The Wolf Interview: Derek Walcott
I’m interested in your imminent book White Egrets and I’ll start with a question that comes from a passage from the title poem. You write: ‘I would sit there alone, an old poet / with white thoughts, and you, my puta, would be dead / and only half your name would be remembered / because by then you would have lost power / over my sleep, until all that remains / is the fountain’s jet.’ What brought you to the subject of the poems for White Egrets and would you say something about the affects age and memory have on your poetry?
The sequence is situated in the valley of Santa Cruz, where my two daughters live next to each other. Very often egrets settle on the lawns, or take off. They are beautiful in flocks or feeding by themselves. The contrast their whiteness strikes between the lawns and the hills is naturally beautiful. Perhaps there is something associated with this and age—the hair turning white—or with permanence. But really, it’s more about finding a place of serenity that is irresistible. In the hills of Santa Cruz and the landscape around my daughters’ houses there was some kind of a connection for me in arriving at this serenity (physical serenity anyway) and time. Broken mists drift across the hills. The vegetation is brilliant—sometimes puta trees or flamboyants or immortelles…
I never referred to it in the book, but thinking of it now, there’s Baudelaire’s great ‘Albatross’ poem, in which the bird looks awkward when walking, but when it takes off looks very graceful. It’s the same thing with the egrets, they look jerky and slightly comic when they walk but they acquire great elegance in flight. A lot of them together gave me an association with seraphs, or angels, or birds that relate to benediction.
There is mention of a Joseph in the work, assumed to be Joseph Brodsky. Would you say something about your relationship to him and its present significance to your work? What were the dynamics of that great trio—you, Brodsky and Heaney?
Going backwards, the great thing about the friendships we formed with one another is that they were without jealousy or competitiveness. Joseph was a Russian poet, Seamus Irish and I Caribbean. Between us there was a kind of undergraduate humour that we enjoyed (Joseph could be phenomenally obscene!)
To share that kind of respect for one another must have been very rare, particularly at the level the three of you were working at.
The older you get the more you realise how mean this whole atmosphere of being writer’s can become. The nastiness, jealousy, gossip or whatever. What I’ve learnt is that the really great poets are gracious; they have so much confidence they don’t have jealousy of each other. Joseph used to call them what the English do: Gentlemen. And sometimes he would say: ‘This person is not a gentlemen!’ I learnt a lot from Joseph: concentration and a respect for the endeavour of the poem, what it was trying to do intellectually, instead of just sliding on rhythm or something exotic. To make the poem intelligent is not always a quality apparent in poetry. I also learnt concentration from Seamus, but also bravery about vocabulary—to be bold in terms of scale.
There’s a wonderful line in ‘White Egrets’ where you declare ‘my frenzy is stasis’. Would you talk about how you divert your artistic ‘frenzy’ into other genres, like writing plays and painting?
I suppose everything like this depends on the scale of your ambition and where that ambition is directed. I’ve gone past any idea of being part of either American or English poetic endeavour.
I’ve come to realise that certain things belong to certain cultures. The approved hierarchy is a global thing; the centre is always New York, London or Paris and it’s very hard not to be magnetised to these or thinking of your work receiving the benediction of that centre. But I’ve gone passed that now. I wouldn’t say that I don’t care about reviews from London, or so on, but I have a feeling that I am writing from where I belong. And that’s very hard for young writers to do because they cannot resist the seduction and the challenge that is there (it’s like trying to be a rock star, you know!). Every young poet is infected with that ambition. I think the same sense of hierarchy exists with critics. That whole race, that competitiveness, is hard to avoid.
You’ve always held a great allegiance to the art of painting. As a poet and a painter, if you had to choose the greater art which would you choose and why?
Well, I’d never get myself in that position unless I was facing a firing squad and had to make a choice! And they’d have to shoot me before I did!
I have very, very critical attitudes to my paintings and couldn’t compare that critical approach to the poems—though I’m dissatisfied with the poems too! There’s a chronic unrest to the work. You can never lie back and say: ‘Yeah, now I can produce a poem or a painting’. It doesn’t happen.
Let’s go back. When you were in the Santa Cruz valley acquiring ideas and images, sparked by white egrets, did you simultaneously begin to visualize new paintings there?
I never think of paintings as illustrations of the poems. They are like two different jobs. Right now, I don’t have a painting for the cover of White Egrets. In the past I’ve always had paintings for my book covers (the chosen paintings come after the writing of the poems), but I haven’t got anything that fits right now. I might have a painting soon, but using an existing painting for a cover and planning one are a different story. I wouldn’t want to plan something that would make for a nice jacket.
There are certain places I’ve been to that are commemorative—places where the beauty is so astounding I’ve asked the person driving to stop the car so I can get out and take a look at the landscape. It happened with me in Monterey in California—in Carmel, in parts of Italy and so on. These places are so valuable they become like shrines and Santa Cruz is like that. It’s one thing to be in the tropics and it’s another thing to be in the tropics and have mists around the mountain like a Javanese painting. The feeling is one of astonishment and astonishment leads to gratitude.
