Ahead of the 2022 release of their chapbook Dela Torre, Dani Putney spoke with Sundress Publications editorial intern, Brooke Shannon. Here, they discussed the complexities of cultural heritage, reconciliation with the past, and the importance of celebrating kaleidoscopic identities.
Brooke Shannon: Tell me about your decision to open with “Heritage.”
Dani Putney: I wanted to begin with “Heritage” to provide readers with some “facts” about the speaker’s pedigree. This poem intentionally features various numbers and historical information to ground readers in what’s to come in the chapbook. Thus, in a single poem, readers can see the speaker’s father, mother, and siblings, as well as the transpacific path along which the speaker treks, both literally and figuratively. Additionally, “Heritage” acts as a sort of invocation, announcing the speaker’s self-interrogation and inviting readers to join them as they deconstruct their familial history.
BS: Were there any literary influences that aided you in transferring your ancestral exploration onto the pages?
DP: Most definitely! When crafting this chapbook, I thought a lot about White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia by Kiki Petrosino, not only because her poetry collection explores the author’s heritage as a mixed-race Black American but also because of the ways she interrogates history. Petrosino responds to and reimagines Virginia’s history, taking on her own genealogical roots in the process. My chapbook is a similar project, though, of course, I instead ruminate on mixed-race Asian heritage against the backdrop of the American West. I feel a kinship with Petrosino in terms of this pull toward deconstructing the self in relation to larger notions of regional and national identity.
BS: How heavily did you factor in form when writing this chapbook, such as with “Miscegenation Blues” and “Picasso Bleeds”?
DP: Form was an important consideration for me when writing this chapbook. I wanted to explore certain constraints, if you will, and how these self-imposed formal expectations would allow the larger narrative of ancestral excavation to shine through. For example, I have two contemporary sonnets in Dela Torre, “Los pioneros” and “Picasso Bleeds,” to exploit the form’s romanticism in light of the stark content I’m sharing—in these cases, the death toll synonymous with westward expansion and the exoticized, but also conflicted, mixed-race body, respectively. A poem like “Miscegenation Blues,” however, is more of an invented form; for this piece specifically, I used questions and statements I’d received about my identity as a refrain to begin each stanza. I imagine “Miscegenation Blues” working similarly to a villanelle or pantoum in that the poem constantly folds into itself, never allowing the content—or speaker—to fully move forward.
BS: What significance does the recurring motif of Southeast Asian food (e.g., halo-halo, kimchi, and otap) hold in these pieces?
DP: Food is one of the strongest ties I have to my Filipinx heritage, so I needed to include some poems that explored this relationship. In some ways, food itself is a figurative pathway for me to travel back to my roots. Specifically, halo-halo (which means “mix-mix” in English) is my favorite Philippine dessert, and I think the food itself—with its mixture of ube ice cream, evaporated milk, shaved ice, fruit slices, sweetened beans, and other treats one may decide to include in it—is the perfect metaphor for me as a mixed-race individual. Otap, on the other hand, is one of my favorite Philippine snacks, and eating these biscuits always makes me feel connected to a larger familial history, to what I imagine a sense of home is. Of course, as you mentioned, kimchi also appears in the chapbook, and though this food doesn’t have its origin in the Philippines, one can find it in lots of different Asian recipes. I certainly have fond memories of kimchi myself.
BS: In “This work of art is,” you write, “My legacy? A paternal / Southeast Asian fetish / & yearning for an archipelago / denied to me at conception.” How does a dual existence (assimilation versus birthright) complicate our perspective of heritage?
DP: My sarcastic response is that I wouldn’t be writing a chapbook like Dela Torre if dual (or multifaceted) existence weren’t complicated! But more earnestly, my life has been a sort of extended lesson in the reconciliation of personal identity with larger national identities. As somebody born in California, I’m unsure what my birthright is when I was immediately thrusted into a culture of assimilation but, at the same time, was exposed to different facets of my Filipinx heritage, such as food, language, etc. Unfortunately, the prevailing mythologies that allow a sense of nationalism to arise don’t align with my American, but not—or Asian, but not—self. I’m always negotiating how I fit in, no matter what the specific space is, as a mixed-race individual.
