A Multiplicity of Voices: A Conversation with Derek Walcott

Article excerpt

With the Nobel Prize about to celebrate its 100th anniversary, HUMANITIES visits one of the laureates, poet Derek Walcott.

SHAKESPEARE AND THE CULTURAL MIX THAT IS CARIBBEAN HISTORY ARE THE TOPICS AS NEH CHAIRMAN WILLIAM R. FERRIS TALKS WITH POET DEREK WALCOTT. WALCOTT IS A PROFESSOR AT BOSTON UNIVERSITY AND FOUNDER OF THE BOSTON PLAYWRIGHTS' THEATER.

WILLIAM R. FERRIS: I want to begin by quoting Joseph Brodsky's remark that "The West Indies were discovered by Columbus, colonized by the British, and immortalized by Walcott."

You were born and raised in the West Indies and spend a good bit of each year in St. Lucia. What do you feel are the basic elements that make up the Caribbean culture?

DEREK WALCOTT: I think its multiracial character is a basic component, particularly in cases like Trinidad and the larger islands. All the races are represented here, not only the African, but the East Indian and the Chinese and the Mediterranean and the European. You can trace their influence in the music, as well as in the language.

FERRIS: Is there such a thing as a Caribbean voice? If so, what does it say?

WALCOTT: I think the identity of the Caribbean voice is the multiplicity of voices here in the Caribbean. These languages are derived from dialects of the original languages-Spanish, French, English, Portuguese. They are all represented in this space.

FERRIS: How have you seen Caribbean culture change over the last fifty years?

WALCOTT: Like any part of the world, it can't escape the technological advances that have happened, and not necessarily all to the good. You know, the whole idea of the global village is true. The strongest influence culturally, of course, is America. It's very hard to retain individuality since there is a kind of third empire now, which is the commercial empire that America represents in the export of its culture through television and film.

FERRIS: What elements of Caribbean culture has the United States embraced and which elements of our culture has the Caribbean embraced?

WALCOTT: Popular culture through television, particularly with the young, is a very strong presence. A lot of the young people in the Caribbean are self-deluded into pretending that they are American. That's part of the attraction of the American technical culture, particularly in music.

As to what America itself has received and used from the Caribbean, I don't think there's much visible evidence of that because America still exercises prejudicial judgment on what influence the third world or its people of color can have. They are blocked by all sorts of forces of habit that prevent the expansion of our culture, as well as black culture, in America.

Our influence is relegated particularly to music, jazz or park music or rap, so that if the culture in America were broader, then one could say that it might include Caribbean culture. There is a struggle for the black artist in America anyway to try and have influence, or just simply to be present. So it's not easy to say that there is an influence from the Caribbean on American culture.

FERRIS: The National Endowment for the Humanities supported the biography that Bruce King wrote about you and your life. I understand you were initially reluctant to allow a biography.

WALCOTT: Frankly, I haven't read it. But I guess it's of importance. You know, one can't avoid the idea that eventually someone is going to write about your life.

FERRIS: At the time that King was writing your biography, you were working on Tiepolo's Hound. Some see that as something of an autobiography. You wrote about the life of the artist, about exile, about the relationship of new world art to Europe and other cultures. I was fascinated to see your own artwork illustrating the poem. How do the paintings and the words relate? Is a syllable like a brush stroke, as has been suggested?

WALCOTT: In a way. …