Shanta Lee Gander

The Price of Power, Cannibalism, and Transmutation: A Conversation with Shanta Lee Gander


Shanta Lee Gander, interdisciplinary artist and award-winning writer, has recently released her magnum opus, Black Metamorphoses (Etruscan Press), a poetry collection whose structure is inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses and uses myth to eviscerate Eurocentric patriarchy. Throughout Black Metamorphoses, clangorous questions and traumatic recollections illuminate the stark cruelty of the transatlantic slave trade and the resentment rightfully held by its victims in the African Diaspora, which opens the path to survival, empowerment, and transmutation. There is also the resounding security of resistance, and lasting echoes of strength that feel magical. Many of Gander’s poems are adaptations of Greek myth and legend, such as “Hermaphroditus Tells It,” “Medusa’s Otha Sistah, Solitude,” “For the Yellow Gal Who Refused,” and “Ode to Minotaur.” Other poems, including “Posionwell Diaries: Psalms of the Ossuary,” are monologue-like, inspired by written accounts of Black Americans of the diaspora. Some poems are in response to scholarly texts—such as The Delectable Negro by Vincent Woods—all of which are referenced. The complete volume of work employs original interior illustrations, created by visual artist Alan Blackwell, to contribute an added layer of myth for the reader. Gander asks gutting questions in Black Metamorphoses, a serious read worthy of many returns.

With work spanning poetry, journalism, and photography hybrids in between, Gander is the author of GHETTOCLAUSTROPHOBIA: Dreamin of Mama, While Trying to Speak in Woke Tongues (Diode Editions, 2020). Her writing has also been featured in publications such as Harbor Review, The Maine Review, Art New England, and others.

I was fortunate to ask Gander some questions about immersive research, the use of myth, and the Black diaspora. We talked about cultural consumption, the cost of power, and more as it pertains to Black Metamorphoses.


The Rumpus: What would you say is your personal intro to Black Metamorphoses, the research, and the writing that went into it?

Shanta Lee Gander: As someone who loved fairy tales, myths, and legends and navigated toward those things all my life, I had a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I remember how I read it from cover to cover, all five or six hundred pages. By the end of it, I said, “I’m gonna do my own Metamorphoses.” When I came to that decision, I started thinking, “What is the underneath of the thing?” I didn’t want to do a direct adaptation. I wanted to think about what was underneath these questions around power dynamics—both perceived and real—that live in bodies and get reinforced. What would this look like if we were doing something that deals with shapeshifting in nature—the Black body—shapeshifting through the time and history that was forced upon it? What does that tapestry look like if it could speak? What does it look like within a context of history, including the gaps we don’t know? How do we get to know?

Black Metamorphoses

I started thinking about things, like some of the interviews that were carried on with individuals who were formerly enslaved. [I was] reading a lot about those different belief systems, different practices, different stories. Getting to some areas of thinking about original religion or spiritual practices that get carried over, [the] sensorial experiential of things getting transferred from one culture to another, the question of desire, the power dynamic between colonialism, imperialism, the Black body, and the white body. I also wanted to think about some of the interstitial spaces in between.

Rumpus: I’ve noticed a lot of Greek mythology throughout Black Metamorphoses. I’m wondering how that interested you and how it made it into topics surrounding Blackness.

Gander: When I think of threads of myths, there are some things that fairy tales and myths translate, uncomfortable truths—ways people don’t necessarily want to look at or haven’t had a chance—of what happened. The ability to look at, in a certain way, those stories that may involve animal bodies or people with special powers. This gets to some type of truth, giving us back our humanity in a certain way. It’s very easy, for example, to look at the realities of what stories are told and retold about the suffering and feeling a sense of disempowerment.

