DEAN: Dani, we’ve been fans of your work for some time now, so it’s such a lovely opportunity to get to sit down with you and talk about your poetry in an interview! Last year, and for a lot of us this year as well, was arduous. It seems like ages ago we were in San Antonio at AWP 2020 reading poems and worrying about what the burgeoning pandemic would mean long term. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. We’re grateful too, for your editors over at Okay Donkey Press for reaching out on your behalf to request an interview.
We’re excited to talk about your debut collection Salamat sa Intersectionality! But first of all, tell us what you’re up to. How have you been finding some fresh air in all of this past year’s madness? Have you found the confinement of staying at home beneficial to your work or has the writing been coming slowly? Are you escaping, like everyone on TikTok, by becoming a houseplant parent?
DANI: I think I’ve been both ultra-productive this past year and a kind of escape artist. I started my Ph.D. program in English during the fall of 2020, so that’s obviously kept me busy, but I’ve also been writing a lot of poems and getting my work published. Of course, my debut collection was also just released. Additionally, I’ve presented at various (virtual) academic conferences and given a handful of readings, especially during May 2021. So I’ve been busy! That said, I usually say this to friends, but my ultra-productivity is a coping mechanism, as I have pretty bad OCD and anxiety. I’d rather be channeling my energy into something beneficial—you know, like my career—rather than spend my days brooding. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve certainly been consumed by intrusive thoughts and compulsive rumination cycles a fair share throughout the pandemic, but I’ve been able to fight off the demons at least somewhat with all the activities I’ve been engaging in.
I also mentioned I’ve been an escape artist. By that, I mainly mean that I’ve been driving quite a lot this past year because of my Ph.D. program being in Oklahoma. As you know, I live in Nevada, where my partner and I have a house, dogs, cats … the whole domestic shebang. It isn’t possible for him to be in Oklahoma with me (nor would I ever want him to uproot his life for li’l old me); in fact, I’m deeply envious of those who are able to live in the same house/apartment with their significant other during grad school. How nice! Anyway, I bring my relationship situation up because it means that I’ve been driving the 22.5 hours between my Nevada home and Oklahoma apartment pretty frequently—I’ve made that drive at least eight times. However, I love driving; it’s quite meditative to me, and, strangely enough, I look forward to my treks across the country. I’m so used to the drive now that I’ll go for, say, 10 hours and not even realize how much I’d driven. These drives have been a small escape from all the madness for me.
DEAN: Lordy! What a trek. It's great that you've found comfort in these long drives to and from school—also, kudos, on that level of dedication to education, and your partner. But goodness if that isn't a lot of driving!
Well, we loved the collection. Seriously. Clearly, we've been digging your poems for some time now because a few of them were in Issue 6, if my memory serves. But it’s always such a joy to see the work of writers we’ve published evolve from when we first saw them to the pages of a debut collection. And there are so many great pieces in here about identity and self-discovery, familial struggle and attempted reconciliation, and longing and desire. And the speaker’s confidence, their comfort in their own selfhood, seems to grow as the collection progresses from section to section. We’d love to know more about your vision as the book began to take shape.
As I wrote more poems and began to explore my own identity—that is, as a person myself—more thoughtfully, especially in terms of my non-binary identity, more complex themes began to arise, and the book kind of organically turned into a bildungsroman.
DANI: I love what you just said about the speaker’s confidence and comfort in their selfhood growing as the collection progresses. I think that sentiment captures the vision of the book quite well—or, at least, it reflects a major component of the collection. The first section is definitely more “innocent” in the sense that the speaker is younger, more naive about the world around them, and that youthfulness sort of propels them into the second section, which, as you know, is full of sexual exploration, both good and bad. While the speaker learns a lot about their sexuality and sense of desire in the second section, that isn’t the last stop for them, as they seek to understand themselves better, more deeply, in the third part. Of course, the third section isn’t an end either; this is why the collection starts on “Mountain Coda” and ends on “Sidewind into the Universe,” that is, to represent the cyclical/ouroboros-like nature of identity formation. I intentionally put most of the more “confident” poems in this final part because of the sense of self-reflection the speaker has developed. It’s funny to say all this now because I didn’t plan on this trajectory from the beginning of the book’s formation. The first poems I wrote in this collection are mostly in the second section, a few in the first, so I honestly thought several years back that I’d have a book just about sex. However, as I wrote more poems and began to explore my own identity—that is, as a person myself—more thoughtfully, especially in terms of my non-binary identity, more complex themes began to arise, and the book kind of organically turned into a bildungsroman.
