Deirdre Cartmill – My Time As Roaming Writer on the Railways
Once in a lifetime a residency comes along that you feel was created just for you. That’s how I felt as the Irish Writers Centre Roaming Writer-in-Residence.
I love writing on trains – the ever changing view from the window, the sounds, the lulling rhythm of the train just create the perfect setting for inspiration. As Roaming Writer, I travelled across Ireland, north and south on the railways from January to March 2019 accumulating stories and inspiration, and writing a sequence of haiku inspired by my journeys.
Things can be reborn.
A rusting car in a field
now a nesting place.
You can listen to the 5 minute audio journey of my final haiku sequence CROSSING POINTS by clicking here. Reflections, connections, nature, memories, borders, contemplations all came together as a meditative journey.
Swans on a grey lake.
Rain slicks sleeting the windows.
A torn sky, weeping.
I also connected with passengers on my journeys, encouraging them to write their own haiku with my help, and giving them a unique experience as they travelled. I was amazed how many people were willing to give it a go. I worked with retirees, commuters, young travellers, actors, a female biker who travels the world interviewing other female bikers, American tourists and a businessman writing his first non fiction book. They embraced it as they felt they’d learnt something new, remembered the joy of writing, or were just delighted to be present in the moment instead of staring at their phones.
I chose haiku as I knew train travel would give me those continual little moments of inspiration. But I also saw haiku as perfectly formed building blocks for a larger sequence and that appealed to my engineering background.
Before I became a writer, I worked for both British Rail and Irish Rail as a Signal & Telecoms engineer. I walked the lines with the maintenance teams. I drank tea in signal boxes. I crossed boggy fields to site radio masts. Because of this it was important for me to explore some unusual and behind the scenes stories during my residency and to talk to the often invisible people who keep the railways running. I worked with a train conductor, staff from Central Traffic Control, the person who puzzles out the Irish Rail timetables and a project manager updating the seating reservation system. They all gave an insight into their daily jobs through their haiku.
My engineering background also informed my own haiku on occasions.
We change direction,
like points levered left to right,
set on a new path.
I was delighted to travel to four universities to run writing workshops for their Creative Writing students – QUB, Ulster University Coleraine, NUI Galway and UCD. The journeys provided inspiration for countless workshop ideas. I used inspirational prompts from my journeys to encourage the students to write about invisible people. You can read all the passenger and staff haiku and student writing on the Instagram page @roamingwriterstories.
As the initial date for Brexit loomed, I was continuously crossing the border from north to south. Brexit became one of my sources of inspiration – and perhaps exasperation. My mum is from Dublin so I’ve always had a strong connection to southern Ireland and spent a lot of my life crossing the border to visit relatives and commuting to write on Fair City. It’s sometimes hard to know where you fit. This sense of limbo also pervades my haiku sequence.
It stalls on my tongue
- ‘treannacha’, a foreign word.
Where do I belong?
You can listen to the final audio journey CROSSING POINTS anytime from anywhere, but it’s designed to be listened to on headphones as people travel on trains. Listening to the audio journey in situ as you journey gives it a real resonance and connection to train travel. It’s fantastic listening to it in the location it was written for and inspired by.
Thank you Irish Writers Centre, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Translink and Irish Rail for making this residency possible. It was a dream to work on. So many people were inspired beyond me. The stories and inspiration I gathered will influence many more poems to come.