Ariana Brown’s poetry – powerful, but still spoken with a modest tremble – will move you. With words like, “If you are alive, you are descended from a people who refused to die. Nothing is more sacred than you” (Curanderismo) and “Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexican people, la morena, dark like we are, sacred like our names have always been” (Voler, Voler), the 24-year-old Black mexicana uses language to heal and empower women of color.
“I’m interested in the capabilities of poetry to offer spiritual transformation,” Brown, who’s working on an MFA in poetry at the University of Pittsburgh, tells Remezcla.
The poet’s first transfiguration took place within. Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, Brown often felt isolated. Already an introvert, the anti-Black whispers and overwhelming feeling of unbelonging in her largely Mexican-American neighborhood kept her locked away in her room, ushered by her pen and paper into a world where she felt safe, even confident, being exactly who she was. Writing was her sanctuary and her academy. It’s where she began to understand herself — her blackness, her Latinidad, her womanhood and, later in life, her queerness. Writing’s how she was able to heal from the pain and loneliness she experienced because of those identities.
“I was first using poetry to understand myself, and once I understood myself, then I could offer healing to other people.”
Captivated by the speeches of Black movement leaders, particularly Malcolm X, Brown also wanted her own words to inspire and uplift disempowered communities. “I was first using poetry to understand myself, and once I understood myself, then I could offer healing to other people, but it had to begin with me sitting down on the page and having to figure out what was going on,” she says.
Dubbed a “part-time curandera,” Brown’s writing largely deals with healing, particularly as it relates to issues of race, ethnicity, gender, class and sexual orientation. With bachelor’s degrees in African Diaspora Studies and Mexican American Studies, she says she can speak to these topics from a heightened awareness, with life-taught and school-learned lessons guiding her.
“These issues feel the most urgent to me, but also my awareness is a great power. It’s powerful to look at a single moment and see how it’s connected to others. I have an awareness of systemic oppression that allows me to do that. I can experience a microaggression on the bus, and know where that ideology comes from, be aware of that history, know why this is happening. Being able to communicate it helps empower other folks,” she says.
In her latest chapbook, Messy Girl, Brown once again aids poet and reader, but this time through romantic heartbreak and depression. She wrote each of the pieces – complicated, honest and familiar – in 2014 when Brown, a self-described mess over a breakup and financial difficulties, felt her weakest. Each day, she says, was a struggle to live through. Hair disheveled, shirt unbuttoned and eyes swollen from crying, she wrote about her self-sacrificing love, abusive partner and valorization of masculinity. Doing so helped her survive, but it also brought her shame. After three years of storing the poems on a Google Drive and worrying what readers would think of her darkest moments, she published them in the 38-page chapbook, her longest yet.
Ahead, we talk with Brown about the chapbook, why she decided to publish these poems now, healing through writing and being vulnerable.
Messy Girl, out November 30, is currently available for pre-order right now. We have lightly edited and condensed the interview below for clarity.
All of these poems were written in 2014. Why did you want to put this chapbook, Messy Girl, out now?
When I was writing them in the summer of 2014, I didn’t think they were the best poems I had ever written, and I felt insecure, but I also know I felt ashamed for feeling not OK. I felt ashamed about my mental health, and I didn’t want people to know that about me and think less of me as a person. As women, we think less of ourselves when we aren’t perfect, so I closed the door on these poems. Rereading them surprised me. Some of the things I forgot had happened to me.
But, at the same time, I felt a lot of compassion for my younger self, and that surprised me. I didn’t think I’d feel that way. I felt compassion because I could see I was trying my best to understand what was going on and intentional about moving forward. I was looking for things to anchor me, to make it worth living each day, and I realized that’s what I was doing and I felt proud of myself. In 2014, I felt messy. There were a bunch of things I was holding, and I was always dropping some. It was crazy-making. Then, when rereading, I thought, maybe I did know what I was doing. Maybe the mess was necessary, constructive in a way I didn’t know it would be, and I realized maybe it would be important for other people.
“When I was writing them in the summer of 2014, I didn’t think they were the best poems I had ever written, and I felt insecure.”
Does writing down your feelings in poetry form help you process and grow from heartbreak and loss?
For me, absolutely. I think there’s something about being able to just write out the details, to chronicle something, that feels very useful. Otherwise, it would just be floating around my head. It gives it a place to live that is outside of me, so I don’t have to carry it anymore. That release can be very freeing. It’s been three years, and I’ve healed from the break up, but as someone who now identifies as queer, I’m also trying to better understand my relationship to gender and how I conceive of womanhood. We are taught to uphold this valorization of masculinity in our culture. Because we share racism, we experience it as men and women, women are supposed to feel like we have this unbreakable solidarity with men of color, and I believed that for a long time, but I think that’s damaging to women of color because it doesn’t allow us to hold men accountable for the gender violence they make against us. Rereading this helped me realize this.
What does this title, Messy Girl, mean to you?
For me, taking on that title is this affirmation of girls who don’t have it all together, who are OK being a little unkempt. I feel like I’m always running late for the bus, I don’t have my hair exactly done the way I want it to be and something about my outfit is off. I kind of always feel like I’m carrying a lot and dropping a lot, but there’s freedom in being OK in that, knowing that I don’t have to be this cover girl or Instagram model with a photographer friend who is always taking perfect photos of me, that everything is actually fine and those things don’t matter.
It takes a lot of vulnerability to speak so publicly about issues that are so intimate and personal. How are you able to do that?
Honestly, I had some of the best mentors as a youth poet. Ebony Stewart was my mentor, and now I’m lucky to call her a close friend, but she was very clear with us on two things. The first: Be present. Show up for the poem, which for us means bringing to the poem all that we could, to be present emotionally and spiritually so you can allow for healing. The second: protect yourself. If you feel like you are going to a place that’s dangerous emotionally, and you’re not ready to go there, then don’t. It’s OK to give yourself permission and be gentle with yourself. Take it slow. These have been two anchors for me when writing through trauma. Being clear with my own boundaries for myself. And now that I know that boundary, I respect it, and that allows me to go to a vulnerable space and still feel safe doing that.
“Ultimately, with my writing, I want to make my ancestors proud.”
What do you hope readers get from this chapbook?
I hope that anyone who is struggling with mental health is able to find some kind of reflection of themselves and affirmation. I hope it speaks particularly to Black women, because I think there’s a specificity to the kind of emotional violence that Black women experience in relationships often and unfortunately, and I also hope working-class folk, especially Mexican-Americans, are able to find reflections of themselves in the little details, the ways we learned to survive from our elders.
Ultimately, with my writing, I want to make my ancestors proud. I think a lot about my mom and my grandma, as women who survived things that were not meant to be survivable, and I think about the ways they had to insist on themselves not only that they could make it through but that I could also live a life a little better than the one they experienced. I think of writing as a spiritual process, one that’s tied to the ancestral world. Writing and performing have the potential to evoke spirits. I can bring them into a room with me. That’s power, and I had to teach myself that it’s possible to do these things, and that makes me feel more anchored and connected to being alive. That’s what helped me fight depression, being connected to my ancestors.