The poet as painter

Nobel Prize-winner Derek Walcott talks about his life and work

PAUL GRONDAHL
Staff writer

Silently, sullenly, Derek Walcott sidestepped muddy puddles forming in potholes on a gray asphalt road under gray skies that gave way to the angular gray columns of the University at Albany campus.

Questions hung in the air as leaden as the clouds, unanswered. The Nobel Prize-winning poet stared at some unseen horizon with eyes the color of slate. He cleared a sore throat and continued to say nothing.

Walcott's walk is a slow-motion gait, legs wide and waist immobile, broad shoulders and powerful torso tipped backward as if by a steady offshore breeze at his home on St. Lucia, Windward Islands, the West Indies.

Walcott ambled through the door of the University Art Museum and into a Caribbean paradise. Coral pinks, seafoam greens, a riot of jewel hues washed over the poet from the exhibit, "Island Light.'' It seemed a cruel irony on this gray day in Albany that Walcott was back on the beach of his island, confronting Caribbean scenes he had rendered with great passion in oil and watercolor.

An art student approached as Walcott studied his own 1994 oil painting, "Setting the Bait,'' showing a St. Lucian fisherman preparing to cast from a rocky breakwater.

"Why'd you rough in the dog in the bottom corner and not finish it?'' the student asked.

"Laziness,'' Walcott grumbled without looking up.

We could be in for a long afternoon here. A poet who doesn't feel like talking.

But once on stage -- a place of ease for the 68-year-old, Tony-nominated playwright -- Walcott was ebulliently Nobelesque and lived up to one critic's assessment of him as "the pre-eminent poet writing in English today.'' He is also a professor of poetry at Boston University and an afternoon seminar was a revelatory gloss on literature.

The last time Walcott was at UAlbany was 1989, pre-Nobel, for a three-day poetry residency.

The questions for Walcott on his Oct. 8 visit spanned three hours and three different venues and were posed and moderated by Donald Faulkner, associate director of the New York State Writers Institute, and included queries from the audience and others:

Q:

Can you recall what it felt like when you learned you won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992?

A:

"There was a rumor, but you try to put it out of your head because it's a lot of money and that's a bad habit to count money before you have it. And you think of the writers who didn't get it. Borges, Auden, Nabokov, Joyce.''

"It's worth a lot of money (roughly $1 million), but the year I got it the Swedish krona had plummeted and then I had to pay taxes on the prize to the U.S. . . . The whole thing was quite staggering. You feel undeserving. And then the phone rings steadily for months with requests for interviews and talks and you feel continuously bombarded and it consumes you. Now I know what Nadine Gordimer (1991 South African Nobel laureate) meant when she said, 'I'm sorry for you' after I won.''

Q:

Since you've written the epic poem "Omeros,'' what was it like for you to read Homer's "Odyssey?''

A:

"This is very embarrassing to confess at a university, but I hadn't read all of the 'Odyssey.' It's very hard to get to Homer, to feel the texture of the language of Homer. Pound said the closest you could get was an approximation of Homer. The texture of the Homeric line cannot be translated in terms of the iambic pentameter, so that what we get is something that feels Victorian. There is a consonantal quality to the Homeric line, a kind of hexameter that does not translate into English. So, to read Homer as a Victorian poet never excited me.''

Q:

How did Homer influence your work then?

A:

"Our memories have been erased in the Caribbean. Those who settled there were considered the detritus, the waste. My island was called Helen of the West Indies, a reference to Helen of Troy. St. Lucia was fought over 14 times by the French and British and our island's names come from Homer. We've got Hector's Cafe, too . . .

"The most emblematic image to me of the 'Odyssey' is of an island with a single sail on a boat setting off or returning to the island. I go home and see these little canoes with a single small sail attached and I think of the daring and courage to go so far out to sea in something so fragile. . . . In 'Omeros,' I used a long line to get the rhythm of the waves coming onto the beach and wanted the chant of that, and also as a tribute to Dante. Our Caribbean origins are so mixed and we have to admit and celebrate that. There are both Homer and Dante influences in my identity.''

