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Conversations with Derek Walcott.

William Baer, ed. Conversations with Derek Walcott. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1996. 211 pp. $16.95.

Including recent volumes on Ishmael Reed and Chester Himes, Mississippi's highly regarded Literary Conversations series is a decidedly user-friendly reference resource. Collecting interviews from academic journals as well as more general publications, these books are also suitable for readers who are simply interested in knowing more about a favorite writer.

"As both a Nobel Prize-winner and the most important literary figure to emerge from the Caribbean, Derek Walcott's literary, social, and political opinions are always of interest and significance," notes editor William Baer. The eighteen interviews he has collected provide readers a useful gateway to Walcott's ideas. The concept of the series does, however, impose certain limitations. Although Walcott is seldom reticent in talking about his beginnings, for example, the format of this book will not provide readers with much information about his formative years as a creative artist because neither academicians nor journalists devote much attention to those who are struggling to learn a craft. The earliest interviews included here first appeared in the Trinidad Guardian and date from 1966 when Walcott, at age 36, had already published his Selected Poems (1964) and won a suitcase full of international prizes and grants.

What the reader will find in Conversations with Derek Walcott, however, is an impressively wide range of Walcott's eloquently expressed thoughts on language, literature, poetic theory, and history. Early interviews from Trinidadian newspapers and The New Yorker, and with Robert D. Hammer, provide insight into Walcott's practice as playwright and director of several small theatre companies. Other selections also record Walcott's comments on contemporaries such as Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Joseph Brodsky, and V. S. Naipaul.

"Originality," Walcott tells Swedish critic Leif Sjoberg, "is the obsession of ambitious talent." Claiming to find that attitude insufferable, Walcott clearly sees his own work within a tradition that includes James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, and Shakespeare. "I will never lay claim," he says in this 1983 interview, "to hearing my own voice in my work. If I knew what that was, what infinite boredom and repetition would lie ahead, I would fall asleep at its sound. What keeps me awake is tribute--to the dead, who to me are not dead, but are at my elbow." This view does not necessarily endorse T. S. Eliot's anguished notion in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1920) that one must compete with illustrious masters. Indeed, Walcott would also disagree with Eliot on what actually constitutes the tradition he recognizes. "The whole of Western civilization," he says in another interview, "does not share one sensibility. If one postulates that, then one would have to overlook racial or religious differences tha t exist in the very context of Western civilization."

Concerning Walcott's poetry, the best interviews are those conducted by Edward Hirsch and, in 1987, by Callaloo editor Charles H. Rowell. Fellow poet Hirsch's two interviews with Walcott--for Contemporary Literature in 1979 and Paris Review in 1985--are both excellent sources, ranging in scope from Calypso music to the autobiographical detail in Walcott's novelistic book-length poem Another Life (1973). Walcott is also an accomplished visual artist and, encouraged by Hirsch to reveal connections between his paintings and poems, declares his belief that poetry is a religious vocation and that the practice of the arts is "votive and humble."

Responding to Rowell's skillful interviewing technique, Walcott explains that his British-style education--elitist though it may have been--causes him no resentment, nor did it estrange him from his childhood community in St. Lucia. In fact, that community also provided excellent models for Walcott to emulate. He recalls also, in later years, attending a lecture on German philosophy delivered by C. L. R. James: "This was just unadorned quality and direct brilliance, done in an accent by a man who has spent a half century or more in England--a man who still had an accent whose melody remained Caribbean. The accuracy of the melody is the thing." Such revelations make clear how Walcott has managed to maintain his own sense of authenticity as an artist and cosmopolitan intellectual.

There is also a 1990 conversation with Robert Brown and Cheryl Jacobs that allows Walcott to discuss his magnificent Omeros (1989), as does "The Man Who Keeps the English Language Alive," a 1992 article by Rebekah Presson. Omeros, a book-length epic poem, situates characters with Homeric names in a St. Lucia fishing village; but Green Mountains Review interviewer J. P. White elicits Walcott's claim that he has never read either the Iliad or the Odyssey. "I'm not boasting about it," Walcott says. "It's ignorance not to have read them." Disingenuous or not, Walcott's statement allows him to press the point that understanding history--or poetry, for that matter--is not an exercise of simplistic comparison or the tracing of allusions. "I have a character whose name is Achille, and another guy called Hector," Walcott tells White,

but Hector is a guy who drives a public taxi, and there's Helen. The connection is, we were brought up to believe that the Helen of the West Indies is [the island of] St. Lucia, because it was fought over 13 times. And there's Elena, a Black woman, much like the one on the bus in [Walcott's 1985 poem] "The Light of the World." Those things are fed by very ordinary emblems. I'm taking these people as if they were fragments or shards washed up on this shore and looking at them for the first time.

Such a statement reflects Walcott's controversial view of the legacy of colonialism and the reality of multiculturalism. "The whole idea of America," he says, "and the whole idea of everything on this side of the world, barring the Native American Indian, is imported; we're all imported, black, Spanish. When one says one is American--that's the experience of being American--that transference of whatever color, or name, or place." For Walcott, then, the New World is precisely that--something culturally new.

Also controversial--and, at first glance, somewhat inconsistent with this view--are Walcott's comments on the English language. Speaking with William Baer, Walcott asserts that, "though the language belongs to England--still there's no distinction between someone in Ceylon who's a young poet, and someone in England who's on the same level of talent or whatever, enjoying the language." Those who maintain personal investments in "Nation language," or otherwise support the political efficacy of racial or regional vernaculars, will want to review Walcott's full discussion with care. As Walcott acknowledges in an earlier interview, "Language is not a place of retreat, it's not a place of escape, it's not even a place of resolution. It's a place of struggle." Walcott, of course, has chosen a position that places him in direct opposition to the distinguished Kenyan novelist and playwright Ngugi Wa Thiong'o and others who find the English-language literary tradition problematic.

Conversations with Derek Walcott, scrupulously edited by Baer with an index and a chronology of the author's career, offers fascinating and indisputably valuable material for scholars on any level who are interested in knowing more about the sometimes complex ideas that this poet and playwright so magically transforms into expansively imaginative and deceptively accessible works.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Thomas, Lorenzo
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1999
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