Interviews

Derek Walcott, The Art of Poetry No. 37

Interviewed by Edward Hirsch

I went to visit Derek Walcott on his home island of St. Lucia in mid-June, 1985. St. Lucia is one of the four Windward Islands in the eastern Caribbean, a small mountainous island that faces the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other. For a week Walcott and I stayed in adjacent bungalows, called Hunt’s Beach Cottages, just a few miles from the harbor city of Castries, where he was born and raised. Outside of our large, mildly ramshackle cottages, a few stone tables and chairs were cemented into a strip of grass; beyond was a row of coconut trees and then, just a few yards away, what Walcott has called “the theater of the sea,” the Caribbean. One is always aware of the sea in St. Lucia—an inescapable natural presence that has deeply affected Walcott’s sense of being an islander, a New World poet.

To live next door to Walcott, even for a week, is to understand how he has managed to be so productive over the years. A prodigious worker, he often starts at about 4:30 in the morning and continues until he has done a four- or five-hour stint—by the time most people are getting up for the day. On a small easel next to a small blue portable typewriter, he had recently done a pencil drawing of his wife, Norline, and a couple of new watercolors to serve as storyboards for a film version of Pantomime (he is doing the film script); he had also just finished the draft of an original screenplay about a steel band, as well as an extended essay about the Grenada invasion (to be called “Good Old Heart of Darkness”), and a new manuscript of poems, The Arkansas Testament. At the time of this interview the cuttings for two more films were all but complete: a film version of his play, Haitian Earth (which he had produced in St. Lucia the previous year), and a documentary film about Hart Crane for public television. At times one gets the impression that the poetry for which he is primarily known has had to be squeezed between all his other projects.

Our conversation took place over three days—beginning in the late afternoon or early evening and continuing until dark. We talked at the table and chairs outside our cottages, where we could hear the wind in the coconut trees and the waves breaking on the shore. A compact man in his mid-fifties, Walcott was still dressed from his afternoon on the beach—barefoot, a pair of brown beach trunks and a thin cotton shirt. Often he kept a striped beach towel draped around his shoulders, a white flour-sack beach hat pushed forward jauntily on his head. He seemed always to be either smoking or about to start.

 

INTERVIEWER

I’d like to begin by asking you to talk about your family background. In many ways it was atypical for St. Lucia. For example, you were raised as a Methodist on a primarily Catholic island. Your family also seems to have been unusually oriented toward the arts.

DEREK WALCOTT

My family background really only consists of my mother. She was a widow. My father died quite young; he must have been thirty-one. Then there was my twin brother and my sister. We had two aunts as well, my father’s sisters. But the immediate family consisted of my mother, my brother, my sister, and me. I remember from very early childhood my mother, who was a teacher, reciting a lot around the house. I remember coming across drawings that my father had done, poems that he had written, watercolors that were hanging in our living room—his original watercolors—and a terrific series of books: a lot of Dickens, Scott, quite a lot of poetry. There was also an old Victrola with a lot of classical records. And so my family always had this interest in the arts. Coming from a Methodist minority in a French Catholic island, we also felt a little beleaguered. The Catholicism propounded by the French provincial priests in St. Lucia was a very hidebound, prejudiced, medieval, almost hounding kind of Catholicism. The doctrine that was taught assigned all Protestants to limbo. So we felt defensive about our position. This never came to a head, but we did feel we had to stay close together. It was good for me, too, to be able to ask questions as a Protestant, to question large authority. Nobody in my generation at my age would dare question the complete and absolute authority of the church. Even into sixth form, my school friends and I used to have some terrific arguments about religious doctrine. It was a good thing. I think young writers ought to be heretical.

INTERVIEWER

In an essay called “Leaving School” you suggest that the artifacts of your father’s twin avocations, poetry and painting, made your own sense of vocation seem inevitable. Would you describe his creative work and how it affected you? 

WALCOTT

My mother, who is nearly ninety now, still talks continually about my father. All my life I’ve been aware of her grief about his absence and her strong pride in his conduct. He was very young when he died of mastoiditis, which is an ear infection. Medicine in St. Lucia in those days was crude or very minimal; I know he had to go to Barbados for operations. I don’t remember the death or anything like that, but I always felt his presence because of the paintings that he did. He had a self-portrait in watercolor in an oval frame next to a portrait of my mother, an oil that was very good for an amateur painter. I remember once coming across a backcloth of a very ordinary kind of moonlight scene that he had painted for some number that was going to be done by a group of people who did concerts and recitations and stuff like that. So that was always there. Now that didn’t make me a morose, morbid child. Rather, in a sense, it gave me a kind of impetus and a strong sense of continuity. I felt that what had been cut off in him somehow was an extension that I was continuing.

INTERVIEWER

When did you first discover his poems?

WALCOTT

The poems I’m talking about are not a collection. I remember a couple of funny lyrics that were done in a Southern American dialect for some show he was probably presenting. They were witty little satirical things. I can’t remember any poems of a serious nature. I remember more of his art work. I remember a fine watercolor copy of Millet’s The Gleaners that we had in the living room. The original is an oil painting and even now I am aware of the delicacy of that copy. He had a delicate sense of watercolor. Later on I discovered that my friend Harold Simmons, who was a professional painter, evidently was encouraged by my father to be a painter. So there’s always this continuity in my association with people who knew him and people who were very proud to be his friend. My mother would tell us that, and that’s what I felt.

INTERVIEWER

Your book-length autobiographical poem, Another Life, makes it clear that two painters were crucial to your development: your mentor Harold Simmons, called Harry in the poem, and your friend Dunstan St. Omer, renamed Gregorias. Would you talk about their importance to you?

WALCOTT

Harry taught us. He had paints, he had music in his studio, and he was evidently a good friend of my father’s. When he found out that we liked painting, he invited about four or five of us to come up to his studio and sit out on his veranda. He gave us equipment and told us to draw. Now that may seem very ordinary in a city, in another place, but in a very small, poor country like St. Lucia it was extraordinary. He encouraged us to spend our Saturday afternoons painting; he surrounded us with examples of his own painting. Just to let us be there and to have the ambience of his books, his music, his own supervision, and the stillness and dedication that his life meant in that studio was a terrific example. The influence was not so much technical. Of course, I picked up a few things from him in terms of technique: how to do a good sky, how to water the paper, how to circle it, how to draw properly and concentrate on it, and all of that. But there were other things apart from the drawing. Mostly, it was the model of the man as a professional artist that was the example. After a while, the younger guys dropped out of the drawing thing and Dunstan St. Omer and I were left. We used to go out and paint together. We discovered it at the same time.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have a favorite painter then?

