When it comes to learning about the distinctive artistic practices and creative challenges that drive today’s artists, our Pew Fellows have a wealth of insights. These artists represent a diversity of perspectives across age, background, and creative disciplines.
For this installment of our ongoing artist interview series, we invited fiction writer Asali Solomon and poet and performer Denice Frohman to ask questions of each other that satisfied their own curiosities.
Solomon’s novels and short stories portray the lives of Black Philadelphians through a combination of reality, memory, imagination, and humor. Frohman writes and performs poetry that centers cultural preservation, particularly that of her Puerto Rican heritage and queer communities.
“My process of writing stories is like a geological process, write a little, admire it, shave it, add a little, admire it, add water, repeat, realize there’s no plot, feel sad, add more, shave back. I’m excited to see some new geological forms emerge.”
Denice Frohman Writers are constantly asked, "What are you working on these days?" But I'd like to ask a more expansive version of this question: "What are you thinking about? What are your creative obsessions? What are you excited to make, even if just for yourself?
Asali Solomon I’m trying to continue to write fiction about the stuff I always write while writing in new forms and new voices. Right now, I’m trying to hack a story that mostly unfolds in almost poetic lines, like Bernadine Evaristo in Girl, Woman, Other. I have something else that’s written in first-person plural. I’m excited to return from the land of long fiction to short stories, which can be such little crystalline and beautiful systems. Sadly, they are also unforgiving. My process of writing stories is like a geological process, write a little, admire it, shave it, add a little, admire it, add water, repeat, realize there’s no plot, feel sad, add more, shave back. I’m excited to see some new geological forms emerge.
Solomon Tell me about the difference between your approach to creating oral poems and written ones? What is it like for you to see an oral poem transcribed?
Frohman I initially came to poetry through performance so one of the biggest differences when I began publishing my work many years ago was not equating every breath with a line break. I don’t subscribe to the binary of page versus stage, but I am interested in discussing the various techniques used to heighten one’s experience of a poem, whether in printed form or read aloud. Sometimes those techniques emphasize different aspects of the poem, but they aren’t mutually exclusive in my work. I love when I notice something new or different when I’m holding a poem in my hands, especially one that I’ve heard before. Perhaps it’s a matter of time. You only get one chance to hear a poem aloud; what resonates? Now what else is revealed when the words are looking back at you? What does the onion look like peeled even further? There are so many poets, from Patricia Smith to Willie Perdomo, who are incredible performers and also award-winning, nationally acclaimed authors. I’m indebted to them for paving the way.
Frohman Can you tell me more about the role of humor in your work?
Solomon I’ve been talking about humor a lot more with this most recent novel (The Days of Afrekete) and have had to think more scientifically about it, which is actually hard. What’s hard about it is that I don’t try conscientiously to deploy humor. It’s a fairly default approach for me in terms of relating to experience and then writing about experience. Yes, it certainly can critique power from the margins or the bottom. It is also a tool for helping understand something—to make fun of something can be a way to understand it more clearly. But also, people are funny, so that should go in fiction about them. And finally, even if a book and its characters are not your thing, if I can deliver some laughs, then I’ve done a great service.
Frohman Are there artists who work in different artistic forms that you are inspired by (i.e. musicians, painters, performance artists)?
Solomon Ahh, but you word this so eruditely! I watch and am inspired by TV. So much TV. Given that I usually, when not Pew-funded, teach full-time and have two school-age kids (and a demanding cat), people are often shocked at how much TV I can fit into my schedule. Thanks to this question, I can begin referring to it as “a different artistic form” that inspires my art. But it is! Over the past few years, I have been particularly inspired by the shows Atlanta, Southside and The Good Wife/The Good Fight. The Simpsons is one—if not the most major—of my cultural touchstones. But this list is just the tip of the iceberg. I think my body is now 76 percent television show.
And music! My father is a songwriter and both of my parents are deeply emotionally invested in music. That was my first artistic interest. During the most intense lockdown/highest depression moments of the COVID pandemic, I would often remind myself, “but there is always music.” I mainly listen to soul and hip-hop and whatever Beyoncé is calling herself and spend a lot of time thinking about the reality this music creates. In the past, I was also very much into different kinds of rock and high-drama Latin music with a lot of horns and threats by spurned lovers. If there are a million (true) cliches about traveling through literature, they all apply to music, which can take you even further, even faster.
Solomon What have you made/done/achieved that you are most proud of as an artist?
Frohman I’m most proud of the work that I recently created. My debut one-woman show, ESTO NO TIENE NOMBRE, centers the oral histories of Latina lesbian elders and puts me in conversation with these women as I explore what it means to build a lineage. Being able to not only uplift their remarkable stories of activism within the LGBT and Latinx movements, but also explore their interiority—how they love, who they love, and how they survived—has transformed me in ways I’ll be unpacking for a long time.
