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A Multiplicity of Voices

A Conversation with Derek Walcott

HUMANITIES, November/December 2001 | Volume 22, Number 6

Shakespeare and the cultural mix that is Caribbean history are the topics as NEH Chairman William R. Ferris talks with poet Derek Walcott. Walcott is a professor at Boston University and founder of the Boston Playwrights' Theater.

William R. Ferris: I want to begin by quoting Joseph Brodsky’s remark that “The West Indies were discovered by Columbus, colonized by the British, and immortalized by Walcott.” You were born and raised in the West Indies and spend a good bit of each year in St. Lucia. What do you feel are the basic elements that make up the Caribbean culture.

Derek Walcott: I think its multiracial character is a basic component, particularly in cases like Trinidad and the larger islands. All the races are represented here, not only the African, but the East Indian and the Chinese and the Mediterranean and the European. You can trace their influence in the music, as well as in the language.

Ferris: Is there such a thing as a Caribbean voice? If so, what does it say?

Walcott: I think the identity of the Caribbean voice is the multiplicity of voices here in the Caribbean. These languages are derived from dialects of the original languages -- Spanish, French, English, Portuguese. They are all represented in this space.

Ferris: How have you seen Caribbean culture change over the last fifty years?

Walcott: Like any part of the world, it can’t escape the technological advances that have happened, and not necessarily all to the good. You know, the whole idea of the global village is true. The strongest influence culturally, of course, is America. It’s very hard to retain individuality since there is a kind of third empire now, which is the commercial empire that America represents in the export of its culture through television and film.

Ferris: What elements of Caribbean culture has the United States embraced and which elements of our culture has the Caribbean embraced?

Walcott: Popular culture through television, particularly with the young, is a very strong presence. A lot of the young people in the Caribbean are self-deluded into pretending that they are American. That’s part of the attraction of the American technical culture, particularly in music.

As to what America itself has received and used from the Caribbean, I don’t think there’s much visible evidence of that because America still exercises prejudicial judgment on what influence the third world or its people of color can have. They are blocked by all sorts of forces of habit that prevent the expansion of our culture, as well as black culture, in America.

Our influence is relegated particularly to music, jazz or park music or rap, so that if the culture in America were broader, then one could say that it might include Caribbean culture. There is a struggle for the black artist in America anyway to try and have influence, or just simply to be present. So it’s not easy to say that there is an influence from the Caribbean on American culture.

Ferris: The National Endowment for the Humanities supported the biography that Bruce King wrote about you and your life. I understand you were initially reluctant to allow a biography.

Walcott: Frankly, I haven’t read it. But I guess it’s of importance. You know, one can’t avoid the idea that eventually someone is going to write about your life.

Ferris: At the time that King was writing your biography, you were working on Tiepolo’s Hound. Some see that as something of an autobiography. You wrote about the life of the artist, about exile, about the relation ship of new world art to Europe and other cultures. I was fascinated to see your own artwork illustrating the poem. How do the paintings and the words relate? Is a syllable like a brush stroke, as has been suggested?

Walcott: In a way. It depends on the painting itself and what medium you’re using. I don’t paint in a manner that, say, Cézanne painted in, his brush strokes and so on. My gouaches are more fluid.

But, yes, I have always found a great relationship between painting and writing words. I don’t think that writing words can help your painting, but I think that knowing what color you’re going to use and having an idea of symmetry and structure and light from the practice of painting certainly helps craft verse. So that relationship continues.

Ferris: Do you see yourself as a painter as much as you see yourself as a writer?

Walcott: No. I’m very tough on my own self as a painter. I’m much more dissatisfied and more restless and more angry and more conscious of failure in painting than I am in either theater or in verse.

The good thing about painting is that you can see that you’re a flop immediately. You don’t always know that you’re not doing well in either a theater piece or poem.

Ferris: When John Millington Synge wrote The Aran Islands, Jack Yeats joined him to do an accompanying set of paintings. Synge later complained that it was much quicker and easier for Yeats to do the paintings than for him to do the writing. But you have embraced both of these worlds.

Walcott: Right. I consider Synge a more permanent artist than Yeats, though.

Ferris: By the time you were fourteen you were a published poet, and by the age of sixteen, a dramatist. Where did your urge to write come from?

Walcott: The example was from my father who was a painter, a very good watercolorist, who died very young, and my mother, who was a schoolteacher and recited Shakespeare. She was an amateur actress and my father did theatrical shows. I think it’s a sort of direct inheritance.

Ferris: There is a central theme in your work of the search for identity. How would you describe your own identity?

Walcott: I could describe myself in detail down to my heel and the color of my eyes and my skin, but that’s not what one means by identity in the Caribbean. It took me a long and searching time to resolve what it is to be a St. Lucian and a West Indian. The experience, of course, comes from the political pattern of the Caribbean -- colonialism to independence. If you can equate adolescence to colonialism, and so forth, until you get to maturity and independence, then there’s a parallel.

