Derek Walcott is not only the leading poet of the Caribbean, he is probably the most important writer that the English-speaking Caribbean has ever produced. Born in St. Lucia in 1930, he chose to remain in the Caribbean during the late ’50s and early ’60s, when most of his contemporaries were busily making their way to the “motherland,” Britain. It was not until 1976 that Derek finally left the Caribbean for, firstly, New York, and these days, Boston.
I first met Derek some years ago in London, when a play of his was in rehearsal. A warm and gregarious man, with a penchant for telling appallingly bad jokes, we became fast friends. For the past two years, I have been living “down the road” from him, in Amherst. My own responses to being a West Indian in the United States needed some clarification. Who better to turn to than Derek. We spoke in his large and spacious Boston apartment and, at the end of our talk, we were joined by Seamus Heaney. When Seamus arrived, the first thing that Derek did was phone Joseph Brodsky. They all partook of a loud and lively three-way conversation with Derek as “ringmaster.” Heaney, Brodsky and Walcott. “Only in America,” I thought.
Caryl Phillips You first won a Rockefeller fellowship to come to the United States in 1958 for dramatic work rather than poetry. Am I right in thinking you worked at the Actors’ Studio?
Derek Walcott No, it was The Phoenix Theatre, I used go to rehearsals. I studied directing with Jose Quintero Monday nights, then I’d go to the Phoenix Theatre, where Norris Houghton was trying to make an American repertory company and I saw The Power and the Glory, The Family Reunion . . .
CP What were your first impressions of the United States? Was this your first visit?
DW No, my first visit must have been before ’58. Errol Hill, Noel Vaz and I came through New York to talk about producing a play for The Federation. I didn’t go out, I was terrified of New York. Someone had a friend (probably Noel Vaz) who had a penthouse apartment. I stayed in the apartment for the length of the trip—five days—and wrote, very fast, a play called Ti-Jean. New York was staggering, I felt very lost, it seemed too huge.
CP And how long did you stay here on the Rockefeller?
DW It was supposed to be a year, but I stayed for nine months. I wanted to go back and start my own theatre company. Which I did, called The Theatre Workshop.
CP Writers often leave their places of origin, and gravitate to the center. You’ve said that there’s no mystery about this drift to the metropolis. Why did you not leave the Caribbean for the United States or Britain, when so many of your contemporaries were doing so?
DW Well, let me go back a bit, to something I remember about New York. I was then staying at Spring Street. And one day, during daylight, I went out and began to walk and the perspective of the avenue seemed infinite. I got very afraid. I thought, “Wait a minute, this street is not going to end. I’m going to turn around and go back.” That was how extensive my fear was. When I was younger, I was supposed to get a Colonial Development Welfare scholarship to go to Oxford, but I was very bad at mathematics, so I went to the University of the West Indies. It isn’t that I melodramatically chose to stay in the Caribbean, but I’m glad I didn’t go to England at that age. I would have been a very different kind of writer if I had gone to England. So, I wasn’t disappointed about not going, in fact, I wasn’t disappointed at all.
CP Your humanistic, Oxford-style education—you learned Latin and Greek, Virgil and Dante . . . all this would seem to have prepared you for a life in which you would perceive Britain, maybe Europe, as the center. What happened?
DW No, I have never, ever thought of any city as being the center, my center.
CP But was this not part of the education you were given?
DW No, I don’t have any objection to the kind of education I got.
I didn’t do Greek, I did Latin, I wish I’d done better so I’d be able to read Ovid and Virgil more fluently. Being at the University of the West Indies was very exciting. We were the first bunch of liberal arts students, so we were beginning a university, and I was starting a theatre company. I went up to Jamaica and got involved in theatre when I was 20.
CP Were there any West Indian actors up in New York at the end of the ’50s?
DW No, not really. I was interested in the whole idea of the Actors Studio, which is probably why you thought I was there, the exploration of what it was to be an American actor. I wanted to get a bunch of people together and explore the potential of a West Indian actor. But I couldn’t stay in New York, there weren’t a lot of black actors around. You couldn’t have explored that kind of thing, either in London or New York anyway.
