Calabash ’08: First, the fireworks…

“It’s going to be nasty,” Derek Walcott said, prefacing his war on V. S. Naipaul with a warning. “The Mongoose” was the last of Walcott’s new poems at the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica last weekend. He’d wondered whether he ought to read it, Walcott said, “and then I figured if I don’t do it, I’ll say: what the hell, you should have done it… I think you’ll recognize Mr. Naipaul.”

Click to listen to Derek Walcott’s “Chatterbox” conversation and reading at Calabash 08 (42 minutes, 19 mb mp3)

derek walcott

Derek Walcott: Achilles in the Antilles

Nasty it was. And beastly (“a rodent in old age”). It was smelly (“And off the page its biles exude the stench / Of envy, la pourriture in French”). Also sexual (“He doesn’t like black men, but he likes black cunt”). It was indiscreetly personal (“This is a common fact in his late fiction. / He told me once he thought sex was just friction”). And in its anti-racialism, it was racial (“To show its kindness it clutches a kitten / That looks as if it’s scared of being bitten / Right at the neck; it’s the Mongoose’s nature, It cannot help that it was born in Asia”). And it was crowd-pleasingly funny (“Cursed its first breath for being Trinidadian, / Then wrote the same piece for the English Guardian. / Once he liked humans, how long ago this was. / The Mongoose wrote: A House for Mister Biswas.“).

Naipaul, 75, started it, as kids say of sandbox fights, with a book-excerpt in the Guardian last summer that was taken as a dismissal of 78-year-old Walcott (“a man whose talent had been all but strangled by his colonial setting”) and yet another in a long series of insults to the black Caribbean (Walcott, said Naipaul, “sang the praises of the emptiness; he gave it a kind of intellectual substance. He gave their unhappiness a racial twist that made it more manageable.”) Walcott has jabbed before at “V. S. Nightfall.” But on Saturday came the full blitz — from the Caribbean’s first Nobel prize winner for literature (in 1992) against the second (2001).

The Mongoose

I have been bitten. I must avoid infection,

Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction.

Read his last novels. You’ll see just what I mean:

A lethargy approaching the obscene.

The model is Maugham, more ho-hum than Dickens.

The essays have more bite. They scatter chickens,

Like critics. But each studied phrase is poison,

Since he has made that sneering style a prison.

Their plots are forced, the prose sedate and silly.

The anti-hero is a prick named Willy,

Who lacks the conflict of a Waugh or Lawrence

And whines with his creator’s self-abhorrence…

Derek Walcott, reading from his new poems at Calabash 08, the international literary festival at Treasure Beach, Jamaica. Saturday, May 24, 2008

This wasn’t what I came to Calabash for, and it wasn’t the best poetry to be heard over the long weekend. But it was the “lede,” as we newspaper guys say, on Calabash 08. And it betokened both the high hilarity and the underlying seriousness of the scene. There is venom yet in the old antagonisms of colony and empire, class and caste, Africa and India even in the context of Trinidad, where Naipaul’s ancestors came to work the cane fields after black slavery was abolished in 1833. The Walcott version here was: “Imported from India and trained to ferret snakes and elude Africans, / The Mongoose takes its orders from the Raj.” Walcott, though a world figure himself, summons the resentment of race and region against the universalist Naipaul, who “climbed to club- and gate-house with good manners, / The squirearchy from the canefields of Chiguanas.”


V. S. Naipaul: who’s scared of being bitten?

I thought once all the Mongoose needed

for greatness was compassion, if it had heeded

The gaping wound from all the blades he hated;

And so his name was one I nominated

For the laurel branch. For five years he waited.

India and England were in his citation

Of gratitude, but not the Negroid nation

That nursed his gift…

Derek Walcott, reading from his new poems at Calabash 08, the international literary festival at Treasure Beach, Jamaica. Saturday, May 24, 2008

The mostly Jamaican audience hung on every word — 2000 or so celebrants from the avidly bookish “Calabash demographic,” as poet and organizer Kwame Dawes puts it. (The poet Valzhyna Mort from Bellaruss struck a chord when she remarked later that day: “You are by far the sexiest audience I’ve ever stood before!”) As Walcott hammered away at Naipaul, there were listeners who kept laughing at couplets of cleverness, and others who looked half-aghast at the fury on display. I had a sudden flash of Emile Griffiths, the welterweight champion, beating Benny Paret literally to death in Madison Square Garden in 1962 — a moment of gladiatorial excess that Norman Mailer gave literary immortality. Naipaul wasn’t in the ring with Walcott, but some referees would have jumped in to save Walcott from himself. I also wondered: has Derek Walcott — whose masterwork may be Omeros, a modern Caribbean telling of Homer’s Iliad — dwelt overlong on the rivalries of Achilles and Hector?

