Deirdre Cartmill

Interviewed by James Meredith

James Meredith

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Deirdre Cartmill is a poet and writer based in Belfast. Born in Moy, County Tyrone, she is the author of two poetry collections, Midnight Solo (2004), and The Return of the Buffalo (2013), both published by Lagan Press.

The Return of the Buffalodeals with grief and loss, and attempts to make sense of the seemingly meaningless, but this is always weighted with how suddenly, unexpectedly joyous life can be. Midnight Solois written from the perspective of a generation who grew up through the conflict in the north of Ireland and their struggle to envision a new normality in a post-conflict society.

Deirdre received an ACES Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in 2011 and spent a year affiliated with the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queens University, Belfast, where she started work on her third collection. She has received four Literature Awards from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, been shortlisted for a Hennessy Literary Award and been a finalist in the Scottish International Poetry Competition. Her poetry has been widely published and anthologised.

She has given many poetry readings at events and festivals, such as at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris, the Belfast Festival at Queen’s and the Belfast Book Festival. She is currently a contributing artist to Corners of Europe and is collaborating with artists from across Europe.

She’s also an award winning screenwriter and has written for theatre, film, television and radio.

Her play No Paths That Are Ending toured Northern Ireland as part of Terra Nova’s Arrivals production in spring 2014. Her short film Two Little Boys was selected for The Belfast Film Festival 2013.

An experienced creative writing workshop facilitator, Deirdre is part of Poetry Ireland’s Writers in Schools Scheme. She has facilitated workshops for Poetry in Motion, Big Telly Theatre Company, the BBC, Artscare, Libraries NI and Monaghan Libraries. She tutors for the WEA. She has also facilitated many creative writing workshops for writers’ groups and community groups.

Q: What poetry have you been working on since the publication of The Return of the Buffalo?

Deirdre: My poems usually reflect what’s going on in my life and I don’t write to a theme, but at the moment I have a loose theme of Signs of Life. What does it mean to be alive? What is death? I’m writing about everything from quantum physics to love.

Since my heart attack [in 2010] I’ve done a lot of questioning and this is coming out in my poems – and probably stalling their completion as I search for the answers. I have a lot of drafts and not many finished poems. I actually had two heart attacks in a week and as I was in the middle of my second one, I had a very powerful experience. I knew I could close my eyes and drift away from this life if I wanted because ‘I’ would not die. ‘I’ would go on. I’ve always believed in the existence of the soul but to actually be confronted with it and know it as a truth within your being brings it to a whole other level. So I’m currently struggling with how to capture these huge ideas and shifts in understanding in poems that are still somehow concrete.

Q: Are there overarching themes in your work regardless of the medium you’re writing in?

Deirdre: You only recognise the themes when you look back over your work but I’ve written enough now to see that confronting death, love, faith and redemption recur over and over in everything I write, whatever the medium. The driving force in my writing has always been to show people they are more than they think they are, to acknowledge that deep knowing inside you that tells you that there is so much more possibility and potential within you than you let yourself recognise.

I realise now that there has always been a spiritual aspect to my writing – sometimes confronted head on, sometimes in the subtext. Maybe it’s been a kind of dialogue with God, asking the questions through my writing - who are we? What is God? What is our purpose here? What is the point of our suffering? Is there a point?  How can we make it meaningful?

It’s also always been very important to me to give a voice to the feelings and traumatic events that everyone experiences but no-one ever talks about – to acknowledge them so they can be released and healed.

Q: You’re  involved with the Corners Project. Can you tell us about it, and what work has stemmed from it so far?

Deirdre: Corners is a project that takes artists who live on the edges of Europe and teams them up with other European artists working in different media to originate new multidisciplinary, collaborative projects together. This new work is specifically designed to be shown in unconventional places and public spaces, not in the usual gallery spaces or theatre circuit.

I’m working with Hrvoslava Brkusic, a multimedia and sound artist from Croatia, Beatriz Churruca, a performance artist from the Basque Country and Serena Cannale an aerial dancer from Italy on a project called Bridging The Silence. It grew from our joint passion to confront unspeakable truths. We want to symbolically reflect the stories of survivors – of political violence, of domestic abuse, of sexual abuse, of suicide. We want to reflect the emotional transformation people undergo as they move from victim to survivor, from feeling imprisoned to freedom. It will involve both an installation and performative elements, and it’s designed to be shown on a bridge.

