The poetry of debt: A Q&A with writer Andreae Callanan

"Debt is why Newfoundland exists as it does," says poet Andreae Callanan. Set against the backdrop of post-moratorium St. John's, The Debt is a collection of poems exploring what is owed to those who came before and, personally and politically, what the province still has left to pay.

A Newfoundland and Labrador poet explores the personal and political with The Debt

The Debt is a poetry collection by Andreae Callanan. (Biblioasis)

Few books being published by authors in Newfoundland and Labrador have a more "of the moment" title than The Debt, a new poetry collection by Andreae Callanan, published by Biblioasis. 

Following the Moya Greene Report, the scathing review of the province's spending released earlier this month, Premier Andrew Furey said "urgent action" is needed to tackle N.L.'s now $47-billion total debt and keep the province from lapsing into insolvency.

Callanan's own urgent action is primarily introspective in her new collection, exploring debt from public, political, and personal directions. She spoke with Heather Barrett on CBC's Weekend AM.

The discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What is this collection all about? 

A: In a sense any first poetry collection is kind of your "Hi. My name is" collection, where you're introducing yourself, where you come from, your childhood, your background, all of these things.

So this is a collection of poems that weaves in and out from my childhood. Growing up in downtown St. John's in the '80s and '90s, a very economically depressed time, growing up in a single-parent household with a lot of economic challenges there, and then working through to my own adulthood.

It deals with identity, deals with parenting, all sorts of these. It's about the process of what we put on, how we dress up to  figure out who we are. 

Debt is why Newfoundland exists as it does. That is why we became part of Canada. Debt is why people settled and stayed here in the first place.

Thinking about the concept of "the debt" right now, when we've got these reports in this austerity budget, there are these austerity suggestions that we're supposed to pretend aren't austerity, using neoliberalism to try and fix the problems of neoliberalism.

A lot of that comes into play in the poetry collection. And I wrote a lot of these poems in the wake of, and in response to, the 2016 budget, which of course led to all of these protests and these moments, and the burgeoning movement that we see continuing. 

Q: What do you make of where our province is right now, especially in the wake of the Moya Greene report? 

AC: So much of it seems to be… I mean, obviously, we're in a mess. We've been in a mess this whole time. 

People ask me the meaning behind the name The Debt for the collection. Debt is why Newfoundland exists as it does. That is why we became part of Canada. Debt is why people settled and stayed here in the first place, because of the truck system and being in indentured servitude.

I don't know what sort of thought process goes into suggesting that we're going to fix this debt by doing more of the same, but it looks like that's what's been suggested. 

And all I can say is that until we approach our difficulties with a sense of creativity, with a sense of profound listening to the people who are the most impacted by all of these changes, until we do that, it's just going to be the same old song and dance again and again. 

And I've already written this book and I can't write another one like it. So we better fix something so I have something new to work with. 

Premier Andrew Furey said Friday that Newfoundland and Labrador is 'at the end of the road' when it comes to tackling its fiscal problems. Callanan says it's a road the province has been on before. (John Pike/CBC)

Q: I know in reading some of your writing that you're an activist too. You're very involved with your community. Can you tell me about the things that you've been involved with? 

AC: It's a little more low-key these days. I mean, partly due to the more stay-at-home speed of life. But I've been doing a lot of work recently around neurodiversity through the university and in my own activism.

I was diagnosed with ADHD a couple of years ago, which is an interesting thing to happen, you know, in adulthood. And through that process, one of my children has also been diagnosed autistic. And so I've been going along that with them and realized that I, too, am autistic.

Nobody was looking for ADHD and autism when I was a child. It was only the very conspicuous traits and behaviours that were picked up. But many of us have much more subtle manifestations of these conditions and so, like many parents, I had a child in school who was flagged for screening and I said, "Oh, no, that's just what we're like. I'm exactly the same."

And so there's been this whole shift in my activism, certainly not abandoning any of the things that I've previously been involved in, but looking at a broader sense of diversity and neurodiversity and then diversity within neurodiversity. 

But of course, I'm still involved and in many, many little pies here and there.

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Andrew Hawthorn


Andrew Hawthorn is a writer and reporter working with the CBC in St. John's.

With files from Weekend AM