Tag Archives: Nuestra Palabra

Artist Profile: Denice Frohman

Name: Denice Frohman

Hometown: New York City

What is your earliest memory of writing?

In high school I had a special notebook where I wrote raps and jokes. Those were the two artistic forms of expression where I thought I could really be myself. At that time, I thought poetry sounded a particular way and nothing like me, so I steered clear of that until college.

How did you become a writer?

That’s a tough question because I think “becoming” a writer is something I’m constantly doing in a sense. Paying attention to my voice and how it evolves and develops feels like a supernatural thing to me. But to answer your question in a more straightforward way, I really stumbled into it. I didn’t know a world of writing and performance existed for me until college, but once I was introduced to writers that were speaking in a language that was familiar to me everything was a flood. I wrote frantically, filling up notepads, and finding a new thirst for understanding myself and the world around me.

Tell us about your writing process.

I feel like this is something I’m constantly developing a new understanding of: the “what works for me” question. And truthful it changes. I do know I’ve always liked writing very late at night. and I think it has to do with my subconscious taking over. In terms of writing the poem itself, often times the first line of a poem ends up somewhere in the middle of whatever I end up with, so that I’m really filling out what’s missing in the beginning and end. However, if I have a strong first line that captures some kind of unnamable feeling I have, then that’s always a good sign that the writing will flow a lot easier. I hate the feeling that I’m forcing something. It also means that I write way more poems than I end up finishing and I’m okay with that, because I think these freewrites (which I always save) lead me to the poems I really need to be writing.

What are you working on now?

My first manuscript of poetry.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I have and it’s quiet frustrating, but it’s always less about the writing itself and more about what I have going on elsewhere in my brain.

Which writers and teachers have most influenced you as a writer?

Nikki Giovanni, Gloria Anzaldúa, Sandra Cisneros, Audre Lorde, and my students.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

  • The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Sister Outsider
  • La Frontera/Borderlands

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?

Tell your version of the truth. Write authentically. There are so many reasons to be silent, often times I look into those rooms for what I need to say. Worry less about “how good it is” and more about whether you’re writing honestly. Chances are the more you write about the things you care about, the more the audience will respond to that.

denice-2

***For more on Denice Frohman, see:

Tintero Projects: Writing/Righting Houston

Even though people from outside of Houston continue to think the city has no culture, H-Town is full of life and it’s “the literary world’s best-kept secret.” Besides being home to Arte Público Press, the University of Houston’s high-ranking MFA in Creative Writing, WITS, Inprint, Nuestra Palabra, WriteSpace, and Literal, Houston is now home to Tintero Projects. Founded by the visionary duo of Lupe and Jasminne Mendez, Tintero’s mission is to create a space to nurture the future Latin@ storytellers of the United States, with Houston as its main hub.

In March 2016, I interviewed Lupe about his activism, writing, and founding Tintero Projects:

For brown writers in the Houston-Galveston area, there aren’t any Latino-centric places to write from. There is no place to call home for Latino writing—no venues that host workshops or open mic nights for emerging Latinx writers. I want to change that. (…) I want to be able to help polish up new writers, set them up for success, get them ready for the time when they will get a bigger spotlight on the NP [Nuestra Palabra] stage, get them ready for the next platform.

If you haven’t read Lupe’s “Open Letter to the Houston Poetry Scene,” then open the link in a new tab and read it when you finish this blog.

Earlier this month, Tintero formally began with readings at Casa Ramirez and the Inprint House featuring powerhouse poets Yesenia Montilla, Denice Frohman, Malcolm Friend, and Raina León, with Lupe and Jasminne warming up the standing room only crowds. To bring these West and East Coast writers to the Gulf Coast was a powerful way to launch Tintero. As in many cases, the coastal bias tends to disregard the center of the country and the Gulf Coast especially. With Lupe and Jasminne at the helm, Tintero is bridging east and west and centering Houston as the epicenter in a literary movement that will see emerging Latin@ writers becoming the future of this nation’s literary arts scene (See: “Houston and Texas, the inkwells of poetry for Latino writers” by Olivia P. Tallet). The next phases of Tintero’s strategic plan will involve workshops and open mic nights for emerging writers.

