Forty minutes in the company of genius!

“You are not just going to stand there!” Even as he sat in his wheelchair, the awesome power of Saint Lucia’s Nobel Laureate could not be denied. His target was a mesmerized teenager, apparently a member of the organizing team behind Monday evening’s poetry-reading and book-signing starring Derek Walcott. The activity was held in the courtyard of the Baywalk Mall and formed part of the arts component of the 2015 Saint Lucia Jazz & Arts Festival.

An expressive Walcott at Monday’s reading.

An expressive Walcott at Monday’s reading.

Walcott’s long-time companion, Siegrid wheeled him in shortly before 6 pm. Another of the organizers struggled to adjust the microphone stand for the superstar poet’s convenience. The young woman who earlier Walcott had addressed tried to make up for the poor lighting by directing the light from her cell phone onto the open volume in front of Walcott.

He posed the same question to another individual who was attempting to hold the microphone in place: “Are you just going to stand there?”

Meanwhile, the small but obviously excited audience waited. Among the fifty or so seated were a number of the Walcott faithfuls: Robert Lee, Jane King-Hyppolyte, Kendal Hyppolyte and relatively new Walcott appreciator, Stan Bishop. Then there was the enthusiastic JOVC volunteer, among the first to purchase and have Walcott sign his latest publication, a collection of his poetry entitled ‘The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013’, from which he read that evening. By the look of him, standing but a few feet from the legendary poet was, for one young Taiwanese, the closest thing to Nirvana.

There were no politicians in sight. Perhaps they were too busy inventing new ways to offer job-jobs-jobs for all. Also conspicuously absent were officials from the Cultural Development Foundation or from the main promoters of the Jazz & Arts festival. Perhaps seeing Walcott once a year during Nobel Laureates’ Week was enough for our leaders and best brains!

Happy to report, a small media corps was in attendance.

These two were visibly in awe of being in Walcott’s presence.

These two were visibly in awe of being in Walcott’s presence.

“Can you all hear me?” Walcott asked, sounding more Looshan than Looshan, his way of testing his mic. “Yes!” the audience replied, enthusiastically. And Walcott said, with his usual straight face: “I hope you are not just saying that to be nice to me.” The ever-faithful chuckled.

“The fishermen rowing slowly in the dusk…” He began to read from “The Fishermen Rowing Homeward”. It was all part of a familiar Walcott theme, the sea, as in “Crusoe’s Island”, “The Lighthouse” and “The Bounty”. Before he got far into “The Sisters of St. Joseph”, he interrupted his flow to say he was “reading from my early work, during a period when (Sir Dunstan) St. Omer and I had become really good friends.” St. Omer passed away last week and undoudtedly Walcott had chosen to pay tribute.

Though at times it seemed his voice would desert him, Derek Walcott read for close to an hour, reciting as he alone can, “Tales of the Island” and “A Letter From Brooklyn”.

There were more than a few references, albeit subtle, about our abandonment of our culture. But always, as frail as he now appears, Walcott remained on point, sometimes, evoking embarrassing chuckles. The attendance on Monday also made an indelible statement. The regular faithful and those who belatedly have come to appreciate the presence among us of Derek Walcott milled around after the reading to engage the “red nigger” who has often been described as the greatest writer in the English language, comparable to Shakespeare.

Monday’s event also comprised a visual arts exhibition featuring the work of Lawrence Deligny (wood sculpture), Michelle Elliot (painting and ceramic), Cecil Fevrier (photography), Ras Mosera (painting), Chester Williams photography) and Paulinus Herman (3D wire art).

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