Partners in Rhyme
Updated: Nov 15, 2019
Ashley Jones, author of Magic City Gospel and Dark Thing, and Tina Braziel, author of Known by Salt, began 2019, each with a book. To spread the word about their respective collections of poetry, the two decided to embark on a book tour together. They’ve traveled throughout the Southeast, displaying their poems side by side for the first time as respective poets and friends.
The three of us gathered at Queen’s Park, a cocktail bar located on 2nd Avenue North in Birmingham, Alabama. Seated along plush emerald green cushions, the room illuminated by dazzling chandeliers dressed amongst potted plants as the friends gather to share their shared story.
“Did you choose (Queen’s Park) or did I choose?” Ashley turns to Tina, “It’s just hard to know,” she shrugs turning back to me.
“Same brain,” Tina laughs, pointing between the two.
“-and they have mocktails, which is an important part of our duo,” Ashley adds.
There’s a bit of the city sprinkled in Queen’s Park, with their millennial pink stained walls and vintage mirrors. The bar thrives off of those who want an elevated drinking experience, while also appealing to those more down-to-earth, with potted plants and vintage decorum. It’s not a surprise that this pair would choose a place that seems to embody both of their tastes.
"I realized that I actually liked where I was from and that my writing would be stronger if I focused on that" - Ashley Jones
Founding Director of the Magic City Poetry Festival, and winner of the 2018 Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize, Jones writes about Birmingham city life in particular. She says it began with the transition from rejecting her Southern identity to embracing it, which Jones describes as “the strongest journey I’ve ever taken as a writer.” She says, “I left Alabama, I went to Miami-which is not on this planet, but it wasn’t until I got there I realized that I actually liked where I was from and that my writing would be stronger if I focused on that.”
In her two books, Magic City Gospel and Dark Thing, Ashley’s poems reflected on her perspective as a child, or were about periods in time before she was born, “Right now I’m trying to write about now.” She has found this transition to be challenging as, “there is nowhere to hide in now, there are real people involved - there is me involved - which makes me nervous,” but despite the nerves, she’s felt throughout this transition, Ashley still finds the venture of writing about the present exciting.
On the other hand, Braziel’s poetry is more connected to the earth. “Tina is the outdoorsy one of this duo,” Ashley chuckles, “because she is with the earth in ways that I have not yet become familiar with.”
Braziel has been awarded the Philip Levine Prize for Poetry, an Alabama State Council on the Arts fellowship, and an artist residency at Hot Springs National Park. She has also published a chapbook with Pork Belly Press titled, Known by Thirst.
In her poems, Braziel primarily deals with nature, you know she is out there-becoming one with the earth. For the past few years she and her husband, Jim Braziel, have been building a house: the Glass Cabin they call it. “On our honeymoon,” she reminisces, “we went to Robinson Jeffers house,” who was a poet who had built a house for him and his wife in California. “It was really constructive to me to see that, yes, writers are out there doing physical labor too, and how that can influence and inspire their work.”
Braziel writes about what it takes to work the land, whether it’s the house she’s building or the bridges her father used to craft. Tina currently serves as a Magic City Poetry Festival Eco Fellow with the Cahaba River Society. In October, she conducted a poetry workshop that operated as a stream walk through the Cahaba River as a part of UAB’s Writing Series. She’s passionate about conservation, which is evident in her poems, and her spirit seems to thrive off of being as close to nature as she possibly can.
While they have their differences, as poets, both Jones and Braziel’s writing share similarities, “I think our styles complimented each other because we both want to be accessible.” Tina says, “I think we both write a great deal about identity and who we see we are in relation to the world. Whether that’s other people we encounter or experiences that we have.”
“Of course, we’ve been together as humans for a while,” Ashely says, “but we’ve never had our work side by side.” Their relationship as friends and writers have evolved on this book tour. Having their work side by side, “has shown that all of us are writing on the same plane and we can all have the same conversation.” Poets do everything, and first, Ashley says, and that includes discussing the discourse that perpetuates throughout the country.
"We both write a great deal about identity and who we see we are in relation to the world." - Tina Braziel
Their friendship began in the Spencer’s Honor House, the home of UAB’s Honors College. However, when college students leave for the summer, it becomes the home of the Ada Long Creative Writing Workshop, where Tina serves as the Director of the program. The workshop is a three week long summer program for high school students in the state of Alabama. For many students, it is the first time their work will be published.
Ashley had finished her Freshman year at UAB when she accepted an internship with the writing workshop. It was there in the sanctuary of the honors house that a friendship blossomed between them.
