When Denice Frohman took off her jacket in the middle of her spoken-word performance on Thursday night, she assured the audience that it was simply because the room was hot – not because she was trying to look cool. She doesn’t like when performers do that, she said, so she didn’t want us to get the wrong impression. After all, as she said, “We’re just getting to know each other.”
And perhaps that’s one way to characterize what happens in a Denice Frohman performance – you get to know her. In the poems she performed in Dodd living room last week, she shared stories, ideas and emotions and spoke about her family and her friends, her race, gender and sexuality.
Frohman, you see, does not hold back. She comes ready. She comes, in a way, armed. As the first poem she performed Thursday, titled “Weapons,” begins, “At entrance of West Philadelphia high school, officer with guns perched on each waist asks me if I have any weapons. I hold up my book.” She stretches out her arms, then, so that we can almost see that invisible book, with dusty cover and yellowed pages, held there in her hands. She half-smiles as she says, “He doesn’t find that funny.”
The over-outfitted officer might not have found it so funny, but we do. Over the course of the evening, we also find Frohman’s words smart, dynamic and moving. She commands the “stage” of Dodd living room, peppering us with a barrage of slick sentences and powerful images. Many of her poems are about her experiences as a queer woman. Frohman describes, quite viscerally, the experience of feeling lost in her own body, of feeling “stood up” by her first kiss, which was with a boy. “His lips were like winter,” she said in “First Kiss.” “He kissed me, and I waited … for the angsty snow to melt between us.” It doesn’t happen. Her teenaged disappointment sits before us, almost visible in the words she stacks. But the story has a happy ending. She gets another first kiss, a better first kiss, with the girl who is also her best friend. They kiss, and, as Frohman put it, it was, to her teenage self, “the only thing better than the Thriller album ever.” The poem is intimate, almost like a diary entry, except that this is a diary infinitely more sharp and beautiful and complex than the one typically tucked under a 13-year-old’s pillow.
But Frohman’s poems aren’t always like journal entries. Sometimes, they’re letters – pointed ones. Frohman’s “Dear Straight People” – the work for which she is perhaps best known – is a sort of missive to all those who have ever tried to make her into something less because of who she loves. “Dear straight people,” the piece begins, “Why do I make you uncomfortable? Do you know that makes me uncomfortable? Now we’re both uncomfortable.” Frohman’s prose is direct; her diction is decisive. She does not just speak; she slams. There are moments in the poem that make you want to shout out in laughter or affirmation: “I don’t think God has a sexuality,” she says, and then adds, “But if She did, she’d be a dope ally. Why else would she have invented rainbows?” And there are other moments that are sadder, deeper, call for snaps, not shouts. “Dear straight bullies,” Frohman says, toward the climax of the poem. “You’re right. We don’t have the same values. You kill everything that’s different. I preserve it.”
Frohman’s work isn’t just about gender and sexual identity. It’s also about race. In “Accents,” Frohman celebrates her Hispanic mother, a woman who she has seen frequently talked down to by people who believed a heavy accent to be synonymous with weakness. “My mom holds her accent like a shot gun,” the poem begins. Other works likewise challenge preconception and prejudice.
Frohman believes that conversations about race and privilege are fundamentally ones of “context.” As a mixed-race person, she says that she sometimes feels as though white people view her as neutral, a body before which they can let slip certain opinions they might censor in another environment. As she asks in a poem inspired by such experiences, “If I didn’t have a mouth, would the white ones tug on my arms? Would the brown ones lay claim to my hair? … If my last name was my mother’s name, Cruz,” she queries, “would you eat me differently?”
Frohman’s work is always inventive, always compelling. But there’s one poem, in particular, that etches itself in my brain, in my heart, that makes tears prick in the corners of my eyes. In “The Hour Dylann Roof Sat in the Church,” Frohman speaks to the white supremacist perpetrator of the mass shooting in South Carolina last summer. “Were you surprised when they prayed on you even when you preyed on them? … Did your teeth clench when they said, ‘God forgives you?’ … Did you hear America whisper, ‘Good job, son’?”
As in “Dear Straight People,” a great deal of the raw potency of this poem stems from its sharp questions, its insistent asking about why things are the way they are and why certain people do the things they do. Roof’s racism, as she says in the poem, was not a “stench … made overnight. It takes a whole lot of hands.” It is America who whispers.
Frohman, you see, is a poet who does not intend to go unanswered. She demands our attention. More than that, she demands a response.