Discovering the Relevance of Words
“I Used to Hate Poetry”
— Denice Frohman
For many poets and writers the story goes like this: I always loved reading, I had books everywhere, and started writing poetry early on as a kid. I’m not that poet. My parents were concerned with me getting excellent grades (which I did), but didn’t instill a passion for reading, especially not for pleasure. My house was filled with salsa music, tostones, and sports, which contributed to my development in really critical, but different ways. My mother completed 6th grade in a barrio of Puerto Rico so small it doesn’t appear on a map, and as smart as she is, struggled with literacy my whole life. My father was a Latin Jazz musician with a passion for basketball, and as a child, I took after him the most.
My teachers got as far as peaking my interest, but I didn’t read enough books or poems that shifted my perception that the literary world was not an exclusive club for those white and male. I needed a curriculum not accented by writers of color, but filled with them. Filled with the kind of self-exploration and cultural experiences that I could relate to. Instead, I left high school with the silent and destructive misconception that Latino/a writers didn’t write anything spectacular.
<Enter:>The Roots, Come Alive album and a freshman college education that allowed me to pick my classes and that lie was quickly exposed. The discovery of lyrical storytellers like Biggie, Black Thought and Mos Def, coupled with studying the brutal honesty of Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez quickly introduced me to the power of words and most importantly, of telling your own story. These wordsmiths embodied the radical notion that you could write about you, and that that was enough.
The idea that poetry could sound like me and look like me was transformational. That it could dance and breathe in real-time in front of an audience felt like home.
These writers were linguistic magicians, shamans spitting metaphors, cultural re-creators, and tongue splitters, willing to throw themselves into the abyss of vulnerability and truth-telling/seeking work. I became new.
As I immersed myself in the writing and performance of poetry, I had to explore who I was, and the growing politics of my identity: being mixed (my mother is Puerto Rican, my father is white), understanding my sexuality and gender expression, and finding language for it all (or questioning the language I had been using). Poetry has always asked me to be more honest with myself, even when, and especially when I felt uncomfortable. It became a way to affirm my identity and challenge the world’s construction of who I should be. When I was 19, I came out publicly for the first time in a poem, because poetry asked me to stop lying. It has been my safe haven and my war zone. The complex, nuanced grey space of not knowing, and navigating a world that is in conflict with who you are becoming. When colloquial words fail, the poem can step in to do the heavy lifting of telling on our emotions. It felt like air and armor. It felt like I had been let loose.
For me, poetry has always been intrinsically tied to identity, history, power, and reclamation.
“A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it from going to sleep.” – Salman Rushdie
Poets and writers from Audre Lorde to James Baldwin have echoed similar words about the critical work of poetry to name and rename. For folks whose voices and identities are supposed to be marginalized, poetry is liberation. The stage becomes our call to say our names. Through language, the systemic hierarchy of power can be uprooted and turned on its head by re-imagining social justice not as some far off dream, but as a demand being summoned and taking shape in our immediate lives.
Audre Lorde goes even further to talk about the politics of past tense vs. present tense in poetry – the difference between saying, “I survived” vs. “I survive.” Poetry, for me, is about narrating both of those declarations of personal and political histories, and longing for what can be. It offers us an opportunity to “talk back” to anything that has tried to diminish our right to live unapologetically. To freeze time and explode the snapshots of our lives. To dig and dig and dig. To say, me too. To create a world big enough to fit all of our messy and uncertain voices. And to remind us and inspire us with our own beautifully stubborn will to survive.
Bio: DENICE FROHMAN is an award-winning poet and educator, whose work explores the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and the “in-betweeness” that exists in us all. She is the 2013 Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion, 2014 CantoMundo Fellow, 2013 Hispanic Choice Award, and 2012 Leeway Transformation Award recipient. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post and the forthcoming book, Jotas: An Anthology of Queer Latina Voices. Her poem “Dear Straight People” went viral with over 1.5 million YouTube views. She has performed and taught poetry across the country and is part of the spoken word duo, Sister Outsider.
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