Derek Walcott – Caribbean Man of many facets: Delivers poetry to packed EBCCI at Cave Hill (PLUS – Blogger’s uphill quest to find relevant literature)


[Attn: PG 13 – language situations] I arrived at 7:03 pm, parked at another Cave Hill parking lot and suddenly realised both the Errol Barrow Centre’s parking and the area where I was had a SEA of cars! “Oh sh*t,” I thought 2 myself, “The place PACKED – all with only an e-mail circular and one newspaper Press Release, wow!”

I hurtled inside to the black room, and I had to sit far in the back, I could only hear him not even see the Nobel Laureate! But still I took notes, hoping to get a chance of a photo with him afterwards like I usually do… Luckily 2 young girls suddenly left and I had a better vantage point, but as i was about to snap another dude beat me to it and Walcott told him don’t do that as he can’t read – so I set my Nikon Coolpix L10 to “Museum” so as to use what light is present and avoid a bassa-bassa with the poet!

Nevertheless, I appear to have arrived at an appropriate junction, it seems the representative from Yale just finished introducing Mr Walcott. You must understand, my memories of this literary giant go back far – my parents knew him in different ways too…


Mom was a dresser for the very first edition of “Drums & Colours” which examines the Federation of the West Indies’ roots; whereas my other parent was a pest to the St Lucian poet/playwright trying to get Walcott to browse some play he was attempting to fashion and did not even complete, as usual.

Myself? I knew of Derek Walcott from the 80’s when there was a TV version of “Ti-Jean and his Brothers” which had Clairmonte Taitt & Egbert Clarke as the older yet secondary siblings to the title character. I also attended “Pantomime,” the retelling of Robinson Crusoe at a present day resort where Taitt appeared again, now as the modern Friday and Patrick Foster, a hotel manager who was a guise for the ancient Crusoe and set in Tobago where the Alexander Selkirk adventure is alleged to have been formed.

Another play of Walcott’s which fell under my observation was “Remembrance,” with Michael Gilkes and a very young Victor Clifford. The story centred around how Gilkes’ character painted his roof in the form of an American flag and how a tourist attempted to buy it, Clifford as the son was saying to sell it, but the father resisting even though he wanted money too to get away but only if he won the lottery!

Now, I had the chance to meet this man in person!


Back to the present and the show, the St Lucian Nobel Prize winner recollected and yet was topical by explaining how the London Times commissioned him to do a poem on Barack Obama’s victory

I don’t do commissioned poems,” he grated, then as the Times – he riposted, “Well, we don’t usually ask for a special item to be written but this is an unusual occasion.”

So he relented and thought of a young Negro ploughing a field in the early morning. He sees as the lines of the poem are the furrows ploughed in the field and also the lines of the US flag… Once he was able to connect “crowd” and “ploughed” then Mr Walcott said everything clicked and he gave it the title of Forty Acres as based on an Emancipation promise which was never fulfilled (Spike Lee’s production company is known as 40 Acres & A Mule), here’s an excerpt –

…an emblem of impossible prophecy, a crowd
dividing like the furrow which a mule has ploughed,
parting for their president: a field of snow-flecked
forty acres wide, of crows with predictable omens
that the young ploughman ignores for his unforgotten
cotton-haired ancestors…

The crowd, typical of Bajans went silent and gave no applause, as I was about to clap he continued to another piece. This was where I was obviously unfamiliar with the rest of the works of the poet, he spoke of a character called “Shabim” (Hope I have the right spelling) who was a henchman to a TT Minister until the man lost his seat and then Shabim was on the move through the Caribbean.

Let me tell you, I am glad there were no children present! He started cussing as part of the tale – referring to the character as “part Dutch, part n**ger and part Creole” or a Vincy who thought of himself as White but only went white when he tossed Shabim’s book of poetry about the crew on this vessel. Shabim said when you have to fight you have 3 options – fist, gun or knife; he chose to use a knife and cut the Vincy’s calf to let go a lot of blood but no serious damage… This was a warning “...never to f**k with me poetry again/ now we the best of friend…”

Let me state once more, I cannot walk around this planet in rose-coloured glasses, there will be a cuss from time to time anywhere – even me! What I have a problem with at a mixed venue such as this, is that there was no warning given – during Cricket World Cup last year, I read a book extract which had some racial slurs and I warned the crowd I was going to be cussing before I read it.
What I also did not like was how he tried to rush the people when he asked if there were any questions and waited what seemed like ten seconds before saying on to the next poem! Twice I had to shout for a stage manager as there a few folk who did have questions.

