Mel Cooke, Freelance Writer
Montego Bay-based chartered accountant Oliver Lotha indicates to St Lucian poet Derek Walcott where he would like his book to be autographed to include his fiancée's name. This followed Walcott's impressive presentation at the Calabash International Literary Festival, held at Jake's Hotel and Cottages in Treasure Beach, on Saturday. - Photo by Noel Thompson
Derek Walcott landed a poetic broadside on Trinidadian novelist V.S. Naipaul as he ended his 'Chatterbox' stint at the 2008 Calabash International Literary Festival on Saturday afternoon at Jake's in Treasure Beach, St Elizabeth.
The Nobel laureate for literature followed an onstage interview with Kwame Dawes with poetry from his upcoming collection, White Egrets, but a lot of the sting was in the tail as he closed with 'The Mongoose'.
It was quickly made clear that the beast he was referring to did not run around in literal cane pieces, as Walcott started the long poem with:
"I have been bitten
I must avoid infection
Or else I will be as dead
As Naipaul's fiction."
Walcott said the writer now worked with "a lethargy approaching the obscene" and observed "so the old mongoose still making money is a burnt-out comic", dismissing him as "a rodent in old age".
As for Naipaul's facial hair, Walcott said he had a "bushy beard to cover features that have always sneered". And remembering an invitation from Naipaul to go to a particular club in Trinidad, Walcott said "he doesn't like black man but he likes black c...t" and noted that "he won the prize, now he is trying to bite the hands that helped him".
Striving for anonymity
In the Chatterbox, Dawes had asked Walcott about a situation where many critics feel that writers do their best work at the outset of their careers and there is decline after that. However, Dawes said, the critics have said that the difference with Walcott is that he has challenged this notion. Walcott said, "I'm 78. I never thought I would get here ... I just don't like it now when art makes a fuss. I don't want to be bright ... I have come to the point where even if it seems to be repetition, I don't care. I am very irritated by style. Style has a way of attracting attention to the writer ... nobody strives for anonymity," he said, pointing out the incongruity of art actually striving for anonymity.
"I would like to evaporate in front of the crowd," he said.
A natural medium
The interview ranged through what he thinks of Jamaica, a country with which Walcott has had a long-standing relationship, Walcott expressing his appreciation for novelist and newspaper columnist John Hearne. Walcott said Bob Marley was genuinely a poet who wrote music but when Dawes asked him if he was asked about Jamaican music now if he would identify Buju Banton, Elephant Man and Bounty Killer, he said:
"I know you Jamaicans think everybody keeps up with your music, but this is not necessarily so."
There was laughter all around.
They discussed film, Walcott saying it is a natural medium for Caribbean people; his collaborations with musicians, including Paul Simon; painting ("I hate abstract expression"); and America's influence.
"We are still dictated to by the Empire. The new American Empire is the new Empire. We are still intellectual colonies of America, as is the rest of the world," he said.
Where the answer lies
Walcott observed that for an aspiring writer to be a distinct individual "the answer lies in melody. If your vocal melody is true to your own character you are OK ... it is very hard to be true. For any writer it takes a lifetime to write anything that is true.
He expressed a lot of confidence in Caribbean literature, saying "I think Caribbean literature is just beginning".
Walcott was critical of the American standard, saying "you don't tell stories, you don't mould character, you don't have a beginning, a middle and end. That is old-fashioned. It is good that Caribbean people are old-fashioned. They still tell stories and that is what the human heart yearns for".
As he read from White Egrets on one line the audience cheered and Walcott joked, "OK, you finish it," 'Spain' and 'Sea Change', among the poems from the upcoming collection.