DEAN: What a good segue. I'm glad you said, "as I wrote more poems and began to explore my own identity—that is, as a person myself—more thoughtfully, especially in terms of my non-binary identity, more complex themes began to arise" because so many of the poems in Salamat sa Intersectionality wrestle with self and the speaker’s connection to it or disconnection from it. I’m thinking about lines like, “I was never Asian enough” in “Filipinx” or “Moo-ma, look, / am I worthy of worship?” in “Lactose Intolerance.” And you mention in your acknowledgments your gratitude to Okay Donkey Press that “my reflections on being a quadruply minoritized desert dweller struck a chord” with them. Our mission as a magazine is and has always been to give poets who are underrepresented a platform. Can you speak at all about your experiences as a marginalized writer and how that manifests in your work and/or your new collection?
DANI: Of course! I’m always thinking about the intersections of my marginalized identities: queer, non-binary, mixed-race Filipinx, and neurodivergent. As such, the first line in my bio lists these identities, and the description on my book’s back cover also names them. Even in the title of the collection itself, the kaleidoscopic nature of my identity, and my various discrete (but still interconnected) identities, are communicated to readers right away. More than that, though, the collection is ultimately a celebration of the strange, but beautiful, liminal creature I happen to be. While there’s certainly pain in the collection—you know, as you’ve mentioned, not feeling Asian enough, but also feeling like my gender identity is such an idiosyncratic thing—there’s also reclamation, joy, and resoluteness, especially toward the end, in the book. I couldn’t have written this collection of poems without the various facets of my identity creeping into it. This reality is especially true when thinking about my neurodivergence, which is the least represented aspect of my identity in the book, to be honest. When I started to write poems about my experiences with OCD and dissociation, among other things, I initially thought I couldn’t put these pieces in the book because they didn’t appear to relate to the other themes in it. However, I realized that these poems did, in fact, represent the core theme of the book—me, in all my jagged, stained-glass glory. So while there are only a few poems that specifically deal with my neurodivergence, for example, “OCD,” each poem in my collection is informed by it. I mean, you can see my neurodivergent way of thinking in a poem like “Parasitism,” which imagines an out-of-this-world, Kafka-esque experience of bodily transformation in relation to boxelder bugs. My whole self, whether I like it or not, just happens to percolate through my work.
While there’s certainly pain in the collection—you know, as you’ve mentioned, not feeling Asian enough, but also feeling like my gender identity is such an idiosyncratic thing—there’s also reclamation, joy, and resoluteness, especially toward the end, in the book.
DEAN: I love what you just said there, "While there’s certainly pain in the collection . . . there’s also reclamation, joy, and resoluteness, especially toward the end, in the book." I feel that there is so often this tendency to focus on the pain/sorrow in the writing of marginalized folks. I notice this a lot in literature curricula—that lack emphasis on the "joy" of marginalized voices. And it's really great to hear you noting the importance of that focal shift and emphasis on both.
But also, so many of these poems are saucy! There’s a lot of heat in this collection. I’ve personally always found it a challenge to write about romance, especially sexual intimacy. I have a vivid memory of a tutorial with one of my poetry professors during my MFA (I won’t name names, but if he reads this interview I’m sure he’ll remember). I had written a poem about a past relationship, the occasion of the poem involved sex, and I think there was some rumination about permanence and impermanence and whatever else, (it wasn’t a good poem) but my professor, after reading the piece, said, “You know, Dean, I’ve never been that great at writing sex poems either...” or something to this effect. And I’ve never forgotten it. He was clearly being sarcastic, but this has always been a poetic subject that I’ve shied away from. Your collection is certainly no stranger to it. “Dear Jeremey” boldly begins with the line “I sucked your dick,” and there’s power in that. It certainly hooks the reader’s attention. What draws you to write poems that speak so candidly about sex?
DANI: I’d say I kind of started out as a sex poet. Several years back, when I began to take the craft of poetry more seriously, the main thing I liked to write about was sex, specifically gay sex. I was reading poets like Sharon Olds at the time, and I was really inspired to add to the “canon,” if you will (I know that’s a problematic term), of good sex poetry. But it wasn’t a coincidence that I wanted to write about gay sex—I happened to be exploring my sexuality myself. And I don’t mean that I was trying to determine what my sexuality was, as I’ve always known that I was attracted to men (and masculinity more generally); I mean that I was figuring out what I liked, how I, as a half-Asian twinkboi, fit into the gay community. Was I submissive, dominant, both, or something else? What type of men was I attracted to? Who was I willing to have sex with? Art imitates life, as they say, so the poems I was writing then represented the personal journey I was on. And, well, now I have the whole second section of my book!
