Dani Putney’s Salamat sa Intersectionality is a raw and tender interrogation of identity. Divided into three panels—‘Youthful Absolution’, ‘Salted Pores’, and ‘Taken Root’—Putney guides us through the definitive experiences of their youth and adulthood with nuance, complexity and humor while maintaining a keen eye on the landscape that continually forms them.
I spoke with Dani online about the American West, the evolution of their process over the past eight years, the Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf tattoos on their thighs, and their debut poetry collection forthcoming from OKD Books.
Hi Dani! Thank you so much for taking the time out to speak with me! Where are you writing from, and how are you holding up?
I’m writing from Stillwater, Oklahoma, where I’m an English PhD student. However, I permanently live in the middle of the Nevada desert and try to be there as much as possible (like during summers and other breaks). And I’m doing well; it’s been a very productive year for me, all things considered. Besides publishing my book during this strange time, I’ve been making big strides in my professional and academic circles. The pandemic has, honestly, been too kind to me.
That’s great to hear! How long is your PhD program? Do you see yourself moving back to Nevada immediately after completion?
It’s a five-year program, though I’m on track to graduate in four, partly because I miss the West so much! I definitely plan to return to Nevada, though it isn’t really “moving back” because my partner and I own a house there. However, I can’t say for sure what the future holds! Nevada will always be home, but I can see myself in Idaho, NorCal (where I’m originally from), the Pacific Northwest—basically, all throughout the West. In fact, my partner and I have been eyeing Boise for some time.
How have you been spending your time in isolation?
I’ve mainly been doing PhD stuff, writing poetry, talking to friends and family on the phone, and trying to make the most of the pandemic in general. However, now that I’ve been fully vaccinated, I’ve been out to brunches and dinners (with mask and hand sanitizer, of course), so I don’t really feel like I’m in “isolation” anymore.
Love to hear it! I’ve been making a list of things I want to do once I’m fully vaccinated. What was the first thing you did after emerging from isolation?
Go to dinner! Pre-pandemic, going out to dinner with friends was a weekly ritual for me. I’m fairly extroverted, so I love hanging around people, chatting over a good meal. I’m glad that I can incorporate more aspects of my pre-pandemic routine into my life now.
Congratulations on your debut collection, Salamat sa Intersectionality! A lot of these poems were previously published by literary magazines and journals—at what point did the work start taking shape as a collection for you?
It’s funny that you say “a lot of these poems” because, actually, every single one has been accepted for publication, something I’m very proud of! In fact, the last poem to be accepted from my book, “Texas Tango,” went up at Random Sample Review on April 17. As for when the collection started to take shape, well, I always had a full-length book in mind, so “since the beginning” is the easiest response to give. However, more specifically, the second section in my book, “Salted Pores,” was the first one to distinguish itself as a cohesive set of poems; I’d say a lot of the earliest work in my collection is featured in “Salted Pores.” Later, during my MFA years, I shaped the first section quite a bit and wrote most of the poems in the third (and final) part.
How long did the collection take you to write? When were the first and last poems written?
Between five and six years, give or take some months. The first poem in this collection was written circa fall 2014 to spring 2015; I wish I had a more specific date to share! As for the last poem, definitely around November 2020, post-acceptance from Okay Donkey Press, my publisher. I had some new work I thought would fit well in the book, and OKD was happy to include it.
Let’s talk about structure. These poems are divided into three panels which feel thematically chronological: Youthful Absolution, Salted Pores, Taken Root. The last poem, “Sidewind into the Universe”, feels like a perfect callback to the opener “Mountain Coda”. Could you tell us a little bit about your process of organization?
Chronology is definitely the narrative thrust for the section sequencing: from youth to adulthood, more or less. I was initially afraid to arrange the sections chronologically, as I didn’t want to perpetuate a standard bildungsroman sense of time (or what one might call “chrononormativity”); however, it was clear to me while revising the book that I needed something, in this case linearity, to push the content along. (Of course, the time in my collection isn’t always linear, as indicated by the various callbacks and memories scattered throughout the book.)
I’m also glad you brought up “Sidewind into the Universe” and “Mountain Coda” because I ultimately wanted the collection to conclude where it began, kind of like a musical coda. For example, in a composition, there might be a D.C. al Coda a musician plays to, then they’ll go back to the beginning of the piece, then they’ll play it again through the coda, or “tail,” section. (You often see codas in sonatas, by the way.) This music terminology is the perfect metaphor to represent the ouroboros nature of my book, as I’ve always wanted the collection to reflect the speaker’s cycles of growth, of evolution. There’s certainly a trajectory my book’s central speaker follows, but that speaker is always still growing, still evolving.
That comes through very strongly in the collection! There are changes to track within the narrator each time a “cycle” is repeated, which I very much admire.
Your work contemplates dissociation and identity—what draws you to your material? How do you know when an idea is worth exploring?
In many ways, my material is my identity; I usually write from my own experiences, including ruminations on the complexities of such experiences. I can’t imagine writing a poem about, say, a tulip that didn’t also relate back to my intersectional identity. I always find myself in the world, but then again, maybe the opposite is true, that the world has always been within me.
As I’m the core subject of most of my work, I already intrinsically know that an idea is worth exploring. The ideas engaged in my poetry are worth it because my identity is worth it. In fact, I didn’t have much trouble selecting the poems to include in my collection because most of the work I had at the time was related to my identity anyway. It turns out that my go-to subject is more like a series of subjects with endless layers to peel.
When did you start writing poetry?
