Derek Walcott is hardly the unstoppable whirlwind he used to be when he wrote Omeros and was awarded the Nobel in universal recognition of his literary genius—but then who among us can truthfully say we are today as active as we used to be back in 1992? Which is not to suggest our most famous native son no longer writes, paints, and holds private literature classes for a lucky few. Neither has he curtailed his peripatetic ways, one might add. Walcott continues to accept invitations to art-related events all over the world, as difficult as air travel has become even for the most able bodied. No surprise, therefore, that he insisted on attending—despite feeling a bit under the weather—last Saturday’s launching of his latest work Morning Paramin, produced in collaboration with Scotsman Peter Doig, the renowned, world’s highest-paid living artist now based with his family in Trinidad.
Never mind this is the season normally reserved for egregiously irrational exuberance, with several Derek Walcott aficionados forced in the name of duty to attend a nearby ARC-related annual event, many chose not to miss the once in a lifetime opportunity to witness firsthand the revered painter Doig (two of his pieces have sold at auction for over US$10 million!) and our own Nobel winner at once sharing the same stage. The chosen venue was ‘the Yard’, fast becoming the launching pad for all things literary and cultural. Local poet and senator Adrian Augier and STAR Publishing’s managing director Mae Wayne produced the event.
In conspicuous attendance were the nation’s prime minister Allen Chastanet, his somewhat reclusive but highly popular wife Raquel, and the PM’s beaming father Michael—a long-time close friend of the Nobel winner—who was among the first to take his seat. Daughter Feolla, smiling from ear to there, also arrived early, as did the ambassadors of Brazil and Venezuela, Sergio Couri and Leif Escalona, both major Walcott admirers. In his unavoidable absence the Taiwanese ambassador was represented by embassy official Edward Tao.
Author McDonald Dixon, long-time fan and acknowledged student of Derek Walcott, sat with me in the second row of seats while a few feet away OCM Bocas winner Vladimir Lucien sucked in the atmosphere. Richard Peterkin left his wife’s side several times (I took note!) to compete with several professional photographers, including the STAR’s David Pascal. Peterkin’s photographs (quite impressive, it turns out) undoubtedly were first to make it to Fakebook (editor, please resist correcting my spelling on this occasion; it’s calculated!), with accompanying characteristic comments by the social commentator!
Sponsors included Courts, CPJ St. Lucia Limited, Sandals, Landmark Events and STAR Publishing Co. Local poet Robert Lee introduced the onstage art superstars. The evening would not be without its heart-stopping moments—and not for the reason you might think—especially for those of us who were privy to the super-human effort the ailing 86-year-old Walcott had made not to disappoint his audience, as if indeed that were possible. He read his first poem from Morning, Paramin and then, just before the end, stopped to say he was having a little trouble with his concentration. The announcement was greeted with encouraging applause from the obviously empathetic crowd. And then Walcott directed Doig to take over. Somehow the two giants managed to make light of what was for some of us quite worrying. Doig smiled broadly then started reading. Sometimes he laughed out loud, regaling their audience. Not until all the chosen poems had been delivered, to ecstatic response, did it appear Walcott was in need of medical assistance. The audience stayed back for several hours after he had been driven away. It soon turned out there was nothing about which to be particularly concerned. But how heroic of our Nobel winner to have attended though not feeling well, and to have sat through the launching to its conclusion.
Walcott and Doig had earlier autographed several prepaid copies of Morning, Paramin. In the poet’s absence, while some fans ordered dish after delicious dish and glass after bubbly glass from Sabrina’s Café at ‘the Yard’, others lined up to purchase and have their books signed by Doig. All this to the accompaniment of music performed by Mamai La Caye. Finally, a great evening was had by all who made the effort to be present at the, yes, historic, event—about which many will in due course brag.
By Peter Doig’s account he had already sealed a deal with a literary agent in London who wished to publish a book of his paintings with accompanying text by an unidentified well-known author. But that was before the in-demand artist had encountered Derek Walcott. As Doig told it on Saturday evening, his and Walcott’s daughters were friends and neighbors in Trinidad’s Paramin Valley. Even though Walcott often visited, the two men had never met. But meet they did the last time Walcott was in Trinidad, on which occasion they expressed mutual high regard for each other’s work. Not long afterward, his publishers informed Doig they’d had a change of heart and now were no longer keen on their earlier chosen collaborator. The writer they now wanted was Derek Walcott. At which point, Doig recalled while Walcott listened in silence, “I said, ‘Oh, what a coincidence. I met him for the first time just the other day.’”
More discussions followed. Doig invited Derek Walcott and his constant companion Sigrid to Montreal, where the artist’s work was on exhibition. More talks ensued that resulted in Morning, Paramin—and last Saturday’s unforgettable several exciting hours at ‘the Yard’. A few copies remain available, just in case those who did not attend the launch wish to make up for what they missed. Besides, I can think of no better Christmas gift!
Not without good reason the Wall Street Journal recently referred to Morning, Paramin as “double-barreled magic,” a book wherein “a renowned painter and Nobel-winning poet meditate the difficult beauty of the Caribbean.” Moreover that Walcott and Doig’s “respective endeavors have much in common . . . Both men are world travelers, and their visual and literary journey here takes the reader from snowy northern landscapes to steamy jungles and tropical beaches.”
As I say, something to immerse yourselves in over the holidays; something worth sharing with loved ones, while you still have the opportunity proudly to own the autograph of one of our two Nobel laureates!
A personal footnote: I forgot to ask and now I continue to wonder if Good Morning, Vietnam, starring Robin Williams (deceased) may have inspired the title Morning, Paramin.