June 22, 2009

Derek Walcott @ Caribbean American Book & Art Fair

Derek Walcott

Every time that I think Derek Walcott has nothing new to teach me, he surprises me. For given his age, it is easy to think that the old man has joined the ranks of those stale, Caribbean intellectuals and artists who continue to mouth the same old platitudes, repackaged in endless variations, without any regard for the present situation in the region.

But Walcott showed he was still the literary lion of the Caribbean when after a brilliant introduction by Carole Boyce Davies and poetic tribute by Donna Aza Weir Soley, he mounted the stage at the Caribbean American Book & Art Fair to read from his latest manuscript, White Egrets.

The fire, the passion, the love of these islands that Walcott, like Shabine in "The Schooner Flight," knows "from Monos to Nassau," was still evident. Yet I will admit I was a bit shocked when he held the railings--a hint of mortality?--to steady himself.

Walcott prefaced the reading by criticizing what he terms the current philosophy of Caribbean tourist officials, which he defined as "slavery with a smile" and described the new mega-hotels cropping up over the region as the "new plantations by the sea." He blamed the governments for giving away many of our beaches to the new prospectors without setting up the necessary tax structures that would benefit the nationals by the erection of theatres, museums, and other educational/cultural institutions.

Then, using his actor's gift of timing, Walcott led us through his litany of poems that culminated in two poems for Barack Obama.

Although the first poem, "Forty Acres" was commissioned by the Times, Walcott was reluctant: "I told them that I didn't write occasional poems, but when I heard how much they were going to pay me, I accepted. Like any good whore says, 'I have children.'"

Walcott then spoke about the origins of the poem: the promise of "forty acres and a mule," the engravings of Hart Benton, and gave us a lesson in Latin about the relationship of the Latin word for "plough" and poetry (hints of Heaney?)--and the connections to Jasper Johns' evocative use of the stripes of the American flag as a series of furrows.

The second poem, "The World is Waiting," was written, Walcott explained, after the BBC realized that he could "be had" and offered him a favorable amount of money.

"I didn't know where to begin," said Walcott in a bewildered tone, "so I went for a haircut."

What emerged from that simple haircut (and taught me about another of his modes of composition) was a poem in which Walcott managed to link the issues surrounding Obama's inauguration, "‘is that a Muslim or an African name, Obama?’" to the landscape of the Caribbean, memories of Malcolm X, King, Garvey, Frederick Douglass, the yapping dogs, the church in Alabama and the hopes of many people, but especially those of black people, around the world.

But before Walcott began, he treated us to a musical arrangement by Galt MacDermot of the poem.

"So the world is waiting for Obama, my barber said," and the music and the words merged into a lilting calypso that was followed by Walcott's reading.

Then came the shock of recognition and the audience rising to their feet to applaud another poetic triumph.

Walcott stood, signaled to the soundman, and then sat as he left us with the musical benediction ringing in our ears.


For more photos of the event, please follow this link: Caribbean American Book & Art Fair


Julie said...

Derek Walcott is amazing. I wish I could have been there to hear him.

The plantations by the sea hurt my heart. I've seen many of them. I'm so glad Walcott is here so we can keep learning from his powerful words. Thank you!

Geoffrey Philp said...

"I'm so glad Walcott is here so we can keep learning from his powerful words."
Me, too, Julie. Me too.