How Derek Walcott Changed My Life

Image of Nobel Literature Laureate Derek Walcott

WHEN I realized that I was going to teach English for a year in Fort-de-France, Martinique, I brought with me three books to keep me company in a strange and foreign land. Two of the books were books from my childhood, two writers from the United States, like me, but the other book stashed in my suitcase between my work clothes and swim trunks was the Selected Poems of Derek Walcott.

Image of Sir Derek Walcott
Sir Derek Walcott

I grew up intrigued by poetry – the way in which the words seem held together by pain and mirrors – and Walcott left an indelible mark on my young imagination when I discovered his poetry at the age of sixteen. Ten years later, on the verge of leaving for Martinique, I knew that I could not experience the Caribbean in any real way without reading his poems again.

After arriving in Martinique I struggled to adjust to the tropical heat and humidity of the island. I showed up to school drenched in armpit and back sweat and on the first day of work retreated to the bathroom to dab my forehead with Kleenex before class started.

After introducing myself to my students, it took me a few minutes of snickers and laughter to understand that bits of tissue were stuck to my forehead. During those first few months, I kept afloat by reading Walcott’s poetry.

His poems at once comforted me and made me feel elated, like I could see into the heart of the landscape around me. Sometimes the language in Walcott’s poetry proved even more real than the landscape that it described: “I seek, / As climate seeks its style, to write / Verse crisp as sand, clear as sunlight, / Cold as the curled wave, ordinary / As a tumbler of island water.”

When Christmas came I booked a flight out of St. Lucia, which was cheaper than flying out of Martinique, in order to go home for the holidays. Despite the predawn chill in the morning wind, the St. Lucians chatted with holiday cheer as we waited in the downtown port of Fort-de-France to board the ferry for St. Lucia.

They carried with them bags full of chocolates in pink boxes, transparent cases of artisanal pastries, and wine bottles with elaborate crests on their labels. From what I could tell, the St. Lucians seemed warmer and fuller of zest than any Martiniquais I had encountered over the past several months. Like siblings, the islands seemed different.

It was late at night when I reached my Bed & Breakfast in the quiet outskirts of Castries. Despite the untimely hour, my host Martha was warm and welcoming as she gave me a tour of her gabled house.

Martha had just published a children’s novel, she told me, which she displayed on an end-table by the couch in the living room where we sat and talked. I asked her if she had ever read Derek Walcott. She was friends, she laughed, with Mr. Walcott’s partner Sigrid Nama. Martha then got up from the sofa, headed for her phone, and called up Sigrid.

Unable to comprehend what was happening, I remained seated at the sofa. After a few moments Martha’s eyes lit up. She mouthed that it was Walcott himself on the other end of the line. She explained to Mr. Walcott that a young man wished to speak with him. She passed the phone to me.

Dumbfounded, my opening remarks sounded as cliché as any star struck tourist accosting a Hollywood A-lister in the streets of L.A. “Derek Walcott, is that really you?” I asked. The conversation went on exactly like that.

The entire next morning Martha and I crafted an immaculately-phrased email asking if I could meet Walcott in person. I write book reviews for a small literary magazine, published out of the United States, and Martha and I explained in the email that the meeting would be an interview for the publication.

Just the day before, while on the ferry crossing the blue channel that divided Martinique and St. Lucia, it never would have occurred to me to call up Walcott, despite the fact that his phone number is listed in the phone registry, and even if it had occurred to me, I wouldn’t have done it. But Martha kept persisting that I meet him.

We sent off the email and spent the night at the movie theatre watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens. How could it be, I wondered, that I might meet a childhood hero? Outside of the theater now, purple light still out, Martha checked her email on her phone. Derek had sent a reply. He told me to swing by after New Year’s Eve.

Back in the United States, while white blizzards raged across the East Coast, I researched and prepared for the interview with a ferocious intensity, predicated less upon scrupulousness and diligence and more on sheer animal terror. After all, how to prepare for an interview with a writer of this caliber?

Derek Walcott, a Nobel Laureate, one of the lions of world literature, had spent six decades of his career transforming the Caribbean world into the permanence of poetry. A large part of Walcott’s ambition focused on the desire to bring St. Lucia into literature for the first time.