“The Mongoose” was not, in any event, Walcott’s only contribution. In conversation with the remarkable Ghanaian, Jamaican and now American poet and all-round all-star Kwame Dawes (of whom more later), Walcott spilled a lifetime’s learning about the lively, literary and visual arts with the relaxed air of a master practitioner and teacher.

On music: The cliché is that the Caribbean has a rhythm. It’s not a cliché, but it’s so true and so obvious that it’s a cliché. Whether it’s Latin America or the Caribbean or Central America, the basis and beat of all those art forms are basically rhythmic, very rhythmic. And the rhythm of course is African. I don’t want to do one of those, you know, waving flags, or race, and so on… And I think it relates very strongly to the fact that the music that we speak is a language. We have a language in the music we write. And we think simultaneously in both words and music. We don’t divide ourselves into, say, composer and lyricist. This instinct of crystallizing two forms into one is a very Caribbean thing.

On his own painting and contemporary art: My father was a very good watercolorist, and my mother understood what we wanted to do because her husband was a writer and painter. I was completely encouraged by Harold Simmons, a painter; we used to use his studio. There’s nothing better for a young writer or painter than to have someone who takes his or her work seriously. I had great teachers. My mother was a teacher. Part of the work I do is teaching, and I enjoy working with young poets a great deal. I’m a square in terms of painting. I hate Abstract Expressionism. I cannot stand it. Which is nonsense, because there are some great Abstract Expressionists, I think. I just think it’s very hard in art to do what is — to get what is there. I think there are a lot of artists who ignore the fact that we yearn for meaning, and who think (especially in America) that meaning is passé, you know; or syntax is passé; certainly rhyme is passé. You find a lot of that in America, because America’s dictum is: everything has to be new, and everything is based on psychology rather than aesthetics. So the natural direction of any actor is toward a nervous breakdown.

On the New American Empire in the arts: There’s a very dangerous thing that is happening in the Caribbean, and that is: we are dictated to, still, by what used to be the empire. The new American empire is the world empire, and whatever the tastes of the empire are, they’re inflicted on the colonies of that empire. So we are the intellectual colonies of America; so is a lot of the world. So if people say in America now — which they do — that painting is finished, and now what you have is installation or some other thing, then the young Caribbean artist feels that he’s out of it if he or she doesn’t do what the empire thinks if fashionable. And what fashionable, or unfashionable, is that you don’t tell stories, you don’t mold character, you don’t have a beginning, a middle, an end. That’s old fashioned. Well, it’s a great thing that the Caribbean art is old-fashioned, because you still tell stories, which is what the human heart craves. And you still have a culture that speaks directly to its people in terms of songs, and the lyrics of songs. There aren’t that many cultures that still do that. How many people in Germany sing a German folk song?

You see, there’s an urgency in America to make it new, to get famous. And you can get very famous in America, and make a lot of money. When Rent came out, I thought: Rent! Who wants to see a thing called Rent? Many years later the author is dead, and the composer is dead, but he’s a multi-millionaire. Now the danger here is to think in terms of being a multi-millionaire in any of the forms, including painting, because there are some terrible painters who make millions of dollars in the States because they’re so terrible… So we have a very very different life here in terms of a balance that is not too affected, not too provincial, not too rootsy or something. The individual has to choose where it’s going. And I think it’s a very healthy condition we’re in now.

To Kwame Dawes’ question about reinventing tradition, finding a new sense of possibility… Your generation of writers is very good. They’re not just belligerently Caribbean, not all-black or all-Indian. There’s a balance now being struck that I’m very happy to see…

The answer lies in melody. If your vocal melody is true to your own character, you’re okay. You don’t have to break out in dialect or nationality, if your melody is right. So it’s not a matter of one melody being better than the other. The rhythm that you speak is the rhythm that you write in. The rhythm you and I speak is a common rhythm, right? We may write differently but what we have as the basis of our — I don’t want to say ‘culture’ because I’m tired of the word ‘culture,’ especially now…

It’s very hard to be true — it takes you a long time, for any artist it takes your lifetime to write something, to write something that is your own melody, something that is not mixed up or influenced or corrupted by other things. A culture grows like that. I mean, American culture, according to Hemingway, didn’t really happen until Mark Twain wrote ‘American.’ The difference is that Mark Twain didn’t write bad grammar to be American, right? Huck Finn spoke a certain way. But I think the wrong thing is to feel that you have to fix up your own grammar, you have to mash up what was there before, and so on. You have to absorb all the cultures into one. Whereas what you should do is accomodate. What we have to be in the Caribbean is sponges. You have to absorb all the cultures into one, and not isolate one particular one… Yes, and I think Caribbean literature has just begun, really.