Q:

Would you comment on what you see as the status of poetry in the United States today?

A:

"It's very minuscule to what it might be for a country with this population. I don't know what the advance for a book of poetry is today, maybe $1,000 at best. I say print it yourself. If you're not going to sell more than the advance, why not print your poems yourself? I paid for and printed my first three books of poetry. It's OK to do it.''

Q:

How do you move among writing poetry and plays and painting?

A:

"You go through periods of points of attack as a writer. Some people ask why I sound so English in my poetry. The simple answer is that you write in the meter of your thought. I don't think in dialect. As a St. Lucian, I might break into a French-Creole patois when I speak, but I can't do it in my writing. I tried, but I felt like I was faking it.''

Q:

How did you become a playwright?

A:

"I came out of society with a strong calypso tradition, which is music with a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end. I also grew up with the inarticulate history of the Caribbean and the degradation of indenture. Each race has its own story to tell. If you don't have a history or a narrative to go by, it's created by the memory of artists who tell the story their own way, which is how it is in the Caribbean. There are novelists of Chinese and Italian descent working in the Caribbean today. The last bastion race is going to have is art. Art is OK, after all, but we can't come into their clubs yet.''

Q:

Did you ever want to write fiction?

A:

"I've been very excited by the tone of fiction. The tone of a lot of prose can be more exciting than a lot of poetry I read. The vigor of American prose is much stronger than the whining tone of American poetry and that injured tone that can be mistaken for quality in poetry.''

Q:

What advice would you give to young writers?

A:

"No young writer should ever feel anything is inaccessible for them to be published or produced. When you're very young, you're original and that's good. All originality is imitation, of course. Everything has been done before. Pasternak said, 'Great writers don't have time to be original.' Joseph Brodsky once said, 'Everyone wants a book. Nobody wants a poem.' . . .You have to make your loneliness as a writer a necessity and the temptations to move away from that solitude in this very rich country is amazing.''

Q:

What was it like collaborating with Paul Simon on the Broadway musical "The Capeman?''

A:

"It was a very tough disaster for all sorts of reasons I won't go into here, because they'll sound like excuses. We wanted to go after something as essential as possible. We didn't want to do a phony Spanish thing or something. Well, it flopped. Fine. I can also say I find a lot of 'West Side Story' patronizing. I can put that down.

"I felt the meter I wanted to work in on 'The Capeman' was to go to the core and not make it romantic and I think we did that. In the end, it got mangled for all sorts of reasons. I'm proud of what I wrote and of the music Paul created. It was a terrific experience personally and the music really articulated an island experience. I sort of pulled out of it close to the end, though, because I didn't like what was happening. The process itself was happy for me and I still think something will happen with it in the future.''

Q:

Could you talk about your friendship with Joseph Brodsky (the late 1987 Nobel laureate and an exiled Russian poet who settled in the U.S.)?

A:

"Joseph's example was courage. He couldn't get to see his dying parents in Russia, and the agony of that I'll never forget. His enemy was some guy in an office, a third assistant of some department, not a big dictator. Someone once called Joseph a mediocre person, and that's the thing of a jackass kicking a dead lion. To say that is an awful, deep venom. Like all brilliant people, Joseph was opinionated. His industry was remarkable. The Russians don't have that diffident crap. He was a poet and an astonishing friend. . . . It's very painful to describe.

"We were very close friends and he was an example to me for devotion to poetry. That was his life. He used it as a siege. He was a genuine exile. A lot of us in the West are without that absorption and total commitment to poetry.''

Q:

What else would you say about the connection between your writing and painting?

A:

"In the opening of 'A Farewell to Arms,' Hemingway is doing what Cezanne was doing. Hemingway's prose is like the strokes of Cezanne, who knew exactly what tint, what hue he wanted. The planes or washes or layers of a noun like in Gertrude Stein is doing virtually the same thing in a sentence as in a painting.''

First published on Sunday, November 8, 1998

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Copyright 1998, Capital Newspapers Division
of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Derek Walcott

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