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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this report to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This report is taken from PN Review 235, Volume 43 Number 5, May - June 2017.

In the Shadow of Derek Walcott
1930–2017
Kei Miller
I HAVE LABOURED, like all Caribbean poets of my generation (if not all Caribbean writers), under the shadow of Derek Walcott. I was not always aware of this. Maybe if I had been, I would also have been resentful. In time, though, I would learn the things important for any Caribbean poet to make a way in the world today – always to have a Walcott anecdote at hand for interviews; to answer questions about him; to accept that reviewers and critics would read as ‘Walcottian’ some image, some line that I had written; humbly to acknowledge some way, however tenuous, in which his poetry had influenced mine. It hadn’t, though. Not really. Still, in reading through his own interviews and essays I would often find that he had been there before me. He had already thought through some thought that I was presently struggling with. He had thought it through carefully and had articulated, in a way that profoundly resonated with me, what it meant to be a poet from the Caribbean, what it meant to speak one language while committing another to the page; even what it meant to be a boy watching the Caribbean sun go down, knowing there was a whole wide world out there, and still not to be intimidated by your own ambition.  

Walcott had even lived in Jamaica for a few years. That was before I was born. Still, I like to imagine him on top of our Blue Mountains, hands outstretched like Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer, throwing his shadow across the entire Antilles – a shadow stretching across geography and time, across both future and history, a shadow so impressively large even poets who came before Walcott would sometimes seem to have grown up in it.


2

There is another sense that I have hinted at – perhaps the more important sense – in which I did not grow up in Walcott’s shadow. For this I am grateful. Writers have little choice in their shadows. We are drawn to the shades of great women and men, pulled into their areas of darkness as helplessly as moths are drawn to light. If we did get to choose I would give this advice: choose a shadow, a shade, large enough for you to grow, but not so large that you can never escape it.

Even to his death, the Trinidadian poet Wayne Brown never fully escaped the shadow of his mentor. For all Brown’s technical acumen, for all his metrical sophistication, for all the fact that he was possibly the most elegant Caribbean poet of his own generation, Brown was still seen as a protégé of Walcott – an incredibly gifted student, but always lesser than the master. It was through Wayne that I met Walcott that first time.

I was barely twenty years old. I had recently dropped out of University. Wayne had recently dropped out of Trinidad, so to speak. In Jamaica, his new country, he edited an arts supplement for one of the main newspapers. My first poems were published there. Wayne inveigled Walcott to come to Jamaica, or perhaps Walcott had already planned to be there and Wayne extracted a favour from him. Whatever the reason, one Saturday a group of Jamaican poets found itself at the Hilton Hotel in New Kingston, in a conference room where the a/c was set almost to freezing. We were to have a master-class with the master himself. I remember being struck by the blue-greenness of Walcott’s eyes, an aspect of sea perhaps, but also an aspect of ice.

At twenty, I still had the brashness of youth – more confidence than talent, too unread to know I hadn’t yet written a good poem. I was not quite the prodigy that Walcott was. I look back at those early poems and there was, at best, a musicality to them, and even my adolescent self knew to avoid clichés. Still, the poems lacked a sophistication of thought, and also an ambition of utterance.

I had taken a few of these poems with me to the Hilton and I imagined myself perhaps the way Walcott imagines himself in Another Life, a young painter walking with his work to the balding figure of Harold Simmons, the master, taking it and observing the work carefully, then lovingly correcting it. I imagined that Walcott might have seen something in my work – some spark of talent – and would welcome me into the kingdom.

Walcott never read my poems. Not then and perhaps to his death he never read them. We spent the first half of the workshop looking on the sixteen-line sonnets of George Meredith. Walcott swooned at the beauty of it all. An older, white-haired Jamaican poet tried, it seemed, to out-swoon Walcott. I was a little repulsed by the display.