While I don’t write about sex as often anymore, it’s still an important theme for me to think about, and it does play an important role in my poems today. You mentioned “Dear Jeremy,” which is a great example of what I’m talking about. I wrote this poem way after many of the poems in the second section, so the piece naturally has a more reflective quality to it, I’d say. However, there’s also a maturity there that isn’t quite present in the second part of the book, that is, a kind of knowledge of oneself and what one wants (or doesn’t want). Because of this maturity, the poem, while it deals with a past sexual encounter, appears in the third section. (And I have to thank my lovely editor Genevieve Kersten for that, as I initially wanted to put the poem in the second section!) Sex, in the way it appears in a poem like “Dear Jeremy,” is more like a tool for understanding a deeper aspect of myself rather than being the central event of the poem. Don’t get me wrong; the speaker learns a lot about themselves in the second section. It’s just that the sex I write about now isn’t me figuring out something for the first time but, rather, me more deeply excavating the why behind my desire and behavior, if that makes sense.
When I, as a queer and brown person, write about sex (or a sexual fantasy) with an older white man, the piece can ruminate on bigger questions of the speaker’s daddy issues, the perpetuation of the young gay/older gay pairing that’s often predatory and toxic, the speaker’s race in relation to their lover’s and how that power differential affects the sexual encounter, etc. There’s just a treasure trove of deeper things that are happening here than in some straight guy’s poem about his girlfriend.
Also, I’d like to address what your professor said. I think those conversations most often come up when a man writes about a woman. I’m not sure what your sexuality is, and I don’t want to assume, but I’ve had thoughts similar to your professor’s when reading my male peers’ poems about straight sex. These poems often suck, to be frank, partly because they’ve been done so many times before (who wants to read about a man lusting after a woman in 2021?), but also because these pieces often don’t enlighten readers in any meaningful way. When I, as a queer and brown person, write about sex (or a sexual fantasy) with an older white man, the piece can ruminate on bigger questions of the speaker’s daddy issues, the perpetuation of the young gay/older gay pairing that’s often predatory and toxic, the speaker’s race in relation to their lover’s and how that power differential affects the sexual encounter, etc. There’s just a treasure trove of deeper things that are happening here than in some straight guy’s poem about his girlfriend. And yes, I recognize that I’m being harsh here, but I’m talking hegemony, how literary institutions have privileged straight guys writing about sex for so long, so I don’t feel bad to talk shit about some, well, shitty poems about straight sex. (I do want to acknowledge, though, that I have read some good straight-sex poems written by men. They can exist … just not that often, unfortunately.)
DEAN: Sometimes the harsh takes are the best! And I don't disagree. I think, looking back, what I wanted to express was heartache, and it felt impossible to do that without the poem feeling contrived. And while I joke about it now, how frank my professor's comment felt at the time, the advice was solid. To be fair, I don't think he was considering the difference between straight poems and queer poems about sex, but you're right about that "treasure trove" that exists in the latter that feels much less forced.
Well, now that summer is in full swing and those of us who teach or are in school have more time on our hands to dive into other interests, who or what should we put on our radar? We always like to ask for recommendations: something that you recently read or are currently reading, or folks you’re following on social media we might not have caught on to yet, or other writers that you’d like to recommend. Of course, this doesn’t have to be writing-related. You’re also welcome to give us your two cents on whatever!
DANI: I’ve been thinking a lot about my pals Roseanna Alice Boswell and Remi Recchia. They’re both in my Ph.D. program and are splendid poets. Roseanna’s debut collection, Hiding in a Thimble, was released earlier this year by Haverthorn Press, and Remi’s debut collection, Quicksand/Stargazing, comes out this fall from Cooper Dillon Books. I highly recommend that you check them out! Also, to anybody unfamiliar with him, I’d suggest checking out C. T. Salazar and his work. He already has several chapbooks out, and his debut collection, Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking, will be released by Acre Books next year. I know that you know him, Dean, but if readers haven’t heard of him yet, definitely do a quick Google search. And, finally, I’d like to talk about the book Yes, Daddy, which came out recently. This book deals with sexual assault, PTSD, and lots of potentially triggering themes, so I don’t recommend it to everybody, but as a young queer person with complicated daddy issues, I felt seen in a way I hadn’t quite felt before. I cried after reading it, which isn’t something that happens to me often. Plus, this book was written by the lovely Ryan O’Connell’s partner, Jonathan Parks-Ramage, so if you’re a fan of Special on Netflix, why not support Jonathan, too?