Growing up on an island that was still under British rule, Walcott’s education meant that he read the English and European classics. The mighty oak tree he encountered in Keats did not correspond to the breadfruit tree he saw outside his own bedroom window.

“Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?” Walcott imagines being asked in “The Sea Is History,” and in that same poem he replies by pointing to the sea: “These groined caves with barnacles / pitted like stone / are our cathedrals.” The sea caves of the Caribbean, Walcott argues, can rival the whirling spires of Notre-Dame. For Walcott, nature and culture were never opposites but rather complements, where each could summon up the image of the other.

When I met Derek Walcott he was already very old. For some reason, I had pictured him as I saw him in photographs from the 1980s, as if time stops for lions. But time does not stop, even for Walcott. I helped Derek position his wheelchair around a table under the verandah outside his home that looked out onto the sea.

Just like in Martinique, I dressed myself in a button-down dress shirt with a gold pin dot tie and slacks. Derek wore shorts and a loosely-fitted t-shirt with a pen sheathed in the breast pocket.

Back in the United States, I had prepared around two dozen high-minded questions for him, the sort of questions one would think to ask a man of his stature, which focused on subjects like post-colonial thought, Caribbean politics, the latest trends in academic literary theory, or the ultimate signification of his work. I asked if I could read out loud a poem of his to kick off the interview.

“I would hate that,” he replied. Dumbfounded, I asked why. “I don’t know,” he laughs. “What’s the point of all this?” I didn’t know how to respond.

The tape recorder recording silence. Feeling that I had to drop all pretenses, I decided to confess that I had found his poetry at a young age and that his work had left an indelible mark on me. We sat outside at the table under the verandah in the dying light and began to talk about Hart Crane, Emily Dickinson, and Paul Cézanne.

We talked about our mutual loves in poetry. I showed him a poem I had written about skiing in Montana. After I had read the poem aloud he asked me from where I had stolen the phrase “blue snow.” When I told him I hadn’t found the phrase anywhere, he told me to come back tomorrow morning, and we would talk some more.

The next day, and in fact over the next several months, we met and discussed how to write better, how to see more clearly, and how to depict landscape in language the way Cézanne painted landscape on canvas. Derek was kind enough to introduce me to his friends and ingratiate me into his literary circle.

Like planets orbiting a sun we circled around Derek under the verandah outside his house and talked. It felt as if I was sixteen again reading the biographies of writers and artists whose lives seemed inextricably linked with each other. For whatever reason, Derek allowed me into his world of like-minded people, whose blood coursed with the fresh morning wind of literature.

But what mattered most to Derek always seemed to be the hard work required in order to succeed at the difficult craft of poetry, which he called “perfection’s sweat.” Although Derek treated his friends with unbounding generosity and spirit, he was also a tough and merciless teacher: “If this man is right then there’s nothing else to do / but abandon poetry like a woman because you love it / and would not see her hurt, least of all by me.”

When I returned to Martinique after my meetings with Derek, my writing would always change. There was always a way to get better. There was always a way to see how a white heron was the same colour as clouds or waterfalls. There was always a way to see better how the early morning light lengthened the shadows of trees and noon took them away.

The last time I met Derek it was only a few months before he passed. He was much weaker and his health had deteriorated since I last saw him. It had been only a little over a year since we first met. With Sigrid, I stood beside Derek’s bed where he lay and greeted him. Sigrid and I began to discuss the festivities for Nobel Laureate Week that were planned for the next several days.

Suddenly, Derek perked up and asked me: “How’s the work?” Taken aback, I told him that I had spent the past few months preparing some new poems for him. “Do you have them here with you?” he asked.

Although I didn’t expect to show the poems to Derek due to his frail health, I brought them with me because I knew that the price of admission to Derek’s world charged for poems and hard work. Perfection’s sweat.

I pulled up a chair next to the bed where he lay, and I handed over the poems and a pen. It took him a few minutes to position the pen in his hand and set the pages of the poems against his upraised thighs.

As he began to mark up and approve certain aspects of my poem while tearing other parts of it to shreds, I watched Derek breathe in that fresh morning wind. In the borrowed hospital bed next to the oxygen tank in his bedroom we worked for a long time. The man never stopped working. His work lives on.

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