Shanta Lee Gander’s work has been featured in many publications. She is the 2020 recipient of the Arthur Williams Award for Meritorious Service to the Arts and named as the Diode Editions full-length book contest winner for her debut poetry compilation, GHETTOCLAUSTROPHOBIA: Dreamin of Mama While Trying to Speak Woman in Woke Tongues (June 2021). Shanta Lee gives lectures on the life of Lucy Terry Prince as a member of the Vermont and New Hampshire Humanities Council Speakers Bureaus. She is the 2020 gubernatorial appointee to their board of directors. To see her photography and writing, visit Shantaleegander.com.
Elizabeth Marie Bolaños: Your photography collections on your website came to mind as I soaked in the rich visual aspect of these poems. I’m curious, did any of them begin as a photograph first, maybe in an ekphrastic way?
Shanta Lee Gander: I love this question because I have tried to think a lot about the relationship between my photographs and my writing. My memory—especially because it is so vivid—often feels like it is a shutter, and instead of opening to let light in like a camera’s shutter, it opens and is pouring itself into me. When this happens, it brings me into the space of the experience happening all over again with the distortion of time, distance, and space from that specific memory or set of memories. I guess you could say the memories or episodes themselves were my photographs, snapshots that allowed me to create the poems you see. People have also asked if I have ever used my photographs to create work. I am going to be attempting that with my latest photography series, Dark Goddess, but not sure what that writing will be or look like on the page!
EMB: What was the moment like when you first realized a book was in the making?
SLG: In some ways I kept telling myself, “What took you so long to discover YOU could do a book!” At the same time, I’d been in my own creative stage of development which has sometimes felt very slow and I have tried to respect where I was within each of those creative stages of growth.
It was a slow building towards calling this a book, or realizing such a thing, while leaving room for the surprise of the moment when I realized I worked towards a collection. What is funny is that years ago, and I’m talkin’ many years ago, I would not read my poetry out loud because my poetry did not sound like all of the Def Jam Poetry I often watched on HBO. I didn’t have that voice, so my poetry was very solitary and private. Friends knew I wrote poetry but I didn’t have a real thought about putting it out into the world or much mentoring around approaching that. So, at one point, the thought of “poetry” and “book” being in the same sentence did not really occur to me.
That feeling morphed into eventually sharing my work with a few audiences here and there. While I’d been writing for many years in my life, it was entering the Vermont College of Fine Arts that really lit a fire under me to get my creative nonfiction and poetry out into the world in a serious way. I was entering a different phase of my creative development and I recall learning about an upcoming deadline for chapbooks. At that time, I was having a conversation with my husband excitedly expressing my hope of putting something together for a December 31st deadline (and we were already in December when I said I wanted to try to do it) and he asked, “Do you have enough for a full collection?” I laughed asking how many pages did I need and I was met with the answer of something like 35-45 pages, at least! I did not yet connect all of the pieces to the fact that GHETTOCLAUSTROPHOBIA: Dreamin of Mama While Trying to Speak Woman in Woke Tongues started in October of 2018, the same year as the 200th Anniversary of Frankenstein. I wanted to celebrate my birthday in a quiet way by doing a “write-in” in honor of Mary Shelley and how her book came to be. What I did not realize is that some of the horror and spook that we—I was joined by my husband and a couple of friends—used as our inspiration developed into a few poems about growing up in Hartford. As I realized what was required—at least in page count in terms of basics, then other elements—for putting together a book, I set a challenge for myself: I had one year to write and complete a poetry book. The other deal I made with myself was not to count the poems along the way, but just write and build the collection while not thinking of it as a collection per se. At the same time I was also trying to untangle my other big project, my memoir, or what I call my “memoir-esque” work, which is also nearly complete.
