Young poet embraces past and future

Marc Polonsky Special to the Daily Planet
Wednesday February 28, 2001

I sit . . .  

reeling from the weight of my internal contradictions . . .  


Poet Ariana Waynes says it is important for people to tell their own stories, “particularly the ones whose stories don’t tend to be told,” she says. 

“There are all these people who don’t exist as far as mainstream culture is concerned. And if we’re not telling our stories, if we’re not saying ‘This is true,’ then somebody else is going to decide what’s real. So we have a responsibility. Storytelling is a political act.”  

A voracious reader since early childhood, she wrote her first poem in third grade. As a teen in Lansdale, Penn., she wrote “angry little poems” to alleviate depression. “I had a miserable youth, but very few people to talk to about how awful things were. Instead, I filled up notebooks with the kind of truth that would make your skin crawl,” she wrote.  

She came to UC Berkeley on a scholarship in 1997, intending to study cognitive science. Toward the end of her freshman year, she got wind of poet June Jordan’s Poetry for the People program – a course designed for “political and artistic empowerment of students.” She attended its end-of-spring readings. “I went to three nights of very political, revolutionary poetry. I was amazed and I was kicked open.” In response, she wrote a poem entitled “To the Patriots and the Activists Poets.”  

The following fall, she saw signs on campus for a poetry slam at Tower Books. She entered, performed “To the Patriots . . .” and, to her amazement, won the slam, along with a $200 Tower gift certificate.  

Since that event, barely two and half years ago, the trajectory of Ariana’s performance poetry career has been straight up. Out of 30 contestants, she tied for first place in a slam at La Peña Cultural Center and took home half of the $1,000 grand prize. Immediately, the local slam community embraced her and invited her to various slams in the East Bay and San Francisco.  

Several months later, she made the San Francisco slam team that went to the National Poetry Slam competition in Chicago and, out of 48 teams, tied with Team San Jose for first place.  

Less than a year after her first slam, Ariana had attained the pinnacle of slam success. Excerpts from her poetry appeared in the New York Times, and she was interviewed on a PBS news show. 

Afterward, she was deluged by invitations to perform for colleges and other organizations, including Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Norman Lear’s People for the American Way at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City and national events for Planned Parenthood in Washington, D.C., and San Marco, Fla. She was sponsored to perform in Denmark and London, and she toured large sections of the country performing poetry with her fellow slam-team members. She gave a performance at Yale on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and she taught a master class in poetry writing at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., – all before her 21st birthday.  

Today, at 21, Ariana is a student teacher in the Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley. She describes teaching as “a revelation.” And she has designed her own major under Interdisciplinary Studies: “Cross-Cultural Approaches to Creative Writing as Political Action.”  

Ariana’s personality is warm and generous, comfortably rubbing against the grain of dominant culture because she is “black, bisexual, female, a young person operating in an adult world, and a polyamorist.” She takes on many voices. In one poem she becomes a redwood tree; in others, such as “As You Brace for the Beating” and “Even the Sky Looks Away,” she confronts the roots of violence. She stresses that her poetry is “an act of communication,” not merely an abstraction to be put on display. 

Her second chapbook in particular, More Joy Than Flesh, is extraordinarily open about her intimate life. “I’m not a particularly private person . . . I’ll get really raw and personal, and sometimes it’s a little scary but . .. What will someone else do with the information? When I don’t place a value on privacy, it’s not really an issue. 

“If we’re teaching our children how to be, but we don’t talk openly about sex, then that silence says something. I don’t want to promote silence. . . . I want to promote a vast openness where you can talk about anything that’s true. I want there to be less that we hide away.” 

Ariana Waynes can be reached at FyreflyPress@hotmail.com. Her diary can be found online at http://joyfulgrl.diaryland.com.  

Marc Polonsky is the author of The Poetry Reader’s Toolkit. He can be contacted at marcwordsmith@sfo.com.