BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - In these divisive times, the world can take a lesson from two Alabama women, both award-winning poets, teachers, and friends. Ashley M. Jones and Tina Mozelle Braziel each recently published a poetry collection and the pair just launched a joint book tour they’re calling the Dark // Salt Sisters tour. The two women have readings scheduled together across the country, sharing their writing, from two very different perspectives, on the same stage. The idea is to recognize the harmony between the work, honoring diversity in their points of view, a rare and beautiful thing.
Jones, a writing teacher at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, has published two books, Magic City Gospel in 2017 and dark // thing, released in February, 2019, winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry. Braziel, director of the Ada Long Creative Writing Workshop at UAB, just published her second poetry collection, Known by Salt, which won the Phillip Levine Prize in 2017. Her first book, Rooted by Thirst, was published in 2016.
I recently sat down and talked with both of them about their writing and the decision to go on tour together.
ASHLEY JONES: In both of my books I’m looking at race. Magic City Gospel I’m focused more on Birmingham and the history of Alabama, because when I wrote it I wasn’t living here. I was in Miami in grad school and was so homesick, I just had to find some way to get back and the only way I had was to write. I found myself writing about our history, the civil rights movement and where I fit into it. Growing up here, I had this love hate relationship with Birmingham, with Alabama, with the stories of civil rights, because it was scary, it was frustrating. But writing about it in that first book, I think I came to know what it means to actually love something. You love the good and you love it through its badness as well. So that was the focus of that book.
My second book, dark // thing, is sort of doing the same thing in talking about race and identity, this country’s history, but it’s a little bit angrier of a book, at least from my perspective. I wrote it in the lead up to the Trump era and during the election. Obviously black people have had reason to be angry since 1526, but these last few years have just been so frustrating. I’m doing some of the same things as in my first book, including history, and letting it speak to the present, because I think that’s so important. For any community or nation to try to move forward you have to know what happened. And really, to realize that the things that happened so long ago are not really that long ago and are still happening in other ways. If I have a poem about lynching in the past, there’s a poem about lynching in the present so the reader can see, these two things might not be the same exact thing physically, it might not be a tree and some rope, but a black person is still getting killed by a mob unjustly and we haven’t really progressed as far as we say we have.
TINA BRAZIEL: I’ve often termed Known by Salt as this way of searching for home because I write a lot about growing up in a trailer park and then also about my husband and I building our house ourselves in the woods. It’s interesting, an MFA student introduced me at a reading in Fresno and he talked about how much of my book is about finding identity through family stories, particularly through work. A lot of the book is about that my dad is a construction worker, he built the bridges that they’re tearing down around here about the time I was born. My grandmother and grandfather built the house that they moved into before it was done. Building this house brought a lot of things full circle for me. Connecting with my father’s history, my grandmother’s history. Just to go back to the idea of homes, Americans in particular, we identify ourselves by building homes. We are homesteaders, that’s the way a lot of people came here. That’s what I’m writing about.
ASHLEY JONES: It’s a pretty simple story. Tina and I have been friends for ten years. We share work with each other. We realized that our books were coming out around the same time. Hers in January, mine in February. And Tina, being the wonderful person that she is, suggested doing events together, which is great. I did a tour by myself in 2017, which was fun. I’m an introvert so I like alone time, but that’s a lot of alone time, and to be away and alone, that’s a whole different animal. So, I was eager to not be by myself and to have one of my best friends with me and so far, it’s been amazing to see how the work speaks to each other. I sort of knew that our work talked to each other, but hearing her read and then reading myself at these events, I’ve really seen more that we are talking about the same things, just from different perspectives. Tina is white, I’m black. Those are two different perspectives. Tina grew up in a rural environment. I grew up in the city and we both speak about those things, but we also both talk about family and history and legacy a lot and so reading our work together can give you a full picture of an Alabamian and what that can mean, of womanhood, of family, of so many things.
ASHLEY JONES: I think those issues are only divisive if you don’t have conversations about them. If, for example, there were two poets doing the same thing we’re doing, who didn’t try to see the connections or who didn’t actually talk to each other as humans, that would be a totally different animal. A lot of times, the conflicts you see happening, like the one we’re seeing at a certain local school this week, that’s happening because people are not trying to understand each other, and they’re not trying to share truth, they’re just trying to share the narrative that they created. I think that’s how it works with us. We always, as friends or poets, we talk about uncomfortable things. On our long car rides, there are some very interesting conversations, but I always feel hopeful and enriched after that because I feel like we’re hearing each other and therefore, when we move on to the rest of the world, we’re not going to have the same perspective that we had going into it.
TINA BRAZIEL: And the conversations we have are not particularly uncomfortable between us, but they are topics that tend to make people uncomfortable. To me, those are the more interesting conversations because those are the ones where people get real and where people can find better understanding.
TINA BRAZIEL: Ashley named us brain sisters when worked together at the Ada Long Creative Writing Workshop, she interned for the workshop years ago. This would happen all the time. I would look up and say, I need to go do something, and I would see that Ashley was doing it already. Or vice versa. Ashley came up with it. We think so much alike, we must be brain sisters. So with the dark salt sisters, it’s just a combination of the two book titles, dark // thing and Known by Salt. Jim, my husband came up with it.