I knew from the time I was very, very young that I wanted to try to describe things that were Caribbean because they were new and they were exciting and they were virginal in that sense.

Ferris: Why do you find such a compelling issue in the search for identity?

Walcott: The whole mission for a writer or painter or any artist -- it’s true of any culture -- is to find out what you mean. And you can only know what you mean by knowing who you are. That’s true of a Jewish writer or an Indian writer or anyone.

We have a very complicated situation in the Caribbean because there is a lot of quarreling going on now. We have proven through our experience that people can survive next to each other, that the Muslim and the Hindu can live in Trinidad in proximity without any violence. So, even if it is a microcosm, we have these examples of harmony that can happen between the races. I’m not painting an ideal picture, but the practicality and the reality of it has been that we have lived together very amicably, and that’s not the same for the rest of the world.

Now, it is small and people may say, “Well, that’s not entirely true,” but I think one of the political validities of the Caribbean culture is that its variety is its identity.

Ferris: The theme of discovery and exploration comes through again and again in your work. Many of your works make allusion to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. When did you first encounter Crusoe?

Walcott: The Crusoe fable, as presented by Defoe, is a thing every Caribbean child knew, and maybe still knows -- the idea of Friday’s footprint in the sand and then the relationship with Friday, Crusoe’s servant and companion. We all learned that very early, from childhood.

Ferris: Why is Crusoe such a fascinating character for you?

Walcott: Because the legend of Crusoe is set in the Caribbean. It is supposed to have taken place in Tobago. I guess the attraction is that it’s an island fable. But also it’s the idea of the isolated person, shipwrecked. That’s a very old fable.

Ferris: You’re an accomplished poet and a playwright and a painter. I want to talk with you for a moment about your poetry for which you won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. Why does poetry appeal to you as a form of expression?

Walcott: I knew I wanted to write verse from very early. I can’t say how far back I found myself writing verse. I think I got it from my father and from my mother’s presence as a teacher. It wasn’t a question of a calling; it was endemic, it was there, and I found myself working and trying to write good verse from a very early age.

Painting came a little later, but not much later. And the theater, of course, requires other people, actors and so on, and that came in school. But the poetry is something I always knew that I was going to do.

Ferris: That’s beautiful. Which poets influenced your work?

Walcott: Well, the thing about a Caribbean education is that it was very classic in terms of its sources. We did Shakespeare. We did Dickens and Scott and all the given names. The same system of teaching, which is a sort of British public school curriculum, is the one that we had in the Caribbean.

We did Latin, as well, and in some islands they did Latin and the Greek. I never did Greek, but Barbados taught Latin and Greek. I’m very happy that I did Latin and I’m very sorry that Latin has been lost to all these schools now, because it is a fundamental language and it’s beautiful.

Ferris: Was Dylan Thomas a poet you encountered?

Walcott: Yes, yes. I didn’t consider myself to be influenced so as much as an apprentice trying to learn from everyone. I modeled my work at a very early age on all the writers that I admired, from Auden and Dylan Thomas and so on. I had the freedom, as far as I was concerned, not to have the sense of time that, say, an English schoolboy or an American might have in terms of the chronology of time and dates.

That chronology of history did not apply for me. I was free to roam any period that I liked and free to imitate and model myself on any period, whether it was Shakespeare or whether it was translations of Ovid or Dante. I don’t want to sound too pretentious. I’m just saying I just felt free and entitled to all those things.

Ferris: Which poets are you still reading?

Walcott: I recently read Philip Larkin and Seamus Heaney, a contemporary. I like Paul Muldoon a lot. There are a lot of different names. It’s hard to list all of them.

Ferris: You’ve written more than twenty-five plays since you began as a teenager. Where did your interest in the theater come from?

Walcott: My mother used to recite a lot of Shakespeare. She had acted in Shakespeare. So she recited great poetry around the house. I would hear that and feel like, yes, maybe I’ll be able to get her to recite something by me sometime. And my father did amateur theatricals.

I’m a great believer in genetics. Because of environment, because of habit or direction, I inherited this theatrical sense mainly from my mother’s acting, but also because I felt very strongly about poetic theater, about theater that was not prosaic and ordinary.

I was also in a very free-form environment. The privilege of being able to say, “All right, I’m going to do a play that has this or that in it” -- and you perform it in an obscure little island like St. Lucia -- is a kind of freedom, more than if I were in a regimented idea of an inherited style.

Ferris: What does a play allow you to express that poetry cannot?

Walcott: I think poetry can do anything. Some of the greatest theater in the world is poetry.

Ferris: Which playwrights influenced you?

Walcott: Again, answers sound pompous, but for a young man, they’re not pompous. Shakespeare is an obvious influence because of the poetry, and the Jacobeans to some degree. Later on, Bertolt Brecht. Who else? Synge, the Irish revival, the Irish writers.

