REVERED: Derek Walcott giving a reading; the poet in his earlier years;
PREPARING TO meet a man who is revered in the literary world was just a tad daunting. With credits including Nobel Prize winner and Professor of Poetry at the University of Essex, it was hard not to be unnerved by the grandeur of such titles.
Who knew that an interview with the legendary Derek Walcott would have me in tears of laughter, and have him extending our interview time by a further 15 minutes, just so we could chit-chat for longer?
In the UK directing a run of his own production, Pantomime, which opened at the University of Essex, last week, the St. Lucian poet, playwright and visual artist was charming and delightful, asking almost as many questions as he was asked, which made for a great conversation.
Making an annual trip to the UK to fulfill his role as Professor of Poetry at the University of Essex, Walcott proposed this year to undertake the directorial role of his 1970s production Pantomime. A satirical reinterpretation of the Robinson Crusoe story, the play is set in Tobago and explores issues including colonialism and the creative process, through the relationship between former English song-and-dance man Harry Trewe and his servant Jackson Phillip.
The two-man production saw Walcott directing actors David Tarkenter and Trinidadian actor Wendell Manwarren. How does the playwright describe himself as a director?
“Beautiful,” laughs the 82-year-old. “Never ask me to describe myself, I’ll always say the same thing! No, as a director, if you’re lucky, you just sit back and let the actors work. When they’re really good, they bring the piece to life with little direction.”
Also using his time at the university to give lectures to students, Walcott says he thoroughly enjoys imparting poetic knowledge to aspiring writers.
“I’m only here [in the UK] two weeks a year, but I teach in Canada too. I like teaching poetry to younger people. It can be very exciting to hear what people come up with and I’m very relaxed in my teaching. I’ve got some students coming to St. Lucia from Canada this year, which is exciting. I’d like to show them the island; it’s astonishing. Have you ever been there?”
Feeling all pleased with myself, I relayed that I had indeed been to St. Lucia a few years back for the island’s annual Jazz Festival.
“Really?” Walcott exclaimed excitedly. “Where did you stay?”
And then came the awkward moment, as I racked my brain trying to remember.
“Was it a beach hotel? Was it by a long line of trees?”
Still, nothing. (Thankfully, I’ve since remembered – it was the East Winds hotel, Mr Walcott!) Eventually forgiving my poor memory, the patriotic St. Lucian then enquired what else I’d done whilst on the island?
“Did you do the usual, swim and all that?”
Admitting that I’m not a very strong swimmer, I asked him how he fares in the water.
“Well, I swim... but I’m not showoff-ish!”
IN GOOD COMPANY: Nobel Prize winning authors (L-R) Nadine Gordimer, Walcott, Toni Morrison and Wole Soyinka
Following more general chit chat, including Walcott asking me where my parents are from (“Jamaica,” I replied), and subsequently, asking which part of Jamaica they’re from (“my mum is from St. Ann and dad is from St. Andrew,” I replied), I caught sight of the time and realised that Walcott and I had done little more than banter – and it was wonderful.
Far from being a man who had become caught up in the hype of his undeniable importance in the literary world, Walcott proved to be a down to earth Caribbean man, who, at times, seemed more interested in listening than talking about himself.
But of course, the man is a legend. Born in the St. Lucian capital Castries, Walcott studied at St. Mary's College in his native island and then at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica.
In 1953, he moved to Trinidad, where he has worked as theatre and art critic. At the age of 18, he made his debut with 25 Poems, but his breakthrough came with the collection of poems, In A Green Night (1962). In 1959, he founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, which produced many of his early plays.
Considering his initial inspiration to embark on a career in writing, Walcott says: “My mother was a schoolteacher. My father died when I was very young but he was a writer and a painter too. Growing up in that environment, I was very encouraged and I had very good teachers. My brother also wrote.
“When you’re a young writer and you get good encouragement, it’s wonderful. So that’s what I try to do; I try to repay what I got by teaching young people. Teaching is a great thing.”
Amongst his many other works is 1990’s Omeros, which was modeled on the epics of Greek poet Homer and told the history of St. Lucia. But, of course, one of the author’s most talked-about achievements is the prestigious Nobel Prize for literature, which he was awarded in 1992.
HONOURED: A tribute plaque to the author in Derek Walcott Square in the St. Lucian capital Castries
“The Nobel Prize was a great, great honour. I look at the names of Nobel Prize winners sometimes and I think to myself, ‘what am I doing on there?’ But people in St. Lucia were very happy for me when I received it. The elation they had was very moving.
“I was telling someone recently that when there were celebrations in Castries years ago, I brought the Nobel Prize. It was raining a lot so we left the square” – incidentally, “the square” is named Derek Walcott Square – “and went into the church cathedral. There was a guy outside riding around and he said in Creole [of the Nobel Prize] ‘I don’t know what it is, but I’m happy!’ That was nice.”
Still, Walcott admits that a Nobel Prize winner isn’t so celebrated in some places in the world.
“There are some countries who revere the prize. But the States... it doesn’t matter to them out there.”
Why does Walcott think that is?
“They prefer Brad Pitt,” he laughs. “I don’t blame them – he’s better looking!”
As we both laughed, I suddenly felt intrigued as to whether there’s any such thing as an ‘average day’ for Walcott, who remains an active teacher and traveller. Turns out, there are some things that are routine.
WELCOME: The entrance to the Square itself
“Every day I get up, I go outside and say I ‘how beautiful’. Every morning I step outside my house, I’m astonished at the beauty [of the island].
He continues: “I always work in the morning and the afternoon – I don’t work in the evening. And I paint too.”
Is he into any particular music?
“I don’t play much music, but I like St. Lucian music... You know it?”
Forced to confess that I’m not really familiar with St. Lucian music, I was playfully teased by Walcott who replied, laughing: “You see the contempt you Jamaicans have [for our music]!”
With tears of laughter welling up in my eyes, I pleaded with the poet that I didn’t have an ounce of contempt for St. Lucian music, merely a lack of knowledge. I was quickly educated...
“There’s cuatro, shak shak – you say shak shak in Jamaica?
Erm... not as far as I know.
“Well, that’s the music I like a lot; the traditional music.”
So what’s in the pipeline for the celebrated author? Is he working on anything new?
“[Author] Wole Soyinka said that one of the worst things people can ask him is what he’s working on now,” Walcott laughed. “I think it’s a little risky to describe what you’re working on... but I’m working on something.”
By now, I’d run well over my allocated 15-minute slot and was ready to wish Walcott a fond farewell, but the author politely informed the interview organiser that we’d “need another 15 minutes.”
Walcott then settled back into his chair before asking me: “So how many times have you been to Jamaica?”
And so our banter continued...