WALCOTT

The painter I really thought I could learn from was Cézanne—some sort of resemblance to oranges and greens and browns of the dry season in St. Lucia. I used to look across from the roof towards Vigie—the barracks were there and I’d see the pale orange roofs and the brickwork and the screen of trees and the cliff and the very flat blue and think a lot of Cézanne. Maybe because of the rigidity of the cubes and the verticals and so on. It’s as if he knew the St. Lucian landscape—you could see his painting happening there. There were other painters of course, like Giorgione, but I think it gave me a lot of strength to think of Cézanne when I was painting.

INTERVIEWER

What would you say about the epiphanic experience described in Another Life, which seems to have confirmed your destiny as a poet and sealed a bond to your native island?

WALCOTT

There are some things people avoid saying in interviews because they sound pompous or sentimental or too mystical. I have never separated the writing of poetry from prayer. I have grown up believing it is a vocation, a religious vocation. What I described in Another Life—about being on the hill and feeling the sort of dissolution that happened—is a frequent experience in a younger writer. I felt this sweetness of melancholy, of a sense of mortality, or rather of immortality, a sense of gratitude both for what you feel is a gift and for the beauty of the earth, the beauty of life around us. When that’s forceful in a young writer, it can make you cry. It’s just clear tears; it’s not grimacing or being contorted, it’s just a flow that happens. The body feels it is melting into what it has seen. This continues in the poet. It may be repressed in some way, but I think we continue in all our lives to have that sense of melting, of the “I” not being important. That is the ecstasy. It doesn’t happen as much when you get older. There’s that wonderful passage in Traherne where he talks about seeing the children as moving jewels until they learn the dirty devices of the world. It’s not that mystic. Ultimately, it’s what Yeats says: “Such a sweetness flows into the breast that we laugh at everything and everything we look upon is blessed.” That’s always there. It’s a benediction, a transference. It’s gratitude, really. The more of that a poet keeps, the more genuine his nature. I’ve always felt that sense of gratitude. I’ve never felt equal to it in terms of my writing, but I’ve never felt that I was ever less than that. And so in that particular passage in Another Life I was recording a particular moment.

INTERVIEWER

How do you write? In regard to your equation of poetry and prayer, is the writing ritualized in any way?

WALCOTT

I don’t know how many writers are willing to confess to their private preparatory rituals before they get down to putting something on paper. But I imagine that all artists and all writers in that moment before they begin their working day or working night have that area between beginning and preparation, and however brief it is, there is something about it votive and humble and in a sense ritualistic. Individual writers have different postures, different stances, even different physical attitudes as they stand or sit over their blank paper, and in a sense, without doing it, they are crossing themselves; I mean, it’s like the habit of Catholics going into water: you cross yourself before you go in. Any serious attempt to try to do something worthwhile is ritualistic. I haven’t noticed what my own devices are. But I do know that if one thinks a poem is coming on—in spite of the noise of the typewriter, or the traffic outside the window, or whatever—you do make a retreat, a withdrawal into some kind of silence that cuts out everything around you. What you’re taking on is really not a renewal of your identity but actually a renewal of your anonymity, so that what’s in front of you becomes more important than what you are. Equally—and it may be a little pretentious-sounding to say it—sometimes if I feel that I have done good work I do pray, I do say thanks. It isn’t often, of course. I don’t do it every day. I’m not a monk, but if something does happen I say thanks because I feel that it is really a piece of luck, a kind of fleeting grace that has happened to one. Between the beginning and the ending and the actual composition that goes on, there is a kind of trance that you hope to enter where every aspect of your intellect is functioning simultaneously for the progress of the composition. But there is no way you can induce that trance.

Lately, I find myself getting up earlier, which may be a sign of late middle age. It worries me a bit. I guess this is part of the ritual: I go and make a cup of coffee, put on the kettle, and have a cigarette. By now I’m not too sure if out of habit I’m getting up for the coffee rather than to write. I may be getting up that early to smoke, not really to write.

INTERVIEWER

What time is this?

WALCOTT

It can vary. Sometimes it’s as early as half-past three, which is, you know, not too nice. The average time would be about five. It depends on how well I’m sleeping. But that hour, that whole time of day, is wonderful in the Caribbean. I love the cool darkness and the joy and splendor of the sunrise coming up. I guess I would say, especially in the location of where I am, the early dark and the sunrise, and being up with the coffee and with whatever you’re working on, is a very ritualistic thing. I’d even go further and say it’s a religious thing. It has its instruments and its surroundings. And you can feel your own spirit waking.

INTERVIEWER

Recently, I heard you say that you were deeply formed by Methodism. How?

WALCOTT

In a private way, I think I still have a very simple, straightforward foursquare Methodism in me. I admire the quiet, pragmatic reason that is there in a faith like Methodism, which is a very practical thing of conduct. I’m not talking about a fanatical fundamentalism. I suppose the best word for it is decency. Decency and understanding are what I’ve learned from being a Methodist. Always, one was responsible to God for one’s inner conduct and not to any immense hierarchy of angels and saints. In a way I think I tried to say that in some earlier poems. There’s also a very strong sense of carpentry in Protestantism, in making things simply and in a utilitarian way. At this period of my life and work, I think of myself in a way as a carpenter, as one making frames, simply and well. I’m working a lot in quatrains, or I have been, and I feel that there is something in that that is very ordinary, you know, without any mystique. I’m trying to get rid of the mystique as much as possible. And so I find myself wanting to write very simply cut, very contracted, very speakable, and very challenging quatrains in rhymes. Any other shape seems ornate, an elaboration on that essential cube that really is the poem. So we can then say the craft is as ritualistic as that of a carpenter putting down his plane and measuring his stanzas and setting them squarely. And the frame becomes more important than the carpenter. 

INTERVIEWER

Another Life suggests that eventually you gave up painting as a vocation and decided to concentrate on poetry. Recently, though, you seem to be at work on your watercolors again. What happened?

