it's not just words, literature, whatever. It's the actual spirit. Sometimes people really make it too academic for me. Like, yes, I've studied it. I have all the degrees. That's great. But it's really a soul thing for me as an artist. Yes, I'm really excited to write a sonnet rhyme and blah, blah, blah. That's all fun. It's great. I love it. But I'm more excited to have that conversation with my own soul, with somebody else's soul. That's what I'm really doing it for, because it's not given to me by the God of Words. It's given to me, at least in my mind, by a God who is concerned with our hearts and our souls. So of course the work is doing that, too. But that's what a poem can do. Long answer. I'm sorry.
Kat: No, please don't apologize. That was beautiful. I was not aware of these aspects of your work and definitely want to hear more. And certainly the closure of a lot of public restroom facilities or just facilities in general is tied to the struggle towards civil rights with desegregation happening, and many cities in the south just closing down facilities rather than desegregating. So the issues that a lot of the unhomed are facing right now are in many ways related to the civil rights movement of the 60s and before and beyond. So, yeah, it's beautiful to hear how you've been able to make such a tangible difference. And I'm sure that of course informed your selection as the poet laureate, and I imagine we'll also inform a lot of your work in the rest of your life. So thank you for the gift of your service.
Ashley: Well, thank you. I'm glad to serve. Truly.
Kat: Well, I have a closing question, I think. Yeah. Thank you for being on this journey with me as I learned how to interview folks.
Ashley: You're doing great.
Kat: Thank you. I appreciate it. So before I ask my closing question, is there anything else that you wanted to mention before I ask about or ask you to read a poem from your book, Magic City Gospel?
Ashley: I don't know. People always ask you, what else do you want to say? I don't know what to say about myself. My goodness.
Kat: Yeah, I know. Okay, we'll move on. There was a question that is sort of a question I wanted to ask. We'll ask it after this.
Kat: And if we want to cut it, we can. You don't have to answer it.
Kat: So as closing thoughts, one of the things I found, one of the many things I found so lovely about your book, Magic City Gospel, and I look forward to reading your other ones. This one was available at the Birmingham Public Library quickly, so that's the one I read. One of the things I love is that you weave together poems that touch on beauty, love and hope alongside poems that unflinchingly assess the legacy of racism here in Birmingham. And you named it Magic City Gospel, which is for those of you who are not in Birmingham, that is a nickname for Birmingham. I wonder if we could close with you sharing what or who gives you hope in Birmingham? And then a reading of “God Speaks to Alabama,” which is on page 20.
Ashley: Oh, I haven't read that in a long time. Okay. I saw it in the questions, but even then when I read it, I was like, wow, what a deep cut. Yeah. What gives me hope, right?
Kat: Yeah. What gives you hope here in Birmingham? Or who? What a question.
Ashley: Well, okay, so honestly, what gives me hope is the community that I'm a part of or the various communities I'm a part of. The poets who are here really make me excited to be here, makes me excited to continue investing time and other things in the city. But also, I hate to be a cliche. And the older I get, it's like, we can't avoid being a cliche no matter what you do, whatever. But it's the children. As they say, children are our future, but they really are. I am so grateful to be a teacher, honestly. I mean, I definitely would not be a good writer if I was not a teacher. There's only so much the book learning can do. You got to be around youthful energy and really humble yourself as a teacher. If you're not humbling yourself, I don't think you're really teaching you really have to understand that the students are teaching you as well. They're showing you new ways. But, yeah, I'm just really hopeful seeing how excited they still are about writing. The world would want us to think that nobody is paying attention to books anymore, that we're all just on the Internet, we're all TikToking all day long, and that we need to stop teaching history, et cetera, et cetera. But seeing them engage, I mean, literally yesterday, oh, my goodness, yesterday. But I wish you'd been there, truly. So we had our competition for Poetry Out Loud, which is a national poetry competition. And so we had our school competition, which is like the first stage in a lot of different stages, anyway. So our students competed against each other to win a spot to go to the regionals. So every year it's really fun to see them do this because it's a little bit different than their typical performances, because we don't teach spoken word necessarily, not yet, anyway. Working on it, we teach more traditional, which I hate the distinctions. Everything is everything, truly. But you know how it is. So they're more used to reading from behind a podium, and some of them don't emote as much, whatever. So during Poetry Out Loud, the whole goal is for you to be emotive and just more animated than you may normally be. And they've also introduced a new category called the social justice category, which I think is just amazing that they did that. They did it last year. They started it last year in Alabama, maybe all over the country. I have to double check. But they started last year to respond to, I guess, the growing number of students who were writing original poems about social justice and in an effort to… D.I. is everywhere. So everybody's trying to do their diversity inclusion branch. So this was theirs. You know how it goes, right? But it's good. I'm glad that the students have that ability to win prizes for writing about issues. So yesterday, this is answering the question. I'm getting there. Yesterday we had our competition, and I was expecting it to be good, like it always is. It's good to see the kids doing their thing, and they love seeing each other perform. It's a very supportive Department that we have. And we had, like, guests. Our judges were from other parts of the school, which is always fun to have somebody else see what we do every day. So they get up and every single student is like, I don't even know where this came from. And I know that they're talented. I work with them. I know it. But something about these poems this year, people were just on it. The poems that they shared, I mean, just beyond. One young man wrote about how difficult it is to be a biracial person and to have, I'm misquoting this poem, I'm sorry, but one of the lines was like, how does it feel to have both the blood of the master and the blood of the slave in the same body? And I was like, well, okay, then let me get back to writing, because it's amazing. It was truly amazing. And to see how proud they were to share their work and to see us be proud of them sharing their work, that's the thing that gives me the most hope for humanity, truly, that these young people have a chance still to not become jaded, to not become soured in some way, that they can still see a way through that they feel empowered to speak their truth. I have to keep doing what I'm doing, if only to make sure that there is a path laid out for them, just like everyone did for me. They did it for me. I have to do it for them. They'll do it for someone else. That's the hope. I don't have hope in systems ever, because they are what they are. But in people, I absolutely do. And Birmingham is such a magical place, no pun intended, but it's really somewhere where I think there's so much possibility. And I think we are still struggling to understand what that means in Alabama in general. But in Birmingham specifically, I think we are in a moment where we can decide who we're going to be moving forward. We can look back at the history and understand that we can still be that kind of leader in social justice. We can still be a place people look to and look up to. But coming out of the pandemic and just trying to figure out what it is that we can do as we build the city that will determine what happens in the next 50 years, what kind of a place this will be. But I do think we can be an amazing destination, not just for our amazing national parks, but for other things like the arts and culture that we have here.
Kat: And the barbecue and the barbecue.
Kat: Let's not forget, I will admit this was a question I was going to ask, but I'll just admit this aspect of my past life that I was really fortunate to go to school with someone, with a teacher who was an excellent spoken word teacher. His name is Jeff Kass, and he was all about like, you know, Def Jam poetry. And he created a nonprofit that ended up being where a lot of those activities were housed. And they actually cut records of high schoolers writing their poetry. So I'm just like putting that little, just dropping that in your lap.
Ashley: I do not need anymore.
Kat: I know, I'm not suggesting you do it, but I'm just saying that I could see that being something that happens here because of, was it “The Voice” Porter who passed away recently and just all the work that he did and how much of a role he played in the Birmingham Public Library system and all the spoken word events that he hosted. It seems like there's a really great space for that in Birmingham. I know that was huge for me as a young adult, feeling like there was a space where my voice, my words mattered. And getting in front of a group of people and saying things out loud is such an important skill, especially when it's something that you really feel passionately about. That is the most important skill that I feel that I've ever learned, probably in my life. Besides just being a nice person.
Kat: Besides just general empathy and kindness. So it's so wonderful that you're creating that space for your students and celebrating their success and acknowledging that they have something to teach you because everybody has something to teach others, and that empowers us to know that we can. Great. Well, why don't you read God Speaks to Alabama for us.
Ashley: Sure. I'm really curious why you chose this poem. Actually, nobody ever chooses this poem for me to read.
Kat: Yeah. I guess I was thinking a lot about your appointment as the poet laureate for Alabama. And again, this is the only collection of your work that I've read, and it's so much about place and then thinking about how the education work that we do is so place based. What is Alabama to you? What can Alabama be in the future? What can we hope for our not only our heritage spaces and the role that they play in our communities, but how can we see that reverberating beyond those spaces? Like, how can we see all of it grow and change and improve?
Ashley: I like that. Yeah. This little poem.
Kat: But then afterwards, you could tell me what the poem is all about because maybe I misinterpreted it.
Ashley: No, no, I think you're on the right track. It's just nobody ever really thinks about that about this poem specifically, or this is the way that I am celebrating the space. Usually people are very focused on my historical pieces, which is I mean, I do what I do. That's all well and good. But I also forget about these moments where I'm really focusing on the place and what the place is and what it can be, what it feels like. Yeah. So thank you for reminding me of that.
God Speaks to Alabama.
I molded you from red clay, sweet cornbread, the slow
drip of a lemon squeezed over sugar and ice.
I kissed you to life on the lips, Mama
bird, I am, my tongue feeds you blood.
I have waited in this heat for
you to pucker and say my name.
I give you fire and
blackberries and white, thick cotton.
I give you the honey bee and the yellow hammer.
Find me, swallow me down and whisper me to passers
by as you sit nightly on the creaky front porch.
Kat: Thank you.
Ashley: Thank you. I like that poem. Goodness, I forgot about this poem. Wow.
Kat: Is there anything you'd like to say about it?
Ashley: You know, I think it really exemplifies the beauty that I feel here in Alabama. I wrote this when I was in Miami in grad school and, like, super homesick and just sad. Honestly, I was glad to be there for many reasons. It was a great experience, but I'm very, very close to my family, and I realized how much I really missed just the feeling of this place. And so this poem, all of these were a part of my attempt to get back, even if it was just by writing it down. And I think it was also a part of my realization that I saw just so much good in the actual place of Alabama. Excuse me. As you know, Miami does not look like Alabama in any shape or form.
Kat: I've actually lived there, so I do.
Ashley: Oh, bless you.
Kat: I've survived the traffic.
Ashley: Look, that's a whole other conversation.
Kat: It is.
Ashley: I don't know how either of us are standing.
Kat: No, it's a blessing.
Ashley: Oh, my gosh. But yeah, just thinking back to, like, there's a certain way. And I know you haven't been here long, but I think you may have already started to understand there's a way that the landscape is telling you a story. There's a sweetness sometimes in the air, like right when the sun is going down and you see just the trees and the way that the sky looks. And it's just beautiful, at least for me, when I see - I'm looking at an office, but I'm imagining the landscape when I see the beauty of the state of Alabama in all the big and small ways, even down to the way the pebbles might look, or the red dirt near my grandma's house, or the clouds on a particular day, or the way the rain falls on the crops in the backyard that my dad has planted, the way the leaves fall, the way the birds chirp, all of these things I can't help but recognize, oh, there is something greater than us. It has made this beauty for us. For me, that thing is God. And I can even see it here in Alabama, which is supposed to be such a scary place. And I mean, the whole country truly is a scary place for many of us. But there is at least still that. And it does go back to my parents because they raised us in such a way that we knew we could actually see God in a much more expansive way than traditionally seen. We can see God in the grass. That's also God. We can see God in a line in our palm. That's God, too. We can see God in books, in an evening spent around a little television watching Laurence Welk. It's everywhere. They're everywhere. God is everywhere. Gender is weird for me with God, because how can I? I don't know.
Kat: Yes. It's hard to ask God their preferred pronouns
Ashley: You can't so I just stick to God. That's good enough for me. But yeah, that's what it brings up for me. Just this moment I must have had I can't remember exactly where I was when I wrote it, but I do remember the feeling of trying to see Alabama again through the poem. So hopefully that happens to the listeners. They can feel just hugged by that image of God in Alabama.
Kat: Well, thank you for sharing that and thank you for that last image of beauty and sense of place and hope. It has truly been a joy to speak with you and I'm so excited for all that you've done, all that you will do not just in this appointment as poet laureate, but in your life work and we look forward to seeing how we might collaborate on some poetry related events as they touch on civil rights and human rights. So thank you again, so much.
Ashley: Thank you. This has been great.
Conclusion: This is We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights. Thanks to the Psalters for use of their song Turn me Round. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to our series. Until next time. [music: keep on walking, keep on talking, marching on to freedom land].