Our next step is to do a base camp in the Basque Country in April where will try out our ideas and see how they work in situ. If all goes to plan, the project will be launched later this year as part of a showcase of Corners projects.

It’s been both fantastic and challenging to be involved in this. It’s difficult enough to collaborate across disciplines but when you add in language barriers and cultural differences the challenges mount. But the feeling of achievement when you find that common ground and create something new as artists together makes it worthwhile. It’s really opened up how I see art and it’s actually helped me to acknowledge myself as an artist for the first time, and that’s been powerful for me.

Q: You’ve also been writing for theatre as part of the Arrivals project with Terra Nova Productions and Accidental Theatre. Can you tell us a little about that?

Deirdre: I’ve fallen in love with writing for theatre. I’ve done a lot of screenwriting previously and I love the process of creating a script. But with theatre you feel like the artist at the centre of the project, the person with the creative vision. I never felt that with screenwriting. I’ve been so lucky to work with Terra Nova and Accidental because Andrea Montgomery [Terra Nova’s artistic director] and Emily DeDakis [Accidental Theatre dramaturg] are so passionate about the project, and as they’re both writers too they understand the challenges and know how to help you overcome them in the most supportive way.

The project is all about bringing intercultural stories to the stage and that’s really interesting as it has forced me to look at the north from a different perspective than I normally would in my writing.

Last year’s Arrivals project was the first time I saw my work on stage. It’s a terrifying moment when you’re sitting there in the audience and wondering what the reaction is going to be to your words. I was so glad that I was among other writers in that moment and not on my own. The Arrivals platform is a really interesting way to stage a production – to have 5 different plays under one banner and to look at one thing from 5 different perspectives. It makes for a really interesting night of theatre.

I was so proud to be involved last year with the other writers Paul McMahon, John Morrison, James Meredith and Shannon Yee, but I think this year’s production, with James and I writing again alongside Daragh Carville, Maggie Cronin and Fionnuala Kennedy, is going to be bigger and bolder and that’s really exciting. I can’t wait to see it all come together on stage in March in the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast.

Q: How does your approach to writing differ depending on what medium you’re writing in?

Deirdre: My poetry writing differs greatly from my other writing, mainly because I’m not sure there is a process to writing poetry. With scripts you have certain building blocks – you need a beginning, middle and end, an inciting incident to drive the action, clear character motivation. But with poetry I feel there are no building blocks. You’re staring into this void and you have to plunge in and hope you can pull something out of it. I have my own rituals of course – I always write my first few drafts of my poems in longhand for example and I don’t do that with other mediums. There is also good practice and craft that comes in at a certain stage of creating a poem but I feel every time I write a poem it’s like the first time and I don’t know if I can do it. I do know I can write a script. It’s still terrifying and there are moments when you’re pulling your hair out but I know I can complete something and do it to a deadline. I could never complete a poem to a deadline – it finishes when it finishes.

I feel though there are quite a few similarities between poetry and screenwriting - they both rely on images, they both require a structure to hold them in place and they both need to be as succinct as possible, conveying everything with the tiniest detail.

Q: You’re also a creative writing workshop facilitator. Can you tell us a little about what you offer to classes and individuals? 

Deirdre: My workshops are all about empowering and inspiring people. I love to go into a room, be confronted by someone who believes they can’t write and see the light in their eyes when they discover they can. I suppose it’s that drive to give people a voice again.

I also give absolutely direct, concrete advice that you can put into practice immediately. Over my years of writing and through my work as a script editor I’ve picked up so much knowledge, tips and tricks and I love to pass that on. I’m planning to run my own writing sessions soon so I can teach what I think is important. I’m also planning some writing masterclass weekends with [fellow poet] Maria McManus. And I’ll be doing more one to one mentoring as I think that’s a really powerful way to help someone move their writing to the next level. Keep an eye on my website for details –

Deirdre Cartmill’s poetry collections, ‘Midnight Solo,’ and ‘The Return of the Buffalo’ are published by Lagan Press and available to purchase through their website:

Arrivals2 runs at The Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast, from 11-14 March, before touring Northern Ireland. For a full list of dates and to purchase tickets follow this link: