"Half of my friends are dead," Derek Walcott began, reading the opening lines of his poem Sea Canes, "I will make you new ones, said earth. No, give them back as they were instead, with faults and all, I cried."Then his voice trembled with emotion and tears welled up in the Nobel laureate's eyes. He could not go on. He had begun it as a tribute to "my good friend Seamus Heaney, who just died." The revered Irish poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature passed away three weeks ago, at 74.As Wendell Manwarren, one of the cast of Walcott's latest play O Starry, Starry Night, took up reading the poem, the St Lucian poet took a moment to grieve in public in a place and an occasion that felt very private.Surrounded by his peers, friends, his partner, daughters and granddaughters and familiar faces from the worlds of literature, the media and the visual arts, his appearance at the Medulla gallery felt as intimate as if he were in his own living room. The walls were lined with his drawings of scenes and characters from the play.
Towards the end of a moving evening when the floor was opened up to questions, Junior Telfer, a director of the Little Carib Theatre and veteran patron of the arts, stood and spoke some words of thanks. Thanks for the nights when Telfer had sat on his verandah with only the stars, mosquitoes and Walcott's words for company.It was not just a night for sentimentality, however. There were tense moments, controversial moments, belligerent moments. Clearly, many in the room were keen to impress. When one brave soul attempted to ask a question about his new play, which centres on the friendship between the artists Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, he made the mistake of not clearly articulating the nature of his enquiry. The full question was whether the entire play was set in France and whether Walcott was attempting to claim some "ownership of the artists for the West Indies."Walcott first asked for clarification then grumbled, half to himself, half to those in the front row, "Jesus, I knew it would happen, that somebody would ask why I'm writing a play about two white guys. I hope that's not the question you're asking because if it is my answer would be, 'F--k you.'"He knew the speaker had not meant that, however, and said as much, before adding that that was the kind of analytical questioning he anticipated will follow from academics of the Caribbean, who dwell too frequently on race, wasting their time "writing meaningless papers."
Earlier he had refused to answer a question from the audience about who his friends and loved ones had been. The questioner, interested in his relationship with Heaney and "creative male friendship," as she put it, had summoned up the courage to ask, was forced to repeat it–and was then faced with the ignominy of being told he wouldn't answer, despite the fact he had just instructed the audience to ask questions, "The more direct the better."As well as poetry readings, and two short, powerful extracts from O Starry, Starry Night, Walcott intended the night as an occasion to pay homage to his two lead actors."The big thing in the Caribbean is, 'Are you staying or are you going?' These two actors to my right have stayed. Wendell Manwarren is a phenomenon," he said, to hearty applause. He also paid tribute to Nigel Scott, who worked for decades with Walcott's Trinidad Theatre Workshop and who plays Theo Van Gogh, Vincent's brother. Manwarren plays Gauguin.He spoke of the vitality of Caribbean actors–their responsibilities in their delivery, tone, representation. Their job, he said, was not to be a failed attempt at an American or Englishman. Acting, he said, just as with prose, was an attempt to remain real to yourself."Being real to your prose is a phenomenal demand. Every second there is a temptation to not be yourself," he said.
There followed a sublime metaphor of poetry as cricket. Commentators and writers often refer to the finest sportsmen as poetic in their actions on a sports field. Walcott, speaking about his actors but also about the objectives of his own writing, compared the writing, execution and delivery of a line from a play to a stroke by Brian Lara or Garry Sobers. He strives, he said, to create "a phrase like a glance to leg from Lara. I write for that sound, of a Caribbean person talking–as well or as badly as they are meant to in the script."Time and again the topic came back to the Caribbean; its beauty, its majesty, its people and places and the question of migration, a constant theme of Caribbean life. In his opening reading from an epic called Sainte Lucie–part ode, part elegy to Caribbean life, in particular the hills of his native St Lucia and the mural in the Catholic church in Roseau created by Dunstan St Omer–he wafted images of earth-brown labourers and gap-toothed men in a rich valley amongst acres of bananas, leaf-crowded mountains and rain-bellied clouds, hazy and in iron heat.When an audience member asked the two actors why they never left Trinidad in search of fame, Manwarren's answer was simple yet gorgeous: "Trinidad nice!" he exclaimed. It met with agreement and belly laughter.Scott elaborated: "Trinidad is a paradise!"
Manwarren tempered the general glee by acknowledging, "There's a lot of s--t too, but there's still opportunities here, despite the bulls--t.""Here you live in a cliche, but you don't appreciate the cliche you live in," Walcott added, before going on to paint a picture of T&T as a utopia of racial respect and togetherness in which all the races–African, Indian, Chinese, Syrian, Arawak et al–are not differentiated but are all simply Trini."The validity of racial equality is a great validity." He said, "They are killing each other in Syria now [over their ethnicity]. Here it could never happen. I consider every day in the Caribbean a benediction, nothing less."Continuing the theme, Walcott said the thing he and his friend the artist Jackie Hinkson shared was the "state of exhilaration you live in every day in the Caribbean. I don't feel exhilaration in London, I don't feel it in New York."And so, while the posters had advertised the evening's event as the chance to hear previews of a play about two 19th-century European artists, the night became something quite different. Walcott, his actors, Medulla gallery curators Geoffrey MacLean and Martin Mouttet, the audience, the family members and the waiters serving wine and shrimp made the evening a collective love letter to the islands of the Caribbean, to St Lucia, to Trinidad and to Tobago.
The documentary Poetry Is An Island: Derek Walcott, directed by Ida Does will be screened at the T&T Film Festival on September 30 from 5.30 pm at the Little Carib Theatre.