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Insider Beat: Denice Frohman on power of poetry in representation

Poet Denice Frohman visited Rutgers last month and delivered a lecture, "Poetry of Resistance," conveying the power of poetry and art in resisting colonialism and social injustice. – Photo by @denicefrohman / Instagram

Last month, New York poet Denice Frohman visited Rutgers for this year's Margaret O. Cekada Memorial Lecture, titled "Poetry of Resistance." The event was organized by the Department of Landscape Architecture in partnership with the Study of Global Racial Justice and the Douglass Residential College. 

Frohman approached the lectern for her event "Poetry of Resistance" by dedicating a poem to Cekada, a former Rutgers student who died — her memory is carried on through this series of lectures. The opening piece Frohman shared, titled "A Woman's Place," conveys the importance of empowering women, embracing identity and prioritizing compassion, the latter being one of the most prevalent themes discussed in the event.

She continued discussing the idea of care by explaining her recent project, a multimedia art installation at Pioneer Works titled "Climate Futurism." The exhibit explores the possible ways of using art to cultivate a sustainable future.

Frohman expressed some of the struggles with ignoring emotions like anxiety and panic and instead adopting a more concrete, analytic perspective. 

"I struggled with (this) as a poet because I really don't do certainty very well," she said. "I'm more interested in the question."

Instead of pushing these emotions aside, she decided to confront them head-on, seeing the piece as an opportunity to explore her family history. She particularly wanted to dissect the importance of community and tradition in transforming societal systems.

Frohman's maternal family, who originated from Puerto Rico, served as a major source of inspiration. Her grandparents and mother worked barefoot on a coffee farm, which they did not own. Today, the property on that same land is used for an Airbnb.

Frohman described some of the anger she felt about this, which she wanted to release through her work in the installation.

"A climate future in Puerto Rico must be a decolonial one," she said. "And so, my hope was to build a space of reflection and intergenerational healing, connecting all of these themes of diaspora, self-determination and a return to the land."

She also shared an erasure poem made from parts of the Jones Act, which regulates commerce in Puerto Rico in a harmful way to many people on the island.

"All goods that arrive in Puerto Rico or that leave Puerto Rico have to move on a U.S.-made, U.S.-manned or -personned ship," she said. "Puerto Rico is not allowed to explore other, more affordable shipping options."

After discussing her art installation, Frohman went on to read some more of her poetry. One of the pieces, titled "Puertopia," translates to "door nowhere" in Latin and was written in response to issues Puerto Rican people faced after Hurricane Maria. One of the issues she explores is an exodus of cryptocurrency farmers from California heading to the island, hoping to avoid federal taxes. 

"When the plane lands on either shore / now / the beaches are gated & / no one knows the names of the dead," she read.

While Frohman's work covers different topics and ongoing issues in Puerto Rico, she has a singular goal in her work: to help enact change.

"Part of what I hope to do as a poet, and just as an artist, is to help folks here. And my responsibility is … (to) ask for us to understand why," she said. "Why Puerto Rico? Why do we care? Why should we care? What's our connection to what's happening there? … We have an opportunity to make a change and raise our voices."

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