“Tina says,” Ashley began, “that during that summer, she realized that we had the same brain.” Apparently, as the story follows, Tina would turn to ask Ashley to do something, and realize that Ashley was already doing it, “ever since then we have become friends - like sisters.”
Brain sisters. That’s what they call each other. Neither can really remember who first coined the phrase, both have a premonition that it was Ashley, but who’s to say?
Since their friendship began, both have confided their work to one another. Ashley says that reading Tina’s form and descriptions make her a more ‘careful poet’.
“I send Tina a lot of poems when I write them, so whenever Tina says that it’s good - it’s good.” she emphasizes, “Send it to Mom, send it to Tina,” Ashley says as if she’s checking off a box in her mind. “It’s important for me to surround myself with writers who are community minded. I mean that in the Birmingham-sense but also, the community of poetry, and Tina shows up.”
As Tina looks at her friend across the couch she smiles, admitting that Ashley makes her a better writer in the same ways, “she gives me the best compliments ever!” she beams, “I’m like-dang, really? Which makes me feel really good because I respect her work so much. Having that mutual respect just means a lot.”
But besides the compliments, edits, and general support, Tina admires Ashley in a different way, “I am married to a writer and he has a lot of firm ideas about how writing should go. Write every day, he says, but Ashley is really good about being irrelevant to those rules.” Ashley, coincidentally was a student of Jim’s when she attended UAB, “for her to kind of go for it, and follow her own path, is really important for her-but is also inspiring for a lot of other writers.”
"I think that with Southern writing you have to at least acknowledge what happened." - Ashley Jones
When asked about success, they both pause. The theoretical, or the mystical possibilities flowing through their mind. For Tina, success is outlined by readers who discover the art of poetry through her writing. “I teach yoga in Oneonta (Alabama) and some of my students have bought my book.” She describes how they talk about it, with smiles on their faces, saying phrases like, “Oh I don’t normally read poetry, but I like what you did,” or, “I can understand it, and I’m surprised by that.”
Tina doesn’t want poetry to be rare or to be an elite form of writing that few people treasure. She wants everyday people to read her work, and to find joy in it.
For Ashley, success runs along a similar pipeline, “When I think about my favorite writers, I don’t always think about the awards they have won.” Lucille Clifton, Ashley’s favorite poet, was not known as the most decorated poet, but rather she is seen as one of the most loved poets. “The spirit of kindness and humanity that she brought to the world, if I am able to - while I am here and when I am gone - inspire people to write, to live in a way that brings life and joy to others. That’s success.”
“And in a more vain way,” she adds chuckling, “If I could get a building named after me, that would be great.”
Tina says that the Southern writer is unique from other regional writers because they tend to have, “a deeper sense of what has plagued their nation since the beginning. As a Southern Writer, because there are so many stereotypes of the South - and there is the sentiment that Southerners are more racist than the rest of the nation - I think we have a greater awareness of, and maybe a greater responsibility to that legacy.” It’s not a legacy that anyone wants - but it’s a legacy that Southerners have.
In many ways, Ashley agrees with that sentiment, “I definitely think Southerners have a better sense of reality, and this is not always the case because some Southern writers ignore this. But I think that with Southern writing you have to at least acknowledge what happened. Most of that time that results in a deeply considered point of view.”
When it comes to reimagining that definition when it pertains to a modern Southern woman, it’s Tina’s turn to take the metaphorical approach, as you would any Southern tradition by bringing a new twist to something more traditional, “You have your collard greens,” she says, “but maybe it goes in a sandwich. We love our biscuits and our gravy, and all the homegrown food, and we’re still going to celebrate it while adding our own twist so that it’s more inclusive. I think that’s the type of creativity that we’re seeing from the modern Southern woman.”
On the other hand, for Ashley, a lot of what makes a Southern woman more modern is the ability to choose, “because women have not and still sometimes do not have what I call expansive choice.” By this, she means the ability to choose any mode of woman, “For more as a modern woman, I feel like I should choose to be a feminist and still desire a family. I feel like sometimes, some of us are so focused on separating ourselves from the past that I feel like they can’t see themselves adding that traditional structure.” She’s decided that her own form of feminism is, “we’re going to burn them down - but we also have babies.”
The South is evolving, whether you’re in the big city or in the humble countryside. But one thing is for sure, the words of Tina Braziel and Ashley Jones will be there to weave through the briny thickets of resistance throughout this new era in the South.
Do you know someone who inspires you? Is there an artist, writer, or musician that enlightens people around them? Email us at email@example.com or comment below and we’ll check them out!