Ariana Brown is a queer Black Mexican American poet based in her hometown of San Antonio, Texas. Ariana holds a B.A. in African Diaspora Studies and Mexican American Studies from UT Austin as well as an MFA in Poetry from the University of Pittsburgh. She is the recipient of two Academy of American Poets Prizes and a 2014 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational champion. An alum of Brave New Voices, Ariana’s digital EP, LET US BE ENOUGH (2019), is also available on Bandcamp. I had the privilege of reviewing Ariana’s new chapbook release with Game Over Books, Sana Sana, and sitting down with this beloved spoken word veteran to discuss her latest offering.
Mia S. Willis: Sana Sana is a collection ten years in the making and it is not difficult to see why these pieces are some of your favorites. With a decade of material to choose from, how were you led to these particular poems during the editing process? What challenges and triumphs did you encounter as a self-described spoken word artist in the chapbook medium?
Ariana Brown: I thought about the poems that I like to perform the most, usually because they feel good. The rhythm of a piece, its relevance, and how it feels emotionally for me are the things that make me return to a poem. Some of the poems that people know me for feel outdated to me, such as “Volver, Volver,” so I didn’t want to include that one. My thinking and politics have shifted since writing that. I wanted the collection to reflect my current ideas. That’s why there’s such an emphasis on my relationship with my Blackness instead of me trying to find a welcoming place in Latinidad. To answer your second question, I had to go back and put line breaks in all my poems. That probably took the longest! You know, as a spoken word or slam poet, we don’t line break our poems because it doesn’t matter where the line break is when you’re onstage. So I had to go back and do that.
MSW: I confess that I have been a fan of yours since your team’s championship run at the 2014 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational, but my favorite pieces in Sana Sana are evidence of all the growth you have undergone since then. “Supremacy” begins without preamble (“I wanna talk about white women”) and serves as an indictment of the insidiousness inherent in white women’s proximity to privilege. The poem is so alive with image and urgency that my mind could not help but long for the reading included on LET US BE ENOUGH (2019). Take me through how this piece came together on the page and how it might take on new life by appearing in your tour set.
AB: I like how you described the beginning of “Supremacy”—without preamble. That’s funny. Yeah, I tend to ramble at the beginning of my poems. One of my old coaches, sam sax, used to tell me that most of my poems actually started about halfway down the first page. I have tried to get better at cutting the first few lines of the poems I write. “Supremacy” is a good example of that. When I perform it during a tour set, I don’t give the audience a chance to clap (or boo) at the end. I take a breath and immediately launch into “Invocation,” which I think of as an antidote to the violence I talk about in “Supremacy.” If “Supremacy” is about living in a world that hates Black women, “Invocation” is about Black women’s interior selves. Taking them back. Speaking to them gently, with love and understanding. I have performed “Supremacy” in hostile rooms and it felt weird to give the audience a chance to reject me by pausing and waiting for them to clap. So I retain control of the room by continuing a narrative that builds into “Invocation,” whether or not they wanna follow me. I’m the one with the mic.
MSW: Sana Sana proposes a deep time definition of family—one flexible enough to both encompass and transcend the complex ancestry of a queer Black Mexican American raised in girlhood. You once specified in a 2015 interview with Black Youth Project that “when I enter my poems, the audience is always my ancestors and myself.” This esoteric nature of family is richly explored in “Cumbia”; flashbulb memories lead the reader from “My mom taught me to cumbia once, / cleared a space big enough / for my father’s ghost to join / us & put Pandora on shuffle” to “…though the cumbia is popular everywhere, / it originates in Colombia. The first people to do it, did so / in chains. Enslaved black folk couldn’t lift shackled feet, / so instead they shuffled & invented the cumbia.” How has your veneration for lineage (chosen and given) fueled your desire to make art as resistance? What cultural tools and/or practices consistently affirm your mission to change the world with words?
AB: I have always been interested in lineage, whether familial, cultural, historical, you name it, partly because my father has been dead for as long as I have been alive. I am interested in my own origins, and by extension, how people come to believe what they believe about themselves and the world. This is why I am interested in history. Much of Sana Sana, and the full length collection I am working on, explores histories of Black people in Mexican, Mexican American, and Latin American spaces. I am learning that lineage is not always sacred (sometimes it is violent). I think a lot about relationality, though. I have a responsibility to Black people everywhere in diaspora. One small thing I can do is share what I know about their historical presence in places where they are assumed to never have existed, like in Mexico (or Latin America in general) during the transatlantic slave trade.
MSW: As a self-professed member of the Ariana Brown Stan Club™, I must brag that I won the unofficial Twitter caption contest when the videos for “Ode to Thrift Stores” dropped by telling my followers that “in this house, the only ariana we stan is @arianathepoet.” The poem is powered by an earnest class commentary (“What can you create / when the only thing in front of you / is your hands? // How fast can you think? / How deliberate can you be? // Can you imagine something better / than what you have, then / make the thing you have, better?”) which wastes no time sugarcoating the shit (“When I tell you department stores / overwhelm me what I mean is / 15% off is not a sale. / I’m not even sure why they have sales / ‘cause we don’t show up ‘til it goes on clearance. // Mom says everything goes on clearance”). Walk me through your choice to use the ode for this message and the different lives this piece has had in its various media iterations.