On his own life and work: I’m 78, right? I never thought I’d get here. I thought I was going to die at 30. I saw everything. I saw the gravestone, I saw the people coming to visit it. I saw the brackets and my name, “died at 25.” Oh, my God, fifty years later I’m still here… I’m going to be reading some stuff that — I say to myself: this is very simple, this is very ordinary. And I think I am delighting in that, not from any sense of resignation about anything. I just don’t like it now when any art makes a fuss. I don’t like any over-agitated poetry, because I know the technique, I know what people are doing. I know they’re going to be very bright. I don’t want to be bright. I don’t want to be intimidated when I read a poem, or challenged, or grabbed by the collar. I just want them to let me alone, please. Let me read the poem in peace, you know. And so I am coming to a point where even if it appears to be resignation and repetition, I don’t care as long as it’s clear, as long as what I am saying is at least honest emotionally.

I’m very irritated about style — style in painting, style in music. Style is a way of attracting attention to the creator of the thing, right? What we want is to be anonymous, and transparent, ultimately, I think. Now there can be a very high transparency, Dante’s transparency. You don’t look at Dante’s writing. You just have the poetry, and it’s like looking through glass. You look through the poem like stained glass, into the source of the poem. You don’t look at Dante’s psychology. That would be the last thing he’d want. But this is an age in which everything is based on character, so the more interesting you make your own character, the more interesting you can become. Nobody strives for anonymity. That’s almost a contradition, but that’s what art strives for. I would like to evaporate in front of the poem…

Derek Walcott in the “Chatterbox” session of the Calabash festival, Treasure Beach, Jamaica. In conversation with Kwame Dawes, Saturday May 24,2008.

Derek Walcott had top billing before he got to Calabash, and “The Mongoose” was the talk of the festival to the end. My mission, however, was to catch the rhythm and melody of the Caribbean as a commentary on the Obama moment in the States, what feels like a challenge to the imagination of the whole wide world. So the conversations from Calabash 08 have just begun.

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  • hurley

    Another hardship post, Chris. More bulletins, please. Walcott’s beef with Naipaul, in print, goes back decades to his review of The Enigma of Arrival, where DW rightly had at him. DW not the cleanest character, or poet — compare his strictures with his lines — but he’s on the right side here. Naipaul a racist. What he claims to know about the Caribbean beyond that malignant space informed by his racism shouildn’t be credited. He’s looking through his toe-nails. Past a limited point he sees nothing but his own contempt…Conversation a wonderful variation on many Open Source themes. Red Stripe and Lamb’s Bread.

  • Heyjude

    The Caribbean’s first Nobel literature laureate was St John Perse of Guadeloupe (1960). Walcott is among his admirers.

    • Andre

      St Jean Perse was a Frenchman born in Guadeloupe at a time when the notion of a Caribbean identity and nationhood never existed. Walcott is the first!

    • Hernán Rubin

      Thanks Heyjude. I am with you. To say “the notion of a Caribbean identity and nationhood never existed” is to displease life, manhood, humanity, I can´t say it properly but is isn´t real.

  • Potter

    The “fireworks” were not my favorite part of this welcome interview with Walcott. I loved the chat, his voice, his point in life. Beyond the lede (Mongoose) all the rest generously transcribed here is more sexy juicy interesting. But( (not to turn away from the tabloid headlines in the supermarket either) I did not know of the cockfight between the two so I googled/read the Trilling article in the New Statesman, Being Nasty to Naipaul which cleared it up somewhat. Perfectly legitimate. I am shelving Naipaul and Walcott next to each other now.

    By the way I always think of Shiva Naipaul’s tribute to Trinidad – years ago in the New Yorker Magazine. What VS did not do for maybe Shiva did?

    No- this was the more for me wind blowing constantly through the mikes that brought the mood of Calabash. Then the water-Walcott water colors. The Walcott book I have is Tiepolo’s Hound, generous with reproductions of his paintings.

    So much to discuss here including Obama and our moment.

    Thank you.

    • Hernán Rubin

      Thanks, Potter: you made my day. Though, written long ago, I came to it rigny now to thank you. Good, to shelve both Sir Vidya, Lord Walcott together. Be my guest!

  • Perhaps, Sir Vidjadhar Surasjprashad has been influenced by Vedic views of men, plus bitter Paul Theroux (Sir Vidja´s shadow), remarks on him seeing Africa as going back to jungle. Nevertheless, Sir Vidja´s cultural inheritance must indeed be present there in his work, and be respected despite we agree on it, or not. His remarks in a second voiced jealous gentleman who wouldn´t ever get any Nobel nomination should be disregarded as I did with it many years ago. upon reading his bittered book (which in the end, came to be discredited itself by the Nobel Prize to Sr Vidja in 2001). I respect Mr. Walcott, and fully sympatize with his sentiments, though I know well he has a great heartful consideration on men and would understand, forgive any misunderstandings on this. When he hesitated on reading the Mangouste at the Jamaican Festival, he demonstrated his gentlemanliness. I know. He was recently in Caracas, and was asked by a Chavecista journalist on slavery, and he said it happened so far in the past, and that the Caribbian was so colourful and splendid to think on old sorrows. He´s indeed a full man of poetry and love.