WALCOTT

What I tried to say in Another Life is that the act of painting is not an intellectual act dictated by reason. It is an act that is swept very physically by the sensuality of the brushstroke. I’ve always felt that some kind of intellect, some kind of preordering, some kind of criticism of the thing before it is done, has always interfered with my ability to do a painting. I am in fairly continual practice. I think I’m getting adept at watercolor. I’m less mucky. I think I could do a reasonable oil painting. I could probably, if I really set out, be a fairly good painter. I can approach the sensuality. I know how it feels, but for me there is just no completion. I’m content to be a moderately good watercolorist. But I’m not content to be a moderately good poet. That’s a very different thing.

INTERVIEWER

Am I correct that you published your first poem, “The Voice of St. Lucia,” at the precocious age of fourteen? I’ve read that the poem stirred up a considerable local controversy.

WALCOTT

I wrote a poem talking about learning about God through nature and not through the church. The poem was Miltonic and posed nature as a way to learn. I sent it to the local papers and it was printed. Of course, to see your work in print for any younger writer is a great kick. And then the paper printed a letter in which a priest replied (in verse!) stating that what I was saying was blasphemous and that the proper place to find God was in church. For a young boy to get that sort of response from a mature older man, a priest who was an Englishman, and to be accused of blasphemy was a shock. What was a more chastising thing was that the response was in verse. The point of course was to show me that he was also capable of writing verse. He did his in couplets and mine was in blank verse. I would imagine if I looked at both now that mine was better.

INTERVIEWER

Most American and English readers think of In a Green Night as your first book. Before you published abroad, however, you had already printed three booklets at your own expense in the West Indies. How did you come to publish the first one, 25 Poems?

WALCOTT

I used to write every day in an exercise book, and when I first wrote I wrote with great originality. I just wrote as hard and as well as I felt. I remember the great elation and release I felt, a sort of hooking on to a thing, when I read Auden, Eliot, and everyone. One day I would write like Spender, another day I would write like Dylan Thomas. When I felt I had enough poems that I liked, I wanted to see them in print. We had no publishing house in St. Lucia or in the Caribbean. There was a Faber collection of books that had come out with poets like Eliot and Auden, and I liked the typeface and how the books looked. I thought, I want to have a book like that. So I selected a collection of twenty-five of them and thought, Well, these will look good because they’ll look like they came from abroad; they’ll look like a published book. I went to my mother and said, “I’d like to publish a book of poems, and I think it’s going to cost me two hundred dollars.” She was just a seamstress and a schoolteacher, and I remember her being very upset because she wanted to do it. Somehow she got it—a lot of money for a woman to have found on her salary. She gave it to me, and I sent off to Trinidad and had the book printed. When the books came back I would sell them to friends. I made the money back. In terms of seeing a book in print, the only way I could have done it was to publish it myself.

INTERVIEWER

Frank Collymore wrote a very appreciative essay about your early poetry. That must have been a heady experience for a nineteen year old. After all, he was the editor of the groundbreaking Caribbean literary magazine Bim, a man that Edward Braithwaite once called “the greatest of West Indian literary godfathers.”

WALCOTT

Frank Collymore was an absolute saint; I got to know him through Harry Simmons. I have never met a more benign, gentle, considerate, selfless person. I’ll never forget the whole experience of going over to Barbados and meeting him. To be treated at that age by a much older man with such care and love and so on was wonderful. He treated George Lamming the same way. There are people like that, people who love other people, love them for their work and what it is. He was not by any means a patronizing man. He never treated you as if he were a schoolmaster doing you good. I had great fortune when I was young in being treated like that by people, by people much older than I was who treated me, who treated my mind, as if I were equal to them. He was the best example of that.

INTERVIEWER

You once described yourself at nineteen as “an elated, exuberant poet madly in love with English” and said that as a young writer you viewed yourself as legitimately prolonging “the mighty line” of Marlowe and Milton. Will you talk about that sense of yourself?

WALCOTT

I come from a place that likes grandeur; it likes large gestures; it is not inhibited by flourish; it is a rhetorical society; it is a society of physical performance; it is a society of style. The highest achievement of style is rhetoric, as it is in speech and performance. It isn’t a modest society. A performer in the Caribbean has to perform with the right flourish. A calypsonian performer is equivalent to a bullfighter in the ring. He has to come over. He can write the wittiest calypso, but if he’s going to deliver it, he has to deliver it well, and he has to hit the audience with whatever technique he has. Modesty is not possible in performance in the Caribbean—and that’s wonderful. It’s better to be large and to make huge gestures than to be modest and do tiptoeing types of presentations of oneself. Even if it’s a private platform, it is a platform. The voice does go up in a poem. It is an address, even if it is to oneself. And the greatest address is in the rhetoric. I grew up in a place in which if you learned poetry, you shouted it out. Boys would scream it out and perform it and do it and flourish it. If you wanted to approximate that thunder or that power of speech, it couldn’t be done by a little modest voice in which you muttered something to someone else. I came out of that society of the huge gesture. And literature is like that, I mean theatrical literature is like that, whether it’s Greek or whatever. The recitation element in poetry is one I hope I never lose because it’s an essential part of the voice being asked to perform. If we have poets we’re really asking them, Okay, tell me a poem. Generally the implication is, Mutter me a poem. I’m not in that group.

INTERVIEWER

There is a confident, fiery sense of privilege in your early work. In a recent poem, Midsummer, you write “Forty years gone, in my island childhood, I felt that / the gift of poetry had made me one of the chosen, / that all experience was kindling to the fire of the Muse.” 

WALCOTT

I never thought of my gift—I have to say “my gift” because I believe it is a gift—as anything that I did completely on my own. I have felt from my boyhood that I had one function and that was somehow to articulate, not my own experience, but what I saw around me. From the time I was a child I knew it was beautiful. If you go to a peak anywhere in St. Lucia, you feel a simultaneous newness and sense of timelessness at the same time—the presence of where you are. It’s a primal thing and it has always been that way. At the same time I knew that the poor people around me were not beautiful in the romantic sense of being colorful people to paint or to write about. I lived, I have seen them, and I have seen things that I don’t need to go far to see. I felt that that was what I would write about. That’s what I felt my job was. It’s something that other writers have said in their own way, even if it sounds arrogant. Yeats has said it; Joyce has said it. It’s amazing Joyce could say that he wants to write for his race, meaning the Irish. You’d think that Joyce would have a larger, more continental kind of mind, but Joyce continued insisting on his provinciality at the same time he had the most universal mind since Shakespeare. What we can do as poets in terms of our honesty is simply to write within the immediate perimeter of not more than twenty miles really.

