Derek Walcott, unchanged by Nobel Prize

March 22, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

Uneasy lies the crown when you're a Nobel laureate. Derek Walcott can attest to that.

Mr. Walcott, the Caribbean-born poet/playwright/painter, was in Baltimore last Friday to attend a showing of one of his plays, "Pantomime," at Villa Julie College, and also to give two talks to students there.

But although he was by all accounts a smash hit with students and faculty alike, showing a genuine humility and disarming sense of humor, the winner of the most recent Nobel Prize in literature acknowledged the honor can bring out strange responses from others.

"It's very frightening, actually," Mr. Walcott, 62, said in a short interview after the first talk. "You're expected to be wise, but I'm not wise. Certainly some people have unrealistic expectations, and others simply don't know how to approach you. You've got to be very careful you're not changed by all that."

Mr. Walcott, considered one of the world's leading poets for some time before winning the Nobel last fall, came to Villa Julie at the request of Richard Montgomery, a professor of design in the college's Theater and Video Department and an old friend. Mr. Montgomery did the set design for "Pantomime," as he has for many other of Mr. Walcott's plays.

Having a Nobel Prize winner on campus clearly was a coup for Villa Julie, and students and faculty members appeared flushed with excitement at the idea that Mr. Walcott was in their midst.

"I was with the party that picked Derek up at the airport this morning," said Alma Nugent, an assistant professor of English language and literature, "and I was so thrilled I hardly knew how to act around him. But he just gave me a smile and a little wink to let me know everything was OK."

"That's Derek," said Mr. Montgomery, who first encountered his friend in 1970 at the University of the West Indies, where both were instructors. "Even something like winning the Nobel won't go to his head."

At the first session with students, Mr. Walcott borrowed Ms. Nugent's paperback copy of his "Collected Poems: 1948-84" to conduct his reading. "I still can't believe it," she said after the reading, as Mr. Walcott was surrounded by people wanting him to autograph books or just to chat. "He used my book for the reading, then inscribed it for me."

She said her students initially were wary about studying Mr. Walcott's works.

"Most of them really didn't know anything about him, other than he had won the Nobel," she said. "But they learned that he represents the complete diversity that makes up the West Indies, and how he embodies the tensions and conflicts there."

Born on the tiny island of St. Lucia, Mr. Walcott is of African, Dutch and English ancestry. In his plays and poems, he writes frequently of what he once called a "very rich and complicated experience" of Caribbean life. Colonialism, and its effects on the Caribbean even many decades later, is a theme he returns to again and again, as in "Pantomime," about a dilapidated island resort run by a failed British vaudeville performer and a calypso singer.

In a question-and-answer session after his poetry reading, Mr. Walcott readily acknowledged the impact the Caribbean has had on all his works -- poems, plays and paintings.

"We do live on beautiful islands," said Mr. Walcott, who lives part of the year in Trinidad and part in Brookline, Mass. (he teaches at Boston University). "The sea gives a sense of spirituality. And the beauty of the islands blends with the beauty and grace of the people."

But, he acknowledged, there was much more to write about than beautiful scenery and friendly people.

"The history of the Caribbean is written not of the land but the sea," he said. "And that means battles,slavery, the Diaspora of Africans. . . . Our history is always in flux. And yes, it's true we don't have castles, but we do have a very rich history. I have never understood the thinking of people who stand by a bunch of rocks and say proudly, 'This is where 2 million people were slaughtered.' But that's the European way of thinking."

If the latter observation was Mr. Walcott at his most pointed, he also exhibited good-humored wit. At one point, while reading a line from a poem, he stopped the man on stage who was "signing" for the hearing impaired.

"I'm curious: How do you do 'amethystine'?" Mr. Walcott said to general laughter. (The answer: spell the word out).

And he showed off his droll side a few minutes later while #F reading the comic poem "The Man Who Loved Islands." The poem got its inspiration, he told the audience, from a moment in which Mr. Walcott was standing by a balcony and looking out over the Caribbean.

He thought, half-seriously, that such a splendid quiet moment should be a scene from a movie. But in his imagination, it generated a deliciously wicked send-up of vapid and very bad Hollywood productions, with actor James Coburn playing Mr. Walcott.

"Coburn looks great with or without a hat," Mr. Walcott read from the poem. Then he stopped and looked up with a smile. "People frequently ask me: What's your favorite poem? I don't know, but I think this is the best line I've ever written: 'Coburn looks great with or without a hat.' "

More laughter from the audience.

But he turned serious at the session's end. What advice would he give the students at Villa Julie, the final questioner asked.

Mr. Walcott frowned before answering. "That's one of the afflictions of this prize -- that I am asked to give advice that I don't feel qualified doing," he responded after a moment. "But I will say this:

"Do what is important to you. Do what you feel you must do. There is no guarantee you will succeed. Indeed, you may find that you are not a poet or playwright. But you must try."

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