An unflinching poet and two-time winner of the “Best Poet” award at the Collegiate Poetry Slam, Brown is not afraid to foreground the more contentious issues of our times in her dynamic spoken word performances. Racism, sexism, and other key contemporary tensions weave in and out of her expansive word plays, as she seamlessly moves between personal story and political revelation.
Brown will teach a one-day writing workshop titled Demons, Diaspora & Magic on Saturday, May 13, from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Participants will learn strategies for how to re-examine and dialog with their personal histories so as to embolden their concepts of what a poem can do.
Writers will have the opportunity to chart a journey of creative discovery by examining the use of history in poetry and by allowing their demons, ancestors, and many selves to converse in new and resonant ways.
Brown also will read at Gemini Ink’s free Viva Tacoland Reading Series on Friday, May 12 at 6:30 p.m., along with San Antonio poets Sheila Black and Lisha Garcia. An open mic will follow the featured writers.
Brown’s work, equally at home on the page and the stage, has been featured on PBS and published in The Huffington Post, Rattle, Huizache, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review and is forthcoming in ¡Manteca!: An Anthology of Afro-Latin@ Poets. She is currently earning an MFA in Poetry at the University of Pittsburgh.
As a poet, she has performed across the United States at venues such as the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, University of California-Santa Cruz, and the San Francisco Opera Theater. Below is a taste of her emotionally riveting work as she performs the poem “Volver, Volver” in Boulder, Colo.
In order to provide a more intimate glimpse into the author’s imaginative world and her experiences as a spoken word artist, Gemini Ink asked Brown about her writing process and obsessions. This is what we found out.
Gemini Ink: Do you have any secret rituals you perform before you get started writing – tics, habits, special ceremonies? How important is it to you to have a sense of sameness about your writing routine?
Ariana Brown: Reading fiction, essays, and poetry in my spare time helps me stay in a creative mindset. I’m very flexible in terms of my writing “routine” and environment. Whenever I feel lazy or unproductive, I watch videos of live Beyoncé performances. If that’s not motivating, I don’t know what is.
GI: What is your favorite piece of writing advice?
AB: Read outside your genre. I have learned so much about urgency, passion, and black womanhood from reading work by Edwidge Danticat, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston. I will be a poet until the day I die, and I have no interest in writing fiction, but I am learning a lot about how to tell a story from fiction writers.
GI: What theme, imagery, or symbol keeps emerging in your work? Why?
AB: I keep writing about my father lately, or finding new ways to understand my relationship to him. He died a few months before I was born, so I never met him, but like all the women in my family, I feel the spiritual presences of our dead quite deeply. I am always looking for ways to get to know him better.
GI: Describe your first writing desk.
AB: I actually used to really enjoy lying on the floor outside my creative writing class in high school and writing in my spiral notebook. I’m not much for formal writing spaces. I love to find a good bit of floor, plop down, and hammer away on my laptop or in a spiral notebook. Or a comfy chair in a library or coffee shop near an outlet. I’m not picky.
GI: Do you have any special charms, talismans, or souvenirs in your workspace? What and why?
AB: I save cardboard scraps for home décor. One of my favorite creations is a thick cardboard square above my desk, upon which I wrote the James Baldwin quote: “The world’s already bitter enough, we got to try to be better than the world.”
GI: Can you name a source you return to for ongoing or periodic creative inspiration?
AB: Whenever I feel like my writing or thinking has become stale, I watch the YouTube video of Chance the Rapper performing “I Was a Rock,” a gospel song he wrote and sang at a Muhammad Ali tribute. I try to always approach my work with the passion and presence that gospel requires, and the eagerness with which Chance shows up in his work to take on such a task.
GI: Do you have a favorite writing tool?
AB: Pilot G2 pens.
GI: Can you remember the first piece of writing or spoken word performance you felt especially proud of? Feel free to tell the story.
AB: Oh dear. My sophomore year at John Jay High School, I tried out for the talent show along with my best friend, who was also a poet. I really just went to support him – I wasn’t that interested in performing, myself. He didn’t end up getting in, but I did. I actually won our school talent show that year. I was amazed that out of all the singers, dancers, jugglers, etc. who I thought for sure would win over the crowd, my classmates cheered loudest for me – for a poem. I was really moved by that, and took it as a sign that this is something I am supposed to do.
GI: Does good writing result from best practices, magic, or both?
AB: Listen, if there’s a magic formula, point me to it. My best writing comes when I am investigating the origin of a certain feeling. I am fascinated with origin stories. I want to know how things came to be. Perhaps because I never met my father, or because I am a black/Mexican-American who didn’t gain access to my history until recently, I want to know all the details about how my life ended up the way it is. This always creates urgency in my work, which makes me personally invested in the conclusion of each idea and the outcome of each poem, or performance. For me, good writing comes from thinking, researching, and being spiritually present with the ideas in the work.
GI: In your spoken word piece, “Volver, Volver,” you bring up very powerful images of the mouth and tongue, which seems telling as you are a spoken word artist, who works with the physicality of the voice. For example, “Volver, Volver” starts out: “How does one lose an accent? Coat the tongue in ice? Watch the frosted muscle forget all its memories?” Themes of how we express (or suppress) ourselves and grapple with our identities run throughout your poems. How do these themes shape your work?
AB: Sure. I mean, I grew up on the Southside of San Antonio, before there were black people there. I am biracial – my father was a black American man from Galveston, and my mom is a brown Mexican-American woman from San Antonio. When I was a kid, I was the only black person in my house, neighborhood, school, etc. So I spent a lot of time experiencing anti-blackness from white Mexican-Americans (gueros) and brown Mexican-Americans. I was bullied because of my hair, called the n-word, people refused to speak to me in Spanish, even though I am Mexican. For the early years of my life, I was constantly being reminded of how unwelcome and excluded I was from Mexican-American spaces, despite the fact that Mexico has a sizable black population and despite the fact that many Mexican-Americans have African heritage.
Now that I am older, I feel it is my right to claim ownership of all spaces, especially Mexican-American ones. My performances are a way for me to assert my right to exist. They are a way for me to point to history and say, “No one should be confused that I am both black and Mexican, because black Mexicans have existed since Mexico existed as a country.”
GI: Do you mind discussing a bit more your poetic process and how one of your spoken word texts evolves? Where do the written word and live voice intersect (and possibly overlap) in your creative process?
AB: It depends on what the poem calls for. Some poems want to lie still on the page, some poems demand to be spoken, and some poems want to do both. It is a matter of listening to the instincts of the poem, considering how accessible the content will be in performance, and whether or not the poem contains the urgency that performance requires. I don’t like to separate page versus stage because all of their elements inform one another during the writing stage, for me.
GI: How do you feel spoken word specifically suits your poetic obsessions and interests?
AB: I think of performance as something I have to do in order to stay healthy and alive. My curandera [Native healer] said to me once that “poetry is ceremony.” And I think that’s true. There is something quite spiritual and ritualistic about sharing a story through oral tradition, connecting with complete strangers by accessing vulnerability and strong emotion. I enjoy writing poems that will stay on the page as well, but performing is what makes me feel alive and grounded.
GI: What is your next project?
AB: I am working on a poetry manuscript about my experiences of being black/Mexican-American in San Antonio, Austin, and Mexico City. The book also is about my parents, racial identity formation, cultural politics, and the idea of authenticity
To learn more about Gemini Ink’s spring programming and the 2017 Summer Writers Conference, click here.