INTERVIEWER

How does your sense of discovery of new subject matter integrate with the formal elements in your work?

WALCOTT

One of the things that people have to look at in West Indian literature is this: that what we were deprived of was also our privilege. There was a great joy in making a world that so far, up to then, had been undefined. And yet the imagination wants its limits and delights in its limits. It finds its freedom in the definition of those limits. In a sense, you want to give more symmetry to lives that have been undefined. My generation of West Indian writers has felt such a powerful elation at having the privilege of writing about places and people for the first time and, simultaneously, having behind them the tradition of knowing how well it can be done—by a Defoe, a Dickens, a Richardson. Our world made us yearn for structure, as opposed to wishing to break away from it, because there was no burden, no excess of literature in our heads. It was all new.

INTERVIEWER

Well, then how do you see yourself in terms of the great tradition of poetry in the English language?

WALCOTT

I don’t. I am primarily, absolutely a Caribbean writer. The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination; it is the property of the language itself. I have never felt inhibited in trying to write as well as the greatest English poets. Now that has led to a lot of provincial criticism—the Caribbean critic may say, You are trying to be English, and the English critic may say, Welcome to the club. These are two provincial statements at either end of the spectrum. It’s not a matter of trying to be English. I am obviously a Caribbean poet. I yearn for the company of better Caribbean poets, quite frankly. I feel a little lonely. I don’t see what I thought might have happened—a stronger energy, a stronger discipline, and a stronger drive in Caribbean poetry. That may be because the Caribbean is more musical: every culture has its particular emphasis and obviously the Caribbean’s poetry, talent, and genius is in its music. But then again the modern Caribbean is a very young thing. I consider myself at the beginning, rather than at the end, of a tradition.

INTERVIEWER

Would you say that your relationship to English poetry has changed over the years? As your work has progressed you seem to have increasingly affiliated yourself with a line of New World poets from Whitman through St. John Perse to Aimé Césaire and Pablo Neruda. 

WALCOTT

Carlos Fuentes talked in a Paris Review interview about the essential Central American experience, which includes the whole basin of the Caribbean—that it is already a place of tremendous fertility. The whole New World experience here is shared by Márquez as it is by Borges, as it is still by American writers. In fact, too many American poets don’t take on the scale of America. Not because we should write epics but because it seems to be our place to try to understand. In places that are yet undefined the energy comes with the knowledge that this has not yet been described, this has not yet been painted. This means that I’m standing here like a pioneer. I’m the first person to look at this mountain and try to write about it. I’m the first person to see this lagoon, this piece of land. Here I am with this enormous privilege of just being someone who can take up a brush. My generation of West Indian writers, following after C. L. R. James, all felt the thrill of the absolute sense of discovery. That energy is concomitant with being where we are; it’s part of the whole idea of America. And by America, I mean from Alaska right down to Curaçao.

INTERVIEWER

How do you respond to V. S. Naipaul’s repeated assertion—borrowed from Trollope—that “nothing was created in the British West Indies”?

WALCOTT

Perhaps it should read that “Nothing was created by the British in the West Indies.” Maybe that’s the answer. The departure of the British required and still requires a great deal of endeavor, of repairing the psychological damage done by their laziness and by their indifference. The desolation of poverty that exists in the Caribbean can be very depressing. The only way that one can look at it and draw anything of value from it is to have a fantastic depth of strength and belief, not in the past but in the immediate future. And I think that whenever I come back here, however desolate and however despairing I see the conditions around me to be, I know that I have to draw on terrible reserves of conviction. To abandon that conviction is to betray your origins; it’s to feel superior to your family, to your past. And I’m not capable of that.

INTERVIEWER

Why is the figure of Robinson Crusoe so important to you? 

WALCOTT

There was a time, both in terms of my own life and in terms of the society, when I had an image of the West Indian artist as someone who was in a shipwrecked position. He was someone who would have to build (again) from the concept of being wrecked on these islands. I wrote a poem called “The Castaway.” I told my wife I was going to stay by myself for a weekend somewhere down in Trinidad. My wife agreed. I stayed in a beach house by myself and I wrote the poem there. I’m not saying that’s the origin of my Crusoe idea. But it’s possible. The beaches around here are generally very empty—just you, the sea, and the vegetation around you, and you’re very much by yourself. The poems I have written around the Crusoe theme vary. One of the more positive aspects of the Crusoe idea is that in a sense every race that has come to the Caribbean has been brought here under situations of servitude or rejection, and that is the metaphor of the shipwreck, I think. Then you look around you and you have to make your own tools. Whether that tool is a pen or a hammer, you are building in a situation that’s Adamic; you are rebuilding not only from necessity but also with some idea that you will be here for a long time and with a sense of proprietorship as well. Very broadly that is what has interested me in it. There are other ironies, like the position of Friday as the one who is being civilized. Actually, the reverse happens. People who come out to the Caribbean from the cities and the continents go through a process of being recultured. What they encounter here, if they surrender to their seeing, has a lot to teach them, first of all the proven adaptability of races living next to each other, particularly in places like Trinidad and Jamaica. And then also in the erasure of the idea of history. To me there are always images of erasure in the Caribbean—in the surf that continually wipes the sand clean, in the fact that those huge clouds change so quickly. There is a continual sense of motion in the Caribbean—caused by the sea and the feeling that one is almost traveling through water and not stationary. The size of time is larger—a very different thing in the islands than in the cities. We don’t live so much by the clock. If you have to be in a place where you create your own time, what you learn, I think, is a patience, a tolerance, how to make an artisan of yourself rather than being an artist.

INTERVIEWER

Your recent play Pantomime explores the racial and economic side of the relationship between Crusoe and Friday. In the play, a white English hotel owner in Tobago proposes that he and his black handyman work up a satire on the Crusoe story for the entertainment of the guests. Is the play a parable about colonialism?

