At the Intersections of Identity: Talking with Dani Putney
During the first orientation meeting for the Writing Center at Oklahoma State University, our eyes instantly met in a sea of Zoom faces. Names checked, backgrounds scanned, tattoos examined, hair noted. A silent question. Are you? I am. Oh, thank god, I’m not alone. Moving to a small town in the Southwest that’s been firmly red for the last five decades, I was nervous. Gay, nonbinary, fat, covered in tattoos, I figured I was about to be a lot of people’s “token queer friend.” But then I met Dani Putney, and the connection was immediate. We vibed on every level so quickly it felt like we’d known each other for years, not months. Simpatico defined. When their debut poetry collection was announced through Okay Donkey Press, we asked each other to collaborate on an interview at the same time. And so, we started talking.
Dani Putney is a queer, nonbinary, mixed-race Filipinx and neurodivergent writer originally from Sacramento, California. Their poems appear in outlets such as Empty Mirror, Ghost City Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Juke Joint Magazine, and trampset, while their personal essays can be found in journals such as Cold Mountain Review and Glassworks Magazine, among others. They received their MFA in Creative Writing from Mississippi University for Women. While not always (physically) there, they permanently reside in the middle of the Nevada desert. Salamat sa Intersectionality is their first poetry collection.
Dani and I agreed to do this interview over email, since that would give us the time and space to fully consider what we were saying. We were both so ready to finally discuss Dani’s stunning debut collection and the book’s themes of intersectionality, queerness, gender identity, coming of age, and the American West.
The Rumpus: First, I wanted to ask about your path toward poetry. How and when did you first come to the form?
Dani Putney: It’s a bit embarrassing to say, but we’re pals, so I’ll reveal my secrets! I was initially drawn to poetry as a way to express love, specifically as a seventeen-year-old twinkboi yearning after a (presumably) straight Catholic boy. I’d written doggerel previously for class assignments, but this aching love poem was my first “serious” foray into the genre. I started to regularly write poetry afterward, mostly about love, but other themes surfaced, too.
But when poetry became my “thing”? Probably several years later. I studied poetry during my undergraduate English years, taking lots of workshops, but even then, I didn’t feel like a “poet.” It was something I did for fun, something that satisfied me personally, something I had no expectations about, especially not professional ones. I’ve only considered myself a “poet” since my MFA program because I started to focus on poetry so much that, well, with the amount of work I was producing maybe I could will myself into this identity.
My early inspiration: definitely Sylvia Plath. I saw myself in her darkness, quite honestly. But I’ve always dug spoken word, even before writing poetry myself, so I’d have to include Andrea Gibson, Neil Hilborn, and Sarah Kay as well.
Rumpus: Let’s move on to your writing process. How do you know when a poem is coming to you? As a fiction writer myself, sometimes a phrase or sentence will pop into my head and I know, this is the start of something, but I’ve always been fascinated by how that works for poets. Are you able to sit down and write a full poem right then and there? Or is it more of a curatorial process? I think any insight into that process would be just as captivating to your readers as it is for me.
Putney: Ah, I love this question because I have different processes! Oftentimes, I rely on words and phrases that randomly pop up in my head. I mean, it isn’t random in the sense that these words and phrases appear out of nowhere. What I mean is that I’ll observe something in the world or within myself, and then my brain does some weird poetic stuff and pushes out alien poem babies.
To be more specific, I keep a thought journal on my phone for whenever these “aliens” arise, and then I write them down to return to later, often in short bursts. Conversely, sometimes I’ll have a particular theme in mind and strive to write a poem about said theme. This is especially true for my longer projects, that is, when I have to research something, look through historical documents, etc. Perhaps this process is less “poetic” or interesting, but it’s practical. If I want to write about something, why can’t I write about it? In any case, I think writing about topics even when the creative juices aren’t flowing helps build some writerly muscle.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about organization (probably my favorite part of the collection). How did you decide to organize the collection? What was the first poem you knew belonged in the collection? How did you know it was complete?
Putney: The first poem I knew had to be in the collection was “Pearls,” in the opening section. (I don’t want to give away everything, but this is my “first masturbation” poem featuring Colin Firth and ABBA.) From then on, it was clear to me that I had to write a book about coming into my identity, a kind of bildungsroman. Funnily enough, when the book was in its infancy, I was writing a whole bunch of sex- and desire-focused poems (many of which appear in the second section, “Salted Pores”), but in my MFA, I started to more intensely excavate my nonbinary identity and Filipinx heritage. These inspirations helped form the first and third sections.