AB: I’m dead, LOL. I dunno—I lived in Austin for five years and went to undergrad with a lot of people of color from affluent backgrounds. I didn’t know people of color could be rich (or just financially stable) until I got to college. I assumed all brown people struggled like my family. So it made me more aware of the habits I picked up growing up, like getting everything secondhand. San Antonio has a big secondhand economy—hella flea markets, local thrift stores, and a big yard sale culture. Just about everything we owned growing up belonged to someone else first. And so being in Austin, around people who never had to strategize about how to get the things they needed, I wanted to write an ode to thrift stores because it felt like an ode to the ways I learned to survive without much money.
We shot a music video for “Ode to Thrift Stores” a while back, which is one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. My friend Enrique (who goes by DJQ and co-produced my EP along with PSYPIRITUAL) is an Afro-descended Mexican American poet and DJ from the Southside of Tucson, AZ, which reminds me a lot of the Southside of San Antonio where I grew up. After we worked on the track together, I suggested we shoot a music video. Enrique said they knew the perfect place—a thrift store they had gone to growing up. Enrique is like family to me, so shooting the video with them felt true to the themes in the poems. Our friend Maxwell shot the whole thing in one day and edited it. I’m really proud of it, especially because I’m being myself in the video. A lot of music videos and poetry promotions you see show the artist being an aspirational version of themselves, or someone who’s super cool and fashionable and unapproachable. I have never been that. I am a reflection of growing up in San Antonio, where people just don’t really act like that, especially not artists. We are not fancy people. So I am happy the video stays true to who I am.
MSW: You shared during a 2018 interview with Sampsonia Way Magazine and in your performance at the 2018 Feminine Empowerment Movement Slam Tournament that “my curandera once told me that poetry is ceremony. I was explaining to her that when I go to these national slam competitions, I feel so alive, like all of my senses are engaged, and I feel very present the whole time.” As a decorated slam poet who began participating in these spaces as a youth, why do you believe this sentiment has persisted into adulthood? How did these exercises in community reverence as a competitive actor inform your time at the University of Pittsburgh and vice versa?
AB: I don’t think age has a lot to do with it. Community performance spaces just always feel engaging to me. I think it’s an ancient kind of practice, oral storytelling or verbal, theatrical performance, whatever you want to call it. It’s something that makes people feel connected to one another and you just know it when you feel it. When I was in Pittsburgh, I missed the many performance spaces I had come of age in as a performer, back in Texas. In my MFA program I was missing the connection between the poet and the audience. When I started performing back in 2009, I was teaching community poetry workshops before the youth slam on Saturdays. I was talking to the people in the crowd before the slam started. If I wasn’t facilitating the workshops, I was participating in them, and listening to other people perform, from the audience. This was my first education into poetry. It was all about relationships. You had to know your community because you were with them all the time when performing locally. Or you were coaching them, or they were coaching you. Or you were their teammate, and you had to learn to take care of them when they did emotionally difficult poems in the slam, or you taught them to take care of you when you did emotionally difficult poems in the slam. In the MFA, your audience is unknown because they are not present. And you have no teammates, no coach. It is just you and some writing on the page and people in workshop telling you your work is “unconvincing” and trying to interpret your poem in front of you. It was really hard to think about my work in that context. If anything, my time at Pitt reminded me that I do not belong in the university, nor do I want to be there. I belong in my community.
MSW: My review of Sana Sana calls the book “a treatise on loving and being loved by Southern Black queer folks brought up in girlhood.” I feel this tenderness most keenly in “Myself, First,” as you make plain a vulnerable truth that many of us are hesitant to reveal: “I was born a Black girl and I’ve been lonely ever since.” The gentleness with yourself and the reader while unlearning this solitude is clearly informed by a deep acquaintance with its harshness (“The first time I loved a Black girl I learned / to love myself. I say girl / ‘cause it’s what we’re not allowed to be, / except around each other”). Speak a bit on why this reclamation of softness and radical honesty is so important for marginalized people regardless of their gender socialization.
AB: “Myself, First” begins with an exploration of some awful relationships I had with Black men. I really thought about how they made me feel less than, deficient, unworthy. And I knew that they had been cruel to me because I was a Black woman. They projected their insecurities onto me and hated me for loving them. This is not a new story. Many Black people of marginalized genders have had similar experiences. I know this because when we share our stories with each other, or just exist in the same space, we understand each other’s pain. We know what it means to love someone who is trying to destroy you because they hate themselves. In order for me to stay alive, I had to really learn to be kind to the little girl inside me who had been taught to cower and appease. I had to unlearn the hatred of Black women that I had internalized because of the way the world treated me. When I accepted my queerness, and accepted love from another Black woman, I accepted myself. It freed me.
MSW: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat (especially while you’re on tour); I called this discussion a privilege even before it began and it has been nothing less. As a longtime admirer of your work, I mention your name each and every time I am asked for a list of poets whose work inspires me. If you had to compile your own line-up of poets who should be more widely celebrated, who would make your roster and why?
AB: Alán Pelaez Lopez, Sasha Banks, Jesús Valles, Ebony Stewart, Loyce Gayo, Chucky Blk, Wendy Treviño. These are poets, rappers, and theatre artists whose “work” includes not only written and performance work, but “work” in community. Ebony Stewart coached me and damn near half the poets in Texas. I include that in her “work” alongside her poems. Chucky Blk and Loyce Gayo were teammates of mine in 2012 and 2014 and they took care of me and believed in me. In addition to Chucky’s album and poems, and Loyce’s poems and activism, the way they show up for other artists and communities is also “work.” Everyone on this list is someone I love because of their work and the people they are outside of their work as well.
And thank you! This has been my favorite interview. Thank you for asking such awesome questions.