WALCOTT

The point of the play is very simple: there are two types. The prototypical Englishman is not supposed to show his grief publicly. He keeps a stiff upper lip. Emotion and passion are supposed to be things that a true-blood Englishman avoids. What the West Indian character does is to try to wear him down into confessing that he is capable of such emotion and there’s nothing wrong in showing it. Some sort of catharsis is possible. That is the main point of the play. It’s to take two types and put them together, put them in one arena and have that happen. I have never thought of it really as a play about racial conflict. When it’s done in America, it becomes a very tense play because of the racial situation there. When it’s done here, it doesn’t have those deep historical overtones of real bitterness. I meant it to be basically a farce that might instruct. And the instruction is that we can’t just contain our grief, that there’s purgation in tears, that tears can renew. Of course, inside the play there’s a point in which both characters have to confront the fact that one is white and one is black. They have to confront their history. But once that peak is passed, once the ritual of confrontation is over, then that’s the beginning of the play. I’ve had people say they think the ending is corny, but generally that criticism has come when I’m in America. The idea of some reconciliation or some adaptability of being able to live together, that is sometimes rejected by people as being a facile solution. But I believe it’s possible

INTERVIEWER

How would you differentiate your work of the middle and late sixties, The Castaway and The Gulf, from your previous writing?

WALCOTT

There’s a vague period in any poet’s life between thirty and forty that is crucial because you can either keep working in one direction, or you can look back on your earlier work as juvenilia, a nice thing to look at from a distance. You have to head toward being forty with a certain kind of mindset to try to recreate chaos so you can learn from it. Yet you also have the fear that your work really has been basically mediocre, a failure, predictable. You find yourself at a point at which you say, Ah, so you have become exactly what you were afraid of becoming: this person, this writer, with a certain name and a certain thing expected of you, and you are fulfilling that mold. The later books attempt to work against the given identity. At this point I don’t think they’re deep enough in terms of their sense of sin. Their sense of guilt could be more profound. In a way a lot of these poems smooth over while seething underneath the surface. One can always put a sort of poster over the rough, you know. A smoothness of attitude over something that’s basically quite null and chaotic and unsettling. A lot of the roughness is missing in these books, but then that dissatisfaction continues all one’s life.

INTERVIEWER

Would you talk about your experience in the Trinidad Theater Workshop, which you founded in 1959 and finally left in 1976? You once stated that you wanted to create a theater where someone could produce Shakespeare and sing calypso with equal conviction. Did the idea succeed?

WALCOTT

Yes, I think I made that happen. The best West Indian actors are phenomenal. Most West Indian actors have gone to West Indian secondary schools. The classical training and reading they get there is pretty wide and impressive—a lot of Shakespeare, and all the great English writers. Once that happens people read much more widely than if they hadn’t done the great poets. So most West Indian actors have a familiarity with the classic theater of the English language. They also have an accent, not an affected accent, but a speech that is good diction. Some of the finest Shakespeare I have ever heard was spoken by West Indian actors. The sound of Shakespeare is certainly not the sound we now hear in Shakespeare, that androgynous BBC–type, high-tone thing. It’s a coarse thing—a great range between a wonderful vulgarity and a great refinement, and we have that here. We have that vulgarity and we also have that refinement in terms of the diction. The West Indian actor has a great rhetorical interest in language. In addition to that, the actor is like the West Indian writer in that he is a new person: What he is articulating has just begun to be defined. There’s a sense of pioneering. For me writing plays was even more exciting than working on poems because it was a communal effort, people getting together and trying to find things. When I won a fellowship to go to America in 1958, I wanted to have, much as the Actors Studio did, a place where West Indian actors, without belonging to any company, could just come together and try and find out simple things such as how to talk like ourselves without being affected or without being incoherent, how to treat dialect as respectfully as if we were doing Shakespeare or Chekhov, and what was our own inner psychology as individuals, in a people, as part of a people. The first couple of years we had a very tough time. Very few people would come. We didn’t know what we were doing; we just improvised and explored and tried things. I was determined not to do a production until I thought we had some kind of ensemble. I had no intention of forming a company. At that time, all I wanted to do was to have the actors come and begin to work together. It took a very long time. But eventually we did put on a play and for about seventeen years I had a terrific company. It also began to involve dancers and some great actors. I remember Terry Hands came once (he is now one of the associate directors of the Royal Shakespeare Company) for a performance of The Joker of Seville that Margaret, my then wife, suggested we do. We had this little arena, like a bullfight ring, or a cockfight ring, and we served sandwiches and coffee and oranges and so on, and the crowd by that time had begun to know the songs and they were singing along with the actors. Terry said to me, “Derek, you’re doing what Brecht tried to do.” Well, I felt terrific because I knew what he meant. Brecht’s idea of the participation of the audience, the whole idea of the boxing ring as a stage or the stage as an arena, had happened. But after several years of falling out and fighting and coming back together, eventually, for all sorts of reasons, the thing wore down. Although I still use actors from the company singly, I no longer run the company. But seventeen years is a long time to run a theater company.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve written that you first began writing drama “in the faith that one was creating not merely a play, but a theater, and not merely a theater, but its environment.” But by the time you came to write the prologue to Dream on Monkey Mountain, in 1970, the feeling of pride was replaced mainly by exhaustion and the sense of innocence seems to have given way to despair. What happened?

WALCOTT

Well, right now I’m writing a play called A Branch of the Blue Nile—about actors, a small company of actors and how they fall apart. I don’t know up to now—and I’ll have to decide pretty quickly—if it’s going to end badly. The epiphany of the whole thing, the end of it, is a question that remains.

INTERVIEWER

Is the problem at all related to questions of whether the state should support the arts?

WALCOTT

I’m fifty-five now and all my life I’ve tried to fight and write and jeer and encourage the idea that the state owes its artists a lot. When I was young it looked like a romance; now that I’m older and I pay taxes, it is a fact. But not only do I want roads, I want pleasure, I want art. This is the terrible thing in the Caribbean. The middle class in the Caribbean is a venal, self-centered, indifferent, self-satisfied, smug society. It enjoys its philistinism. It pays very short lip service to its own writers and artists. This is a reality every artist knows. The point is whether you say that and then turn your back on it and say to hell with it for life. I haven’t done that and I don’t think I’m capable of doing it. What’s wrong is this: a legacy has been left by the British empire of amateurism. What we still have as an inheritance is that art is an amateur occupation. That attitude is combined with some of the worst aspects of bourgeois mercantilism, whether it is French, Danish, British, or Spanish bourgeois. The whole of the Caribbean that I can think of has this stubborn, clog-headed indifference to things around them. The philanthropy that exists in the Caribbean is negligible. Money is here—you just have to see the houses and the cars, and to look at the scale of living in any one of these islands—but nobody gives anything. If they do, I don’t know what they give to, but that penny-pinching thing is typical of the petty-bourgeois merchant, the hoarder of money. Without any bitterness I can say that anything that I have gotten, whether earned or not, has been from America and not from the Caribbean.

