Family Portraits: Denice Frohman

Denice Frohman (aka “Ms .Misconception”) is an international poet, lyricist and educator, whose works explore multi-culturalism and the “in-betweeness” that exists in us all. She currently serves as a mentor and director of programs and external affairs for the Philly Youth Poetry Movement. As the co-founder of the Philadelphia Youth Slam League, Frohman also teaches weekly workshops as part of an effort to have a spoken-word team in every high school. As I’ve written before, one of my pet peeves is people littering. So imagine my joy when, halfway through the interview, I realized the poet I was speaking to was none other than the Philadelphia spokeswoman for the “UnLitter Us” campaign. You know, the gal in the ad with the conga player in an empty room imploring us to be beautiful. It was an early Christmas present for me.

PGN: So are you from Philly? DF: No, I was born and raised in New York, but I love it here.

PGN: What brought you to Philly? DF: I get asked that question a lot. My high-school basketball coach is now a principal at a school here. His wife works at the Franklin Institute and, three years ago, I got a call from them telling me about a position at the museum. Ten days later I moved here. I didn’t even think about it: I just packed my bags and left. The first year in Philly, I spent a lot of time just trying to figure out my place in this town. I really liked the city but didn’t know where I fit in. In my second year here, I really began to get involved with the music and art scene.

PGN: Where did you go to school? DF: High school was in New York City. For higher learning I went to a small school in New York, Dowling College. I was an English major and got there on a basketball scholarship. I’d say the first 15 years of my life revolved around basketball: I really didn’t get into poetry until later, when I was about 18. Even in college, since I was there on a sports scholarship, basketball was my life more than English studies. Poetry was just something on the side. After I graduated college, I played on a professional team in Puerto Rico for a year. At the end of that year, I just felt that it was time to move on to different things and I began to seriously pursue work as an artist. I moved here and began the second phase of my life.

PGN: The second phase of your life? How old are you? DF: [Laughs.] I’m only 25. I’ll rephrase that: I came to a turning point in my life, started a new chapter.

PGN: Tell me about growing up in New York? DF: I grew up in Midtown on the west side around the 42nd Street — Times Square area. It was a rougher area at that time — before Mayor Giuliani cleaned up the place and got rid of all the peep shows, drugs, prostitution, etc. But I had a great experience growing up there. I went to a good school and was surrounded by good people. It was a very diverse area with people from all walks of life. One of the things that struck me when I went to college was meeting people from small towns who had never been exposed to difference. It was the first time I experienced real prejudice. A lot of the kids I met really grappled with interacting with people different from them, whereas I grew up with people of all different races, religions and socioeconomic groups. I love New Yorkers — people get intimidated by us and there is a certain go-getter mentality that comes with the fast pace of the city — but overall we’re very accepting and open. I love going back and it will always be home to me, but I have to say I’ve really adopted Philly as my home as well.

PGN: Both my parents are New Yorkers and I know what you mean. It wasn’t until we moved to the Philadelphia suburbs when I was 10 that I learned about racism. I was around people with gobs of money who’d never been exposed to anything. No other cultures or artistic expressions: It wasn’t on their radar. DF: Exactly; college was the first time I found out that my race was an issue for other people. My mother is Puerto Rican and was Catholic, but now she’s Buddhist, and my father is Jewish and plays in Latin jazz bands. So I not only was raised with different races, but different religions. And playing basketball, when I was young, the place to play was in Harlem, before Bill Clinton moved there and it started getting integrated. New York is such a melting pot that I’d never been exposed to that reality or mentality of racism.

PGN: Has being biracial affected your poetry? DF: Of course, feeling that in-between status, being an outsider, has really fueled a lot of my work. Feeling like no one can really box you in and when they try to, they always put you in the wrong boxes. It certainly informs what I’ve done in the past and everything I’ll do in the future. I feel privileged to have grown up “in between.” It’s an important part of me and something I’ve grown into not just accepting, but embracing and loving. It’s such a privilege to have been exposed to so many differences, and something I’ve benefited from immensely.

PGN: Are you an only child? DF: No, I have two older sisters. We’re all very different. I’m much more immersed in hip-hop and the arts and culture worlds and they’re not so much. I think it’s fascinating how we each express our “mixedness.” It’s something that I’d like to study someday. But we’re family and we love each other.

PGN: Other than b-ball, what were your interests growing up? DF: Music. My dad played with Tito Puente and a number of Latin jazz legends and I really admired him. He’s my best friend and I wanted to do everything he did. I followed him everywhere. He taught me how to play basketball and we loved hanging out, being active and playing music too. He taught me the instruments he played, the flute and saxophone. About middle school, I decided that I couldn’t play music and play basketball, so I focused on ball playing and dropped the instruments, but music is finding its way back into my life.

PGN: How did you end up playing professional ball? DF: That was my dad too. He had some connections in Puerto Rico and one of my college teammates also helped me. She was from PR and played with me there. I sent some tapes of my games and got signed.

PGN: Did you have fans? DF: Transitioning to the pros was difficult. I was paying more attention to my game and the jump to this next phase of my career in basketball than worrying about who was watching. I had a great time there and I probably had some fans once I grasped the game and got it together, but I really didn’t pay attention to things like that.