BS: Many of your pieces illustrate your quest for “home” (e.g., “Otap”). How does our recognition of “home,” as in home country, shift how we view ourselves? What, then, does home country mean to you?
DP: I believe everybody is trying to find a home. Now, I don’t necessarily mean a physical place, or even an abstract space, but rather a sense of belonging and fulfilment that defies description. (My using the words “belonging” and “fulfillment” is inadequate, truthfully.) What makes this feeling I describe something akin to home rather than simply an emotion is the mediation of the individual with the place or space around them—it’s the specific interaction of the human and nonhuman, including all the affective and psychological dimensions therein, that allows a home to exist. While all this might sound incredibly abstract, I bring up this mediated relationship to demonstrate that we, as people, construct homes out of places or spaces and that, reciprocally, these places or spaces inform our understanding of selfhood. As for a home country, I don’t have one, I think. I have roots in the Philippines, in Virginia (and before my father’s side of the family migrated to America, in Germany), and, of course, in the American West, where I physically live most of the time. Are any of these places really a home, especially when I’m caught in the liminal spaces between them? I’m not sure.
BS: You close the chapbook with the titular poem, “Dela Torre.” Especially considering the lines, “her plea to never forget our past: / colonization in two languages,” how may reconciliation with the past help to heal the present?
DP: Understanding the complexities of my past, including the problematic history of militarization, fetishization, and sexism on my father’s side, is one step toward feeling okay with myself in the present moment. For a while, I wasn’t sure I could reconcile the disparate facets of my identity, especially when I align more closely with my mother’s heritage as a Filipina immigrant. However, the “bad” parts of my ancestry (that is, my father’s destructive Americanness) is part of me, too, and I can’t be whole without acknowledging that. All this is another reason why I wrote Dela Torre: to know myself in such a way that I no longer need to reconcile difference but, instead, embrace it.
BS: Dela Torre is autobiographical at its core. Still, did you have anyone else in mind when writing this chapbook?
DP: I definitely thought of my mother when writing Dela Torre. She’s probably at the heart of all the poetry I write, whether she’s explicitly mentioned in a piece or not. Of course, several poems in this chapbook specifically mention her, but I feel that this small collection of poems is just as much about her as it is me. I tried to stay true to both the lived experiences of my mother and the emotional complexity she felt during the various events described. At the end of the day, the largest inspiration for this chapbook was simply listening to my mother tell me about her life in the Philippines, her experience of immigration, and the stories central to her upbringing, both real and mythological.
BS: What message do you hope to convey to readers in terms of selfhood, community, and cultural acceptance?
DP: I hope that readers see my story as one of hope, that reconciliation, and ultimately acceptance and celebration, of the self is possible. The journey toward selfhood never ends, but it’s not too late to start this journey. I especially want readers who exist at the margins of multiple identities—not only being mixed-race but also in terms of queerness, gender identity, ability, etc.—to know that their kaleidoscopic identities are more than enough. Existing in the borderlands of identity can be scary and sometimes feel isolating, but it’s in this space of in-betweenness that the most beautiful flowers grow.
BS: Which poem from Dela Torre tells your story the loudest?
DP: While it may be obvious, I’d have to say the titular poem. “Dela Torre” combines familial history with the speaker’s present, the mother with the speaker, and selfhood with larger group identity in the most explicit ways. To me, this poem is one of the best representations in my chapbook of wholeness as it relates to a liminal existence in the world. However, what I love about this poem is its loud message of hope—to never forget the past, no matter how gritty it is, but to also continue moving forward. Dela Torre may be condemning and critical, but it’s ultimately hopeful.
Dani Putney is a queer, non-binary, mixed-race Filipinx, and neurodivergent writer originally from Sacramento, California. Salamat sa Intersectionality (Okay Donkey Press, 2021) is their debut full-length poetry collection. Their poems appear in outlets such as Empty Mirror, Ghost City Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Juke Joint Magazine, and trampset, among others, 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.
Brooke Shannon is a published poet, speaker, and aspiring author. She attends Grand Valley State University for a Writing major and minor in African/African American Studies and Psychology. Her work has appeared in Display Magazine (Issue 111), In the Limelight with Clarissa (Fall 2021), and the 4th edition of Joining the Conversation.