There are few poets as internationally recognized as you are. What affect has being a cosmopolitan traveler had on your later works?
Once Joseph, Seamus and I decided we would make an emblem of styles to summarise our own work. I remember Seamus saying ‘bogs, bogs, bogs’. I think I described Joseph as having a skeleton of a soul at night, in winter—a kind of lonely ether. Mine, I decided, was just ‘Wish You Were Here’. There’s a lot to be said for postcards and why there are postcards. A friend of mine, Leon Weiseltier, an editor at The New Republic, once came out to St. Lucia, looked around at the landscape and remarked ‘So you’re a minimalist!’
You’ve mentioned in previous poems about how expansion in the Caribbean is often to the detriment to the landscape. Now that you’ve returned to live permanently in St. Lucia have the old annoyances come back on seeing the landscape continually transformed by resorts and hotels?
Well, I like hotels, I enjoy being in luxury! But the danger is the exclusion of the people from the life of a hotel. Little Caribbean islands will be smothered by the tourist industry; I mean the people can be. That’s what I warn about. In St. Lucia there’s some development right next door to me, which I’m sure is illegal. So that’s my personal experience coming forth in terms of hotel development. But think of the poor people who are offered good money, almost nothing to the developers for the land they acquire.
You posit, in White Egrets, that your best poems are behind you: ‘[A]ll that vigour finished with which I sought a / richer life to this halfhearted search.’ Have you lost allegiance to any poems—‘Epitaph for the Young’, for instance—which is virtually unknown by your readers? Are there earlier poems that must be considered in reading later ones, as ‘Epitaph…’ should be considered when reading Another Life?
I always wanted to imitate, to learn by copying, to train oneself in the same very conventional way that any Old Master begun by drawing from some mentor. I’ve always model myself; if it means imitation then do it. This is something I’ve always felt good about and not embarrassed by. Imitation is a way to be original.
Which poems do you believe are your strongest or of which are you most proud?
I wouldn’t want to be too precise. Let’s say I think I arrived at a point where I felt that what came out of my right hand was flowing, was natural. But that took a lot of training, discipline and practice. I don’t abandon the idea of being influenced by anybody. I’ve said it before, I absorb, I’m a sponge.
Do you foresee any new poetry collections after White Egrets—if so can you share the direction of the poems?
The book is coming out later than I thought (they have their reasons, I guess). Between now and then there might be a few more poems, so it might be a big-ish book. But I’m not writing anything new after that, unless there’s a long poem to be written. We’ll see.
Have you given any consideration to publishing your satirical poem ‘The Mongoose’ [on V.S. Naipaul] in White Egrets?
My publisher discouraged me.
What led you back to St. Lucia? Do you see it as a sort of retirement or is it the ploy of Antaeus—returning to your own soil to gather strength?
Being in the Caribbean is very physical for me. I like the sun; I like the salt. I mean, I was New York last week, in a nice hotel but, right now, I’m dying to stop talking to you and go to the beach. [jokingly] I swim to Martinique and back everyday. Actually, I’m traveling more than I ever did before. I’ve not secluded myself hermetically. I’m getting invitations all the time, which I am accepting (because, sometimes, the money is very good). And seeing another place is always good. I recently came back from Nigeria, quite an experience.
Was it your first time in Nigeria?
It was my first time in Africa.
What was the experience like?
I don’t want to summarise it in a sentence because there’s bound to be a germ from the experience that I might use for writing. The one thing I would say is that it felt as if the years between Africa and the Caribbean, the 300 or 500 years, had vanished. A weird feeling.
You have stated in other writings and interviews that poetry and film are—in terms of structure—closely related. Would you elaborate on that theory?
I’m not a filmmaker, but I’ve do a lot of storyboarding (detailed in watercolour) and work in video, so I know what I want when I go out to shoot. What I am saying is a cliché, but you think in images in film. And once I’m on location all that I’ve written disappears or is consumed by the location. Or by the actor altering something.
Because it’s the Caribbean, I would love to show things as they really are in terms of colour and texture. And I’m not sure if film can ever do that however brilliant it is. Not only texture gets lost but also the feel and weight in, say, a single leaf or a stretch of water.
Are there younger poets that you enjoy reading; if so who and why?
It has nothing to do with youth, but I think that Charles Simic is a terrific poet. I read him. He’s brilliant. I’ll tell you a line of Charlie’s: ‘My father believed in the immortality of waiters’. But I don’t like it when he gets too surrealist.
What should young or emerging poets be doing that you don’t see them engaged in at present?
The basic mesmeric quality of poetry is rhythm. And rhythm means memory. I don’t think a lot of young writers write for memory.
Do you mean that they don’t write so they will be remembered?
No. The thing about a poem when it’s good is that you can feel as if you know it as you read it. So there is a memory of anticipation that is confirmed by the poem. And I think a couple of generations have been lost through a kind of anarchic attitude to meter that tells the young poet to ‘go ahead’ because they might have an interesting personality, etc. etc. There has been a lot of bad teaching.
Questions by Dante Micheaux