No Man Is an Is­land, but Derek Wal­cott Was St. Lu­cia

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By Kate Sn­od­grass

Ev­ery year I fly to St. Lu­cia in Jan­uary to help cel­e­brate Derek’s birth­day (Jan. 23). I bring him a sable brush for his wa­ter­col­ors. Tra­di­tion­ally, the is­land cel­e­brates this day with an en­tire week of poetry and play read­ings, a cel­e­bra­tion at the Gover­nor-Gen­eral’s House, end­ing fi­nally with the “No­bel Speech,” this year given by Ja­maica Kin­caid.

Many of Derek’s friends come from all over the world to cel­e­brate with him as well, and I am among these hang­ers-on. We are a staunch if mis­matched band of writ­ers from Bos­ton, Spain, China, Italy, Eng­land, In­dia, Tran­syl­va­nia, Canada. Derek and his part­ner Si­grid take us to din­ner and honor us with a boat ride down to Soufriere on the west coast of the is­land. On the boat we sway to reg­gae mu­sic and sip the un­drink­able pink punch (the only liq­uid of­fered on the boat) un­til we stop for lunch at the Ladera Re­sort above the Pi­tons. Then we turn back up the coast to Cas­tries, stop­ping for a late af­ter­noon dip in the Caribbean Sea. By sun­set, we are sun­burned and sated. It is a kind of heaven.

But this year Derek is phys­i­cally frail, and he can­not make the boat trip down the is­land. So all of us wan­der Rod­ney Bay, cast adrift, more lost than found, sam­pling the tourist bars, trac­ing the beaches, and sit­ting on Derek’s ve­randa wait­ing for him to rise from his nap. Caz Phillips and Glyn Maxwell, per­haps his dear­est friends now, and I sit with him.

“What one thing do you love about this is­land?” he de­mands of me. I re­ply, “You.” “No, no, aside from me!” (I know there is no right an­swer to this.) I stut­ter out, “I love the sound of the sea.” We can hear it from where we are sit­ting. He is silent, and then . . . “That is so cliché.”

We can­not sep­a­rate Derek from St. Lu­cia, this stun­ningly beau­ti­ful and deeply flawed rain for­est of an is­land, suf­fer­ing from all the clas­sic Caribbean riches - crime, poverty, cor­rup­tion - and rest­ing on tourism and vol­canic rock. Col­o­nized by the Span­ish, French, and Bri­tish, its lan­guage blends an English­man’s drawl with a French pa­tois. Derek was and will al­ways be St. Lu­cia to me.

I am not alone in lov­ing Derek, but those of us who loved him did so at our own risk. As com­pli­cated as his is­land, Derek was bril­liant and charis­matic, an in­or­di­nately gen­er­ous friend, and a prodi­gious lover of puns. To wit: “A mush­room walks into a bar. ‘Any­body want a date? I’m a real fun guy.’” Aside from this ques­tion­able sense of hu­mor (don’t get me wrong - I counted it a good day when I could make Derek laugh), he was also knotty and mer­cu­rial. Rooted in what I be­lieve was a true shy­ness, he was oddly in­ept in so­cial sit­u­a­tions, and he could be boy­ish and petu­lant when he didn’t get his way.

Derek played the bon­gos. He loved cats. He proudly pro­fessed him­self a “crier” and was eas­ily moved to tears when some­thing touched him, which was of­ten in his later years. Months af­ter the un­ex­pected death of his great friend Sea­mus Heaney, he would break down at a men­tion, a mem­ory. It was an en­dear­ing qual­ity given his stand­ing in the world of the literati. No suck­ing it up for Derek. He let ev­ery­thing out. He wore his heart on his sleeve like a tal­is­man.

Many of us who come to cel­e­brate Derek’s birth­day were his stu­dents at one time or another. We are rep­re­sen­ta­tive of hun­dreds - maybe thou­sands - of writ­ers who Derek men­tored over the years, and we have hung onto his men­tor­ship like a guarded jewel: “Yes, I worked with Derek Wal­cott.”

I was lucky enough to au­dit his play­writ­ing classes for 20 years at Bos­ton Univer­sity, where he taught play­writ­ing and poetry in the creative writ­ing depart­ment. As a teacher, Derek was de­mand­ing, cu­ri­ous, and un­com­pro­mis­ing. The in­evitable story stu­dents pass down is about one un­lucky play­wright who sat through an en­tire se­mes­ter hear­ing only the first line of his play. But it was no joke: Derek viewed a play as some­thing to be fleshed out and shaped, and he knew that the play­wright must know ev­ery­thing about the world she cre­ates. If the be­gin­ning of the play doesn’t work, the rest of the play won’t ei­ther. That’s a hard les­son for those of us who love the sound of our own voice, but I have held onto this in my own writ­ing and teach­ing. Derek was al­ways, al­ways right.

Derek’s Bos­ton Play­wrights’ The­atre was born from his de­sire to teach play­writ­ing at Bos­ton Univer­sity, I sus­pect be­cause he missed the “fam­ily” of the Trinidad The­atre Work­shop might­ily. Thank­fully we were hon­ored to pro­duce a num­ber of Derek’s plays over the years: the mys­te­ri­ous and pow­er­ful Dream on Mon­key Moun­tain and the joy­ous The Joker of

Seville, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with his Trinidad The­atre Work­shop. We pro­duced Pan­tomime, and the cau­tion­ary folk-tale Ti-Jean

and His Broth­ers. We pre­miered Walker, a Play with Mu­sic, Derek’s the­atri­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the life and death of abo­li­tion­ist David Walker. And we work­shopped his plays over the years: The Odyssey, Ghost Dance, Viva Detroit!

He used the the­atre as a work­place, and to him it was a shel­ter. It has been a gift to me and to my life in the the­atre to learn from Derek, to see his con­stant re­vi­sions, his forced com­pro­mises, and his suc­cesses. His plays are just like the man him­self: huge, full of com­plex­i­ties and hu­mor, mu­si­cal, and deeply hu­man.

One of my last mem­o­ries of Derek is him sit­ting with a young poet on the ve­randa, with Pi­geon Is­land some small dis­tance across the sea, talk­ing through the young man’s ini­tial drafts. Derek gave back into the caul­dron from which we all came. He de­manded fo­cus and for­gave youth. He un­der­stood that we will all get bet­ter if, and only if, we keep writ­ing. His pas­sion never wa­vered, and he taught by ex­am­ple. I am grate­ful for it all. I re­mem­ber the call for ex­cel­lence, the de­mand for truth. I miss the bad jokes; I miss his laugh­ter. I miss his mind in the world with us.

I think of an im­age from his epic poem Omeros: The king go­ing home.

Kate Sn­od­grass is the artis­tic di­rec­tor of Bos­ton Play­wrights’ The­atre, and a pro­fes­sor of the prac­tice of play­writ­ing in the English depart­ment of Bos­ton Univer­sity.

The pre­ced­ing was pub­lished in the Amer­i­can The­atre Pub­li­ca­tion on March 23, 2017.

No­bel Lau­re­ate, poet and play­wright, Sir Derek Wal­cott.

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