Recollections by Paula Simons for the Edmonton Journal.
Derek Walcott, the Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright died early Friday morning at his home in St. Lucia. He was 87.
In 2009, Walcott was named the University of Alberta’s first-ever Distinguished Scholar in Residence. I had the opportunity to speak with him then about his passion for language, his disdain for modernism, and the aftermath of a sexual harassment scandal that cost him a plum position at Oxford.
Here is the story I wrote about our encounter, which first appeared in the Edmonton Journal on October 18, 2009:
I’ve arrived at Derek Walcott’s downtown hotel 15 minutes early for our interview. But when I walk in the door, the distinguished Nobel laureate is already waiting for me in the lobby, sitting on a cosy chesterfield, a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast in his hand.
From the waist up, Walcott, who’s been in Edmonton these past six weeks, serving as the University of Alberta’ first official Distinguished Scholar in Residence, is dressed in a professorial tweed jacket. From the waist down, he’s wearing plaid pyjama pants with bedroom slippers.
It’s an arresting image. Is it a metaphor, symbolic of a man who’s walked with kings, yet kept the common touch? Or does it merely suggest that at the age of 79, Walcott is long past the point when he bothers to dress up to impress newspaper reporters?
Sartorial sensibilities aside, there’s no doubt that Walcott is a man of many parts and contradictions. He’s a poet, a playwright, a stage director, a screenwriter, a painter, a man who created a Broadway musical with Paul Simon and an opera with Seamus Heaney. He grew up on the small Caribbean island of St. Lucia, speaking English at home and in the classroom, and the island’s French Creole in the playground. A descendent of both African and European culture, he came of age immersed in the specific geography, history, flora and fauna of his native island–and equally immersed in Homer, Greek mythology, and the plays of William Shakespeare. He emerged, both as a fierce critic of the European colonial legacy, and an enthusiastic inheritor of the British literary tradition.
And as a writer of the modern, and post-modern ages, when so many poets cast aside traditional conventions of rhyme and narrative, Walcott has created a lifetime’s worth of gorgeous, lush, sensuous poetry, deliciously readable poems filled with humour, and passion and politics and humanity, ranging from short lyric works that celebrate the beauty of St. Lucia’s landscape to long narrative epics like his masterwork, Omeros, a retelling of The Odyssey, with a Caribbean twist.
“I do not consider myself ‘un-modern,’ ” Walcott says, cheekily. “I think I write in an inevitable manner. That means I write as clearly as possible. I think that verse has a particular rhythm, and I think that verse should rhyme. I’m not preserving old ways. I’m just saying that what I’m doing is extremely natural.”
Most of the art of the 20th century, he dismisses as “fake.”
“I’m very vehement about abstract art. I’m very square,” he says. “I think that at the heart of every work of art there is a story, a one-two-three, a symmetry, and much modern art is about the rejection of that idea of symmetry as being old-fashioned.”
Walcott feels lucky to have grown up as a writer in St. Lucia, in a culture that wasn’t obsessed with novelty for its own sake, that didn’t despise traditional narrative or representational art.
“The luck that I think I have it that I do not live in a society that is excited by famousness, or the defiance of meaning,” he says. “The society I come from demands meaning, demands understanding, and that’s pass for some cultures.”
“Whatever is fashionable in New York is supposed to be fashionable all over the world, and that’s the arrogance that irritates me. But I don’t have to go by that New York thinking. In fact, I have to go by a culture that demands understanding of what it’s looking at or reading.”
That inherent human longing for form and meaning is what fascinates him about the phenomenon of rap music. In a way, he suggests, rap artists have rescued popular poetry from arid elitism.
“It’s not true, of course, that anyone can be a poet, or even try to be a poet,” he says with a chuckle.
“But I think the activity of rap is a very healthy thing. I think if young writers are trying to rhyme, which is what they’re doing, it’s like a formal protest, in terms of composition.”
“It startled me, when rap came around, because you might have expected that protest would go in a different direction, in a form of violence. And the shape the revolution took was a surprising shape, in symmetry of language, in rhyme and rhythm.”
In fact, Walcott sees intriguing parallels between the social commentary of contemporary rap artists and the social satire of 18th century poets like Alexander Pope or John Dryden.
“You have to rhyme with rap. You’re doing the same thing as a heroic couplet, with the addition of doing it to music. Certain things fulfil themselves because they’re human instincts. Why should satire be in heroic couplets, in rap, as much as in Alexander Pope? Because the couplet summarizes, it emphasizes, it economizes.”