CP Let’s pick up this London thing again. Wasn’t there even a slight temptation to follow the other Caribbean writers, like Naipaul, Lamming and Selvon, to Britain?
DW I remember holding a book by Lamming, somewhere in the University, or by Selvon, and thinking, this is a book. This book has been written by a West Indian. How remarkable, it was mildly astonishing, holding In the Castle of My Skin and A Brighter Sun and thinking, “My God, this is a book.” It’s common now to have books published by people all over the Commonwealth, but then Commonwealth writing was just coming out. The other thing that diffused any strong pull towards London was that I wanted to paint. I wanted to paint the West Indian landscape. I couldn’t do that abroad. Other things got strengthened later, the fact that I was writing about a place that had never been written about before, to any extent. Sharing in the creation of something is very exhilarating. There were other writers before my generation, but there was this sense of excitement, of exploration, of trying to articulate something that had not been articulated before.
CP In that sense, neither Britain nor America were viable options.
DW No, not really. There must have been a point at which I knew that I didn’t really want to be there. I had friends who were going there, lots of guys went to study law. The other thing is, I wasn’t writing fiction. You don’t need to move to be a poet. Without publishers you could still publish poems, I published my own book of poems. But a 300-page novel, someone has to publish it.
CP Nearly 20 years ago now, you began a speech in Miami, with the following words: “We live in the shadow of an America that is economically benign, yet politically malevolent.” Do you need to revise this at all?
DW Malevolent sounded strong then, but like any political statement, it varies according to the intensity of the experience. You could have said malevolent at the time of the Vietnam War, you could have said malevolent about Chile and you would have been right. Given what we have now, you don’t know what might happen tomorrow, the general direction of America is not an imperial direction. The average American citizen, unlike the Roman citizen, the British citizen, the French citizen, has no idea of an American empire spreading and taking over the world, or taking any pride in the occupation of other people’s countries. America interrupts and interferes but I don’t think it has the need to expand borders and create an empire.
CP In your 1985 Paris Review interview, you said something very similar, that “the average American doesn’t think the world belongs to him or her, Americans don’t have imperialist designs in their head. I’ve travelled widely across America and I see things in America that I still believe in, that I like a lot.” Then in 1987, came The Arkansas Testament [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]. Did something happen, or do you still adhere to these notions?
But two doors down, a cafeteria
reminded me of my race.
A soak cursed his vinyl table
steadily, not looking up.
A tall black cook setting glazed
pies, a beehive-blond waitress,
lips like a burst strawberry,
and her “Mornin’” like maple syrup
Four DEERE caps talking deer hunting.
I looked for my own area.
The muttering black decanter
had all I needed, it could sigh for
Sherman’s smoking march to Atlanta
or the march to Montgomery.
I was still nothing. A cipher
in its bubbling black zeros, here.
DW The Arkansas Testament was the result of my crisis over choosing a passport. The crisis has come up again. You can’t have a green card and a passport. Jamaica Kincaid said the same thing, that she felt very awkward about changing her passport. I think small islanders may have a sense that if they have the opportunity and take it, they’re betraying the people who can’t. It sounds opportunistic, it sounds exploitative, to get a passport. But I think it’s deeper than that. It’s a physical act of severance to become a citizen of another country. You can’t have dual citizenship, really. If I become an American by a change of passport, I become something that I’m not prepared to become. I’m not prepared to become a second-class citizen in this country, to be defined the way blacks here are defined. Not because I feel superior, but because I resent that definition.
CP A second-class citizen?
DW Well, yes. Whatever the advantages of being American may be, in terms of how one is looked at, however wrongly, I would have to be looked at that way. I couldn’t endure that kind of consideration.
CP In the same interview you said though, “Without any bitterness, I can say that anything I’ve gotten, whether earned or not, has been from America, not from the Caribbean.”