INTERVIEWER

What constitutes an artistic generation in the Caribbean?

WALCOTT

An artistic generation in this part of the world is about five years. Five years of endurance. After that, I think people give up. I see five years of humanity and boredom and futility. I keep looking at younger writers, and I begin to see the same kind of despair forming and the same wish to say the hell with it, I’m getting out of here. There’s also a problem with government support. We have come to a kind of mechanistic thinking that says, a government concerns itself with housing, food, and whatever. There will always be priorities in terms of sewage and electricity. If only a government could form the idea that any sensible human being wants not only to have running water, but a book in hand and a picture on the wall. That is the kind of government I had envisaged in the Caribbean when I was eighteen or nineteen. At fifty-five, I have only seen an increase in venality, an increase in selfishness, and worse than that, a shallow kind of service paid to the arts. I’m very bitter about the philistinism of the Caribbean. It is tough to see a people who have only one strength and that is their culture. Trinidad is perhaps the most concentrated example of a culture that has produced so many thousands and thousands of artisans at Carnival. Now Carnival is supported by the government, but that’s a seasonal kind of thinking. I’m talking about something more endemic, more rooted, more organic to the idea of the Caribbean. Because we have been colonies, we have inherited everything, and the very thing we used to think was imperial has been repeated by our own stubbornness, stupidity, and blindness.

INTERVIEWER

Your prologue to Dream on Monkey Mountain also blasts the crass, state-sponsored commercialization of folk culture. One of your subjects in both poetry and essays has been how negatively tourism has affected the West Indies. Would you discuss that?

WALCOTT

Once I saw tourism as a terrible danger to a culture. Now I don’t, maybe because I come down here so often that perhaps literally I’m a tourist myself coming from America. But a culture is only in danger if it allows itself to be. Everybody has a right to come down in the winter and enjoy the sun. Nobody has a right to abuse anybody, and so I don’t think that if I’m an American anybody should tell me, Please don’t come here because this beach is ours, or whatever. During the period I’m talking about, certainly, servility was a part of the whole deal—the waiters had to smile, and we had to do this and so forth. In tourism, it was just an extension really of master/servant. I don’t think it’s so anymore. Here we have a generation that has strengthened itself beyond that. As a matter of fact, it can go beyond a balance and there’s sullenness and a hostility toward people who are your guests. It can swing too far as well. But again, it’s not enough to put on steel bands and to have people in the hotels entertaining and maybe to have a little show somewhere to keep them what they think is light-minded and happy and indifferent and so on. If that’s the opinion that the government or culture has of itself, then it deserves to be insulted. But if it were doing something more rooted in terms of the arts, in terms of its writers, its painters, and its performers, and if there were more pride in that and not the kind of thing you see of guys walking around town totally bored and hoping that something can happen . . . I’m not one to say that you can’t do things for yourself because certainly having spent all my life in the Caribbean theater and certainly seventeen very exacting years in the workshop, I do say, yes—get up and do it yourself and stop depending on the government. But there is a point where you have to turn to the state and say, Look man, this is ridiculous. I pay my taxes. I’m a citizen. I don’t have a museum. I don’t have a good library. I don’t have a place where I can perform. I don’t have a place where I can dance. That’s criminal. It’s a carryover of the same thing I said about the West Indies being seized and atrophied by a petty-bourgeois mentality from the metropolis that has been adopted by the Creole idea of life, which is simply to have a damn good time and that’s it, basically. I mean that’s the worst aspect of West Indian life: Have a good time, period.

INTERVIEWER

What do you have against folklorists and anthropologists? Some people think of them as an intellectually respectable lot.

WALCOTT

I don’t trust them. They either embarrass or elevate too much. They can do a good service if they are reticent and keep out of the way. But when they begin to tell people who they are and what they are, they are terrifying. I’ve gone to seminars in which people in the audience who are the people the folklorists are talking about, are totally baffled by their theories.

INTERVIEWER

One of your most well-known early poems, “A Far Cry from Africa,” ends with the question, “How can I turn from Africa and live?” However, by 1970 you could write that “the African revival is escape to another dignity,” and that “once we have lost our wish to be white, we develop a longing to become black, and those two may be different, but are still careers.” You also assert that the claim to be African is not an inheritance but a bequest, “a bill for the condition of our arrival as slaves.” These are controversial statements. What is your current sense of the West Indian writer’s relationship to Africa?

WALCOTT

There is a duty in every son to become his own man. The son severs himself from the father. The Caribbean very often refuses to cut that umbilical cord to confront its own stature. So a lot of people exploit an idea of Africa out of both the wrong kind of pride and the wrong kind of heroic idealism. At great cost and a lot of criticism, what I used to try to point out was that there is a great danger in historical sentimentality. We are most prone to this because of suffering, of slavery. There’s a sense of skipping the part about slavery, and going straight back to a kind of Eden-like grandeur, hunting lions, that sort of thing. Whereas what I’m saying is to take in the fact of slavery, if you’re capable of it, without bitterness, because bitterness is going to lead to the fatality of thinking in terms of revenge. A lot of the apathy in the Caribbean is based on this historical sullenness. It is based on the feeling of “Look what you did to me.” Well, “Look what you did to me,” is juvenile, right? And also, “Look what I’m going to do to you,” is wrong. Think about illegitimacy in the Caribbean! Few people can claim to find their ancestry in the linear way. The whole situation in the Caribbean is an illegitimate situation. If we admit that from the beginning that there is no shame in that historical bastardy, then we can be men. But if we continue to sulk and say, Look at what the slave-owner did, and so forth, we will never mature. While we sit moping or writing morose poems and novels that glorify a nonexistent past, then time passes us by. We continue in one mood, which is in too much of Caribbean writing: that sort of chafing and rubbing of an old sore. It is not because one wishes to forget; on the contrary, you accept it as much as anybody accepts a wound as being a part of his body. But this doesn’t mean that you nurse it all your life.

