Derek Walcott sat down with Dante Micheaux of Wolf Magazine for an interview about his forthcoming collection of poems, White Egrets. Here are some excerpts. You can access the complete interview through the link below:
There is mention of a Joseph in the work, assumed to be Joseph Brodsky. Would you say something about your relationship to him and its present significance to your work? What were the dynamics of that great trio—you, Brodsky and Heaney?
Going backwards, the great thing about the friendships we formed with one another is that they were without jealousy or competitiveness. Joseph was a Russian poet, Seamus Irish and I Caribbean. Between us there was a kind of undergraduate humour that we enjoyed (Joseph could be phenomenally obscene!)
To share that kind of respect for one another must have been very rare, particularly at the level the three of you were working at.
The older you get the more you realise how mean this whole atmosphere of being writer’s can become. The nastiness, jealousy, gossip or whatever. What I’ve learnt is that the really great poets are gracious; they have so much confidence they don’t have jealousy of each other. Joseph used to call them what the English do: Gentlemen. And sometimes he would say: ‘This person is not a gentlemen!’ I learnt a lot from Joseph: concentration and a respect for the endeavour of the poem, what it was trying to do intellectually, instead of just sliding on rhythm or something exotic. To make the poem intelligent is not always a quality apparent in poetry. I also learnt concentration from Seamus, but also bravery about vocabulary—to be bold in terms of scale.
There’s a wonderful line in ‘White Egrets’ where you declare ‘my frenzy is stasis’. Would you talk about how you divert your artistic ‘frenzy’ into other genres, like writing plays and painting?
I suppose everything like this depends on the scale of your ambition and where that ambition is directed. I’ve gone past any idea of being part of either American or English poetic endeavour.
I’ve come to realise that certain things belong to certain cultures. The approved hierarchy is a global thing; the centre is always New York, London or Paris and it’s very hard not to be magnetised to these or thinking of your work receiving the benediction of that centre. But I’ve gone passed that now. I wouldn’t say that I don’t care about reviews from London, or so on, but I have a feeling that I am writing from where I belong. And that’s very hard for young writers to do because they cannot resist the seduction and the challenge that is there (it’s like trying to be a rock star, you know!). Every young poet is infected with that ambition. I think the same sense of hierarchy exists with critics. That whole race, that competitiveness, is hard to avoid.
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You’ve mentioned in previous poems about how expansion in the Caribbean is often to the detriment to the landscape. Now that you’ve returned to live permanently in St. Lucia have the old annoyances come back on seeing the landscape continually transformed by resorts and hotels?
Well, I like hotels, I enjoy being in luxury! But the danger is the exclusion of the people from the life of a hotel. Little Caribbean islands will be smothered by the tourist industry; I mean the people can be. That’s what I warn about. In St. Lucia there’s some development right next door to me, which I’m sure is illegal. So that’s my personal experience coming forth in terms of hotel development. But think of the poor people who are offered good money, almost nothing to the developers for the land they acquire.
You posit, in White Egrets, that your best poems are behind you: ‘[A]ll that vigour finished with which I sought a / richer life to this halfhearted search.’ Have you lost allegiance to any poems—‘Epitaph for the Young’, for instance—which is virtually unknown by your readers? Are there earlier poems that must be considered in reading later ones, as ‘Epitaph…’ should be considered when reading Another Life?
I always wanted to imitate, to learn by copying, to train oneself in the same very conventional way that any Old Master begun by drawing from some mentor. I’ve always model myself; if it means imitation then do it. This is something I’ve always felt good about and not embarrassed by. Imitation is a way to be original.
[. . . ]
Do you foresee any new poetry collections after White Egrets—if so can you share the direction of the poems?
The book is coming out later than I thought (they have their reasons, I guess). Between now and then there might be a few more poems, so it might be a big-ish book. But I’m not writing anything new after that, unless there’s a long poem to be written. We’ll see.
[. . .]
What led you back to St. Lucia? Do you see it as a sort of retirement or is it the ploy of Antaeus—returning to your own soil to gather strength?
Being in the Caribbean is very physical for me. I like the sun; I like the salt. I mean, I was New York last week, in a nice hotel but, right now, I’m dying to stop talking to you and go to the beach. [jokingly] I swim to Martinique and back everyday. Actually, I’m traveling more than I ever did before. I’ve not secluded myself hermetically. I’m getting invitations all the time, which I am accepting (because, sometimes, the money is very good). And seeing another place is always good. I recently came back from Nigeria, quite an experience.
For the complete interview go to http://www.wolfmagazine.co.uk/21_walcott.php