I started writing poetry when I was 17, and I’m 25 now. The first “serious” poem I wrote as a teenager was a sappy love letter to a boy I’d liked, my first love. I never thought that one terrible poem would amount to anything, certainly not a “career” as a poet, but I’m so glad it did!
Has your process evolved or changed at all over the past eight years? Has it stayed the same?
Oh, my process has evolved in many ways. I’m much more intentional when crafting my poetry, that’s for sure. I also keep a journal of ideas to eventually turn into poems. I feel that I view the world through a poet’s eyes, that is, I always keenly observe everything around me. Many of the things I see ultimately end up in my work. It’s not like me viewing the world in this way is any different than other poets; the difference for me, though, is that I don’t really know how to take off my poetry goggles. Hell, even intrusive thoughts à la my OCD end up making their way into my poems!
The poems in Salamat sa Intersectionality are rife with allusions to the desert landscape of the American West. How does place influence your work?
The American West, particularly the high desert and mountains of northern Nevada, is always at the back of my mind. Even when I’m not writing a “place” poem, the piece has something to do with my Western upbringing. I’m also always either (1) physically in the West or (2) psychically there but physically distant (like when I’m in Oklahoma for my PhD program). Regarding Salamat sa Intersectionality specifically, I see the deserts and mountains of the West as their own multifaceted character in my book; the speaker’s evolution into their intersectional identity is directly tied to the environment around and within them.
Your poem “Eureka” borrows the famous “I am I am I am” line from The Bell Jar, and “Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf Talk on My Thighs” suggests you have a tattoo of Plath on your thigh. What connects you to Plath and her work?
Plath was my first “favorite” poet—her representation of mental illness, namely depression, was something I hadn’t seen yet as a 17-year-old just getting into poetry. I know lots of folks have issues with Plath, and I completely understand that, but she was the person who brought poetry to life for me. I’ve been inspired by many more poets since first reading Plath, but because of my beginnings with her, I often feel like she’s spiritually with me, that she’s guiding me in a way. I wouldn’t say I write like Plath besides being confessional, but I certainly couldn’t have become the poet I am without her.
Also, I do have tattoos of Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf on my thighs! (Like I said, I write from my own experiences.) The poem you mentioned came about precisely because I imagined the two literary greats conversing with one another, maybe even kissing, across my thighs.
While we’re discussing references, I couldn’t help but notice Mamma Mia! and ABBA pop up a few times in this collection. In “Shape”, you write, “If ABBA taught me anything, / it was how to be queen, / transcend myself and ride waves / of musicality”. Could you talk a little bit about your relationship to the group? Is there any other musical influence that you hold especially close to your heart?
ABBA and Mamma Mia! made me gay. Just joking! But seriously, the film and its music arrived at such an important time for me when I was first coming into my queer identity as a 12-year-old. Indeed, my poem “Pearls,” which appears before “Shape” in the collection, is about the first time I masturbated, specifically to the thought of Colin Firth in Mamma Mia! Even though I didn’t know what masturbation was or even how to really do it at the time, the sight of Firth dancing onscreen in his wet shirt soon after his character had begun to embrace his gay identity unlocked something deep within me. Thus, I went to the bathroom and masturbated.
As for other musical influences, I absolutely adore Of Monsters and Men. Although I appreciate many bands like OM&M—you know, within the larger indie folk/rock scene—this particular group connects me to my mom. We both love the band and enjoy listening to them in my car. I’ve always had different musical tastes than her, but OM&M is one band we agree on for some reason. And, as every poem I write is ultimately for my mom, anything that makes me think of her is close to my heart.
In the book, you mention that you think your partner finds your poetry insufferable. I struggle to imagine how anyone could find your poetry insufferable, but I did want to ask: do you have first readers for your poems? Who do you show your poems to before submitting them to publishers?
Thanks for saying that! He’s not a poet, or really that into poetry in general, so I don’t take his teasing too seriously. I see his remarks more as a response to the genre as a whole, if anything. (Love you, Cody!)
As for first readers, I don’t have any. I do, however, have two close friends, Breanna Inga and Rebekah M. Devine, who see many of my poem drafts pre-publication, but I usually don’t ask them for suggestions. I just want to share these little things I make with the people closest to me. Breanna and Rebekah have given me great feedback many times, but it’s never something I expect.
What are some books you’ve read and loved recently?
One book I’m obsessed with right now is Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. It’s this, well, gothichorror novel set in a creepy mansion in 20th-century Mexico. The book turns the “haunted house” subgenre on its head in such beautiful, smart ways. I don’t want to give anything away, though, because one of the reasons the book works so well is the suspense it organically builds. Just read it and see for yourself!
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m presently writing poems for, and organizing, my second full-length poetry manuscript, tentatively titled Mix-Mix. It’s a poetic exploration of my mixed-race identity, and it includes reformulations of archival text and Ancestry.com verbiage. Of course, because it’s a book written by me, it’s necessarily intersectional, including contemplations of my queerness, the West, and pop culture. I’ve been learning a lot about my history in the process of writing this book. I don’t have a timeline per se for completing this project, but I do plan to present it as my creative dissertation for my PhD program, so that means I’ll have something finished within the next few years!
Lastly, are there any independent bookstores you’d like to recommend to our readers?
If anybody ever visits Reno, Nevada, even if it’s just on the way to Lake Tahoe, be sure to stop by Sundance Books and Music. The bookstore is housed in an old mansion, giving it an even more literary vibe. There are also lots of readings and social events held there during non-pandemic times. I may be biased because I’ve been lurking around the Reno area for some time, but trust me, this place is a gem.
Salamat sa Intersectionality is slated for release on May 18, 2021. Pre-order your copy here.