DW Yeah, that is true. There is a munificence in this country that is still genuine. If you live here long enough, you encounter what is the spirit of the American, it’s very accessible to me. What is said about it, ideally, does happen to me. Most of my friends are writers who don’t have the hang-ups that people in other professions have. It may be a very safe, protective island, to move in the company of other writers, or to be in an academic circle. If I were hustling the man out there, I’d have a different attitude. But I do feel that it is a generous country, I feel that when I go out on readings. And the scholarships and grants I’ve gotten, I’ve been very grateful for, in terms of my own security.
CP But still, you don’t want to be a citizen.
DW Well, I still feel that I’d be cutting myself off from St. Lucia.
My passport need not be changed, evidently. I may be over-dramatizing it, but I don’t want to go back to St. Lucia and have this cover, this safety, with money in the bank, saying, “Yeah, I can come and write about these people, I can live among them, I’m okay, I’ve got a passport.” There’s a sense of abandonment that would come with that, that I couldn’t take.
CP Recently, you described the Caribbean as the American Archipelago. Not only your writing, but the writing of Marquez and Fuentes, has introduced the American reading public to an understanding that the United States of America is not America.
DW Carlos Fuentes said a terrific thing, he pointed out that the whole realm of the Caribbean, the real Caribbean, would include the fringe of Marquez’s Columbia, the whole curve down to Venezuela, and that whole interior sea. That kind of imagery is a pond in which hybrid but rich things happen. The imagination of someone like Marquez is basically Caribbean. If you took the whole curve of the rim of that basin along Columbia, right around the Bahamas, then that’s a totally new territory in the history of world literature or even of world experience. That’s Fuentes’s description, and he even includes Faulkner, because Mississippi has that imagination in it.
CP Such a perception does somehow change the boundaries of what someone would perceive of as America.
DW It does.
CP Do you feel very much at the forefront of those writers, writers who are shifting the notion of what constitutes America?
DW The capital of America could easily be Miami. I like Miami a lot, because what I see there is the Spanish influence. Miami is called by Spaniards, or Spanish-speaking people, the capital of the Caribbean. Potentially, it is really the capital of America, although it doesn’t have the force of New York. The Latin American elements are creating the kind of culture that America proclaims to be. In that case you could ask, is it the capital of the Caribbean, or is it a curious city that’s a part of America? I like to believe it could become the spiritual capital of America, because it would then have all the adjuncts of all the attributes of a Caribbean mix and reality.
CP In a sense, it could become both things. It could become the spiritual capital of America, yet remain an essentially Caribbean city. These days when you visit the Caribbean, do you ever feel like a tourist despite the fact that you hang on to the St. Lucian passport?
DW No. You know the experience of going to a small island, you can’t possibly feel like a tourist. Although, I read a book the other day that got me very annoyed. A guy said, “I went back home and I was moving around people in some village, and I felt estranged.” That’s a bunch of crap.
CP Is there ever a yearning, when you’re down there, to get back to the States?
DW No. There are things that I miss. I don’t miss TV. I miss magazines, I’m a magazine freak, I buy all sorts of junk. But that’s getting better, but to say that I’m eager to come back, quite the contrary. I’d like to stay there longer, I’d like to stay there permanently.
CP You had written your first major piece of work as a writer, Another Life, before you came here. What has being in the States done to you as a writer? Has it provided you with economic freedom, with subject matter?
DW Well, certainly in terms of the jobs I’ve had here, working at Boston University, I’m very comfortable, I travel around a lot. What I’ve seen, to my very private horror, is a deterioration of what I thought would have become a much better situation, the racial situation in this country, which, to me, has deteriorated at an alarming clip. And that’s an experience I never thought, ten years ago, that I would see. I’m not saying I thought I’d see a perfect society, but I never thought relations would disintegrate, and not only among Blacks. Racism in America is so fierce and tense, it’s now open. Somebody can be called racist epithets, people can cuss, the anti-semitism of Buchanan—as if it was normal—ten years ago that would have been whispered. Now, it’s just out in the open, it’s become part of the dialogue.