Tintero launched with Latin@ fierceness that would ignite any community. Here, you had four knockout poets, three of which are Afro-Latin@ (not to mention Lupe and Jasminne who are knockouts in their own right). While this shouldn’t feel like a statement, it was. As Jasminne Mendez and Houston-based writer Icess Fernandez-Rojas have written about extensively, Afro-Latin@s still face issues of invisibility and identity policing even within their own communities (while I have you here, check out #TeatroLatinegro and Houston playwright Jelisa Jay Robinson’s work). I asked Icess to share some thoughts about Tintero:

For the first time in recent memory, there was more than one Afro-Latino writer reading in Houston at one time. See, Houston is one of the most literary cities in America but one thing it doesn’t have is a lot of Afro Latino writers.

The latest Tintero Reading was amazing. As an Afro Latino writer, it was air. The experiences of being in between two worlds – black and Latino – and existing in spaces where we have to choose, was apparent in their writing. From music to love, existing in this skin was painted their words and it was everything. I was seen that night and all my experiences were validated. This is what art does.

To use Tintero as a space to begin a dialogue about the intersections between Blackness and Latinidad in our community demonstrates the type of work that the project will undertake. Perhaps more now than ever, we need to be having nuanced conversations about Afro-Latinidad and multicultural identities.  And why shouldn’t the arts be the vehicle to ignite this conversation, to ignite social change?

5 Highlights from Tintero’s Launch:

  • Yesenia Montilla’s ode to rapper Notorious B.I.G., “Notorious.” You can read two of her poems here.
  • Denice Frohman’s poem that troubled the idea of “home.” Houston-based performer and playwright Josh Inocéncio was particularly inspired by Frohman’s poem about genocide: “Denice’s eloquent takedown of schools that ignore teaching genocide–creating a society with cultural amnesia–has inspired me to get into the classroom, the streets, the local newspaper (anywhere I can!) to educate students from all walks of life.”
  • Malcolm Friend’s poem about white people mistaking him for other black men who look absolutely nothing like him (even Philly’s Mayor Nutter!). I am waiting impatiently for Malcolm to finish his MFA and publish his book.
  • And Raina León’s, well, pretty much everything about her was perfection to me, but, if I had to choose, then the moment that touched me the most was the poem that began with her singing “Maybe” from Cabaret. Yes to an Afro-Latina Sally Bowles. Yes to Raina León. Yes to all of it!
  • Jasminne Mendez and Lupe Méndez both performed, warming up the crowd. Even though I could likely recite many of their poems from memory, I will never grow tired of hearing them both. They are familia to me and I will unwaveringly support them for as long as I can and you should, too.

While the poets (including Lupe and Jasminne) came from distinct cultural backgrounds and brought different life experiences to Tintero, all touched on the intricacies of identity in 2016 América. More so, all spoke to the power of art, poetry, and creative writing to heal both individual and community. Art is powerful. Art heals. Art saves. Art builds community. And as art does all of these things, so will Tintero Projects in Houston, Tejas, and across the Gulf Coast. I’ve known Lupe and Jasminne for years. They are change-makers. When they have a vision, they make it a reality. Houston is in for something special. Stay tuned.

Raina León reading at Tintero Projects

Raina León reading at Tintero Projects

Artist Profile: Lupe Méndez

Name: Lupe MéndezLupe Mendez

Hometown: Galveston, Tejas

Residence: Houston, Tejas

What is your earliest memory of writing?
I remember writing words on wax paper at my school when I was 5 or 6—I would write the words I knew in Spanish and then the teacher would point out the words in English—and they would post them all over the classroom. The words in Spanish were red and words in English were in black. I remember loving the sound of words as a kid. I don’t think I ever stopped writing.

How does Texas inform your writing?

It is my second home. I don’t even know the whole state, so I can’t say that the whole state informs my writing, but anything along the gulf coast informs my writing. Anything between Galveston to El Paso; The RGV (specifically, San Benito) to Austin informs who and what I write about. There is a spirit that lives along the waters, the cackle of gavilanes, the energy behind hurricanes and their parties that ties me to Texas. The beach, the waves, the salt air, the sight of a storm on the horizon of the water, a night on a jetty with a bottle of brandy, the sand between the cracks of skin, this informs my understanding of Texas. I am a foreigner to Hill Country, I don’t know its mesas, but I know its mesquites, I know its huizaches, I know Tejas. I know the side of the state that reflects the people I can speak with. I know Tejano. I don’t know all the places George Strait sang about, but I know all the corridos he didn’t.

I write in duality not just in language, but a state of mind, a geographical metaphysicality. I am hyper aware of what a bat and a lechuza are and why they are different in Texas and Jalisco. I am an odd representative of both. You tell someone outside of Texas that you are from Texas, they think Austin, or Dallas or Houston—but you say Galveston and they think “WTF?”, you surprise them. Same goes with Mejicanos in Texas, you say, “Soy Mejicano” and most will guess from San Luis Potosi or Monterrey – I say Jalisco, I say Atotonilco El Alto and they say “Qu-Que?”

