Ariana Brown is a queer Black Mexican American poet based in Houston, TX. She is the author of We Are Owed. and Sana Sana. She is a national poetry slam champion.
Ariana Brown is a queer Black Mexican American poet from the Southside of San Antonio, Texas, now based in Houston, Texas. She is the author of the poetry collections We Are Owed. (Grieveland, 2021) and Sana Sana (Game Over Books, 2020). Ariana's work investigates queer Black personhood in Mexican American spaces, Black relationality and girlhood, loneliness, and care. Her debut poetry EP, LET US BE ENOUGH, is available on Bandcamp. She holds a B.A. in African Diaspora Studies and Mexican American Studies from UT Austin, an M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Pittsburgh, and an M.S. in Library and Information Science from the University of North Texas. Ariana is a 2014 national collegiate poetry slam champion and owes much of her practice to Black performance communities led by Black women poets from the South. She has been writing, performing, and teaching poetry for over ten years. Visit Ariana's website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
the women (in this house)
insult you before you can speak. humble you before the world does. do your hair, & your cousin’s
hair, & complain the whole time. the women say things like, “don’t buy something if you don’t
love it,” “never let a man put his hands on you,” “stop feeling sorry for yourself.” they never tell
you the stories about their mistakes, only bark commandments for you to obey. the women eat
every part of the animal, drink milk past its expiration. in this house, nothing goes to waste. you
once asked your mom to tell you about the men who died with your father. she agreed, & then said nothing about it. you found her shaking in a corner of her room. you learned to cry in the shower.
the women trust men with their gut or they don’t trust them at all. your uncle sits at thanksgiving
& lets his dog slurp beer from the can. he did not raise his daughters. you know what the girls like
to read. he gave them up for adoption. the women like to be thought of as strong. granny threw all
of your cousin’s things on the floor before her mother’s funeral. you came home from the third
grade to find your mom scraping popcorn off the ceiling, peeling panels from the walls, trying to
find the root of sorrow. we talk about what’s on tv, how to season chicken, where to buy good
quality shoes. we scrub the kitchen sink, make everything smell like lemon and bleach. we get
grey hairs at eighteen.
Why did I become a poet?
After Hilda Hilst
I couldn’t imagine my life without it. I wanted to learn words, backwards and forward. I wanted
to wrap them around each other and see them in the air before me, to stretch them until they burst
so I could locate the truth.
I became a poet because
under fluorescent lights
on the humid bus
at the family party
in the too tight jeans
at the grocery store
in the summer rain
at my grandpa’s funeral
under the pecan tree
after the plane crash
I needed language more than air.
I needed a way to name the mess of me.
A poet is staring back at me even when I don’t want to see her. I leave myself for months at a
time and return each time astonished there is something to come back to.
A poet is not supposed to forget words but I do sometimes. I leave “dear” and “beloved” on a
stack of oranges at the grocery store. Exhale “my love” into rush hour traffic. The name of the
last person I loved with intent I beg whoever is listening to take from me. I want to lose more
than words, more words, more than words can convey.
The new big feelings tell me words don’t matter—here’s a memory instead. Deal with it. Do
words help? I don’t know anymore. All I have left is my vocabulary and a good memory. Can I
be loved this way?
This interview was conducted between Jae Nichelle and Ariana Brown on October 12, 2023.
It seems fitting to start this interview with the poem “Why did I become a poet?” This poem wrestles with ideas of what a poet is “supposed” to do. And by the end, the poem reveals uncertainty about how much words actually help. In your view, what responsibilities do poets have beyond words?
Thank you for noticing that. I used to be really drawn to declarative poems, in which the author is extremely sure of what they’re saying. As I get older, though, I find myself more drawn to poets who are willing to admit they don’t have the answers, that the universe is getting the better of us all the time, and we must be humble as we sort through the mess of it. If not, the universe will certainly humble you.
I think poets have a responsibility for what our words do. Too many of us take our words for granted. We have a responsibility to research, to ensure that what we are sending out into the world does not cause harm, that our opinions are informed; it does not matter if we can write a beautiful poem if the argument we are making in the poem falls short. Too many of us are talking too much and not reading, listening, being present enough. My mentor Ebony Stewart says “I’m the same person offstage that I am onstage” and I think about that a lot. Too many poets think that writing a poem is sufficient activism. I could talk forever about that, but I’ll stop there.
