Talking to Ariana Brown is like talking to an old friend. She speaks with sincerity, floats between lightheartedness and earnest. She has much to say, but never rushes to it, listening with the same patience as she speaks, considering each word on both ends. One gets all of this from her poetry just as clear as they would from a conversation. In her first published work, “Sana Sana”, Ariana returns to longtime favorites in her years as a teaching and touring poet. The result for readers is both a strong introduction to her work, as well as a view into her core as both a writer and a Black woman living in the America of today in the life she has lived.
Ariana hails from San Antonio, Texas, a Black Mexican American poet with serious street cred who got her start not only participating in, but also organizing youth poetry events in the Alamo City. With two degrees under her belt (a B.A. in African Diaspora Studies and Mexican American Studies from UT Austin as well as an M.F.A in Poetry from the University of Pittsburgh), she’s currently pursuing her next degree in Library Science. “In case this poetry thing doesn’t work out,” she jokes, though in truth I’ve heard her mention this goal before, and know it’s more of a passion pursuit than a backup plan. She calls libraries “the only institution I still trust”, and notes how direct their impact is on communities, providing resources and opportunities. For the poet, the backup plan for things not working out, is going out to make things work.
In our second chat with Ariana, we discussed her growth since our last conversation, the inspiration behind her first published collection, and how her poetry lives within mediums.
You last spoke with MUD in 2016, right before entering your MFA. How have you changed or grown since then, in your work or otherwise?
I feel more secure, in my work and in my ability. I feel more confident. My MFA program [at Pittsburgh] was awful, and by that I mean we didn’t have a lot of mentorship or support. I had to do a lot on my own, and in some ways, it pushed me to study independently and harder.
I expected to learn a lot about forms and stuff but I really learned to value what I already knew. Coming from performance poetry, and I think a lot of people in the slam community starting out feel this way, I really questioned whether I knew enough or whether my knowledge was legitimate. After finishing the MFA and thinking back on my background in slam, I can look at both and see them for what they are and for what they lack. I’m much more interested in the community-based knowledge I learned from slam and from mentoring youth poets and coaching and being an organizer.
Your book title, “Sana, Sana” comes from a Spanish language folk saying, one usually said to children as a way to heal them. Tell me about the phrase and why you chose it?
So all of these are poems that I’ve been performing for a long time. They’re poems that feel the most important to me, that when I’m building my sets for tours I come back to these the most.
I think because I was guided by Ebony Stewart [an amazing and acclaimed Houston-based poet], I see the performance of poetry as ritual, or as a ceremony. To me it’s like a form of therapy or healing, and it requires a community, right? It’s not the same performing your poem alone in your room—you need the audience. You need witnesses. You need that exchange of energy and that relationship between performer and audience. These poems are ones that I really enjoy in that space and currently they only really exist in performances. I also wanted to give people who enjoy these poems in a tangible form, so they could take them home.
Who are you writing for in these poems?
I’ve come to learn that I’m writing for myself. I’m writing poems that a young me, or high school, or whatever past Ariana needed to hear. I write the things I need to hear.
When does writing take place in your healing process? Is it something you use to process, or are you a bit removed and writing on past events?
I really like this question; it depends on the poem. In Superpower, the poem about self-love, I had just come off of a really difficult conversation with my ex. I felt terrible afterward and I needed to get it out so I did that the way I know how, through writing. What came out of that was that poem.
Other times though, it’s very different. I think a lot about my experience as a Black Mexican person growing up in San Antonio, and often the only Black person in spaces growing up. I’m very interested in tracing the history of movement of Black people in Mexico and Texas and so a lot of my poetry involves my experiences in relation to that history. For the Black Kids in My 8th Grade Spanish Class is an example of that, it’s a part of investigating past events with new context, and also about celebrating Blackness and Black kids. It was the first time I understood myself as part of a community of Black people and that feels important. I think my writing is also helpful in working through my experiences with racism and coming into an understanding of myself.
From your work, reclamation is a common thread, especially reclamation of that which might have been used to harm or marginalize you, for example in Ode to Thrift Stores. Does reclamation play a part in your healing?
It’s funny you say that because to me, Ode to Thrift Stores isn’t a reclamation poem. To me it’s just a celebration of these spaces that were my favorite places growing up. I wasn’t ever really exposed to the whole thrifting for fashion like Buffalo Exchange or overpriced Goodwills in Austin until recently; even in Pittsburgh during my MFA, there was this community thrift store I went to where a lot of Black people went and knew each other’s names. To me it’s another example of these spaces of community that meant a lot to me growing up. Even now, thrift stores are probably one of the places I feel most comfortable.
I do have a lot of reclamation in my poetry; I think it’s most associated with poems about my hair or queerness. To me, reclamation is about saying “I have always had the right to be here.” It’s about rejecting ideas that I was taught about my body, including my Blackness, my queerness, etc. In many ways, I am always failing a lot of society’s expectations, just by being who I am and looking how I do. Reclamation is about saying that that is okay, that I want to fail those expectations because they don’t serve me.
You put out an EP at the beginning of last year; tell me about the relationship between the chapbook and the EP and the process of putting your poems to music?
My EP was put together by two good homies of mine, DJQ and PSYPIRITUAL, who are based in Tucson, Arizona and actually built the instrumentals around my poems. I recorded the poems in my bedroom in Pittsburgh and they created the beats and everything based on those versions. The result is different than a performance, it’s slower and of course the music helps to fill in some of the energy you would have with an audience. I just wanted people to be able to experience the poems in a different way.
Along with your first audio release, you’ve also completed an MFA; how are these mediums for your work different than your roots in slam and performance poetry?
I just think of it as different ways to reach an audience. As you and I both know from coming up as young poets in San Antonio, people in San Antonio don’t wanna buy your chapbook, they wanna know if you have a CD. It’s just different. The art communities in every city are different. Here we have a big driving culture so people want something they can play in their car while they’re driving. So I’m listening to my community. That’s a big part of how the EP came to be. The MFA really just helped me be more intentional about what I wanted to write about and how I wanted to reach the people I imagine as the audiences for my work.
You have some upcoming shows in Texas to celebrate your publishing and showcase your poems. What does it mean to celebrate this milestone in your home communities?
It really means the world to me. I’ve been performing these poems for the last ten years and in a way, I’m from each of the cities I’m performing in. My mom’s family is from San Antonio, where I grew up; my dad’s family is scattered between Houston and Galveston and I lived there for a while in middle school; and I went to college in Austin. I’m connected to the landscape and people in all of those places so it means the world to finally come back home and get to share my chapbook with them. I’m inviting local artists for each show to come and perform and my friend Ilbersalle from Austin is catering the shows. I just want it to feel welcoming to all community members and like a reflection of them. I just want to give a really good performance.
Witness Ariana in action at her Austin chapbook release this March. Follow her work at www.arianabrown.com and on Twitter & Instagram at @arianathepoet.
Wed, March 11 at 7pm
110 E North Loop Blvd
Free + catered + open to the public