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A Spoonful of Nutella and a Caboodle: An Interview with Danni Quintos

Danni Quintos is the author of the debut poetry collection Two Brown Dotswhich was selected by Aimee Nezhukumatathil as the 20th Poulin Prize winner. This collection was published by BOA Editions on April 12, 2022 and explores what it means to be a racially ambiguous, multiethnic, Asian American woman growing up in Kentucky. Encompassing a whole journey from girlhood to motherhood, Two Brown Dots subverts stereotypes to reclaim agency and pride in the realness and rawness and unprettyness of a brown girl’s body, boldly declaring: We exist, we belong, we are from here, and we will continue to be. Learn more about the book through this exclusive interview with Danni Quintos and BOA intern Natalie!

I noticed in poems such as “Portrait of My Dad Through a Tent Window” and “Unbreak My Heart” that you often place the reader into a specific timeline which we see in lines like “This was before Mom moved out.” This personal chronology juxtaposes the book’s linear timeline, starting with Girlhood before transitioning into Motherhood. How did playing with those two chronologies affect your understanding of the book and how do you feel that time functions for the reader, whether that be through helping to focus their gaze, reveal certain facts, or redirect their attention?

I guess I never thought of the two chronologies as separate, and in figuring out the order of the collection, I had to let go of a linear timeline. Though Girlhood comes before Motherhood, the poems within each section tend to jump around in time, which is maybe why there is this need to orient the reader in my personal chronology. I do think that grouping the first section under Girlhood allows the layers to be peeled back, revealing certain facts or even letting the reader process this childlike understanding of race and otherness in an unfolding kind of way. The poem, “Brown Girls” feels like a hinge for this first section, in which the speaker has an epiphany of being seen as brown and different by experiencing a racist comment by a neighbor.

There was a great moment in the poem “Age Eleven” where you write “They elbow each-other / out of the way for the best view… / obsessed as we are,” which takes on an experience that the narrator has from the opposite point of view, that of the boys who she imagines are watching her as she undresses and sexualizing her body. There were many other moments where the narrator includes other points of view, whether that be through inhabiting their voice directly, or using italics. How did including this symphony of voices allow you to expand what you wanted the collection to be and what does that sort of move on the page open up for you and us, as readers?

I think that allowing these voices to speak, or seeing the speaker from another person’s perspective, informs the way the speaker sees herself; whether it is an imagined outside view (the boys in the vents, the dad watching from the kitchen window) or some resonant voice that rings and gets itchy under the speaker’s skin. I think for the italicized voices, it might be a kind of answer to that feeling of finding the perfect comeback or succinct words that cut long after the fact, that feeling of, “Oh, I wish I had said…” and maybe these poems are trying to do that a little too.

The order of the book is relatively chronological but you have three sections: Girlhood, Motherhood, and Folklore, the third of which uses the metaphorical and somewhat magical. People often say that writing which includes magical realism, or some sort of deviation from realism, allows for an emotional truth to come through. Did you find that to be the case with the Folklore section and, if so, what did that shift allow you to do that the previous two sections didn’t?

I have to say that these poems existed before the book’s sections, so they weren’t written separately, just organized that way. The folklore poems do feel like a different register than a lot of the girlhood poems. I do think that the magical realism gave me a chance to separate myself from the truth in some way and expand this voice, it also felt very powerful. Giving voice to supernatural speakers allowed me to wear their powers and inhabit their world as a lens to see 21st century America as an Asian-American woman.

I really loved how diverse this book was in terms of style. You tackled so many different forms including prose poetry, tercets, quatrains, haibuns, epistolary poems as well as many others. How did you choose which form best fit the tone of each poem? In what ways do you feel that form informs how a reader will understand this collection?

Thank you! I was asked about form in a recent AWP panel, and I think that sometimes it feels like a container. I don’t always draft in forms, but often the form helps me figure out how to organize the poem, to make it make sense. Sometimes poems can feel disorienting and form might act as a familiar shape. I’m imagining drinking water from your hands versus drinking from a cup; the form is the cup, though sometimes it makes sense to drink from your hands too.

While I loved the entire collection, I spent a good deal of time rereading the Girlhood section, primarily because I was drawn to the moments where language itself seems to fail the narrator. You wrote in the poem “On Being Asked to Represent Your Country” that “I once heard a friend call, The Oriental / Bus & when I got mad, I couldn’t explain why.” A similar moment happens in “Cross Your Forehead, Mouth, & Heart,” where it says “not / knowing who I was supposed to pray to or what.” Do you ever feel that there are limits to language and things that it cannot do? If so, what are they?

It's interesting to consider language’s limits, and how the poems you’re pointing to are contained in a child’s perspective. The child speaker clearly has less language and knowledge than the poet writing the poem, and I kind of like the static electricity that it creates. I hadn’t noticed this theme before, but it happens too in “Five Hundred Years and Three Weeks Ago We Killed Magellan,” where the speaker doesn’t know the word colonizer, but feels a nameless rage nonetheless. There’s a certain comfort in naming, and in encountering the language that perfectly encapsulates the thing you’ve known and felt for years. I think that feeling of knowing without naming is where some of my poems were born.

Many of these poems originally appeared in the ekphrastic chapbook PYTHON which featured photography by Shelli Quintos. Does your work often interact with other mediums of art and what does that relationship bring to the table? Were there any other books, films, places, experiences, or art forms that served as a sort of source material for this collection?

Yes, I am a fan of ekphrasis and research, and the ways in which diving into an obsession can open up a poem. A lot of the source material for my poems are books and photos I’ve collected related to Philippine and FilAm culture and history: Fred Cordova’s pictorial essay, Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans, the documentary Imelda: Power, Myth, Illusion, the research of Janna Langholtz in St. Louis on the 1904 World’s Fair, Lynda Barry’s graphic memoir, One! Hundred! Demons!, and like you mentioned, my own sister’s photography and photos from my grandmother’s albums.

Especially knowing that some of these poems originally were accompanied by photography, I spent a good amount of time looking at the cover art for this collection, which is a pair of backward hands surrounded by what looks like floating fruit and wheat stalks. Why was this cover chosen, and how do you think it interacts with the pieces that you wrote?

I love this cover art so much! I found Justine Kelley through the FilAm Artist Directory and really loved her work. She sent me a few really cool options, but this one stuck with me in a haunting way. I really wanted to choose a Filipinx or Asian American artist for my cover, and the images on this piece were the perfect combination of familiar and creepy, comforting and unsettling, childlike and witchlike. I think that is a fair reflection of what this collection aims to do.

There are a lot of artifacts used in these poems, from Sprite cans to Toni Braxton albums to Nutella to MASH games. Sylvia Plath once wrote that “As a poet I would say everything should be able to come into a poem but I can’t put toothbrushes in a poem. I really can’t.” As someone who uses tangible objects so well, do you agree that there are some artifacts that a poem should never contain? Are there any that you would avoid at all costs?

Sorry, Sylvia, but I disagree. Though I don’t believe I have a toothbrush in this collection, I have a sad tampon, I have a spoonful of Nutella and a caboodle, I have pig shit swirled in dust. Anything is game for my poems if it fits just right.

 

Natalie Eckl is a Spring '22 intern at BOA. She recently graduated from George Washington University with a degree in English and Creative Writing.