St. Lucian-born poet and playwright Derek Walcott was just 18 years old in 1948 when he wrote Prelude. At 56, he has
published seven volumes of verse in the United States, many of which are contained in his most recent publication Collected Poems 1948-1984—one of the winners of the 1986 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes.
Walcott has also written over 25 plays. His work has been staged at Mark Taper Forum, Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival, and at countless regional theaters across the United States. Last year his political drama, To Die For Grenada, opened in Cleveland.
Two months later his Pantomime, which Walcott describes as a “satiric comedy about master-servant roles,” opened at the Hudson Guild Theater in New York City.
Thrice married, Derek Walcott is the father of one son who is studying architecture, and two daughters, both studying at Boston University where for more than four years Walcott has taught graduate classes in poetry and playwriting.
He divides his time among Boston, Trinidad and his native St. Lucia.
Early one morning during his most recent visit [June 1987], he took precious time from his manual typewriter to talk with me poolside at a small local hotel. He had on shorts, a faded tee shirt with “St Lucia” emblazoned on the front, and a straw hat.
He was working on three film scripts, he told me. He is turning Pantomime into a movie that he hopes to shoot right here. He is also working on Urgent Fury, code name for the US invasion of Grenada. The last script is “for an English film director.” — Rick Wayne
Rick Wayne: Does it ever appear to you that America may be at war with itself?
Derek Walcott: They had their revolution. Why is it that when other countries revolt for the same principles that America fought for, their principles suddenly become, by the American yardstick, Marxist as opposed to democratic?
What America has to keep fighting for and does, whether through the Contra hearings or the Iran hearings, is the continual conscience of responsibility that has to be perpetually investigated by its own democratic process. For instance—it doesn’t happen here, there is less, it may be oblique—but there is more censorship in St. Lucia . . . I know because I don’t just sit on the beach and write about beautiful Gros Islet; know what I mean? Yes, there is more censorship throughout the Caribbean than there is in America. It is not direct. But it is a pressure that’s applied. It’s about people not talking, and people seen as enemies to the system if they criticize it.
More and more we are losing ground in terms of the right to criticize vehemently and to investigate. I think that in a place like Trinidad, and I imagine Jamaica at a certain point was the same, that freedom of the press doesn’t really exist. But if a man says to you: “Look, I’m not going to print that editorial because it will offend our advertisers,” that’s censorship. If that were to happen in the US, and it does, you can count on another newspaper capitalizing on that truth.
Wayne: Let’s take reality into the theater. Why have you, someone obviously hooked into the politics of the region, not chosen to write realistically about it?
Walcott: I suspect this is a devil’s-advocate question. Here’s my answer: How many people read my plays here? Do they see my plays? How many? I think one of the problems is the idea of poetry. People think that poetry is airy-fairy and in that air it does not confront reality. The exact opposite is true. Poetry does confront reality. And it does essentialize, although not in a temporal, journalistic way, saying that’s today’s problem. The depth of poetry is that the conditions it describes, and what it confronts, are larger and more profound problems; like questions of evil.
If a poem discusses or looks into the question of evil, then the poem is examining the immorality of the action of any politician. The language may appear to be dealing with something not day-to-day reality. But there’s a bitch of a difference between the journalistic immediacy of prose, in most cases, and what verities poetry is concerned about. Those verities have to do with the political condition of mankind; with justice.
Now justice may be a big abstract noun. If you write a poem about justice with a capital J it is probably going to be a bad poem. But if you look at a poem, not for today’s news but for what it is saying ultimately, certainly it has the strictest idea of conscience in terms of conduct. Well, if I haven’t done that and have just been writing about coconuts and water and schooners, then I’ve wasted my life.
I don’t think I have wasted my life. As a matter of fact, I have tried, and I’m not defending myself here, but when people say I’m not in touch with things, I say: “Yeah, I’m not in touch with things.” I have contempt about being in touch with what’s going on. I mean, I really have contempt for people getting so excited about a man either taking a helicopter and going to Vigie [reference to a government minister’s arrival at the 1987 M&C Games] or somebody crossing a goddamn floor. I mean, really. Ultimately, how long will that action last in the minds of people? Till tomorrow morning?
I think in terms of being looked at as a poet, people may say, “Well, he does not know what is happening from day to day.” All right, so they can say that if they wish. On the other hand it’s a question of conduct.
In terms of theater, in terms of plays and so on, you must remember I am not idyllic about the Caribbean and about the noble peasants and the poor and all that crap. I know, for instance, that one of the most infuriating, almost chronic, permanent situations in the St. Lucia temperament is being en-tay-tay: a kind of peasant stubbornness and stupidity that exist in the highest minds here. A mean-spirited kind of rum-shop mind—a meanness that I am totally aware of. So I don’t make the West Indian mind idyllic.
I have written satires about Trinidad . . . The danger about people who call you out-of-date is that they will put you in jail tomorrow morning because you are not agreeing; because you are apparently not taking an interest in what they themselves are interested in. And that is the fascistic totalitarian mind that says to you, “You are not aware of what’s happening.” Here is what that person is really telling you: “I want you to look at things the way I see them.” When you ignore him you can be in two kinds of trouble: either you’re somebody who’s out of touch or don’t live here or simply don’t know what’s going on. That kind of thinking is very provincial and insular and I am too old to bother with it. I’ve been accused of all kinds of things in my time. I’ve been not black enough; I’ve been too red for black power. There was too red for black power. There was a time when I was an Anglophile and an Afro-Saxon. It’s all rum talk.
Wayne: What makes you sorry for St. Lucia?
Walcott: I don’t feel sorry for St. Lucia. A society like this that has very strong opinions, that’s very vehement in terms of its likes and dislikes, can’t be manipulated as easily as some of the technological empires can manipulate minds.
I think that if somebody can use even that obscenity and say without any threat of arrest, Bo chou mwen, Compton. Kiss Hunte’s ass, the vehemence in that may still be provincial. But somehow that mind is still fresh and still not be manipulated to the degree where the lies that are told on American TV, the lying that has gone on . . . lying has been a part of the presidential process now; from Nixon on. Maybe even before Nixon. It’s now taken for granted. The cynicism about the political process that you encounter in America today is so deep that it is extremely worrying. It is a healthier situation here. Are you aware that most Americans don’t bother to vote? The thing is beyond Orwellian. When you have words like “disinformation,” hey, you’re really in Orwellian territory.
Wayne: What’s the state of the arts in St. Lucia right now?
Walcott: In St. Lucia arts is on its ass. I find a lot of deterioration, I see a lot actors around in a kind of suspended despair, a vulgarity of indifference, an inertia, and you can always tell when something is missing, when something vulgar is going on, when nothing is happening with the arts of a country. That is a reflection of the profound kind of real inertia or indifference or callousness of vulgarity. If there is any dream that I have, it is to come back here one day and find the cultural complex that was promised over 20 years ago. All sorts of reasons have been given why the complex isn’t happening. You can always say you need government buildings and you can put up those buildings with such rapidity that would spin heads. I was here in January and there was nothing. It’s May-June now and the buildings are up. The cultural complex was supposed to happen 20 years ago. For some reason they can’t put up a place for people to express their art . . . That kind of thinking is West Indian intelligence corrupted by concepts that come out of the metropolitan idea of what is necessary. You must have a big place for the government because you need office space.
But in the meantime an entire generation of people who are 20 years old . . . If I thought 20 years ago that I would see somebody’s child and tell him that 20 years later there would be nowhere for him to see a play . . . I might have told that child that when he had become 20 years old all he would have is a nice wharf with a lot of buildings . . . Last night at a friend’s house, one of the children was singing and I wondered aloud if the child would like to be a singer.
The mother asked: “What future is there for a singer in St. Lucia? Why be a singer here? To sing in the church choir?”
I mean, this is not cynicism. It’s reality. It’s heartbreaking to hear that sort of thing. To me, it summarizes the whole thing. If I were Dante, the first people I would put in Hell, in the lowest circle of Hell, would be the politicians who did nothing for the spirit of the art of this country. They would be put into the first circle of Hell because if there is no future for a child with a voice, the person to be blamed is the person who was elected to be responsible for the child’s talent!
Editor’s Note: The preceding, the second of a two-part published interview, first appeared in this newspaper on June 20, 1987.
Derek Walcott (right) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992.
Derek Walcott: Poetry is an Island is a documentary film about the man, his art and his life, an intimate portrait including exclusive archive material from the Nobel Prize ceremony. The film will be shown at various Saint Lucian venues during the Jazz & Arts Festival on May 7, 8 and 9.