“I Think of You, Alabama” by Ashley Jones Alabama Poet Laureate, 2022-2026
Being Poet Laureate of any constituency has many public and many hidden requirements, and I think all of us wonder, even as we are completing said requirements, how we will show up in this new and very public-facing way. During this first year of my service term, I have been asked to speak at all kinds of events, and yes, write poems specifically for some of those events. It’s quite a daunting task to write for an occasion—at first glance, it might seem easier than any other poem since the subject is already provided. But, truly, this sort of assignment requires the poet to receive guidance—and more frighteningly, expectations—from an organization and still find their way to an organic writing process which makes way for an authentic poem to be born. In my own writing practice, I am very faithful to the process of listening and receiving. I listen, eagerly, to my own voice, spirit, to the channel that connects me to God. I listen to the world and its many voices. I listen to memory and action. Sometimes, I have to listen to nature. To the sound of my own lungs, breathing. I listen closely to everything that is not my own ego, and I let it lead me to the words and to the heart of a poem. But that process is obscured when the Occasion and its accompanying Deadline are blaring loudly.
I have to begin to ask myself—is this going to be my poem, or theirs?
I have to always conclude that the poem is my own. That there is something I have been pondering already which can apply to this prompt.
If the poem is going to be successful and live beyond the occasion but also live within the occasion’s confines, I have to be able to find my way in.
This summer, my home city of Birmingham, Alabama hosted the World Games. This was a huge deal for our city, as the World Games is in league with the Olympics. We’re just a small southern city with a lot of heart, and we wanted to put our best foot forward with this impossibly big event. I was asked to write a poem about Alabama to be performed on the main stage alongside American Idol and recording artist Ruben Studdard. The poem needed to celebrate Alabama, give hope, and fit within a minute and a half time limit. I was worried, to say the very least, that I wouldn’t be able to adhere to my authentic style and talk about Alabama in a hopeful way. It’s not that I don’t have hope for my state, but I’m a poet who always tries to see the thing for what it really is, and the political movings of Alabama and many other states over this past year (read: always) have made it hard not to begin with the real and then go to the hope. But as the deadline neared, I remembered that it isn’t the government or its laws or the talking heads or the political lies which make a place a place. My hope for any city in this nation lies, always, with the people, with nature, with the soul-language of its soil. So I began there. That was my way in. I’m pretty pleased with the final result, which I had to condense in my final recitation for time. I think this poem might have a life in my next book, because I do believe in the Alabama that is kind, beautiful, caring, progressive, and real. I Think of You, Alabama Alabama, you are the yellowhammer’s song, the trill of its bright welcome, its wings, a fluttering harmony. Alabama, they say stars fell here and it’s true—look at the dew making glitter over the fields, look at the twinkles shaking out of our cackles and smiles, the stars in our glasses, cooling our sweet tea. When I think of love I think of you, Alabama— the way you defy the harsh touch of man and bloom anyway. You rise up around your people and you show them strong and sparkling against any shadow, any chain. The sun breaks from its moontime bud and petals into light over you, Alabama, blessing the morning, red in its glow. When I think of love, Alabama, I think of the children, all of them exactly as they are, whoever they are. They know what it means to be free, they show me that our history can embolden us and move us forward. It can steel us as we march. They imagine a future, Alabama, and it’s coming, the freshest crop, our most sacred harvest. May our hands be ready to pluck it, let them be clean enough to hold it close.