PGN: What’s a great memory from that time? DF: There were probably a lot of buzzer-beating moments and great plays, but to me what I loved was the aspect of working as a team. I loved playing defense and being the one to clean everything up. I loved setting other people up, passing the ball, getting my nose right in the middle of things, but playing unselfishly, working hard — all the basics. I loved practice and that feeling that you’d reached your capacity and then digging in just a little harder. I was lucky that I had a great coach who taught me more about life than any other person outside of my family. He taught me about working hard and changing your habits, not just on the court but in life. He taught us to carry ourselves with dignity and showed us that in life, you always represented something more than yourself. You represented your team, your family, your country: It was always about something greater than you. He also used to say, “You don’t change until the pain is great enough.” I’ve carried that with me and used it in all areas of my life. I loved his pep talks. The other thing about the game is the lesson you learn in humanity. You go on the court with four other people and you’re going to stick together, even if you don’t like each other — especially if you don’t like each other — you put your differences aside and for those four quarters, you work together to get the job done.

PGN: Our president just got 12 stitches from playing ball: What was your worst injury? DF: Oh gosh, I’m injury-prone. I guess the hardest thing was when I had stress fractures in both legs at the same time. I had to switch my boot back and forth between legs. I wasn’t the coolest kid on the block.

PGN: Switching topics, name two favorite poets. DF: Oh, that’s hard. I’d say Nikki Giovanni and Audre Lorde.

PGN: How did you get into poetry? School? DF: I was exposed to poetry in grade school and I hated it! But I loved rapping and freestyling, and the whole the hip-hop culture in New York. In college, I was going through some rough times and out of the pain came poetry. It was more of a hybrid between rap and poetry, but once I created something, that’s when I started getting into the spoken-word stuff.

PGN: When did you come out? DF: It was a process but it always felt natural, so it wasn’t difficult. When I realized what it was, I found a part of myself that finally felt comfortable. Before that, I don’t think I was able to truly connect to people. I told my mom when I was 19 and I think she was hurt that I’d kept it from her. My dad was fine. And because of the support of my family, I was able to concentrate more on discovering myself than worrying about them. We’re so socialized to be heterosexual that coming out is a reversal of everything you were taught. You have to discover what makes you happy. More than being upset about being gay, I was relieved to learn what really connecting to another person romantically was all about, to feel certain things for the first time.

PGN: Have you ever been gay-bashed or harassed? DF: Yes. Just recently, my girlfriend and I were in West Philadelphia and we were arm in arm and two guys pulled up in a car and had some negative things to say about it. The following night, I was walking home by myself and a guy behind me kept derisively calling me “sir.” It was one of the first times that I felt unsafe as a gay person. Not insulted, unsafe. That was the third time this year it’s happened here. Philly has a lot of work to do. We’ve made great strides downtown and in the Gayborhood, but elsewhere it’s still scary.

PGN: Since you’ve been called sir, what would be one good thing about being the opposite sex? DF: Ha! Being able to defend yourself physically. Having the ability to protect yourself and not be tested and taken advantage of physically like women are all the time.

PGN: Where were you when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, happened? DF: I was in high school in New York. We went on lockdown and they wouldn’t let us out until after hours and I had to walk home in the middle of it. It was the eeriest feeling. The whole city was traumatized and in shock, but at the same time it was also memorable in terms of the unity you felt with people you didn’t even know. I’ll never forget it.

PGN: What do you do for a day job? DF: I work at Drexel University in enrollment management.

PGN: What websites would I find on your favorites toolbar? DF: You would find Facebook, I can’t deny it, and AOL because I’m a nerd and am not cool enough for gmail. And you would find the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement website, www.phillyyouthpoets.org.

PGN: If you could journey into the land of any book, which would you choose? DF: “Borderlands: The New Mestiza/La Frontera” by Gloria Anzaldúa. It’s an amazing book about life “in between.”

PGN: What’s your sign? DF: Libra, fair and balanced.

PGN: Now that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been repealed, would you serve in the military? DF: No … no. I think my services are better suited elsewhere. I’m more of a community worker.

PGN: You’re a wordsmith: Ever write a letter to Santa? DF: No, I was never that kid. I believed in Santa, but I knew that my parents were the liaison between me and Santa. If I wanted anything, I’d communicate it to them and they’d get the message to him.

PGN: Tell me about your poetry. DF: I’ve been writing for about seven years now and have been performing all over the country and internationally since then. I’m on the Philly adult slam team, which is pretty cool, and I participated in the “UnLitter Us” Philly campaign. I like to talk about things that aren’t usually discussed. I think it’s a responsibility for an artist to shed light on things and speak to the human experience. I love that poetry and language give you the ability to connect with people. I love it when someone comes up after a show and says, “Hey, me too.” That’s the best.

PGN: And music? DF: I’m slowly getting back into it. I’ll always be a poet, but lately I’ve been singing and rapping as well. I finally feel like I’m worthy of calling myself an MC. I think it’s something you earn, just like I never called myself a poet until I felt like I’d earned that designation.

PGN: Do you speak as an openly gay poet? DF: Now, yes. But not always. When I first started doing poetry, I stayed away from using pronouns. Lots of you’s and their’s and us’s. I finally had to check myself and come clean and I’ve been open ever since. One of my greatest regrets was not being open when I was playing basketball.

PGN: What’s your biggest pet peeve? DF: Losing socks. I don’t understand it. I’m convinced that there’s someone in the Laundromats that steals socks for a living.

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