Bermudian poet helps others shine in Northern Ireland
Paul Maddern’s not-so-secret hope is to have talented Bermudians join him in Northern Ireland for a residency at his writers’ retreat, The River Mill. Covid-19 halted a plan he had been hatching with Kim Dismont-Robinson, the director of the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs, but he remains hopeful. Until then the Bermudian poet has his hands full in County Down, where he is also editing an anthology of work by queer Irish poets.
Q: Were you always interested in the arts?
A: Some of my fondest memories of growing up in Bermuda revolve around theatre and performance. I played in the Saltus school band and sang in the choir. As a child, I took part in a few BMDS panto productions and the Um Um shows and signed up for a great summer school programme with a pair of mime artists, Garbo and Gillian. At university in Canada, where I got a BA in film studies, I was a member of Queen’s Musical Theatre Company and a group of us would occasionally fly down to New York to see as many shows as we could in a couple of days: Cats, Good, Nine, Chorus Line, 42nd Street, Othello with James Earl Jones, Porgy and Bess, the New York City Ballet the night Balanchine died, and so on. Great memories.
Q: Did you continue performing after you graduated?
A: When I returned to Bermuda, I was in a production of Coppelia for the Bermuda Civic Ballet – which led to a stint as an apprentice with Colorado Ballet and then a few years trying to be a dancer in San Francisco. But apart from this, theatre, ballet and opera are all very dear to me, and certain performances have stuck fast in the memory and even informed how I think about the world and our place in it. I remember when I was 12 or 13, seeing Juilliard perform Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Bermuda Festival at City Hall. I can still recall that performance in great detail, and the almost visceral excitement it produced in me. Shakespeare was changed for me that day and I’m eternally grateful for that.
Q: And your history as a writer?
A: After the failed dance career I worked in catering for about 25 years. By then I was living in Northern Ireland. My mother had returned there from Bermuda, to look after her sister, and I moved over from London in 2000. I’d started writing quite awful poems, but a few people thought I might have a bit of talent, so I applied to the MA programme at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University Belfast. I got in, and then did a PhD at the School of English at Queen’s. During that time I won the Templar Poetry Pamphlet competition, which resulted in a pamphlet, Kelpdings, followed by my debut collection, also with Templar, The Beachcomber’s Report. The latter was shortlisted for Ireland’s Shine/Strong Award for Best First Collection and won a Bermuda Government Literary Award. A poem from that collection, Effacé is on the Northern Irish GCSE syllabus. Another pamphlet was published in 2017, Pilgrimage, and that, too, won a Bermuda Government Literary Award. My latest collection is The Tipping Line. It’s a series of long poems, all interrelated, and all addressed to Rowan [Vickers], the son of my dearest friends. It has at its heart [the First World War] and it references Bermuda, Ireland, New York, London and Leeds – as well as much film, theatre, ballet, opera and art. In addition to writing, I’ve taught creative writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre and was teaching fellow in creative writing at the University of Leeds. Currently I’m editing Queering the Green, an anthology of poetry by contemporary queer Irish writers. That should be out in September this year. And I’m also working on the next collection, tentatively titled Lot.
Q: And that’s what led you to The River Mill?
A: I had the idea for a writers’ retreat for some time. There are several excellent centres in the south of Ireland but none up north. So, there was a gap in the market. Really, I was just toying with the idea until I spotted The River Mill up for sale. It met every possible criteria and I knew that if I didn’t do it with this place then I’d never do it. It’s in a very beautiful part of Co Down. There are five bedrooms, all en suite, and there’s a stream and quite a large garden – which is my pride and joy. So, writers come there to read and write and, importantly, to chat with other writers around the dinner table. It’s proving a great success and it pleases me immensely that I can provide a space that is conducive to the writing and thinking process. Part of the remit is to give back something to a community that has given me so much. To date no Bermudian writer has stayed there but I almost managed to get the wonder that is Yesha Townsend over for a residency and a River Mill reading at the Belfast Book Festival. Covid put paid to that, sadly. And I have talked with Dr Kim Dismont-Robinson about trying to set up something for Bermudian writers. Fingers crossed we can come up with a plan.
Q: Do you ever come back to Bermuda?
A: Yes, of course, Bermuda is my true home. The last time was September 2019. I was invited by Dr Dismont-Robinson to conduct a writing workshop on the role of research in creative writing. The undoubted highlight was spending time in the company of Florenz Webbe Maxwell. I certainly learnt more from her than she did from me – which will surprise absolutely no one.
For more information on The River Mill visit the-river-mill.co.uk