ASHLEY JONES: Yes, we are giving credit to Jim, on the record, the novelist James Braziel came up with the name.
TINA BRAZIEL: A lot of my influence has come from poets like Lucille Clifton, who writes about identity a lot. I think that might be one of the things that people get from this is that, you don’t have to be just in your own camp to learn and to be able to explore certain things. How she (Clifton) wrote about identity helped me figure out how to write about it. It didn’t have to be another Alabama girl from a trailer park. I think that’s important. And I think it’s pretty obvious that we like each other a lot and it’s important to make friendships and treasure those friendships.
ASHLEY JONES: One thing I hope people learn in the poetry and literary world is you don’t have to always compete in a negative way. The literary world is very cutthroat and people are not genuine. People will come after you just to suck up your energy and figure out your secrets. So, to see two poets who are both successful celebrating each other, I think that’s huge, because so often, people are just out for themselves. We mutually respect each other and each other’s work and we’re lifting each other up, which I think, all of us should do, in general, but as writers, for sure.
ASHLEY JONES: I’ll share what I always share, which is not the teacher’s answer. I’m very much about doing what works for you, in general and in writing. You need to live your own life. Period. My process is very non-traditional. I don’t get up and write every day. I can go weeks without writing a poem and I feel just fine. I need life to sort of feed me and when I come to the page, I’m very intentional. I don’t write just to say I’ve done it, or to say I just need to get some bad drafts out. Of course, I’m still going to get them out, but I just don’t find use for me, just to say I’ve written. When I’m writing I want to write for a purpose, and that could be because of the lifestyle I’ve chosen to live, I just don’t have time. So, I tell my students, even though I force them to write on a deadline, which I think has helped me to do what I do, I tell them to do what works for them. If what works for you is reading a little bit, writing a little bit, or doing something totally non-literary, if that’s what it means, then that’s what you do. Some writers will make you feel like you’re not actually a writer if you don’t do all these ridiculous things, or if you haven’t read everything in the canon. Taylor make your process, is what I would say.
TINA BRAZIEL: I guess for me a lot of my process is revision. So, I spend a lot of time looking at a poem I’ve written in one notebook and then I rewrite it in another notebook and then I need to look at both of those and rewrite it in a third notebook. I find a lot happens there in the revision. Just seeing other ways that I could try things out, what else I might be able to add to the work. So, I often encourage students just to try that, especially with a computer, cut and paste is a lot easier, like you literally don’t have to get the scissors and the glue, save that draft and then just play. That’s what I really encourage students to do. You have this draft, but what else could you do with it, and even if you don’t like that result, you always have that original you can go back to and be like, ‘ok this is my baby, this is what I’m proud of.’ But you might learn something in that process of just playing with it and making it a little bit more of a fun activity rather than this is a perfect object that I don’t want to hurt or damage. Let’s make it more of a ball that we throw around and see how it will bounce.
TINA BRAZIEL: If that happens when you’re sleeping, if you can keep yourself awake for ten minutes and think about it for ten minutes, you might be able to remember it the next morning. Writing it down as soon as you can. Jim and I will do this, if one of us is driving we’ll ask the other one to text a certain phrase to each other just so we have it. You think you’ll remember it, but you won’t. Or if you don’t have someone to text it, if you can think about it for ten minutes, apparently there’s a magical ten-minute time that will help you remember something.
ASHLEY JONES: I didn’t know I was doing that ten-minute thing, but I guess that’s what I’ve been doing. Usually I’m in the car by myself, if I have my sister with me or someone, I’ll make them text it to me, so I either rely on Siri, I’ll have Siri take it down, or I’ll just think about only that phrase until I get to wherever I am going and then I’ll immediately start furiously writing it down. If I think of something right before I go to sleep, I’ll just get out bed, because I know it’s going to be gone.
ASHLEY JONES: I think really well. You can always tell when an audience doesn’t like you, it’s very clear when people are not with it. I think we’ve held audience’s attention. I can feel them with us the whole time. Afterward they affirm that they enjoyed the reading and we each made them think about things that we talked about. It feels good. I’ve already done one tour and this tour feels different. I don’t know if it’s because I’m older and more confident or if it’s because I have someone with me or if the work is more mature, I don’t know what it is, but this tour has a certain kind of different magic to it.
TINA BRAZIEL: A lot of people have come up to me and said ‘I’m glad y’all are doing this together.’ I think people enjoy seeing us read together and talk about each other as friends and sisters.
ASHLEY JONES: While still recognizing the differences between us. That is so huge. Some people love to say, ‘Oh, I’m colorblind. I don’t see color.’ That’s terrible to me. You saying to me, I don’t see your color feels the same as I hate you because of your color because you’re just not seeing me. So that’s important too, for people to see us interacting and we’re not forgetting about our differences, we’re celebrating them. That’s why it works.