But organization was a beast, I must say. I moved many poems back and forth between the first and third sections. The second section was always going to be there, as the content within it is kind of a liminal space of sexual exploration, but man, I had lots of conversations with my MFA thesis committee about the other two sections. The guiding question I ended up asking myself to finalize the first and third sections was, What’s the tone? The first part is more innocent and, quite frankly, ignorant, I’d say, while the third part is more confident (but not without its own ambivalences, of course).
Rumpus: Moving on to language, I want to talk about your use of non-English words/phrases/sentences. The title of the collection is Salamat sa Intersectionality. Can you tell me how that title came about? You’re very upfront about being a mixed-race Filipinx person. In your poetry, you use Spanish as well as Tagalog. How do you make the choice between English, Spanish, or Tagalog?
Putney: I’m particularly proud of the title, so thank you for asking! I had three other titles over the years, but I wrote the titular poem circa fall 2018, when I started to more seriously think about my book’s title. I turned to “Salamat sa Intersectionality,” which was slightly different at the time in that the “sa” was “for,” and realized that this poem synthesizes everything I wanted to convey in my collection. It celebrates my Filipinx heritage, something I’m always trying to connect to further as a mixed-race person, while also bringing direct attention to other facets of my intersectional identity, you know, queer, nonbinary, and, to a lesser extent, being neurodivergent. Each of these axes of my identity is important to my collection. So, I feel that it was a no-brainer to use this poem’s title as the title for my collection, both as a signpost but also as a reclamation of my mother tongue, one I have a contentious relationship with as an American whose father forbade them from learning how to speak it. See all that conflict there? I want that energy for my book!
As for my language fuckery, as I like to call it, the choice ultimately depends on each poem. In “Freedom in Six Parts,” for example, Spanish was important for me to use because it calls attention to the speaker and diablo figure’s shared history of high school Spanish class. More than that, I wanted some of this poem’s language to be untranslatable, or perhaps even ineffable altogether, to take away agency from the abuser I address in the piece. In another example, “Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf Talk on My Thighs,” it was important for me to specifically connect my coming into my nonbinary identity to my Filipinx heritage, as the two are impossible to disentangle (again, going back to that ol’ idea of intersectionality). In finding a language to describe my genderqueerness, I was also reclaiming my “Asianness.” This poem wouldn’t be able to exist without its use of Tagalog.
Rumpus: We were able to bond so quickly because we’re both gay (I identify as lesbian but use the label interchangeably with the broader term “queer,” as you use most of the time) and nonbinary. As you state on your “About the Author” page, you’re a queer, nonbinary, mixed-race, Filipinx, and neurodivergent writer. In every class we’ve been in together, you proffer your labels upfront very early on. Those are obviously a key part of the foundation to your poetry. Has that always been the case?
Putney: No, not always. I mean, you asking this question now makes me realize that I’ve already brought up my identities in this interview. It’s almost automatic now, and I’m proud to be at this point in my life when I don’t even have to think about my identities before verbalizing them. It’s very Audre Lorde of me, which I say both casually and seriously because, well, her doing so allowed me to see it as something I could do as well. But isn’t my naming of my identities, wherever I go, exactly why this book exists? (Don’t actually answer; it’s rhetorical!) The best way I thought I could confront myself, and the long and winding journey of coming into myself, was through this book, through poetry, through this weird art form I keep coming back to. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m also proud that it’s taken me a while to be as confident and self-assured as I am now because I can reflect on my past and recognize just how much I’ve evolved in all the best ways.
Rumpus: This isn’t a question, but I still wanted to mention just how beautiful the actual poems are in this collection. There’s so much in this collection that’s just raw. You open up about the first time you masturbated (as you’ve mentioned) and when your father calls you a “fag.” You also beg the tattoos of Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf on your thighs to tell you how to be a man or a woman when you’re navigating your genderless/genderful body. All these moments of candor are just so real, they’re like physical punches to the gut, especially for someone who shares some of the same identities you do. Are there any poems that stand out to you as your “favorites”?