In spring 2020, sometime during my poetry semester with Philip Metres, I excitedly told him I finished the collection. I think that was the defining moment of feeling like I could seriously revisit sending my work out because it felt like there was a wholeness to it, if that makes sense. Of course, there were still decisions to make about the book. Was it going to be a full length? Was I going to break the book up into little chapbooks? Philip was so supportive and encouraging in telling me to get my work out. When I received the email from Diode Editions that they’d accepted the book, I had to keep re-reading it days, even weeks, later to make sure I was not imagining it. It still feels that surreal to me.
EMB: I love the opening poem “Ghettoclaustrophobia.” What a way to begin and title this debut. Did you know right away that it would be the introduction or did you have to play around with the arrangement for a while?
SLG: I definitely had to play with the collection. There was a whole section I called “Ghettoclaustrophobians,” but decided that it did not fit and could be saved for another project. Even after taking that out, what bothered me as I was slowly building toward this becoming a book were a few things: One poem, “The Mama Who Brung Ya,” kept feeling like it was incomplete and was missing parts of itself not necessarily within the poem but within that particular section of the book. So I decided to make it into a triptych that would talk about different aspects of the Mamas in my family.
Though I addressed this question of theme and some of the other questions I posed to myself as I went along, I thought about the way that every book—any piece of fiction, creative nonfiction, etc.—teaches you how to read it within the first paragraph, page, or chapter. Given what I chose for a title, I kept coming back to wanting to provide the scaffolding or instruct readers how to read my work. I asked myself, “How am I going to ‘show’ readers how to read this book while still being poetic?” And the key to doing this needed to not lean on prose or go academic. I also did not want anyone to assume that “ghetto” was being defined in the way that we, as a society, like to inflict our definition upon it. After most of the collection was done, that is when the title poem was born as reclamation for myself and the book. This was very key in re-defining the term as we know it as well.
EMB: The poem “Dreamin of Mama” had me wondering who or what first ignited your appreciation for familial history and memory?
SLG: My birth mother, who is not the most sane person, is a storyteller. She knows how to spin a tale. I grew up always hearing about my astrological sign and I was always reminded of what my name meant. I did not get as many family stories as I would’ve liked, but my mother shared just enough to make me very curious. The same thing with my father. He would share stories—in bits and pieces—about his time in Vietnam or other parts of his life. It felt like I was being left a trail of seed or breadcrumbs that led me on my own path toward thinking about stories and the role they play in preservation of heritage, culture, and stories as actual life-giving.
I also curated an endless depth of curiosity because I always heard the edict, “Children are seen, not heard,” while growing up. There were few opportunities to ask questions or engage in conversations with adults because that was considered being fast ass, grown, or just straight up getting into grown folks business (which is something you never would do in my household). This internal curiosity, the recording of memory and experiences—something I have been doing for many years given that I started as a journal writer at the age of 13 years old—was also an act of safety. Noticing everything within a chaotic and abusive home kept me safe. As I grew up, I became so fascinated with the gaps within my memory and different episodes of my life that felt like there was no clear ending or no transition. An example of this was the way that people would appear and disappear from our lives. Along with this gift of noticing and observing, I was able to bear witness to many hours of the neighborhood women all gathering and spinning tales about one thing or another.
My hunger and love of ancestry, history, and memory continues to be nurtured by friends and family. My Aunt Sheila for example is a strong maternal figure for me.She is a master storyteller and has opened a treasure trove of family stories, and her re-enactment along with the emotion within the stories she shares are a guiding principle for me as a writer. All of this is what has led to me starting my work focused on Black literary epigenetics through a series of interviews. The work that I started at VCFA but plan to continue.
EMB: I’d like to delve into some of the creative structures. There are poems which read like dictionary definitions, one with stages of metamorphosis, an interlude. These contemporary elements add hybridity, something that pairs so well with the innovative quality of the book. Thoughts?
