From the ‘outside’ in, with queer Latina poet

Denice Frohman could have rested on her laurels after winning the Women of the World Poetry Slam last March.

Instead, the queer Latina poet redoubled her efforts, embarking on a nationwide spoken-word tour, “Sister Outsider,” and releasing her debut album, “Feels Like Home.”

As Frohman prepares to defend her title, she acknowledges how important that victory was.

“It was an honor, and it built a larger platform for my work to be presented and introduced me to a wider audience,” she said.

This year’s lyrical battle runs from March 19-22 in Austin, Texas. Over the course of four days, 72 of America’s fiercest female spoken-word artists will be vying for Frohman’s crown.

Frohman is no stranger to competition, though. A former college athlete, she even played pro basketball in Puerto Rico. To sharpen her focus, she used to get quiet before a big game, a habit that continues when she prepares for a stage performance.

But that’s where the similarities end. According to Frohman, poetry is more demanding than sports.

“With poetry I’m shedding my skin on stage,” she said. “There’s a level of vulnerability that playing basketball doesn’t have. I think that, in one way, there are lots of ways that you can’t compare them, that they’re different. Stretching myself and telling my story is a scary thing. It takes being brave.”

That courage is evident in her poem “Dear Straight People.” It begins on a humorous note but eventually shifts its tone: “Dear Queer Young Girl,/I see you./You don’t want them to see you/so you change the pronouns in your love poems to ‘him’ instead of ‘her.’/I used to do that.”

Video of Frohman reading that poem at last year’s tournament was uploaded to YouTube, The Huffington Post and Upworthy, directing a torrent of traffic to her website. As a result, Frohman, who is also an activist and educator, was inundated with emails from youth around the globe.

“I get messages almost every day from LGBT kids, questioning kids, from England to India to Israel, Australia, New Zealand, around the world, where kids are grappling and they say the work inspired them to come out. And that’s an incredible thing.”

Frohman’s interaction with young people isn’t limited to the virtual realm. Since last October, she and fellow poet Dominique Christina, who won the Women of the World Poetry title in 2012, have visited more than 35 college campuses as Sister Outsider.

The duo, which takes its name from a well-known collection of essays by the poet and theorist Audre Lorde, uses spoken-word, performance art and activism to initiate conversations about gender, identity and otherness among college students.

“The work that we do is really about telling stories of marginalized identities in a way that speaks more to resistance and reclamation of ourselves than anything else,” said Frohman. “It’s the idea that you say we don’t belong, and we say we’ve always been here. That’s what Sister Outsider does.”

To a certain extent, the pair shares a common vocabulary and their subject matter overlaps, but Frohman believes their differences are crucial.

“Dominique is speaking from a black queer experience,” she said. “I am speaking from a Latina, multicultural queer experience. She’s speaking about sexual assault and survival; I am speaking about language and home.”

Those topics are central to Frohman’s new album, “Feels Like Home,” released in December. Its 11 tracks blend spoken-word and music. Frohman worked closely with producer Larry E. of Dà Chù, a local studio. Listeners will notice a pronounced Latin flavor, courtesy of Josh Robinson and Jeremy Dyen of Alô Brasil, a Philadelphia band that plays Brazilian music.

Frohman took her time with the record, working hard to ensure that the music fit the lyrics and had an organic feel.

“I wanted something that people would listen to on their way to work, that people would play to their students, that people would play while they were cooking, while they were having conversations,” she said.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is “Can’t Let You Go,” a catchy, upbeat tune complete with handclaps and Frohman’s singing.

“Folks have been kind of responding, ‘I did not know that you sang. I did not know that you wrote songs,’ but I do, and I wanted to introduce people to that,” she said.

Of course, the best introduction is seeing Frohman perform live. Good thing she’s already planning next fall’s tour.

To learn more about Frohman’s album and Sister Outsider’s upcoming appearances, visit www.denicefrohman.com.