Ariana Brown is an Black Mexican American poet from San Antonio, TX. She is the recipient of two Academy of American poets Prizes and a 2014 collegiate national poetry slam champion. Her work has been featured in PBS, Huffington Post, Blavity, For Harriet, and Remezcla. Her poetry explores the intricacies of mental health, identity, and love. You can purchase her chapbook Messy Girl on arianabrown.com.
Claudia D. Cardona: Messy Girl is divided into two sections, “Fail” and “Work”. What was the process like organizing the chapbook and creating these two sections?
Ariana Brown: I took a minute to read through the poems I’d accumulated from that year and tried to see if I could arrange them in a way that read true to my experience of depression, the breakup, dropping out of school. The order of the poems is not exactly chronological—I experienced that year in cycles—but I definitely remember deciding to allow myself to nurture my own sadness; and, much later, I remember deciding to work through it, so I could get to the other side of it. The first section, “Fail,” is comprised of mourning poems. “Work” also holds mourning, but it also holds the possibility of something more. When I was writing “Work,” I couldn’t name what was on the other side of sadness, but I knew I wanted to reach it, and if I was going to get there, I would have to do it consciously. I would have to put in work.
CDC: In the first section, “Fail”, there are several poems that are numbered and bulleted, such as “reasons you are motown”, “a small act”, and may eleventh”. These bullets and lists reminded me of how I often have to break down my tasks and thoughts into lists when I’m feeling hopeless and overwhelmed. Was this similar to your experience writing these poems?
AB: The only poem out of those three that had bullets/lists at the time of writing was “a small act.” The others were edited around the time I decided to put the chapbook together. I usually prefer to write in long, unlineated chunks of text, because it helps me keep track of pacing. I come from a slam background, which in my case, really just means I value how poems sound when read aloud. I find line breaks and other formatting choices to be distracting as I’m writing, so I usually go back and add that stuff later. In the moment of writing, however, I want to pay attention to how the poem flows, how each thought leads into the next. Both “reasons you are motown” and “may eleventh” feel emotionally dense, which is why they got formatted as a numbered list and a bulleted list, respectively, during editing.
CDC: From the first poem of your chapbook, “reasons you are motown” to your penultimate poem, “mercy”, music plays an important part of your healing process. How has music influenced your poetry?
AB: I’m always trying to find a way to describe Motown, the feeling it evokes in me. I think music, especially Motown and soul music, shows up in my life often, so it feels natural to write about. I couldn’t have survived the year of “messy girl” without Otis Redding.
CDC: Messy Girl not only explores your own mental health but also what is passed down to you through generational memory. This is apparent in “alternate memory, or love dances barefoot after the men have disappeared” with the line, “I do not own painless stories of my parents”. Could you talk about this a little bit?
AB: So, my parents have this amazing love story that ends tragically. My parents met in Air Force basic training, became best friends, then fell in love, and my mom got pregnant. They were thrilled and happy to make plans for the future. Then, a few months before I was born, my father died in a plane crash that made national news in 1992. The entire crew aboard the aircraft died and a mass military funeral was held. It was a big deal.
From all the stories I inherited about my father, he sounds almost prophet-like. The way people describe him—my mom, his best friend from the Air Force (my “Uncle” Carl), his brothers, my great granny, my mom’s mom—he was a man of high morals, easygoing, loved deeply, and was my mom’s perfect match, the person created specifically to love her. And for no apparent reason, she lost him. And her world turned upside down. And seven months later, she had me.
I never met my father, but I imagine he is also my perfect match, in temperament and spirit. I think he would have balanced my mother and I. So when I say I do not own painless stories of my parents, I mean, the life my parents planned together and the short time they had together was the stuff of miracles. It was perfect, in the holy sense. But to remember the miraculous time is painful, because it ended, and can’t ever come back.
CDC: What or who inspired you while writing Messy Girl?
AB: Maybe it sounds silly, but love. Love made me write the poems, revisit what I, while writing, mourned. Love made me believe it was worthwhile to experience heartbreak and depression because even in the midst of all that messiness, love was still present. Still possible. Just like me. I realized while writing Messy Girl that I am capable of so much love, which makes me stubborn, which makes it impossible to stay stuck. After writing Messy Girl I learned to apply that love to myself. And now, I know better than ever, how to work in service of myself and my love. Putting Messy Girl out into the world is a promise to myself to never forget that lesson.