In “the women (in this house),” there’s the line “the women like to be thought of as strong.” That phrasing made me pause while reading since it brings up strength as a sort of performance instead of the characteristic it’s typically portrayed as. What does “being strong” mean to you these days?
Yes. I am a very literal person, which explains my aversion to hyperbole. I want people to be precise in what they are saying. I’m also impatient, so there’s that. I used to think being a martyr was romantic, but now I think of strength only in physical terms. I don’t know what it is to be emotionally strong. I am not sure if that exists. I know how to be present, how to be careful, how to be loving, how to be a good teacher. But most of the people I know who are proud of calling themselves strong need the world to stop making them feel the need to do so.
On Instagram, you regularly share writing prompts to inspire others. What is your process for coming up with these prompts; and do you write to them yourself?
This is funny—it’s quite natural for me. I spend a lot of time reading. I am obsessive in that way. When I encounter a poem or passage that moves me, I work backwards in my mind to determine what set of prompts and exercises could have produced the text in front of me. I consider both topic and form. And if I can come up with a clear set of instructions on how to write the piece in front of me, I know I can teach it.
The prompts I share on Instagram are really open-ended, much different than the detailed ones I teach in my online writing classes. But I have loved teaching writing for almost as long as I have loved writing. As much as I recognize the limitations of poetry, I do think it’s a magical, spiritual thing we do, and I’m always thankful to invite people to experience that feeling.
I really admire your focus on helping writers create “sustainable and fulfilling writing practices.” Have there been specific moments where you realized that your practice was not sustainable or not fulfilling? How did you get out of them?
Thank you, and yes. I went through a traumatic break-up and series of familial losses during the shelter-in-place stage of the pandemic and I could not write anything that felt worth the pain it took to create. I had always written about my life, but I was so unwell, it wasn’t cathartic to write about myself then. It was further mutilation. I had to accept that poetry could not be my coping mechanism, and that was devastating. I am an introvert and neurodivergent, and most of my hobbies and interests involve thinking. What I have learned since that period in my life is that I need to do more things that involve feeling present in my body. I can’t tell you how much going on walks and going bike riding with my friends has helped. And breaks. I took lots of long breaks from writing. And I started teaching again.
When you can’t produce, you have to teach. That’s what I learned. Or I guess, what I remembered. I’m not supposed to produce all the time. I was supposed to learn to accept that I will go through cycles and seasons with my writing, and sometimes it will be my turn to write, and sometimes it will be my turn to listen, and sometimes it will be my turn to teach. I’ve been teaching my friends’ poems and watching my students get excited about them, which makes me feel excited and more connected to the people I love. And that’s all I was ever trying to do with my poems anyway: feel connected to people, and especially the people I love.
You moved back to Texas, where you grew up, relatively recently. What did you miss about Texas while you were gone?
H-E-B. As the kids say, the girls that get it, get it.
You’re on a road trip and someone hands you the aux cord. What music are you playing?
Am I trying to impress the other people in the car or jam out by myself? LOL. I overthink everything. Oof, it depends who’s in the car with me. Usher or John Legend (the first album only) are my go-to’s, but if I really wanna get the crowd hype, it’s something from Kanye’s first three albums. (I’m laughing as I type this, but it’s true!)
What has been bringing you joy lately?
My students. I started teaching creative writing at a performing arts high school here in Houston recently and I absolutely love it. I haven’t worked with youth writers in almost a decade, but I missed it so much. Teaching youth poets was foundational to my writing practice. It taught me that relationships and good care matter more than beautiful words. My high school students are brilliant and the funniest people I’ve ever met. They surprise me all the time. They remind me to be less afraid.
How can people support you?
Buy my poetry books and request that your local library buy them, too. We Are Owed., the most important thing I ever wrote, will be going out of print at the end of next year. Help me circulate the book and ensure it reaches people. Teach my poems: I created free downloadable lesson plans for my poems that are available on my website, arianabrown.com. Take a writing class with me. I teach them seasonally and advertise them on my social media and website. And if you know a literary agent, please connect them with me. I love writing, but if I can’t figure out a way to make my writing life sustainable, I don’t know how much longer I will try to publish my work.
Name another Black woman writer people should follow.
I’ll name five: Sasha Banks, Jacqui Germain, Claudia Wilson, Janae Johnson, and drea brown.
Torch Literary Arts is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. TORCH has featured work by Colleen J. McElroy, Tayari Jones, Sharon Bridgforth, Crystal Wilkinson, Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, and others. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.