Beyond the stage, the process of creating this one-woman show has been a gift that has personally changed my life. For the first time, I’m building real relationships with Latinx queer elders in Philadelphia and beyond, and that in and of itself has been a gift. To sit at their feet, to hear their joy and their wisdom, and to know we have always cared for each other gives me a lot of hope. I must also share that collaboration is my true North Star and this work wouldn’t be possible without the support of my collaborators: director (and Pew Fellow) Alex Torra, Nia Benjamin-Samara (production designer), and Nic Rodriguez-Villafañe (sound designer). I’m grateful for their belief in this project.
“Because I view language as physical, my poetic practice often involves some kind of movement to get my creative gears going. It’s my body’s way of figuring out the rhythm and the trouble in the work.”
We wrapped up the conversation by asking both artists a few questions of our own.
What do you do when you’re procrastinating?
Solomon Between smartphones and the internet, procrastination has become the main event. Like sometimes you feel like you’re procrastinating when you stop responding to texts in order to work. If I’m procrastinating in a healthy way, I do small house chores. Tidy up the kitchen, make the bed, do laundry. If I’m procrastinating poorly, I go on Facebook and tag a bunch of people’s pages like an idiot or read awful clickbait news on my phone. Sometimes I go on Instagram, but I’m too ashamed of my scattershot and inconsistent posting there to be on too much. Sometimes I read The Onion so I don’t have to go on social media or read “news” stories about celebrities that degrade both the reader and the celebrity.
Frohman Because I view language as physical, my poetic practice often involves some kind of movement to get my creative gears going. It’s my body’s way of figuring out the rhythm and the trouble in the work. When I’m procrastinating, it usually means I’m feeling stuck or afraid while in pursuit of trying to say something for the first time. It means I’m looking for a way out. My dear friend and poet, Yesenia Montilla, once shared that creativity is a muscle. Her words reminded me that discipline is of course an essential element of being a writer, but more than that I heard an invitation to be embodied. When I’m in those moments where the words aren’t moving, for whatever reason, I make sure that I do, literally. I’ll take the tension I’m feeling or the image I’m turning over in my head and go running or shoot hoops in the park until my body opens up a portal of language that sings.
What was the first work of art that really mattered to you? Did it influence your approach to your work?
Frohman The Roots’ Come Alive live album was one of the first pieces of art where I felt the tectonic plates in my body shift. I had always loved hip-hop growing up, but the combination of innovative storytelling, lyrical prowess, and live instrumentation sent me into another stratosphere. I credit The Roots as one of the first musical bands that made me fall in love with language.
Solomon My uncle (who passed away in 2014) was the longtime manager for The Roots! We have strong family connections to them. I'm tickled that you mentioned their live album. I think for me, it was probably The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. I read the whole series, but the first book and the creepy animated PBS version of the first book were probably the first art that I really thought and cared about. It wasn’t until later that I found out that it was supposed to turn me into a Christian. It was probably also supposed to make me a little more racist. (I have a theory about why Turkish Delights were Edmund’s gateway drug when, let’s be real, they are not addictive at all and clearly, Lewis had heard of chocolate). Even 43 or so years after I read it, I can’t say how this book influenced me, since I write realist fiction for adults about Black people in Philadelphia, but I did incorporate it into one of my novels, and I still think about the White Witch with something like admiration and delight. Damn, we could use some snow.
Do you think about your legacy and, if so, how does your thinking about it affect your practice?
Solomon What? This is a terrifying question! Is this what people ask you when you turn 50? I have not thought a lot about this in terms of my work. Sometimes I think about Herman Melville dying destitute. Does he care that Moby Dick finally blew up? There’s a long list of Black women writers who have achieved much higher levels of acclaim in death: Zora Neal Hurston, Nella Larsen, and Octavia Butler, who finally made the bestseller list. I don’t much care about my reputation after death as such, but I hope that I’ve written things in such a way that they will continue to bring people insight and pleasure for, let’s say, a good while.
Frohman I try not to think about my legacy, if I’m being honest. I’m more interested in lineages and paying homage to those I come from. I can only hope to keep growing as an artist and inspire others from marginalized backgrounds to tell their own stories. At the same time, I’m aware that many young people in and out of the classroom have found my work meaningful, which means a whole lot to me and is something I never take for granted. But in many ways, it’s beyond anything I could’ve fathomed. My intention is to focus on the poems and let them do what they do. I truly believe each artist is in pursuit of their own “lifelong sentence,” as Mary Ruefle says. I’m just trying to write mine down as best as I can.