INTERVIEWER

The Fortunate Traveller is filled with poems set in a wide variety of places. The title poem itself elaborates the crisis of a fortunate traveler who goes from one underdeveloped country to another. And in “North and South” you write that “I accept my function / as a colonial upstart at the end of an empire, / a single, circling, homeless satellite.” Has the castaway given way to the traveler? Do you still feel the old tugs between home and abroad?

WALCOTT

I’ve never felt that I belong anywhere else but in St. Lucia. The geographical and spiritual fixity is there. However, there’s a reality here as well. This afternoon I asked myself if I would stay here for the rest of my life if I had the chance of leaving. The answer really is, I suppose, no. I don’t know if I’m distressed by that. One is bound to feel the difference between these poor, dark, very small houses, the people in the streets, and yourself because you always have the chance of taking a plane out. Basically you are a fortunate traveler, a visitor; your luck is that you can always leave. And it’s hard to imagine that there are people around you unable, incapable of leaving either because of money or because of any number of ties. And yet the more I come back here the less I feel that I’m a prodigal or a castaway returning. And it may be that as it deepens with age, you get more locked into what your life is and where you’ve come from and what you misunderstand and what you should have understood and what you’re trying to reunderstand and so on. I’ll continue to come back to see if what I write is not beyond the true experience of the person next to me on the bus—not in terms of talking down to that person, but of sharing that person’s pain and strength necessary in those pathetically cruel circumstances in which people have found themselves following the devastations of colonialism.

INTERVIEWER

What led you to assert, as you do in Midsummer, that “to curse your birthplace is the final evil”?

WALCOTT

I think it is. I think the earth that you come from is your mother and if you turn around and curse it, you’ve cursed your mother.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve written a number of poems about New York City, Boston, old New England, and the southern United States. I’m thinking in particular of the first section of The Fortunate Traveller where one of the poems is entitled “American Muse” and another asserts “I’m falling in love with America.” What are your feelings about living in the United States? Do you think you’ve been Americanized in any way?

WALCOTT

If so, voluntarily. I don’t think I’ve been brainwashed. I don’t think I have been seduced by all the prizes and rewards. America has been extremely generous to me—not in a strictly philanthropical sense; I’ve earned that generosity. But it has given me a lot of help. The real thing that counts is whether that line is true about falling in love with America. That came about because I was traveling on a bus from one place to another, on a long ride looking at the American landscape. If you fall in love with the landscape of a place the next thing that comes is the people, right? The average American is not like the average Roman or British citizen. The average American doesn’t think that the world belongs to him or her; Americans don’t have imperialist designs in their heads. I find a gentleness and a courtesy in them. And they have ideals. I’ve traveled widely across America and I see things in America that I still believe in, that I like a lot.

INTERVIEWER

What are your feelings about Boston, which you have called the “city of my exile”?

WALCOTT

I’ve always told myself that I’ve got to stop using the word exile. Real exile means a complete loss of the home. Joseph Brodsky is an exile; I’m not really an exile. I have access to my home. Given enough stress and longing I can always get enough money to get back home and refresh myself with the sea, the sky, whatever. I was very hostile about Boston in the beginning, perhaps because I love New York. In jokes, I’ve always said that Boston should be the capital of Canada. But it’s a city that grows on you gradually. And where I live is very comfortable. It’s close to the university. I work well there, and I very much enjoy teaching. I don’t think of myself as having two homes; I have one home, but two places.

INTERVIEWER

Robert Lowell had a powerful influence on you. I’m thinking of your memorial poem “RTSL” as well as the poem in Midsummer where you assert that “Cal’s bulk haunts my classes.” Would you discuss your relationship to Lowell?

WALCOTT

Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick were on a tour going to Brazil and they stopped off in Trinidad. I remember meeting them at Queen’s Park Hotel and being so flustered that I called Elizabeth Hardwick, Edna St. Vincent Millay. She said, “I’m not that old yet.” I was just flabbergasted. And then we became very friendly. My wife Margaret and I took them up to the beach. Their daughter, Harriet, was there. I remember being up at this beach house with Lowell. His daughter and his wife, I think, must have gone to bed. We had gas lanterns. Imitations had just come out and I remember that he showed me his imitations of Hugo and Rilke and asked me what I thought about them. I asked him if two of the stanzas were from Rilke, and he said, “No, these are mine.” It was a very flattering and warm feeling to have this fine man with this great reputation really asking me what I thought. He did that with a lot of people, very honestly, humbly, and directly. I cherish that memory a lot. When we went back to New York, Cal and Lizzie had a big party for us with a lot of people there, and we became very close. Cal was a big man in bulk but an extremely gentle, poignant person, and very funny. I don’t think any of the biographies have caught the sort of gentle, amused, benign beauty of him when he was calm. He kept a picture of Peter, my son, and Harriet for a long time in his wallet, and he’d take it out and show it to me. He was sweetly impulsive. Once I went to visit him and he said, “Let’s call up Allen Ginsberg and ask him to come over.” That’s so cherishable that it’s a very hard thing for me to think of him as not being around. In a way, I can’t separate my affection for Lowell from his influence on me. I think of his character and gentleness, the immediacy that was part of knowing him. I loved his openness to receive influences. He was not a poet who said, I’m an American poet, I’m going to be peculiar, and I’m going to have my own voice which is going to be different from anybody’s voice. He was a poet who said, I’m going to take in everything. He had a kind of multifaceted imagination; he was not embarrassed to admit that he was influenced even in his middle age by William Carlos Williams, or by François Villon, or by Boris Pasternak, all at the same time. That was wonderful.

INTERVIEWER

What about specific poetic influence?

WALCOTT

One of the things he said to me was, “You must put more of yourself in your poems.” Also he suggested that I drop the capital letters at the top of the line, use the lowercase. I did it and felt very refreshed; it made me relax. It was a simple suggestion, but it’s one of those things that a great poet can tell you that can be phenomenal—a little opening. The influence of Lowell on everyone, I think, is in his brutal honesty, his trying to get into the poetry a fictional power that wasn’t there before, as if your life was a section of a novel—not because you are the hero, but because some of the things that were not in poems, some of the very ordinary banal details, can be illumined. Lowell emphasized the banality. In a sense to keep the banality banal and still make it poetic is a great achievement. I think that’s one of the greatest things that he did in terms of his directness, his confrontation of ordinariness.

