In his early poem "Prelude," West Indies-born Derek Walcott describes himself looking out from "my prone island" while "the steamers which divide horizons prove / Us lost; / Found only / in tourist booklets, behind ardent binoculars" and "in the blue reflections of eyes / That have known cities and think us here happy."
Walcott went on to much bigger things, though in many ways without leaving little St. Lucia behind. For the past half-century, the poet and playwright has been the Caribbean's pre-eminent man of letters. That's not to pigeonhole him as a "Caribbean writer" ... Walcott won the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature. But as Walcott himself agrees, he can't help being anything but. At home in both English and French Creole, the languages he grew up speaking, he's long explored and chronicled the people of his native islands, especially the poor. In his famous poem "The Schooner Flight," he assumes the persona of the sailor Shabine, who says, "I'm just a red nigger who love the sea, / I had a sound colonial education, / I have Dutch, nigger and English in me, / and either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation."
In his five books of plays and 11 volumes of poetry, Walcott, born in 1930, confronts questions of cultural identity, and even internal exile in a place where he was both too black for the colonial class, and later too white to partake in the black-pride movement. His works include 1990's epic, book-length poem Omeros, which casts ordinary inhabitants of St. Lucia in Homeric terms. Poet and critic Joseph Brodsky once called Walcott "the great poet of the English language."
Walcott ... whose companion, Sigrid Nama, is a former long-time Pittsburgh resident ... will read from and discuss his work at Point Park University on Wed., April 26. He spoke with CP by phone from New York City, where he lives part of the year.
In 1970, you wrote: "Once the New World black had tried to prove that he was as good as his master, when he should have proven not his equality but his difference." Can you elaborate?
Questions of equality are always treacherous because inequality is an unacceptable standard. If you say people are going to be equal, you presume that they weren't equal before. I don't think to start off at that point is worthwhile, for I think the "difference" that I'm talking about is not to worry about, say, the enemy's idea of inequality.
Why does the figure of Robinson Crusoe keep appearing in your work?
The idea of beginning again, of restructuring civilization, the whole question of ownership and slavery in Robinson Crusoe, these are questions that the Caribbean people have to ask themselves, especially Caribbean creative artists ... whether they serve a particular master, or whether they change their given names. All those questions exist in Robinson Crusoe, so it's a crystallized kind of experience. We re-approach those classics with our interpretation of what they mean to us and how they affect us.
Are Caribbean people castaways even at home?
Everybody in the Caribbean is cast away from something. They all came in states of shipwreck: the African slave, the Irish convict, the Chinese, the Indian ... everybody came here metaphorically in a state of shipwreck on an island, and each of them has to adapt to their surroundings, like every Crusoe.
Why do you still live part time in Trinidad?
One of the attractions is that I paint, and that light, and the color and vegetation that I have grown up in, that I want to represent. That's geographic and that's kind of fixed: I would like to be there as a painter. The same thing would be true of the poetry or of the plays, in that I want to represent the people and the region as well as I can.
Must islanders still choose, as you once wrote, "home or exile"?
A lot of the artists in the Caribbean can't support themselves on the small islands that they come from. And so inevitably they have to migrate, in a way, to cities. Not all of them do it, but it's understandable when they do it. There's another generation that is prepared to stay at home, provided they get the support [they need], which they don't always get from the government [in] the arts.
You've been to Pittsburgh often.
It's a city I like a lot. The usual image used to be of Pittsburgh with a lot of smoke and chimneys and so on. It's quite different. A very good-looking city. I have a lot of friends there.