One audience member asked which part of the Caribbean he hails from, so Walcott stated he was born in Castries but spent a great deal of time in Port Of Spain and he remarked that Trinidad mashed up his English!

Another particpant wondered if there were any Bajans in his family tree with a name like Walcott and the Nobel laureate stated he had no doubt there were, but he was not sure where…

Then the best question was asked about how the EBCCI compared with other theatres in the region? This drew a long and impassioned answer from Mr Walcott. He bluntly remarked that both Trinidad and St Lucia lack proper theatrical facilities, Walcott added he’s pretty tired of having spent a major portion of his life fighting many Governments of the Caribbean trying to see that proper respect is given this area of culture.

He quite likes the Errol Barrow Centre, but he still feels that here and other places in the West Indies need to be properly funded.


The whole presentation was barely over an hour, everyone was looking for the Castries author to inveigle him for one thing or another (Moi aussi, since I had no questions except to sign my book) and then it struck me he may be doing autographs in a corner… Sure enough, the few Yale students (These University folk were here as part of their learning post-Colonial Caribbean Literature) who tagged along had their “Selected Poems” tucked under their arms tightly, and reminded me how difficult it is to source and acquire good Caribbean literature!

I went to Bridgetown and passed at the Cloister’s branch in DaCosta’s Mall to see if I could locate “Omeros” or even perhaps “Ti-Jean & Selected Plays“; I could only spot 4 faded books “Tiepolo’s Hound“, for me an obscure work, and I did not like the looks of them as they very shopworn. It also occurred to me maybe George Lamming may appear that night as well and what a coup that would be if I could get both in one pic! So I looked for “Castle of My Skin,” it was there and brand new too! (However, Professor Lamming was not there, what a pity)

Then I glanced down at the pricetag on the back of the book…

Fifty two dollars and ninety-nine cents

Not fifteen dollars and twenty-nine cents, but $52.99 – I asked the cashier if the book was printed on gold blocks? She embarrassedly admitted that it was not a mistake and it is the real cost, but even though her supervisor also hated that cost, this is what they were selling it for!

I decided let me try Pages on Broad Street before I surrender to insanity… Found the same book for $34.99 and a book of Caribbean poems for $31.99 including some of the works of Mr Walcott! I even went back to Cloister and showed their cashier, who was amazed and she promised to let her boss know since folks usually came to them for a cheaper edition.

I do not see why UWI’s bookstore can be a fount of regional books, and if non-students wish to buy, then let them rent a card where they can purchase the books at student rate for an annual subscription?

Returning now to the night when Derek Walcott was at the EBCCI – there were no books on sale, yet he was waiting to do a book signing. Why didn’t the UWI bookshop have some of Mr Walcott’s works present? When Austin “Tom” Clarke was here last year for Polished Hoe, he sold the book at a discount of ten dollars if you bought it that night, only as it would cost more at Pages! That is Marketing!! Clarke also had other books of his on sale as well, yet poor Derek Walcott was left to sit in a corner waiting for – what? Me? No, I think he had more fun when a pretty brownskin gal came and chatted bending over, LOL! He may be old but he en’t dead!

I found him somewhat surly and aloof myself, yet I know there is more to Walcott’s spirit than that… When the Nobel Laureate recounted a poem of a man who fell in love with a dark-skinned lass and he did not stay the night with her, but caught a route taxi home and was hoping some sign would make him go back, and the bus only paused as the conductor gave him back a pack of cigarettes he dropped – I saw how Mr Walcott wiped at his eyes, as I am sure that poem meant a bit more to him than most of the others… Erudite, irascible, remote yet passionate and lustful; apart from wishing the Caribbean a better cultural vantage point. As faceted as a gem and as hard or as soft depending on where you seek to polish that stone!

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  1. Ian, I received similar reports from a friend who attended this event.I regret missing his performance but illness and studies combined to sabotage me.UWI bookshop has both Omeros and the Heinmann Book of Caribbean Poetry in stock .I think Omeros is over $50 at UWIand Heinmann is over $30.



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