Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: Your poem “Halo-halo” is packed with imagery, giving us lush setting and metaphors. As you draft a poem, do you find yourself focusing first on images, themes, or something else?
Dani Putney: All of the above! As with most things in life, it’s complicated. Sometimes I’ll initially be drawn to an image, so my impulse in that case is to write into & through the imagery to excavate more details. That’s what happened in “Halo-halo”; I was thinking about the counter-serve area of Manila Hong Kong—the Philippine mini mart my mom & I frequent in Reno, NV—so I began my poem with a kind of portrait of this specific corner of the store. However, as I started to write the poem, the memory of asking my mom for halo-halo came to mind, & the piece took shape from there.
In other instances, I’ll write with a particular theme in mind, & the details emerge from that starting point. For example, I’ve written other poems about being mixed-race that started simply because I wanted to write something about my complex racial identity. No matter how I begin a poem, though, it’s always a journey for me because I never end where I initially expected. I guess that’s the beauty of writing poetry!
RR: We love the image of the halo-halo dessert transforming in the eyes of the speaker into a physical representation of the Philippines. How did you land on that image?
DP: It was almost like the dots started connecting in my head. Here’s a brief re-creation of my mental process in crafting the halo-halo metaphor: “Halo-halo seems to have a lot of random stuff in it… like a heterogeneous mixture… like me… this dessert is the food version of me… man, I wonder what it would’ve been like to grow up in the Philippines.” In other words, the metaphor emerged very organically.
RR: We’re interested in the balance between the speaker’s personal reflections and the colonialist past that informs them. How does the interplay of the personal and the political factor into your writing process?
DP: Oh, I like to think the personal & political have morphed into one entity when it comes to my poetry. As a queer, non-binary, mixed-race Asian American, & neurodivergent writer, I’m political 24/7—practically anything I do can be deemed political. While some writers might not like such a label (& I can’t imagine why!), I wholeheartedly embrace being a “political poet.”
Now, you specifically mentioned colonialism; I’m always thinking about my late white father’s colonialist history & how I’m implicated in it as a literal product of the United States’ previous sovereignty of, & military presence within, the Philippines. I feel conflicted all the time, & I often wrestle with why I was born at all given that my mom was brought to America as a picture bride & my dad was an Air Force veteran (he was stationed in the Philippines in the 1960s). The only way I know how to “deal” with my frustration & ambivalence is to write, so I write—very political stuff, of course.
RR: Based on your bio, it sounds like you’ve studied and lived in many places. Can you talk about the significance of place for you in your writing?
DP: Place is so, so important to me as a writer. I’m very much drawn to Western imagery, as I grew up in both California & Nevada—indeed, my debut full-length poetry collection, Salamat sa Intersectionality (forthcoming from Okay Donkey Press in 2021), is set in the West. All places I experience, whether long- or short-term, inevitably appear in my writing though. I’ve written about Mississippi, which is where I received my M.F.A.; I’ve written about Oklahoma, which is where I’m presently a Ph.D. student; &, of course, I’ve written about the Philippines, a country I’m always trying to reconstruct through my own memories & my mom’s stories. I can’t imagine a future where I don’t write with place in mind.
RR: You’ve published both poetry and nonfiction personal essays. In what way does working in each genre influence your experience with the other?
DP: Honestly, I think poetry & creative nonfiction are practically the same—the latter just happens to be longer & in prose form. I enjoy writing CNF because I love writing poetry, & no matter which genre I write my work in, I know I’m becoming both a stronger poet & nonfiction writer. Also, every personal essay I’ve written has felt like an extended poem to me because I get to manipulate language in a way that isn’t as readily seen in fiction. I wish I had a more profound answer to offer, but nonfiction just doesn’t feel that different from poetry to me!
Dani Putney’s work in Issue 8.1: