Saturday, 18 March 2017

FAREWELL TO DEREK WALCOTT, THE MASTER OF POETRY

“So, tell me about the book,” he said. “Who published it?”

When I told him the name of the publisher, he joked: “And how much they paying for an advance these days? I hope you got a few pounds.”

Derek Walcott in 2012
 (Photo: Centro Culturale di Milano)
That made me laugh. The advance was not worth mentioning, but I was happy the book was out. Still, what was there to say about a first collection of stories to a Nobel Prize winner?

Later, another writer assured me that this particular laureate, Derek Walcott, was genuinely interested in the work of young authors. He had in fact lent his support to several up-and-coming writers in his homeland St. Lucia and other Caribbean countries.

His graciousness stood in contrast to the star treatment that he was receiving at this conference on Caribbean literature, organized by Italian scholar Luigi Sampietro. We were in Milan, in the early Nineties, and everyone hung onto Walcott’s words. Applause broke out at his every utterance. It was surreal to be sharing a table, not only with him, but also with Guyanese writers Wilson Harris and David Dabydeen and with Jamaican prize-winning author Olive Senior.

Walcott mixed erudition and humour, and he elicited laughter by constantly murmuring asides in patois. When I offered to translate the speech of a Spanish-speaking fellow writer, he said teasingly: “You sure you know enough Spanish for that?”

He was right, and I was happy when someone in the audience - who was truly fluent - volunteered to do the translation. Walcott had studied languages (Spanish, French and Latin) in Jamaica, at the University of the West Indies, so he probably could have done the interpreting himself.

At dinner that evening, he and his partner Sigrid Nama displayed unfailing good-humour and consideration towards our hosts and other guests, who got an insight into both his poetry and his personality. At the time, Walcott was working on a musical play with singer Paul Simon, and he was frank about the challenges of the project - which would reach the theatre several years later.

Asked about working with the music icon, Walcott didn’t use the opportunity to laud his own contribution, instead he was quick to praise Simon’s efforts, noting how difficult theatre work could be. In addition to being a poet and painter, he was a playwright, and he had full experience of the field.

Most people know of the magnificent legacy Walcott has left with his work, and many will also have heard of the allegations over the years, which should be openly addressed. But perhaps fewer realise the memories that will last of Walcott’s unexpected wit and his grace. – A.M.

On March 19 in Paris, France, writers will pay homage to Walcott’s work at the Poétiques de Résistance event organized by the Institut du Tout-Monde, an organization founded by another acclaimed Caribbean writer, the late Édouard Glissant: http://www.tout-monde.com/poetiquesresistancesmars2017.html

For a complete profile of Walcott, and obituary, please see the New York Times article: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/17/books/derek-walcott-dead-nobel-prize-literature.html