INTERVIEWER

Would you tell the story of your first poetry reading in the States? It must have been rewarding to hear Lowell’s extravagant introduction.

WALCOTT

Well, I didn’t know what he said because I was in back of the curtain, I think it was at the Guggenheim. I was staying at the Chelsea Hotel, and that day I felt I needed a haircut, so, foolishly, I went around the corner and sat down. The barber took the electric razor and gave me one of the wildest haircuts I think I’ve ever had. It infuriated me, but you can’t put your hair back on. I even thought of wearing a hat. But I went on anyway; my head looked like hell. I had gotten some distance into the reading—I was reading “A Far Cry from Africa”—when suddenly there was the sound of applause from the auditorium. Now I had never heard applause at a poetry reading before. I don’t think I’d ever given a formal poetry reading, and I thought for some reason that the applause was saying it was time to stop, that they thought it was over. So I walked off the stage. I felt in a state of shock. I actually walked off feeling the clapping was their way of saying, Well, thank you, it’s been nice. Someone in charge asked me to go back and finish the reading, but I said no. I must have sounded extremely arrogant, but I felt that if I went back out there it would have been conceited. I went back to Trinidad. Since I hadn’t heard Lowell’s introduction, I asked someone for it at the Federal Building, which had archives of radio tapes from the Voice of America. I said I would like to hear the Lowell tape, and the guy said, “I think we erased that.” It was only years later that I really heard what Cal said, and it was very flattering.

INTERVIEWER

How did you become friends with Joseph Brodsky?

WALCOTT

Well, ironically enough, I met Brodsky at Lowell’s funeral. Roger Straus, Susan Sontag, and I went up to Boston for the funeral. We waited somewhere for Joseph, probably at the airport, but for some reason he was delayed. At the service I was in this pew when a man sat down next to me. I didn’t know him. When I stood up as the service was being said, I looked at him and I thought, if this man is not going to cry then I’m not going to cry, either. I kept stealing glances at him to see if anything was happening, but he was very stern looking. That helped me to contain my own tears. Of course it was Brodsky. Later, we met. We went to Elizabeth Bishop’s house, and I got to know him a little better. The affection that developed after that was very quick and, I think, permanent—to be specific about it is hard. I admire Joseph for his industry, his valor, and his intelligence. He’s a terrific example of someone who is a complete poet, who doesn’t treat poetry as anything else but a very hard job that he does as well as he can. Lowell worked very hard too, but you feel in Joseph that that is all he lives for. In a sense that’s all any of us lives for or can hope to live for. Joseph’s industry is an example that I cherish a great deal.

INTERVIEWER

When did you first become friends with Seamus Heaney?

WALCOTT

There was a review by A. Alvarez of Seamus’s book, a very upsetting review—to put it mildly—in which he was describing Heaney as a sort of blue-eyed boy. English literature always has a sort of blue-eyed boy. I got very angry over the review and sent Seamus a note via my editor with a little obscenity in it. Just for some encouragement. Later, in New York we had a drink at someone’s house. From then on, the friendship has developed. I see him a lot when he is in Boston at Harvard. I just feel very lucky to have friends like Joseph and Seamus. The three of us are outside of the American experience. Seamus is Irish, Joseph is Russian, I’m West Indian. We don’t get embroiled in the controversies about who’s a soft poet, who’s a hard poet, who’s a free-verse poet, who’s not a poet, and all of that. It’s good to be on the rim of that quarreling. We’re on the perimeter of the American literary scene. We can float out here happily not really committed to any kind of particular school or body of enthusiasm or criticism.

INTERVIEWER

Over the years your style seems to have gotten increasingly plainer and more direct, less gnarled, more casual, somehow both quieter and fiercer at the same time. Is that an accurate assessment of the poetic style of your middle age? I can’t imagine a book like Midsummer from the young Derek Walcott.

WALCOTT

It varies, of course. When I finished Another Life, I felt like writing short poems, more essential, to the point, things that were contracted. They didn’t have the scale of the large book and so on. It goes in that kind of swing, in that kind of pendulum. In the case of Midsummer, I felt that for the time being I didn’t want to write any more poems, although that sounds arrogant. I just felt perhaps I was overworking myself. I was going to concentrate purely on trying to develop my painting. While painting, I would find lines coming into my head. I would almost self-destruct them; I’d say, All right, I’ll put them down . . . but with antipoetic vehemence. If they don’t work, then I’ll just forget it. What kept happening is that the lines would come anyway, perhaps out of that very irritation, and then I would make a very arbitrary collage of them and find they would take some sort of loose shape. Inevitably, of course, you try to join the seams. I was trying to do something, I think, that was against the imagination, that was not dictated in a sort of linear, lyrical, smooth, melodic—but rather something that was antimelodic. For a poem, if you give a poem personality, that’s the most exciting thing—to feel that it is becoming antimelodic. The vocabulary becomes even more challenging, the meter more interesting, and so on. So what happened was that by the very wish not to write, or to write a poem that was against the idea of writing poems, it all became more fertile and more contradictory and more complex. Gradually a book began to emerge. Inevitably you can’t leave things lying around with unjoined shapes, little fragments and so on. I began to weld everything together—to keep everything that I felt worthwhile. I thought, well, whether this is just an ordinary thing or not, it has as much a right to be considered as something a little more grandiose. That’s what I think happened in Midsummer.

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about publishing your Collected Poems?

WALCOTT

You’re aware of the fact that you have reached a certain stage in your life. You’re also aware that you have failed your imagination to some degree, your ambitions. This is an amazingly difficult time for me. I’m absolutely terrified. It’s not because I have a kind of J. D. Salinger thing about running away from publicity. It’s really not wanting to see myself reflected in that way. I don’t think that that’s what the boy I knew—the boy who started to write poetry—wanted at all, not praise, not publicity. But it’s troubling. I remember Dylan Thomas saying somewhere that he liked it better when he was not famous. All I can say is this: I do have another book about ready, and I hope it will be a compensation for all the deficiencies in the Collected Poems, something that will redeem the Collected Poems.


Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.