Tyrone poet Deirdre Cartmill on taking to the railways as roaming writer in residence
Poet and spiritual teacher Deirdre Cartmill speaks to Maureen Coleman about bringing poetry to our trains in her new role as the Irish Writers Centre Roaming Writer-in-Residence
AS A former signal and telecoms engineer on the railways, Co Tyrone poet and spiritual teacher Deirdre Cartmill feels a special connection to trains. Some of her best work has been written while travelling by rail, taking inspiration from the sights and sounds around her, the rhythm of the moving train and overheard conversations of fellow passengers.
Deirdre's unusual journey into poetry has now come full circle with her recent appointment as the new Irish Writers Centre Roaming Writer-in-Residence. This role sees the Belfast-based woman travel from north to south on Translink and Irish Rail railway lines, once again gathering material to be used in student workshops and to be published on a dedicated Instagram page.
From Moy and having studied electrical and electronic engineering at Queen's University, Deirdre (51) now intends to write a sequence of haiku (three-lined Japanese poetry) about her experiences on the trains. She will also be asking passengers and rail workers to join in the writing project, though admits this will be as daunting for her as for those she tries to get onboard.
"I've always loved writing on trains," Deirdre says.
"As a writer, I like to watch and listen; to observe people and take down little snippets from conversations.
"I get inspiration from things people say, what I see outside the window, perhaps a rotten apple at the next table. There's something special about the rhythm of a train and it allows you time to sit and think, to allow inspiration rise up inside you.
"On my first train journey to Coleraine as part of this project, I was really nervous about asking people if they'd like to write a haiku. I really had to psyche myself up to do it.
"One woman I approached said no, but another agreed to do it. She saw it as something unique and creative to do on her journey. I also asked the conductor because I feel that the people behind the scenes have a voice too. I'm hoping to get one of the train drivers to write one, to see the journey through his eyes."
Perhaps because of Deirdre's background on the railways, she feels it's important that the workers aren't invisible. She recalls walking the lines in rain and sleet, drinking mugs of tea in signal boxes and crossing muddy fields to site radio masts. All of these experiences have helped to shape her as a poet.
It was while working in Dublin for Irish Rail after a two-year spell with British Rail in England that Deirdre decided she wanted to try her hand at writing. The first writers' group she signed up to was at the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin.
"I was also working in a recording studio at the time because I've always loved music, but I found it so frustrating that I was helping artists to create something instead of doing it myself," she says.
"That's when I started scribbling a few lines of poetry down in a notebook. I was still working with Irish Rail but my mindset had changed completely. I wanted to concentrate on writing so I took a leap of faith and left."
That move signalled a new direction for Deirdre, who then became a music journalist. She returned to Belfast and continued working as a freelancer before joining the BBC. By this stage she was happily married, a published poet and working in her dream job as a screenwriter. To the outsider looking in, Deirdre had the perfect life.
But personal losses began to take their toll. She had lost her father to cancer and was still in the throes of grief when she discovered she was pregnant. Having been desperate to start a family, she was overjoyed.
Sadly, she lost the baby at nine weeks and the double blow left her reeling. She carried on, afraid to stop in case she suffered a breakdown. Instead, at the age of 43 and with no warning, Deirdre had two heart attacks within one week. Her life then fell apart.
"I was born with an artery running under my heart," she says. "In some cases, this can lead to something happening, in others, it doesn't. But I also believe I had a broken heart.
"The work stress and emotional stress had all been building up. The first heart attack wasn't a big enough wake-up call for me. But the second one changed me completely."
It's at this point in Deirdre's journey that she took another track. Coming so close to death was a huge 'epiphany' and awakened her spirituality. During the second heart attack, Deirdre recalls feeling that she had a choice – to close her eyes and let go or to face death head-on and stay.
"It was a beautiful, peaceful moment and I wasn't in any pain," she says.
"I knew that if my body died, I would go on. I would continue to exist somewhere else. I faced death but I chose to live. There were so many things I still wanted to do. But if that moment had come to me, I know it would've been gentle. I had no fear of dying, but I was afraid of not living.
"I'd been telling myself for so long that my heart was broken. There's such a strong connection between the mind and body, so if you keep telling yourself something, it can be true. I decided to send healing to my heart instead."
To help her on her recovery, Deirdre read numerous self-help books and began to meditate. She also attended angel and shamanic classes, anything to assist her healing. Through her daily meditations, she started to connect with angels and spiritual guides. She then trained as an integrated energy therapist healer so she could help other people with their problems.
"Meditation gives me inner peace and I find I have a natural ability to connect with divine angels and teachers," Deirdre says.
"I'm now a spiritual teacher myself, which is not a road I ever envisaged myself going down. I share all the practical steps and spiritual insights that I've used to rebuild my own life from the ground up."
Currently in a new relationship following the breakdown of her marriage, Deirdre is in the process of writing a long sequence of poems about Mary Magdalene, one of her spiritual guides. She's also started collating her haiku for the workshops with creative writing students at Queen's University, the Ulster University, Coleraine, University College, Dublin and the National University of Ireland, Galway.
Her residency as Roaming Writer, which is funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, is a "dream opportunity" which sees her on the trains again throughout February and March.
"This is such a perfect role for me," she says. "I'm going back to where my writing journey started."
:: To get involved, check out the dedicated Instagram page @roamingwriterstories or Instagram.com/roamingwriterstories