SLG: This was one of the most fun parts of putting this collection together! I am someone who has studied bellydance intermittently throughout the years as well as performed it on a stage. For me, I engage with the page as a stage. I look at that space of the page and think about how I will choreograph my words. After I had enough poems to actually step back and think about the work as a whole, I asked myself: Where can the eyes and body rest? If there are X pages of real, or these different scenes from a life, where can the reader feel like they are carried and entering into a slumberous interlude while still being engaged? I thought about some of the emotional modulation for the reader while also arranging the book in such a way that allowed the poems and the structures within the poems to carry some of this.
This all being said, again, I could not think about this while in the thick of doing the actual creating. There was a lot of time spent putting the pen down and giving the book a rest from me and vice versa.
EMB: There’s intense tragedy living within these poems which lingered with me long after I turned the page. I’m referring to moments in ones such as “Cthulhu’s Diaries” and “Surviving R. Kelly and Michael Jackson When They Are Your Childhood’s Soundtrack.” How do you find the courage to write about such traumatic topics?
SLG: What comes to mind when I answer this kind of question is the figure of the griot and Scheherazade. The griot comes to mind for many reasons due to the way that cultures, traditions, and other aspects of African heritage are being preserved, especially in how they bear witness. And Scheherazade for the way that the tales being told saves lives, including her own within 1001 Arabian Nights. What I am getting at is that there is not a negotiation for me about needing to do what must be done in terms of the telling and bearing witness in such a way that does involve a level of risk. I write these things and tell about these things because I must, so much so that I don’t have a chance to question the courage needed for such a thing because I know I am being compelled. Also, some say that some of these things are traumatic. However, I say that it is me looking at the full tapestry of our human experience and exploring everything from what makes us hurt, what causes scar tissue, all the way to what brings joy.
EMB: “Claustrophobic Dreaming” titles the second half of the book. Its genius gives me chills. Forgive me if it is too personal to ask, but do you have claustrophobia?
SLG: I love this, and no, not too personal. I don’t have claustrophobia. But there is something about a dream that often feels like it encloses you in such a way that even after you have been up for several hours, the dream is still all over your skin, your body…almost like it encases you, making you feel pretty damned claustrophobic!
EMB: Could you share what some of the process looked like when composing these poems? Did you find yourself breaking away from tasks to traverse a poetic epiphany, pull from dreams, nightmares?
SLG: I am a night owl, or a super night owl. Often, I enjoyed waiting, for what felt like waiting for the world to go to sleep so that I could play. And play, for me, means my writing, my sketching, and other art endeavors. And sometimes, it was not play at all—as you have picked up from the book—I found myself really needing to dive into 280 Collins Street which has appeared in many dreams. And while I am certainly pulling more from my dreams now for another collection, I found myself revisiting memory or doing a lot of re-entering to get back into the space featured in the book. Sometimes it involved listening to some of the music like Another Bad Creation so that I could re-enter that space and let it be inside of me before deciding to write again.
With projects—especially the ones that involve the writing—I try to be careful not to force the arrangement, the arc, the work. In other words, I try to balance between letting the words just come, having the memory spill forth without the premeditation of “Okay, I am going to write this poem for this section.” After some time of letting the work sit and take a break from me, I do enjoy going back almost like an excavation or archaeological dig to see what I discover in what has been created. Also, for me, writing starts with carrying it around for days, weeks, sometimes several months before committing it to paper.
EMB: When I think of one of the major themes in here, dreaming, I ponder on the kind occurring in sleep and the kind spun from hopes and desires, but I believe there is another type of dreaming happening here too, a sort of limbo state. I think of the lines “Between wake and sleep,…” from the last poem “Wake: A Spell.” Would you say I’m onto something?
SLG: Yes, you are. I once read something about how to consistently enter into the state of lucid dreaming, and one of the things suggested was something like walking around and not treating it like you are awake, but treat it like a dream state. Now obviously you would not want to do this while watching your kids, carrying hot coffee, etc., but what I read stuck with me. I kept thinking about that feeling where one does not feel like they are really awake nor are they sleep, or that feeling of between and betwixtness. I also recall coming across information that for certain indigenous cultures, dreaming doesn’t just happen when your eyes close. So, yeah, my long-winded way of saying you are definitely onto something in your interpretation. I am inviting others to go down that rabbit hole of questioning where dream states can happen, reality, etc.
EMB: There are quotes in here from the 1984 film adaptation of Dune and the AMC television series Mad Men. Were there other books or series that came to mind during the journey of this debut? Music? Films?
SLG: Oh, yes. Some super obvious because they are hinted at or referenced like Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing, Foxy Brown’s first album, Ill Na Na, which came out in 1996. Then there are other things that are not so evident that stuck with me in terms of thinking about memory, dreams, how we carry these things as humans as presented in movies like Dark City, Eyes Wide Shut, Vanilla Sky. I am also a huge David Lynch fan because I love what he does with the disruption of memory and time in his work. Your question is making me think that maybe GHETTOCLAUSTROPHOBIA needs a playlist of movies and films?
EMB: If you could do a reading of the collection anywhere in the world, where would you go, even if it is a place you have been to before?
SLG: Oh dangggg, this is a toughie. Just one place, huh? I could see being on an island just sitting somewhere surrounded by the scenery, the water, in the lap of nature while giving a reading. That would be beyond anything.
EMB: Two poems have these hidden words covered in a solid black rectangle. I thought back to a part in your artist statement from your website which reads: “I most appreciate surfacing the unseen,” as well as one of your hobbies, exploring abandoned places. Have you always carried this fascination for illuminating mysteries and truths that would otherwise remain hidden? I imagine it surfaced through the culmination of a combination of reasons.
SLG: Yes, it is almost like an obsession. Whenever I have watched shows about what is hidden that the public can’t see, I always have this inclination for wishing I could explore whatever the secret is. Of course, that has grown into my love of going into abandoned spaces, spaces where there are clear “DO NOT ENTER” signs, and there I am with my lust, fear, and camera ready to go in. I’ve given a lot of thought about this hunger—whether it is in the questions that I ask others as a journalist, or the ways that I like to dive deep beneath my own cellar hole—and I really think it goes back to what I talked about earlier about not really being allowed to be seen or heard as a child. If my mother was still hanging out waiting for my father to get home from work, I was still up with the adults. Funny enough, adults would occasionally turn and ask me, “Did you hear that?” I was always forced to say “No” as they continued to talk about whatever they were talking about, sticking in the statement, “She is so well behaved.” I used that to my advantage. I was like a human recorder reading facial expressions, body language, and also, the best part, all the things that are not said.
Here’s another short story about the way I have carried this idea of illuminating truths and mysteries. When I was a little girl, a black book arrived at the house. It was one of those Time-Life, Mysteries of the Unknown, books. I recall my parents complaining that they’d not ordered it and luckily, the book stayed at our house until we lost the family home. As often as I could, I would read and re-read the stories within it that talked about everything from Atlantis to the pyramids. For many years after, when that book went missing, I was always longing for it and anything that was inside of books that were like that. Many years later when I was living in Vermont, I went into one of the used bookstores and was looking in the area where those kinds of books dwell and could not believe my eyes when I saw a set of black books on the bottom shelf. It was a set of those Time-Life books! Of course I purchased them. How could I not?
I always want to go explore, be in the place, or read the things that I am not supposed to see, even if it means taking a huge risk. For me, it is a way of life.
EMB: With so many complex layers inside Ghettoclaustrophobia, do you think you might pursue other areas of art related to it? Perhaps you’re already experimenting with such?
SLG: Yes, definitely. My wheels have been turning thinking about this. For now, I will say stay tuned!
EMB: What are your thoughts on someone who might wish to create fanart of your poems? Does it depend on which ones?
SLG: I never thought of that, I would love to see what that would look like, especially to see someone else’s take or interpretation of my work. Heck, I think given your last question, I would love a collaborator in another medium to see what others may dream up in terms of GHETTOCLAUSTROPHOBIA!