An Interview with Deirdre Callanan

Deirdre is an amazing cook

Deirdre is an amazing cook!

This past July saw the third summer retreat at the beautiful home of Deirdre Callanan and Jack Harrison in West Harwich on Cape Cod. (The photos below are all from Deirdre and Jack’s amazing yard, taken by Don Chiapinelli, Sheila Felberbaum and me.) Deirdre has taught many of us in New Directions across the years, as a Saturday group leader, a Sunday group leader, the leader of the Alumni Group and the leader of 2-pager groups. For the many of you who have had the great pleasure of working with Deirdre Callanan in one venue or another, I am happy to present as the latest New Directions blog this interview with Deirdre.


Deirdre's Cape Cod home

Deirdre’s Cape Cod home

Gail: How long have you been with ND and in what capacities?  How did you get involved?

Deirdre: I’ve been involved with New Directions since February 2007. My friend Tom Goldman chaired that weekend on Memory. He’d asked my input with the short paper prompts then invited me to co-facilitate a small discussion group with Rick Waugaman. I said, “Are you kidding me?” Not only had I never been to any sort of therapist, I’d never even taken a psychology course. How could I possibly say anything useful? Tom reminded me I am a writer and a writing teacher. He also assured me that Rick was the ideal co-facilitator for me. He was right. Rick was the first of many gifts I’ve received from New Directions. That initial weekend, I was so nervous. I wore suits, sat up straight, took notes in the talks, mostly so later back at the Goldmans I could ask Tom what the heck the speakers were talking about. My favorite speaker was Dan Schacter whose topic was The Seven Sins of Memory. I’ve been working on a poem based on his presentation for seven years now. The only thing remaining from my first drafts is the title.

The beautiful back patio

The beautiful backyard

I co-led my first Sunday group with Shelly Rockwell that fall. Shelly was another remarkable leader. What a listener! Anne Adelman was in that group. We were in the hotel downtown then, just east of Foggy Bottom. I searched M Street for the perfect ND journal. I bought a Travel Notebook whose cover depicts a hot air balloon gliding above a forested mountain. In its woven basket is a turtle with a telescope, a rabbit with an open book, and an elephant consulting a map. Now, if that isn’t a metaphor for the ND program, what is? I’ve been using that book to record ND sessions ever since. When Anne introduced herself that November 4 of 2007, she told us, “My parents owned a typewriter store in New York. At age 6, I got my first Remington. I sat on the porch and wrote fairy tales.”

During the blizzard in 2010, when we were either trapped in Pentagon City or never made it there, I covered the Saturday morning poetry workshop, and it occurred to me I might be able to offer something for Saturday mornings, so I’ve done three different workshops, each of which I’ve loved. Bob Winer’s organizational patterns are just like his shirts: so wild they seem air-lifted from a Hendrix riff, but then if you wander around in the experience long enough, you have a revelation, like an acid trip without the drug. Think about it: there are nearly as many segments to the program as there are combinations in a Rubric’s cube, but snapped together, it’s beautiful magic.

The marsh

The marsh

In 2008 & 2009, I facilitated small groups at the Stowe summer retreat. And lo, another fantastic teacher, Tessa Conlin, who led our full-group sessions on the Stowehof Inn’s patio with such verve and humor. Joanie Lieberman, another exceptional listener and respondent, and I have been co-leading an alumni group since October, 2010. That December, I also had the pleasure of working at the winter retreat at the Tabard Inn: once more, an intense experience in a gorgeous setting. Finally, my husband Jack and I have hosted the summer retreat on Cape Cod for the past three Julys. Getting to exchange five emails a day for three months of planning with Don Chiappinelli would be reward enough. The writers and fellow instructors are a supreme bonus.

Also, in April 2012, I chaired the weekend on Writing: Our Heroines & Heroes.

Late afternoon sun

Late afternoon sun

Gail: What do you like about working with New Directions writers?  What is similar to and different from other writers with whom you have worked?

Deirdre: Frankly, at first I used to write down comments from the writing response sessions to share with my long-term writing group at home. Frequently, the comments made at ND I had never heard in all my decades of workshop participation. Ever. Not once. Part of this relates to the ND focus. As the brochure states, it’s “writing and critical thinking from a psychoanalytic perspective.”



“In a way, this is a story about an enactment– you’re drawn into another’s pathology.”

“A wonderful example of rupture and repair.”

“An attempt to represent the enigmatic.”

“That possible meaning would have transference meaning. It had the quality of her entering an ID-Ego state.”

Marsh grass

Speaking of states, eventually I was able to confess at New Directions that my journey there had introduced the term transference as something other than taking a bus from Boston to Chicago then transferring to the Omaha-bound bus.

What I like about working with ND writers is their range of topics and their ability to listen deeply to others. There is nothing superficial about this group. There is also nothing simplistic. Overall, the writers here seem more sensitive to responses. Therapists tend to receive, absorb; their job is to help others, yes? Here, they’re exposing themselves.

In other words: they’re similar in that they write in many genres and with varying levels of ability. Unlike others, they’re more sensitive and seasoned listeners.

Gail: Tell me about your writing. 

After a swim

After a swim

Deirdre: I’ve been writing since I was six. On days I don’t write, I feel disassociated and dreary. Many poems as well as some essays and short stories have appeared in literary journals such as Beloit Poetry Journal and Poet Lore. I’ve three poems in an anthology, World of Water, World of Sand. Chapters from my non-fiction manuscript, Beer, Bait, & Raggedy Hearts– A People’s History of the North Jetty Fish Camp, were serialized in a newspaper, The Venice Gondolier, over the past three years. A book I wrote as a result of my year as Christa McAuliffe fellow from Massachusetts, Windows & Mirrors: Writing’s Power for Illumination & Reflection, is housed at Fitchburg State’s library.

Gail: What is your professional background?

Deirdre at work

Deirdre at work

Deirdre: My BA in journalism is from Marquette University, my MA in Fiction is from Colorado State University. I’ve taken dozens of week-long poetry workshops from, among others, Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, Dorianne Lux, Nancy Willard, Kim Addonizio, Tony Hoagland, Nick Flynn, and Mark Doty. Journalism was my first passion, including photojournalism, and I still freelance. I became a high school English teacher quite by accident with no credentials or aspirations to teach. I loved teaching and taught several subjects at various levels for 30 years. The most memorable of my jobs, however, was the year I was a construction worker in Colorado. I still try to write and read a few hours each day, still attend workshops by writers I admire. I’m in two writing groups, one meets weekly, the other monthly. My sole teaching now occurs at New Directions, but that’s as rich and rewarding as anything

Speak Your Mind


Skip to toolbar