I think of the poverty I grew up in and I think about the richness of my life and I know, monetarily, I might have been poor, but if I could take you with me, so you can see Los Altos de Jalisco, the way I know then and the beaches of my Galveston, the way they blessed me, then you would know, I am one of richest cabrones you’ve ever known. I write from these two points of view. If I could tell about life through shoes, I own country ass work boots for the cerros and chanclas for the sand.

Tell us about Damas y Caballeros.

Damas y Caballeros came about as the collection of poems under my MFA thesis. It has taken a new turn. I beefed it up. I added myself more to it. I was advised to take things out, to not be too repetitive with images and I did that—but I kept finding works that keep adding to the picture. It is a 4 part collection of how I view women and men. It is the raw relationships that exist. It Is a snapshot of a boy who watched the world whirl by always asking why things happened. It is me paying respects to the men and women in my life, the memory of who they were, of who they are in the world as they exist, because they still exist. One part, the grandest part is “Women”—all the poems here are reverent poems, almost prayers in respect to the image of women. “(Me)n” is about the men and the image of man, self reflective image of masculinity. It is all the elements I derive my masculinity from. “Ellas” is a 10 part poem about the relationships I have been in, up until I got married. “Ellos” are the poems about the intertwined instances of men and women.

At the root of it all, it is about people. There is magic in people, there is truth in struggle and complexity in completing something. These poems are for me humble sacrifice in order to respect what I see in the world. It is 68 pages long. It is fierce and bold and sharp. Read with caution or at least after a shot of brandy or mezcal.

What else are you working on now?

Currently I am working on a few projects. I am working on archiving the Word Around Town Poetry Tour—we just completed 10 years of work, bringing 20+ poets to 7 seven different venues in 7 days. I am working with the Houston Metropolitan Research Center to archive this work.

Next and most dear to my heart is Tintero Projects, a new (old) format for Latinx writing in Houston. It is basically the emerging writer’s arm of Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say. For brown writers in the Houston-Galveston area, there aren’t any Latino-centric places to write from. There is no place to call home for Latino writing—no venues that host workshops or open mic nights for emerging Latinx writers. I want to change that. Nuestra Palabra started the work and built forward—bringing in established writers to local venues like Talento Bilingue de Houston and then building forward more by establishing the biggest book festivals in Texas under the Latino Book and Family Festival and bringing writers on the air with the current NP radio show on KPFT (Tuesdays at 6p – 90.1FM – PLUG!), but the emerging writer part can always be revisited and that’s what I want to get at. I want to be able to help polish up new writers, set them up for success, get them ready for the time when they will get a bigger spotlight on the NP stage, get them ready for the next platform. Tintero Projects is then, the home of ermerging Latinx writers. With the help of Jasminne Mendez and Dee!colonize we will provide a space for writers to practice craft in safe spaces, in the languages they know best. We will provide open mic nights, workshops and radio opportunities all of the preparation for the big leagues (Nuestra Palabra showcases, radio interviews, writing features, etc.)

As an educator, you are constantly engaging with young people. How do your students inform your activism? Your writing?

They are my pulse. I know the way the world works because of the work I do in my classroom. It sounds cheesy, and real douchie of me to say it, but I always remember a non literary literary quote “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I would morph it a bit—If you want to know strength and the weakness in a nation, in a system, look to the way it treats its prisoners, its students, its elderly. The activism comes from a want and a need to see my students succeed. They go through things that are familiar to me and then there are those that go through things I haven’t even begun to understand. In order to do right by a student, I have to work to prepare the world for their coming up in it. The writing is merely me being a witness to what I go through with them, because I go through this life with my students in mind. To be an educator is to share a life with a child so that they can see your errors and your successes. I write to this in as many different ways as possible.

Can you tell us a little about your writing process?