In the second half it was time to look at each other’s work. Walcott chose a young poet whose name I cannot now remember. I remember however that while her poetic abilities were modest, her beauty was not, and Walcott’s focus was more than flirtatious but less than lecherous. And I envied her. Not being talented, beautiful or female, I could never earn Walcott’s attention. Next, we looked at a poem by Delores Gauntlett, a poet of considerable talents, but Walcott frowned at one of her lines. ‘You do realise,’ he said ‘that there is a grammatical error here.’ Delores nodded sheepishly – a half acknowledgment, a half apology.

I looked at the line in question but saw no error. It seemed to me that Walcott – the great man himself –
was misreading the thing, taking for a noun what Gauntlett had meant as a verb. I piped up. ‘But sir, there isn’t an error.’ The class erupted. Who was I to challenge a man so great! The laureate waved my comment away as one might wave away a mosquito. ‘I’m not asking you; I’m telling you,’ he said curtly, but I was near enough to lean over and explain my case. ‘I think you might be reading the poem in this way when instead it should be read this way. Don’t you see?’

I’m not sure that he did see. Without acknowledging me, he turned to the class. ‘Shall we move on to the next line?’ For years I took that as a strange kind of victory – how I had proven the aging poet’s fallibility, but I no longer trust my memory. I think, maybe he didn’t hear me at all, or maybe he really was right –
there was some obvious grammatical error that I had missed, and he was too impatient to take the time to explain it to me when everyone else understood.  

So Walcott never read my poems, and I was not welcomed into the kingdom, though he did say something about them – kingdoms, that is. Perhaps it was the moment he was most annoyed that he had agreed to spend an evening in Jamaica, and in this manner, and with this lot. So he told us: ‘Poetry is not a democracy. It is a kingdom. Only some are welcome.’ And then he was gone, like the king riding atop a lovely horse, across the moat and into the castle. On the other side, we could only see the drawbridge being pulled up, the sun setting, and the shadows of the turrets falling over us like crowned omens.


3

Seven years would pass before I met Walcott again, and these perhaps were years of fat. In Manchester, I had completed a Creative Writing Masters; I had done a fellowship at the University of Iowa; my first books had been published – a collection of short stories and two collections of poetry; I had just edited a major new anthology of Caribbean poetry, and my first novel was going to press; I was now at the University of Glasgow teaching Creative Writing. If poetry really was a kingdom, maybe I had finally proven myself.

I had been in Scotland for less than six months when the invitation came to return to Jamaica for a reading at the Calabash Literary Festival. I accepted. The follow-up email informed me that I’d be boarding the plane at Heathrow Airport and on that flight would be Derek Walcott.

Pretentiousness is a funny old thing, an unbecoming quality. If only we were always able to see it in ourselves. I must have let it drop in more than one conversation that yes, yes, I am going back to Jamaica. To give a reading you see. With Derek. Oh Yes, we’re flying together. I’m sorry, which Derek? But surely the ‘Walcott’ is implied.

I imagined that nine hours of flying would forge some form of friendship between us. He would ask me about my own journey thus far as a poet and I might have told him about Mervyn Morris and about Lorna Goodison – the poets whose shadows I’d actually been writing in. I might have told him how only recently I had met his good friend Seamus Heaney, and what a wonderful man he seemed to be. I would be certain to avoid the topic of the Oxford Poetry Professorship and Ruth Padel, who had behaved less than graciously.

All of this was naïve thinking. I can tell you now that on the second occasion I met Walcott, I never actually met him. It had not occurred to me that we would be assigned such different seats on the plane. While I walked aimlessly around the Duty Free shops of Heathrow Airport and bought myself a cheap sandwich from Boots, Walcott was no doubt safely ensconced in the First Class lounge. He must have been wheeled onto the plane before me, and while I sat in coach, near to the toilets, he must have already been sipping his complimentary champagne. When we landed in Jamaica he must have been wheeled out quickly, through immigration and into the waiting limousine that whisked him off to the festival and to the private villa where he stayed, away from the rabble of lesser writers. When I came out of the airport I waited for my own chauffeur. My transport turned out to be a little bus that was also taking the sound equipment. I sat in the back between two large speakers.