Ferris: You wrote the epic poem, Omeros, a twentieth-century retelling of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey set in the Caribbean, and you also did a play based on the Odyssey.

Walcott: I’d like to correct that, which I’ve been doing relentlessly lately. The book is not based on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. They are associations, inferences and associations, and that’s what the book says. A fisherman named Achille -- and there is such a person and there is a man called Hector -- they have no idea who they are.

And the plot does not imitate. The evocation is what it is, the echo and the evocation of Homer’s legend is what’s here -- in the same way that an island may, in a sense, convey an echo of another island on the horizon. That’s what it’s based on mainly, not on an attempt to rewrite Homer in the Caribbean. That would be absurd. It’s not designed like, say, Joyce’s Ulysses, line by line to represent something that happened in the Odyssey, particularly.

Ferris: Right.

Walcott: But it is evocation and meaning. That’s what it is mainly about. At the end of the book, the book turns on the author to say, stop doing this classical stuff and try and face reality where you are.

Ferris: In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce says that he fled the nets of family, religion, and politics. Joyce himself left his island and was forever an expatriate. You’ve come home again and you’ve made a reconciliation with your own culture.

Walcott: I never really separated myself from it. I never had any desire to leave it, really. The restlessness and the impatience and the anger -- don’t have any point, I think, in my work. I couldn’t leave because I was committed to the theater primarily, and I couldn’t take West Indian theater into the places that I had gone to.

Ferris: Why were you drawn to the Odyssey and the Iliad as stories?

Walcott: You live in an archipelago and so does Ulysses, so does Homer. These islands have their parallel. All literature is indebted to the Odyssey, so this literature is no less indebted.

Of course, this literature comes out of an even more physical resemblance to, say, the Aegean or to the fables of wandering and return that are physically present every day if we look out in the Caribbean and see a sail going out or coming back in. This would be true anywhere. It’s such a powerful iconic thing that no matter where you are, you think of a single sailor as Ulysses. That has become a global metaphor.

I think maybe what I wanted to do is to write about the fishermen in St. Lucia and their way of life. That’s principally it. It’s a book about the sea. It’s a book about memory. But it’s not based on the adventures of Ulysses.

Ferris: What attracted you to writing an epic poem? What did it allow you to do?

Walcott: I didn’t set out to write an epic. It just got very long and very big, and I guess that’s why it’s called an epic. The destination of an epic used to be a sort of political destination. It used to be to elevate the race out of which the hero came or to do X or Y, you know? We are too powerless to have that kind of hero. So the width of the book, the length of the book, really is a matter of accretion. It just got longer and wider.

But it was a great joy to write it, because the design of it meant that I could get up every morning and go towards it as if one might go to a large fiction, and the design of it was already there on a grid. It was very exciting to come to it every day, and it got to expand itself more.

Ferris: The poem and the play both are filled with historical references and allusions. What role does history play in your work?

Walcott: The history of the Caribbean is a very unhappy history. It’s a history of genocide, of slavery, of indenture. As beautiful as the Caribbean is, the contrast of the history is that it has a very sad and ravaged past.

History in that sense has a malevolent kind of aura in the Caribbean, because the things that were done in the Caribbean were done in the name of history, in the name of progress and expansion, from the conquistadors or from the conquerors, you know, through the different empires that owned the islands. The battles that happened, for the sake of each individual empire, resulted in the exploitation of the obvious people, the Indians and then the Africans and so on.

Ferris: Do you think that our current culture today is historically conscious, in the Caribbean, and more broadly, globally? Are we aware of history in the way that people in earlier generations were?

Walcott: I don’t think we see it as a threat or a force that dominates our lives. Whether it was British, French, or Spanish or Portuguese, when you were colonial, the history didn’t belong to you. It belonged to the person who was ruling you or supervising you.

That doesn’t exist anymore except in an oblique way. It exists very forcefully and it may be the most powerful influence we have, in the American influence on what we should do or what we should buy or what we should become. That’s an imperial threat, too, and we have to be careful that we don’t succumb to that.

Ferris: You’ve acknowledged your debt to Shakespeare and to other writers. I think of my old friend, Jacob Elder, in Tobago, who’s done a lot of work on folklore there. How did folklore and the stories you were told shape your work?

Walcott: I incorporated them into theater, into the plays. I think it’s a matter of rhythm. It is a matter of technique of folk stories, the concept of repetition and variety and the symmetry that comes in folk-telling. I think I tried to incorporate those in some of the plays, and the music.

Ferris: As you look back on a career of more than fifty years, is there a project that you wish that you had taken on?

Walcott: I would like to make films about the Caribbean, feature films. I think there is an immense amount of material from Caribbean novelists and theater people that would make excellent film material.

Ferris: That would be a wonderful step, from writing the novel to filming it.

Walcott: Yes.

Ferris: I am forever grateful to you for taking the time to speak with me and to share your thoughts in this way.

Walcott: Thank you very much.