There are ways that storytelling and mythmaking dare to look something in the face, as harsh as history. It can be an act of resistance. I only say that from the perspective of someone who had to do a lot of that, internally, growing up. I wanted to get into the space of inviting some of the lesser known stories. The use of Greek myth [is] overplayed. I wanted to take it and do some kind of transformation and inversion where it might link to other stories people may not be so familiar with and tease out things that you only would see if you sat and looked through hundreds of pages and transcripts—seeing some of these stories, matched with wanting to enter into my own space of imagining, and maybe even becoming some of those people in between the pages.

Rumpus: What is your process of fully immersing yourself in these narratives, mythology, research, and within your own work?

Gander: Poetry is way harder, as a genre, to work with. It involves a calling to hand myself over in a way that I’m going to cease [having] true control over all parts of it. I may have control over the editing and revising, which is definitely key. I may have control over thinking about all the pieces, together as a collected whole, but that initial utterance involves opening myself up, speaking to the research, getting into the immersion, especially when I think about the word and how we think about it. Your body can immerse in water, you can immerse yourself in an experience, but that still is very much about the external. The way we may think of immersion is as much about how willing and open you make yourself within all levels of your internal self. You may not quite be in control of what’s going to come out on the other side of your consciousness. I didn’t want to be extractive-–that way would have been way too easy— it was more entering into a conversation and carrying around questions I had about why or how certain things were.

I couldn’t just be a host, it had to be symbiotic. It’s my take that creation is a conversation, a discourse, and sometimes we enter into those conversations. There’s a lot of listening. There’s a lot of not putting my goal or will unto this work to try to bend it to my will. It was about handing myself over. This work has its own rights to tell me what it is, and how it wants to be.

Rumpus: What was your expectation versus what you ended up taking away and giving into this research?

Gander: I initially thought about the dactylic hexameter, the form used in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I think about how words and things on a page are entering the body. I thought about that with my own work and how I want this to enter. The eye could get exhausted. There were certain lines I had to go back and adjust and think about. Once I went back to do more adjustments, it became stronger—once it got more space to breathe. There were surprises like that.

Rumpus: There are also other poetic forms within this collection, like blackout poetry.

Gander: I love playing with leaving words out because I think that blacking them out or erasing them is what’s happening in our bodies all the time. Where we hear things or don’t hear things. There are things we can’t un-hear. There are historical records within the Black and African diaspora where there are missing pieces. Where are the threads where the pieces are falling? How can I fill in the pieces that are missing? There’s the level of how human memory works . . . in the way that collectively, stories are omitted [or] forgotten. What role does time play in erasure? I think about and carry [those questions] with me when I’m working.

Rumpus: Another theme I was seeing is the consumption of Black people in general. One of the lines that really stood out to me was in “Erysinthon’s Seed,” a reference to the Greek myth about greed. Your poem acknowledges Black people’s skin being used as leather and being devoured as people. What are your thoughts on that outside of your poetry?

Gander: The Delectable Negro: Human Consumption and Homoeroticism within USA Culture by Vincent Woodward gets into the levels of sexuality and also talks about some instances of actual cannibalism. The consumption of bodies, our conception of work, or who has to give their bodies over, usually it is the individuals who are brown. It’s individuals who come from different classes, who have to serve other people within this structure where there’s this machine that’s eating people and time that is a form of cannibalism and applies to all sorts of situations. One of the biggest [situations] we see, and did see during COVID, is the [symbolic] cannibalization of certain bodies. People had to go to work, and people got to stay home. This hunger really fascinates me on so many different levels and the ways that we don’t even realize that we’re [metaphorically] eating each other.

Rumpus: I’m curious about themes of the consumption of Black women, how we’re impacted throughout the diaspora, and how it relates to the Hades and Persephone myth. There seem to be thick connections between those themes. Is this what you intended when you were writing?

Gander: There’s something very interesting, maybe even sexy, about the idea that this guy comes in, takes her, and gives her a whole kingdom. That is the surface reading of it. It speaks to this way we’ve been trained in dysfunction around women’s bodies, who has access to women’s bodies, and the whole trade-off. What is the real trade-off, as a woman, when you’re taken?