HA! It’s me when I can’t keep in the words anymore. It’s me between 9pm to 2am writing words or typing them in no total order, all to the sound of acid jazz or house, or bossa nova, or chill step. I edit later, later in the week, later in the month, later in the year, in 3 years, in 10. But I am always writing something.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

I would say early on:
Frankinstein – M. Shelly
The Collected Works of E. Allen Poe
Tortuga – Rudolfo Anaya
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee – Dee Brown
Anything by Jose Marti
Loose Woman – Sandra Cisneros
Curandera – Carmen Tafolla
The Sadness of Days – Luis Omar Salinas
The Color Purple – Alice Walker
The Idiot – F. Dostoyevsky
Emplumada – Lorna Dee Cervantes

Recent Influences:
A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying – L Anne Guerrero
Empire – Xochlitquetzal Calendaria
The Truth is We Are Perfect – Janaka Stucky
When My Brother Was an Aztec – Natalie Diaz
Slow Lighting – E. C. Corral
Borderlands – Gloria Anzaldúa
The Bell Jar & Colossus – Sylvia Plath
The Trouble Ball – Martin Espada
The Book of Light – Lucille Clifton

Who are your writing mentors and heroes?

Pat Telschick (my English high school teacher), Tony Diaz, my wife Jasminne Mendez, Junot Diaz, Tim Hernandez, Sasha Pimentel, Carmen Tafolla, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Martin Espada, Dagoberto Gilb, Raul Salinas, to name a few.

What advice would you give to aspiring artists?

Try, fail, keep trying, your art and your attitude will be the red carpet you will walk on one day.

What would you tell your 18-year-old self?

Don’t freak out so much. You should go check out the big city when you get a chance. You need to go back to New Orleans at least one more time, and get ready—all the studying you did on politics will come in handy one day.

Lupe Mendez 1

And, now James Lipton’s questions from Inside the Actor’s Studio.

What is your favorite word?

In English: advocate

In Spanish: cacahuate

What is your least favorite word?

Hispanic

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Open-mindedness

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

A know-it-all who does nothing

What sound or noise do you love?

A rainstorm coming in off the ocean

What sound or noise do you hate?

Crying over a death

What is your favorite curse word?

hijo-desu-requete-p**a-madre

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Farmer

What profession would you not like to do?

Fox News personality

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Glad you finally made it, we wouldn’t start the party without you…

***For more on Lupe Mendez, see:

Artist Profile: Jasminne Méndez

J Mendez

While sitting in the Alamo Room at the Sheraton Gunter Hotel in San Antonio last Saturday night, I witnessed something special. As part of the American Literature Association Symposium on Borders and Frontiers in American Literature, my colleague Claire M. Massey and I organized a night of Latin@ poetry featuring local Texas writers Carolina Hinojosa-Cisneros, Jasminne Méndez, Lupe Méndez, and Natalia Treviño. We had originally planned to submit a panel featuring the 4 writers but the conference organizer, Steven Frye, graciously provided us with the coveted closing reception slot.

And while all four poets were superb, I was so moved by Jasminne Méndez’s performance that I immediately became inspired to write about this piece and help spread the word about this powerhouse performance poet, who, according to Tony Díaz “El Librotraficante,” performs in 6-D, or 10-D as I would argue.

Although I’m positive our paths crossed sooner, I first came into contact with Jasminne on the opening night of the 2015 NACCS Tejas Foco when she performed several of her poems. I wanted to meet her afterwards, but she was swarmed by college students buying her book, getting autographs, and taking pictures with la poeta. It would take 6 months for Jasminne and I to meet at a conference in New Orleans (it was a hug situation, not a handshake, if that tells you anything). Since then, we’ve become frequent writing buddies, collaborators, and great friends.

Méndez’s first book, Island of Dreams (Floricanto Press, 2013), uses poetry and memoir to explore themes such as family relationships, multicultural identity in the United States, food, hair, self-discovery, assimilation, and the supposed American Dream. Positioning her writing from the voice of her teenage self, Méndez’s poetry-infused memoir speaks to the difficulty of growing up Afro-Latina in the United States and, ultimately, the protagonist—and the writer—comes to understand the richness and abundance of her cultural identity and history. In the end, she finds a place to call home. Aside from being included in high school and university curriculums across the country, Island of Dreams won the award for Best Young Adult Latino Focused Book at the prestigious Latino Book Awards in 2015.

When I first read Island of Dreams, I recognized the beauty of knowing that Jasminne has become the woman that the teenage narrator of the collection wished she had in her life. This is part of why Jasminne’s work as a teaching artist in Houston-area schools is so important—to have Afro-Latina voices in our schools to inspire young people.  Jasminne is a mentor and a role-model to so many students and aspiring writers.

While her work jumps off the page, Jasminne’s work as a performer truly sets her apart and demonstrates what a singular  talent she is. I’ve witnessed few performance poets who can move me in the way that Méndez does. Need convincing?

***For more on Jasminne Méndez, please see: