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How Sir Derek’s Magic Shaped My Life

Image of Sir Derek Walcott and I at the launch of Nobel Laureate Week at Government House, January 2013.
Image: Sir Derek Walcott and I at the launch of Nobel Laureate Week at Government House, January 2013.
Sir Derek Walcott and I at the launch of Nobel Laureate Week at Government House, January 2013.

I was eighteen when my mother, with whom I had spent most of my childhood life without owing to her being based in French Guiana, transplanted her family from her native Guyana to St. Lucia. The year was 1991 and I had completed my high school education the year prior.

Leaving school had posed even greater challenges for my young, ambitious heart. My faith in hope and silver linings were intensely tested as I questioned myself repeatedly about the real purpose of rigidly spending one’s early years of life confined to books and classrooms in preparation for a corporate world that manifested despair with its litany of No Vacancy signs and rejection letters.

The irony that was the painful thorn in my side was that I was now finding myself depressingly vying for a crust of bread in a socialist republic that boasted the convenience of One People, One Nation, One Destiny on one hand but juxtaposed that philosophy with an ingrained system of racial tensions and counterproductive economic decisions.

Guyana, to me, meant a land of many waters, gold, diamonds, forests and a resilient populace either true to their patriotism or adamant about leaving its shores. That was my Guyana. The dear land of Guyana that, as a boy, meant the world to me before I got a glimpse of what lay beyond her beautiful coastal borders.

Nevertheless, my Guyana also mirrored something close to perfection: the sanctity and majesty of the captivating and ever-flowing Kaieteur Falls, the chronic pungency of endless canals that trickled through the endless rice and sugarcane fields, the dialectic English that permeated the hustle and bustle of streets, stores and marketplaces as the human element competed with the static climate to eke out a daily survival.

But here I was on a ripe October day, a mere five days after my initial arrival at Helen’s, standing in the centre of the bustling cosmopolitan city of Castries. Here I was negotiating with other pedestrians for space on unknown sidewalks as I ambled along, assimilating the inexplicable contrast to my native Guyana. Here I was in a new place, feeling new, thinking new things about a new life.

My mother, stepdad and two younger brothers had found the sweltering midday sun too much to bear so, after a quick light lunch at one of the city’s rustic diners, they took the twenty-five minute return commute to Barre Denis, a serene and picturesque hamlet resting atop an ever-winding system of hills on St. Lucia’s northwestern region. I still remember their deep concern about the decision I had taken to remain in the city at my own whim for a few more hours.

The midday heat turned its scorching temperature up a bit by two o’ clock as I aimlessly passed by the shop windows filled with fine fashion, high-tech home appliances, delectable food items and breathtaking book jackets.

I entered one of the bookstores on the corner of Jeremie and Laborie Streets and what unfolded in the following forty-five minutes or so would etch an indelible mark on the boy who at seven years old or so had begun browsing the morning newspapers as a religion!

While in A.F. Valmont Book Salon, I browsed through a few paperbacks by V.S. Naipaul, Edward Kamau Brathwaite and Samuel Selvon and spent about ten minutes absolutely enthralled in some anthologies penned by local writers. Then I flipped through a few of Derek Walcott’s works.

From the very first page of each Walcott book, I knew that what I had learnt about literature at secondary school in Guyana had ill-prepared me to grasp even the rudimentary substance necessary to appreciate the subject. I had read Michael Anthony’s A Year In San Fernando, V.S. Naipaul’s A House For Mr. Biswas, John Steinbeck’s The Pearl and had begun William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. But I immediately realized that Walcott was going to challenge my then limited knowledge of literature.

I remember reading poems like Mervyn Morris’s The Pond, Robert Frost’s Mending Wall, Seamus Heaney’s Mid Term Break and Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s The Pawpaw but when I realized that Walcott not only used his style of writing to inform but to also expand your vocabulary skills, I was impressed to find out he came from the island I had now adopted as home!

Whenever you experience a period of despair, a bold and equal survivalist quality often thrusts itself forth. If you react to that despair in a negative mode, a deeper and darker pain often ensues. This is so because despair has the propensity to trigger self-renewal. It can allow you to reexamine the focus of the spectrum through which you look. Patience and inner strength give you the will to humbly suffer the transient tragedies we are born to bear as humans. But it is wisdom that affords you the gift to recognize the cataclysmic pulse that permeates your veins, your soul and your heart when the proverbial light bulb is finally lit. That was the essence of my being at that moment in that book store.

My literary light bulb was switched on brightly by Derek Walcott that day and the light I saw beaming at me from those pages still serves a beacon in even my darkest moments. I spent the next few years attending private remedial classes for English, took on an even greater appreciation for the fine art of poetry and scoured libraries, bookstores, malls and flea markets for any useful information I could find on poetry, essays, short stories and plays.

I wrote my first poem in 1997. I was on my lunch break and scribbled it on a piece of brown paper bag that contained my lunch. Before the day was over, I asked a co-worker of mine, Lawrencia, whether she liked it and she told me she loved it. So I continued writing poems and poems and poems after that.

My then girlfriend, Tammy, realized my interest in the art form and got me a copy of Derek Walcott’s Omeros. A year later, I joined a newly-formed writing group called the Saint Lucia Writers’ Forum. The group had been recently formed by a cadre of writers who needed to take literature to a new level by creating more avenues for budding poets and prose writers to expose their talents.

We met every Tuesday night for about three hours just sharpening our writing and performing skills. Some creative writing workshops were also conducted under the esteemed tutelage of renowned poet/playwright, Kendel Hippolyte and his wife, Jane.

Former Director of Culture, Jacques Compton, served as a formidable mentor to the group and furnished us with a great deal of needed knowledge of the literary world. He was well versed in the field and I was also particularly enthused when he would often quote the masters like V.S. Naipaul, Aime Cesaire, Langston Hughes, Samuel Selvon, Earl Lovelace, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Edgar Mittleholzer and Derek Walcott. Jacques was a living lexicon and he actually transformed half of his home into a personal library.

I first met Walcott in January, 1999. It was at the Annual Nobel Laureate Week Lecture that formed part of the Nobel Laureate Week celebrations. Quite apart from the irascible being I had heard him to be, he seemed composed and humble. (I later learned from watching a brief television interview about him that his trait of irascibility stemmed from his disdain for mediocrity).

A year later, my writing group organized a Reading Night in his honour and I got the chance to read two of my poems. Later that night, I got the opportunity to shake his hand and snap a photo. That was January, 2000.

Two months later, the group received information that Derek was hosting a Poetry Reading at the Derek Walcott Theatre located on the grounds of the hotel I just happened to be working with at the time – Club St. Lucia. His featured guest was going to be Literature Laureate, Irishman Seamus Heaney, Derek’s close friend who won the prize three years after he did.

The night was inspirational for me. I sat with a few other writers from Writers’ Forum and considered it a blessing to be in the presence of not just one but two Nobel Laureates. Both Laureates read poems from their rich arsenals and I was floored by their eloquence and philosophical leanings. There was a book signing at the end of the evening and I got to shake hands with the legends before getting my signed poster.

Within days, Derek’s twin brother, Roderick, another literary luminary, passed away and I learned more about him upon his death. Such is the case in the Caribbean where one often goes unrecognized locally but is considered a legend whenever he or she hits foreign shores. Roddy was a master playwright and outstanding St. Lucian.

I would later beat the halls of Central Library and read the works of Heaney (Field Work, Death Of A Naturalist), Walcott (What The Twilight Says, Selected Poetry), Kendel Hippolyte (The Labyrinth, Birthright), and Poems For Succession by my native countryman, Guyanese literary icon, Martin Carter. I copied their forms and structures and admired the universality of their writings.

In 2001, the Writers’ Forum held another reading for Walcott and later that week I attended the local annual Minvielle & Chastanet Fine Arts Awards for the first time. The Awards Council was created as an Independence gift to the people of St. Lucia and rewarded artisans in the categories of Visual, Performing and Literary Arts.

Each category was further sub-divided and among the nominees who sent in their respective pieces for judging, and a shortlisted few were presented with prizes ranging from bronze to silver to gold medals, honorable mention, encouragement and people’s choice awards. The biggest prizes, though, were those given out at the end of the evening. They were the Main Performance Award, the Main Visual Arts Award and the Main Literary Award.

As I sat among the cheering spectators in the National Cultural Centre and saw the winners walk to and from the stage, I imagined what it would be like if I were one of the winners. Even though I had previously thought I would never ascend to the status of actually being able to write like the big guns, there was now something within me urging me to compromise my conscience and try to do something for a little glory. Next year is mine, I thought at the time.

I began writing more intensively, adding more themes to my poetry and tackling more forms like haiku, limerick and terza rima. During breakfast, I wrote poetry. At lunch, I wrote poetry. During music class, I would read a poem to the class and once my music teacher used one of my poems by putting music to it for a class demonstration.

Then the tragedy of 9/11 hit the World Trade Center in the United States. Foreign terrorists had reportedly hijacked and flew two jumbo jets into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, killing all passengers and thousands on the ground. The world was spun into economic and social turmoil. Families were torn apart. The blame game was on and America was seeking vengeance. Throughout the entire saga, I kept my pen busy by penning my thoughts specifically on the effects of that event.

The deadline to submit my script for judging came and went but I still felt I had not done justice to my poetry. For me, they had not truly captured the essence of what I was trying to convey. So I abstained from entering the Fine Arts competition that year.

In June 2002, I met a beautiful aspiring poet like myself and from the get-go she blew my head into tailspin. Her name was Tassia and the sheer beauty of her spoke a volume of the world’s best poetry. We hung out for a while and also critiqued each other’s work and on any given Saturday would visit one of the local radio stations to read our poems live on air.

Soon the crowd that came to our regular group meetings and public readings at the Central Library grew. We got more publicity when television stations taped our readings and got invited to perform at national functions.

The confidence I gained from all this, coupled with the pressure I received from my peers in the group, gave me the green light to enter the Fine Arts competition that year. I selected a few of my poems, typed them late into the night after work on the office computer and got them bound at the Government Printery. I titled the collection If You Asked Me.

From the moment I submitted my manuscript, I sensed I would win. I had tackled a variety of subjects, spent many sleepless nights learning forms and themes from the masters and had taken a humungous deal of creative constructive criticism from my fellow writers in the Writers’ Forum. Anything less than a win would come as a surprise, I thought. That was August, 2002.

In January, 2003 I received a brief letter through the post inviting me to attend an Awards Evening in two weeks. The letter stated that I had been nominated for an award in the Literary Arts category. It was from the M&C Fine Arts Awards Council. The following week, Nobel Laureates Week festivities officially began. I attended the lecture and informed my group that I had received a nod from the Council. They were delighted.

Awards Night came and I showed up with a great deal of anxiety and six years of experience. I saw people responding to their names being called gracefully walking onstage, shaking hands, receiving their prize and barely managing to squeeze a smile from their faces. My turn was next.

I was a nervous wreck. It took me about eight to ten seconds to get up from my seat and I must have avoided falling over six times before reaching the stage. In the audience, I heard the voices of writers I had helped or who had helped me along the way. They were cheering for their peer and compared to the gold medal I received that night, they made me feel like a diamond! And that was all it took for me to get teary-eyed.

I accepted my gold medal and monetary prize, shook the presenter’s hand, but exited the stage without posing for a photograph. A gold medal I can show to the world but no way was I going to show anyone I was a teary-eyed wuss!

That night, the Writers’ Forum also received a Special Award. A few other members of the group, who had won over the years, also got awards. But I won the only gold for poetry. Like I knew I would.

That night, I watched Victor Marquis win the Main Literary Award for a collection of short stories. So I began writing short stories. I was not as prolific as I thought I would be but it was a start. To date, I had only three short stories worth considering. So the challenge I posed to myself that night was that I needed to win a Main Award. And so began my pursuit of a crystal trophy.

I began attending open mic poetry sessions in July of that year and also became fascinated with performance poetry. As opposed to page readings, performance poetry tested your recall as well as dramatic potential. I soon entered a performance poetry contest held at a nightclub in the city. I had just finished writing a poem entitled A Street Gyal Named Desire, a piece inspired by a voluptuous young woman who lived not too far from the bar.

Every Monday night we visited the club for a reading, I would invariably see her leaning into this car or that minivan sharing a kiss or a conversation with the driver. So I used her as my muse and extrapolated on her visible story.

The piece won me second prize. One of the judges later told me that he thought the piece was penned by someone else. It was only when I told him that my sweet dialectic poem should not be confused with the Tennessee Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire, that he realized his error in judging me unfairly.

The following month, I entered my manuscript entitled When Duty Calls. I included A Street Gyal Named Desire in that collection and knew it would grab the judges’ attention. Apparently, it did.

When Duty Calls won the Main Literary Award in January, 2004 at the M&C Fine Arts Awards. There was a tie between myself and a playwright, Renee Terry. We each got a crystal but the prize money was shared. I was elated but this time I posed for the photos.

I had managed to pull it off in the nick of time since that was the final year that the awards were going to be under the direct stewardship of Minvielle & Chastanet.

In February 2008, I finally quit the job I had at a laundry and decided to become a journalist. On March 17, 2017, just five days after being appointed editor of The VOICE, I learned that Sir Derek had passed that morning.

Clearly, I’m indebted to Sir Derek’s inspiration for nudging me to do what I’ve always wanted to do: write. Deep down, though, I know that he has inspired many others. I just hope that they recognized when they are being nudged by a genius.

Stan Bishop began his career in journalism in March 2008 writing freelance for The VOICE newspaper for six weeks before being hired as a part-time journalist there when one of the company’s journalists was overseas on assignment.

Although he was initially told that the job would last only two weeks, he was able to demonstrate such high quality work that the company offered him a permanent job before that fortnight was over. Read full bio...

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