Paul Maddern was born in Bermuda and has lived in Northern Ireland since 2000. He has four publications with Templar Poetry, the latest being The Tipping Line in 2018. The operator of The River Mill writers’ retreat in County Down, Northern Ireland, he is the editor of Queering the Green: Post-2000 Queer Irish Poetry, published by Lifeboat Press in 2021, and is the recipient of two Bermuda Government Literary Awards. Zócalo’s Poetry Curator for September, Maddern chatted with us in the green room about Good Friday in Bermuda, ballet, and walking in San Francisco.
How has the pandemic affected how you think about or write poetry?
I think like a lot of people going into the lockdown, a lot of us thought, “Oh, this is going to be very productive for us.” And I think a lot of people found it was exactly the opposite. I didn’t write very much at all during the lockdown; I just didn’t feel I was in the right space to do that. I was also in the lockdown with my mother, who had really bad dementia for the last two years of her life.
I’m wary of people or poets or writers, in general, riding the wave of a current situation in order to produce poetry. I think we will all, in some ways, respond to COVID, but I’m not entirely convinced that that produces very good poetry or that it’s ethically sound to be doing that. I think you need a time of reflection, to think it through fully.
Who are poets that you’re reading currently?
Because I’m so busy, I’m not reading a great deal. There’s a young poet, Dean Brown, who is included in the curation I’ve done for Zócalo. I’ve been reading a bit of Jane Hirshfield as well. She stayed at the River Mill for a few days when she was over at the Seamus Heaney Centre, and I’ve really enjoyed discovering her work. Rafael Campo, who’s a doctor who’s a gay man and writes wonderful, wonderful poetry. Kathryn Bevis, a wonderful poet who’s suffering from a terminal illness at the moment. She’s been writing beautiful poems about that, approaching something as big of a topic as terminal illness, approaching it with great integrity, writing about what’s happening to her but also about her place in the world, and how it has given her a sort of heightened awareness of certain things.
Who was your childhood hero?
Opera singer Jon Vickers. I was good friends with his son, Ken Vickers, who’s still my best friend. I fell in love with the sound that Jon Vickers made, but more than that, he was, in some ways like a second father to me. He’s remained a hugely important figure in my life, serving as an example for artistic integrity and knowing fully what you are doing as an artist.
Where do you go to be alone?
I’m working pretty much seven days a week now, and I’m surrounded by people at the River Mill [Writer’s Retreat]. If I have a day off, I like to swim in a pool that’s near me. If I have a sufficient amount of time, I would go to Donegal on the west coast of Ireland to Tramore Strand. It’s just unbelievably beautiful. I’ve stayed there a few times on my own, and occasionally, you’re the only person on this incredible beach for the entire day.
What year, past or future, would you time travel to if you could?
Maybe to the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King. He was the one who really started making ballet into an art form, and it transferred from there to the Russian courts, and then Russia became the place where it really blossomed.
What is your hidden talent?
I was very much into showing dogs and into junior handling, so I would show other people’s dogs for them in competition. I actually was invited up to New England to show people’s dogs for them at the Montgomery Terrier Show. And I was considering, very seriously, a career in dog handling until I told my mother—normally a very placid woman, and very level-headed—and she went ballistic, saying no son of mine will ever be a dog handler.
Would you say that’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?
I worked at a place called the Limelight in London, which was a very famous nightclub and is still there. The man who owned it at the time wanted to turn it into a restaurant. So, it was the restaurant until 7:30 in the night, and then it transferred back into being a nightclub. I was there from about 9 o’clock in the morning, all the way to about 2 o’clock in the morning. I did that for about six months before I just realized I couldn’t keep doing that. I don’t know if it was a strange job as such, but it was an awful job, anyway.
What’s your favorite holiday?
I should say St. Patrick’s Day, but it’s not. I grew up in Bermuda, and my favorite is Easter. They have this wonderful tradition of flying kites on Good Friday. The original kite is really in the shape of a cross, so the idea was you were raising a cross up into the sky.
Bermuda has developed a beautiful, very stylized version of kites. It’s all balsa wood and string and colored tissue paper in very intricate, very elaborate patterns. These kites are flowing in the air, and they also make a very distinctive sound. So that would be part of Good Friday, and then you would all go to the beach, and you would eat fishcakes in the middle of hot cross buns. It’s the one day of the year that I really miss not being back home in Bermuda.
What’s your favorite thing to make for River Mill Retreat guests?
It sounds disgusting, but it’s boiled beetroot, surrounded by butternut squash and onions and lentils all wrapped up in pastry. I serve that with a Greek and mint yogurt, and it’s very popular. There’s a lot more vegetarians and vegans now, so [I serve] almost all vegetarian food now and no one seems to mind.
You’ve lived in a lot of different places. Where’s one place that you want to go back and visit?
San Francisco. I haven’t been back since I left around 1988. I understand it’s changed a great deal since then, and not for the better in many cases, but it’s where I first lived openly as a gay man. It’s where I had a lot of adventures, both good and bad. It’s where I still have friends from those days, and we’re connected still on Facebook.
I would love to go back and see the city itself again. Go to the Opera House and maybe watch a ballet with the San Francisco Ballet. Walk through Golden Gate Park, down to the sea and around the coast, back up into San Francisco proper, cross over to Sausalito, maybe go up to the Russian River and see if that’s still an interesting place to go for a weekend. What I used to love about the city is walking around. You turn a corner and you’re in a completely different neighborhood. I loved that very much.