This also gets into the [subject] of trafficking. In that way, myth loses its sexiness quickly. Underneath that myth, there is an either/or choice that gets played out. You cannot get both or, in the case of Persephone, you’re not going to get a choice—a choice has been made for you—and she got tricked. She wasn’t told. She wasn’t given the full information. That also figures into what we see in gender dynamics in myths and fairy tales but also real stories and real statistics.

For me, it boils down to men being the liability that women cannot afford. It saddens me to say that because I don’t want to think or believe that. It keeps coming up in my personal life and so many other different areas as well—the whole idea of Hades and Persephone, the trickery. Could this have played out in a way where she was given access to her full information? Would she have chosen to be the queen of the underworld? She did get a kingdom, kind of interesting and weird, and also speaking to the reinforcement of toxic patterns. “Oh, he loved her!” He dragged her away but look what he gave her in exchange for that.

That is what happens to women when they’re the impact of forcible travel. [In “Erysynthon’s Seed,” it’s saying] “You brought me here. You forced me. You dragged me. Now we’re here and you got to pay up.” There’s no quantifiable amount for all the stolen breast milk. There’s no quantifiable amount for all the rupturing of children and the bodies of Black women that were experimented on. What is she going to receive as payment? What does she mean by “How much more you got to quench what I need?” I don’t even know the answer. I wrote it, yes, but I don’t know. Does that mean she herself has taken on his disease of hunger? That line could imply that she’s become thirsty and lustful, and she might also consume him.

Rumpus: How do you feel about assimilating those characteristics, especially as they pertain to survival?

Gander: I’d like to believe that what this may back into is transmutation. where one would say, “Actually, I’m gonna take these things and I’m going to transmute them to my advantage.” It went from assimilation to get by, especially when we think about respectability politics. . . . [We can ask,] “How do I actually take it,” and whether it is poisonous, whether it is something that’s like really dangerous, and actually apply some physics to it actual physics and transmute this thing, and flip the script, so that I can make it my own so that I can give it its unique signature. So, and again, that raises other questions too, when someone could easily say, “Yeah, but like, how would you know what your unique signature is if it’s been based on a dominant culture?”

Rumpus: Much of your writing in Black Metamorphoses discusses the past. How do you think it applies to Blackness in the future?

Gander: While I do see there is importance in recognizing identity, I also want there to be a broader field to go beyond the identity itself, the identities that were forced upon us, in addition to what we continue to reinforce and agree upon as identity. I’m working on a book of tales, [in which] people have different colored eyes, more or less trying to figure out what the underneath of that is beyond what their skin looks like.

One of them is the book of erotic poetry I’m working with some of my dream material. Stepping beyond whatever shell that I have now, going into the subconscious space, and trying to journey into that. There’s my memoir, and I am trying to figure out how I’m telling that story. I want there to be a true project of liberation that journeys beyond what society has and what we sometimes have ourselves, an agreement and reinforcement impressed upon our bodies. I want to go beyond that.

Rumpus: How does it feel now that you’re done with this body of work? What do you want people to take away from it?

Gander: It would be my hope someone would read Black Metamorphoses, and maybe they’d be so inclined to think about the ways that there are gaps in stories—things that are not addressed, or big themes that they want to tangle with on the page or, in some other mediums—no matter what your background is, no matter what your class is, no matter what your education status. How would you interrogate or retell a story that is related within or outside yourself? How would you interrogate some of the elements of that story? What would that myth look like? Maybe it has to do with family histories or cultural history, or maybe it has to do with place. Someone sitting with themselves saying, “God, how would I retell the story? How would I go through all the different layers of complexity and think about that for myself?” If nothing else, [that’s] the most basic level, carrying that.




Author photograph by MacLean Charles Gander

Naya Clark is an interdisciplinary writer based in Atlanta. By day she's a copywriter. Other times and in between she's experimenting with writing and living among an amazing community of artists IRL and on the internet. More from this author →