CP Would it be too much to suggest that ten or 15 years ago, you couldn’t have envisioned yourself writing a poem like, The Arkansas Testament? Or, for instance, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Part II .
Every street corner is Christmas Eve
in downtown Newark. The Magi walk
in black overcoats hugging a fifth
of methylated spirits, and hookers hook
nothing from the dark cribs of doorways.
A crazy king breaks a bottle in praise
of Welfare, “I’ll kill the motherfucker,”
and for black blocks without work
the sky is full of crystal splinters
DW Well, those things are personal. There’s no crisis in the Caribbean person coming to America. The American crisis is not his crisis. It doesn’t mean that he’s disassociated from it, but the crisis is a crisis of contempt. It’s not arrogance, it’s not superiority, it is actually a very high kind of boredom and irritation at the absurdity and the perpetuity of, first of all, the fallacy of racial equality in the States and secondly, the disgusting day-to-day occurrences, that are increasing, of violence. It makes you feel that there’s only a crust over this society that is going to crack at any time into this violent eruption. And when we come from the Caribbean to here, and have to shake a shoulder and adjust to an identity that you find inferior to your own experiences as a Caribbean person, it is very hard. And you get a hard time from both sides. From Black people, from white people, who say you should identify more. But the fact that you are required to identify is what’s contemptible. It is not that we have an ideal society, but when I go to Port of Spain, I see such a nucleus of what the American experience could have been. And when I come to any city in the United States, the ones that have the greatest reputations for multi-culturalism, and I compare them to Port of Spain, it’s a superior experience for me to be in Port of Spain, spiritually, than it is to be in any city in America or Europe.
CP Well, you began your American saga as a New Yorker, now you’re a Bostonian in a city that you once wittily dismissed as the capital of Canada. Are you and Boston getting on any better?
DW Boston is a good-looking city. It’s nice and it’s quiet, it’s not dangerous. I just came back from New York, I couldn’t live in New York now. It’s very limiting to live in New York. You really live on a block in New York. It’s more spacious and affable here, but I don’t think that I’ll ever be able to become really settled in Boston.
CP I’m surprised to hear you say that about New York. You had such affection for New York City.
DW Anybody who went through some kind of time in New York does, but how much dog shit and violence can you take? Something grows in you that has an affection that you can’t dismiss, you can’t erase, but I’ll love it from a distance—go in, come out.
CP You talked about the racial polarity in the United States being “insulting.” Do you find that polarity more endemic in Boston than New York?
DW No, Caz, because I’m more among people who are open minded, they’re writers, publishers, artists. I live in a very insulated community.
CP But you observe what’s going on around you.
DW But even then, I don’t go through encounters or endure, I’ve never . . . I remember one time when we first came here, my son and I were on the corner, looking through a shop window, and a couple of cops came up and wondered what we were looking at. I’ve had one or two of those experiences. But what you feel is embarrassment that a country has that kind of thing going on, it’s an anger, you’re embarrassed for a country that could be so dumb.
CP A slightly puzzling quote of yours. "I don’t think about myself having two homes. I have one home, but two places."
DW Yeah, well, the two places are the Caribbean, particularly Port of Spain and St. Lucia and the other place is here. I’ve lived here, in this house for . . . it doesn’t feel like home. I don’t even have an affinity for the objects around me here, they seem to be temporary.
CP What does this word “home” mean then?
DW I have an absolute sense of it. The luckiest thing I’ve ever had in my life, is to feel that St. Lucia is home. To really feel that every time I go back. It’s ordinary and very renewed every time. To have that has been my luckiest thing, because I think that out of that certainty that I feel when I’m there, I’m not talking to people or looking at people as if they’re subjects that I would write about. I really feel, unembarrassedly privileged to talk to anyone in St. Lucia, about anything.
—Caryl Phillips is a writer and professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts. His novel, Cambridge, is just out from Knopf. His previous books include, The Final Passage and Higher Ground.