Friday, November 12, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Andreae Callanan

Andreae Callanan’s [photo credit: Heather Nolan Photography] poetry and essays have appeared in The Walrus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Quarterly, Riddle Fence, CV2, and elsewhere. She is the author of a chapbook, Crown (Anstruther Press, 2019) and a full-length poetry collection, The Debt (Biblioasis, 2021). She is a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation scholar, and a graduate student at Memorial University in St. John’s, NL.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

The Debt is my first full-length book and it’s just come out, so I can’t say just yet if or how it’s changed my life. My publication schedule meant that much of the editing process took place in COVID lockdown, and I think having the poems as anchors probably helped me cope with some of my lockdown feelings. Who knows to what dark places my mind might have gone without them?

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I have a very short attention span! And I’m not a storyteller. At all. Narrative and dialogue confound me. But words and sounds were my earliest friends, and I love playing with them. Poetry lets me do that without having to worry about plausibility or moving a plot forward or holding a reader’s attention over pages and pages.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

The Debt was about fifteen years in the making, so I guess with poetry I fall into the “slow process” camp. A lot of my drafting happens in my head; when a poem finally comes out it’s fairly close to its end form. Then it’s mostly a matter of little tweaks that seem insignificant but that can completely change the meaning of a line or give it another layer of meaning altogether. I can labour over a verb tense or a line break for months.

Essays, on the other hand, usually come out in a rush. Especially criticism: when I have an argument with a text, whether that text is a magazine article or a poetry collection or a provincial budget, the argument builds and builds in my head. The valve opens up and I type feverishly, and then I stop and pace around the house, then I type some more, then pace some more until it’s done, start to finish. Righteous indignation is an excellent motivator for me, but it doesn’t work for writing poetry.

4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

With poems, often, an image or a shard of a memory will get stuck in my head. Or sometimes it’s a word or a pair of words or sounds that start tumbling around. Or I’ll overhear a bit of a conversation, or an exchange between some birds, or one snowplough beeping to another snowplough, and those things stay in my head until I build a poem to put them in. No further vision or plan, just trying to clear things out of my brain.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I love giving readings. I find it intoxicating. I’m an introvert and I find public events quite draining, but those 12 minutes where I only have one job to do, especially when the lighting means that I can’t see anyone’s faces? Heaven.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

Who am I, and what am I doing here?

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I think the current role of the writer is – or should be – to challenge the idea that writers tell us who “we” are. I think writers tell us who they are, and they can either do it honestly or by hiding behind some fabricated, socially constructed “human condition.” I spent decades of my life trying to find myself in these “human condition” narratives, and when I couldn’t find myself I wondered what kind of a human I was at all. I’ve learned more about myself from writers saying “this is a book about what it’s like to be me” than I have from any writer telling me who they think I am. There’s power in that specificity, in that vulnerability.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Essential, because I’m far too focused on details to see the larger themes at work in my writing – I need someone else to do that, and then I can respond to their findings and draw those themes out. Difficult, because by the time I’ve worked a poem to the point of showing it to anyone I’m bored with it and ready to move on to something else. I would rather cut a poem altogether than do major revisions on it, not because I’m so attached to the original version, but because editing is hard, and I’m constitutionally sluggish.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Ok, at risk of sounding corny, I’ve been coming back to this direction from a yoga class: notice how you use your breath to meet the rising sensations in the body. It’s good all-around life advice. Anyone who’s done breathwork to manage anxiety or trauma or pain knows that the breath and the body and the emotions are all connected; you alter one, and the other two shift in response. Good poetry knows this too; line-length and tempo change the breath, and this is something you feel – feel as in feelings, and feel as in bodily sensations ­– when you’re really engaged in a poem. A poem that causes a reader to change the way they breathe is a poem that can change the way they feel (for better or worse).

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to essays)? What do you see as the appeal?

I love being able to move between the two – they draw on such different rhetorical tools and have such different capacities. In each I think I’m doing the same thing: trying to explain myself. If I’m writing a critical review, I’m trying to explain why a piece of writing makes me react the way it does. If I’m writing a poem I’m trying to explain why some phenomenon or other makes me feel a certain way. The essay is more of an intellectual mulling-over, where I get to make clever quips and, when I’m at my best, make people laugh. That laughter is a place to connect, and when people connect with my voice they become open to my position. With poetry, the connection happens in a different way; it’s less in the head, more in the senses.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I’m a full-time PhD student and I have four kids so I have to fit writing in where I can. I get up around 6:00 most mornings, put the kettle on, and write for half an hour or so before the process of getting everyone up and out the door begins. Most of my energy is focused on my academic writing these days, but there’s enough of an overlap between my scholarly work and my creative interests that I don’t have to totally sacrifice one to attend to the other.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

When my writing gets stalled it’s usually not for lack of inspiration, but because I’ve had to turn my attention elsewhere. If I do find that the writing isn’t coming, I wait it out. I’ve just published my debut collection at 43, which means I’ve had time to learn that good poems don’t go bad. They won’t disappear if you have to walk away from them for a while. When you’re ready, they’ll be there.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Salt air and boreal conifers. Red clover. Fog.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

I write from nature a lot, and especially from nature as it appears in cities. St. John’s has a lot of accidental greenspace: abandoned buildings and vacant lots that turn into these amazing examples of biodiverse habitat. I grew up downtown and these areas were my playgrounds and shortcuts. Their patterns – visual, metrical, seasonal – move in and out of my poems.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Gayla Trail and Alys Fowler are both huge influences. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Emily Dickinson. My husband Mark ( Dionne Brand. Marie Kondo, although you wouldn’t know it by looking at the state of my house. Edward Gorey. Whoever writes the weather warnings for the Environment Canada mobile app.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I’ve always wanted to find an old dollhouse and restore it.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I think I’d be a really good advice columnist. Or sewing machine repair person.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

External validation in childhood. Grown-ups told me I was good at writing, and I assumed that meant I had to do it. If they’d told me I was good at gym this could all have gone very differently.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I just finished reading Raymond Antrobus’s poetry collection, The Perseverance, and it is outstanding. Also, Scriptorium by poet Melissa Range. I don’t watch a lot of films (see: short attention span).

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m about halfway through my PhD program in English at Memorial University. I’m also working on a pitch for a little project I’ve had simmering for a while, but I can’t say anything about that just yet. It’s not going to be big, but it will be pleasingly silly.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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