Putney: I’m going to say “My Mom Was a Picture Bride” and “Repping in the Borderlands.” Regarding the former, this was the first poem I wrote wherein I actually “saw” my mom as her own person with her own history. Of course, this poem is about me connecting to this history, specifically her being a Filipina mail-order bride, and how that connection ultimately relates to my own sense of femininity that’s a large part of my nonbinary identity. But my mom was now this complex person in my life, one who demanded a presence in my poetry. This was also the first piece I wrote that really broke with form. I have lots of poems that play with white space and the landscape of the page now, but I used to write pretty “standard” stanzas and strophes back in the day.
Now, as for the latter poem, I’m especially fond of this one because I got to marry my love of one of the best video-game franchises of all time, Borderlands, with my nonbinary identity. It’s difficult to write a good video-game poem! I don’t know if you’re familiar with Borderlands lore at all, but in the third game, there’s this nonbinary playable character named FL4K. They’re a robot beastmaster and everything I could ever hope to be. It’s kind of ridiculous for me to say, but the idea for this poem didn’t actually emerge until I was already playing Borderlands 3 for almost a year, including the downloadable content the franchise is famous for releasing. But I’m so glad this little alien baby ultimately popped out of my head because I got to write myself into a video game I dearly love.
Rumpus: In my own system of categorization, this collection would be autobiographical poetry. What would you say is the most difficult part about writing autobiographical poetry? Have any of your family members, current or already passed, ever had a problem with you writing about them? Is their opinion ever something you consider before publishing a poem?
Putney: The most difficult part for me is determining how and when a poem needs to transcend the details of lived experience in order to convey a greater poetic truth. I love documenting my life, and when I first started writing poetry, I had a strong allegiance to the “truth,” whatever that meant. And I say “whatever that meant” because truth isn’t objective, something that took me a long time to learn, and poetry is the best way, I think, to exploit such inherent subjectivity. For example, there’s a poem in my collection called “Lazarus” that details an affair in the country. I’ll be honest and say that this particular experience didn’t happen to me. But all the circumstances surrounding the poem did. I’ve cheated, lusted after older men, been romantically engaged with “straight” guys, fallen for cowboy types, had sex in perhaps not the cleanest of places, etc. And the beloved in this poem? He’s definitely a composite of some of the guys from my past. But do you, or anybody else, for that matter, need to know any of this? I think “Lazarus” is powerful because it speaks to my vulnerability as a queer person navigating tricky sexual situations more than any one experience could. To me, that owning of that vulnerability, a kind of rebirth, if you will (and hence the poem’s title), is the truth.
As for family, I’m quite lucky in that none of my family members “seriously” read my work. My brother Josh is probably the keenest reader of my writing, but even then, he’s only seen a handful of poems. My mom hasn’t really shown an interest. My dad is dead, so I get to critique him all I want! (And I’m glad for this, as I have lots of daddy issues to unpack in my writing.) Because I’m pretty free from any familial disapproval, I don’t usually think about what the repercussions would be if I published this piece or that.
Rumpus: How do you move from writing poetry to writing your other preferred form, the personal essay? Is the process similar? Is it harder? Easier? How do you know when an idea needs to be a poem and not a personal essay?
Putney: I think the process is very similar. Perhaps it’s even freer in the sense that I feel more encouraged to meander in a personal essay, especially because of its length, whereas in a poem, I always have form and language in mind. I often turn to the personal essay when I need to say something I’m not quite sure how to say yet, but then again, isn’t that where the word “essay” comes from, an assay? That said, poetry is a kind of assay for me, too, but I’m much more interested in poems being manufactured objects that, though they’ve emerged from my weird brain, still live as themselves. This is part of the reason speakers appear in poetry, no? But it’s not surprising for me to be drawn to both poetry and creative nonfiction because the two genres are the best of bedfellows. Fiction and poetry, drama and poetry? Nah. But creative nonfiction and poetry? Who can tell the difference, really?
Rumpus: What do you think this collection says, overall?
Putney: Overall, my book offers a message of self-love. Love yourself, not in spite of your flaws but because of them. Appreciate your body, your identities, your place in this world because all of that makes you, you. I’m so glad Okay Donkey Press found meaning in this collection because it’s a kind of record of my journey toward self-love. I know I said earlier that poems are their own things, etc., but this book will always be tied to me and my kaleidoscopic reality, however tenuous that connection may be. Whether a reader knows me personally or only knows me from my bio, they’ll have a context for what they’re reading, and that context is impossible to ignore, especially with a collection like Salamat sa Intersectionality.
Photograph of Dani Putney by Cody Sammons.