” Da da, da da, da da, da da, da dat/Da da, da da, da da, da da, da dat,” he chants. “That’s a natural couplet instinct, to criticize anything, because of the rhyme.”
Such startling creative parallels infuse much of Walcott’s work. Many of his poems read like conversations with the poets of the ages, from Homer, Shakespeare, and John Donne to Philip Larkin, W. H. Auden, Joseph Brodsky and Bob Marley.
“I know that in terms of time, there is no past, in terms of poetry,” says Walcott, emphatically. “The declension of poetry cannot be done in the normal way of dating it, as if it were calendar. There’s a constant ‘is’ in poetry and that is the conjugation of a poem, in the present tense. The greatest poets, the greatest poems, are in the present tense.”
Some poets, of course, live lives of splendid isolation, alone with their words, writing for small, and invisible, audiences. Such a solitary existence has never been Walcott’s style. While he’s primarily known as a poet, the theatre is his other grand passion.
“I’ve always written plays, from very young. My mother used to act, so I know that background. I always formed companies of actors with my brother. I always loved to write and work with actors, because of the ensemble– that’s one of the greatest joys a writer can have, to write directly for an ensemble, to write with actors in mind,” he says.
But theatre comes with its own frustrations, especially American-style commercial theatre, he says.
“Celebrity is definitely one of the problems of theatre, too, now. I think the money is so big, it’s irresistible. There are people who make millions of dollars because of the way they look, not because of their talent.”
For man still passionately in love with his St. Lucia home– “If I get away from the sea too long I start to get very homesick”–Walcott leads a remarkably peripatetic existence. Earlier in his career, he spent years living and working in Brooklyn and Boston. But since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992, he has become a kind of a modern minstrel, or poetic pilgrim, teaching, speaking and reading all over the world. Before taking up his teaching duties in Edmonton this fall, he was in Nigeria. Later this year, he’ll head to Poland.
“The Nobel Prize has changed my life, in terms of getting to different places and seeing different cultures,” he says. “You have to reassess. To be in Mexico is very different than reading about Mexico. And I’d never really experienced the width of a prairie, of plain, and what that feels like.”
The place where he’s not, of course, is Oxford. This past May, Walcott was the odds-on favourite to win the prestigious post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. He took himself out of the running, after his leading rival for the job, British poet Ruth Padel, helped to orchestrate a smear campaign against him, sending out anonymous emails to British journalists, digging up two incidents from the 1980s and 1990s, involving two former students who’d accused Walcott of sexual harassment. Padel won the poetry professor post, but resigned shortly afterwards, when her role in the messy affair became public.
The Oxford dust-up, and the old sexual harassment allegations are not subjects Walcott is keen to discuss.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he says. “It’s just very boring. No, all I can say is that there are some people who stood up very pleasantly for me. A lot of writers wrote in protest of what happened.”
Besides, he says, the Oxford lectureship would have meant a lot of work.
“I would have had to write too many lectures,” he says with a twinkle.
Still, Walcott says he’s relished his time, teaching poetry classes at the U of A.
“Going back into the classroom is both horrifying and wonderful,” he says. “There’s a lot of work that I have to do, to pay attention to each young writer. But when you make that contact, it’s very rewarding, I think.”
“I’ve taught for a long time now. My mother was a teacher, so it’s hereditary. You see a young talent emerging, trying to do things. But I’ve had some very very good students published, and that’s always exciting, when they pay attention and try to do as well as they can.”
The most horrifying thing about his time in Edmonton, though, hasn’t been the marking workload or even the bizarre weather. It’s crossing the North Saskatchewan. Most days, Walcott explains, he’s been picked up at his hotel, and driven to campus by Edmonton poet and U of A professor Bert Almon. For Walcott, who suffers from terrible vertigo, taking the High Level Bridge is a regular torment.
“I close my eyes,” he confesses.
The poet, who turns 80 in January, has kept a rather low profile during this U of A stint. But he’s scheduled to return next September, and the one after that. Perhaps, with a year’s lead time, the university might have the chance to organize something more akin to a Walcott mini-festival, staging one of his acclaimed plays or mounting a show of his paintings.
For his part, Walcott says he’s made good use of his time here, working on one play, adapting an existing theatre piece as a concert musical, and turning another play into a film script. But he hasn’t come to Edmonton looking for poetic material, he says.
“I don’t go looking for ‘content,’ ” he says. “I’m very lazy. I hope ‘content’ will come toward me.”
So will there be poems about Edmonton in Walcott’s future–and ours?
He flashes a mischievious grin.
“Maybe I’ll write about me charging a buffalo–but I don’t think so.”