I saw Walcott only from a distance on the day that Kwame Dawes interviewed him on stage. It was the only occasion on which Walcott would read his poem ‘The Mongoose’, a vicious take down of the Caribbean’s great novelist V.S. Naipaul – another writer who casts a large shadow, but a shadow at times so dark and hateful that we have not minded that he has chosen to cast it outside the region. In The Middle Passage he famously wrote, ‘History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies.’ Perhaps we have taken that statement too much to heart, refused to read its nuance, but in Naipaul’s shadow we felt ourselves to be a people without history, without distinction, without the ability to create. His was a paralysing shadow – an area of darkness too dark. In an earlier poem, ‘The Spoiler’s Return’, Walcott had written, ‘I see these islands and I feel to bawl / “area of darkness” with V.S. Nightfall’. If several Caribbean writers have refused Naipaul, it is only because they feel Naipaul first refused them. In ‘The Mongoose’ Walcott seems to show regret for having nominated Naipaul on at least five occasions for the Nobel Prize which he finally won.
  

4

The periods between our almost-meetings became shorter after that. The third time I met Walcott was on his own home turf of St Lucia. It was the year of his eightieth birthday and the island seemed committed to using the year to celebrate the fact. Adrian Augier had invited me to the Word Alive festival and with other writers such as Earl Lovelace and Lorna Goodison on the bill I fully expected to see Walcott. In fact, I was sitting between these very writers when he came up in his wheel chair. ‘Lorna,’ he said and then he turned to his right, skipping my face in the centre, ‘Earl, what are you doing for breakfast tomorrow?’

Lovelace was gracious. ‘Derek, do you know Kei Miller?’

Walcott grimaced and ignored the attempt at an introduction. ‘Lorna…’ he said again, and once again turned to the right and skipped my face, ‘Earl, what are you doing for breakfast tomorrow?’

It was Goodison who now tried to be gracious. ‘He’s one of our most promising poets,’ she continued from where Lovelace had left off. Walcott sighed. ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ he said, and nodded to give me the minimum of an acknowledgment. Then he waved his hand as if that duty was over, and it reminded me of the way he had waved away my grammatical correction years before. ‘Lorna,’ he said a third time, ‘Earl, what are you two doing for breakfast tomorrow?’

I ran into Walcott a couple of other times on that trip, including on the last evening when I went by myself to Rodney’s Bay for a meal. The evening light gilding the bay made me recall, once again, the opening pages to Another Life. I remember observing the beauty of the Caribbean evening, the coconut trees slipping into the kind of silhouettes that become one of the iconic images of Caribbean tourism. But I remember also looking away from the bay to the patch of grass below the restaurant, and counting two or three dozen rats with long tails scurrying back and forth for food, as if determined to ruin the idyllic evening.

Then he appeared – between the sunset and the back and forth of rats. He was there with his partner, Sigrid. It was Sigrid who recognised me. She paused as they went by my table. ‘It’s Kei, right? I heard your reading the other day was excellent. I’m sorry we weren’t there.’ Walcott nodded. Though he didn’t say anything, I imagine this nod was a friendlier one than the annoyed acknowledgment he had been forced to give some days earlier. I also imagined that this was them falling into old established patterns – she the one to occasionally remember names and faces when he couldn’t be bothered.


5

I hesitate even now to suggest that Walcott had been overtly rude. His struck me as a spectacular indifference, an indifference which could seem the same as rudeness, but an indifference which had been earned. I imagined it had been nurtured over years of people fawning on him, being stupidly obsequious. Eloquence was Walcott’s virtue; patience was not. And perhaps the temptation to read his behaviour as rude says more about us than it does about him – our strange need to be acknowledged by him, to use him not as shadow but as light – a light that shined on our own potential greatness. It must have bored him a great deal.

And so on the next occasion that I met Walcott, his kindness took me by surprise. This fourth meeting, like the first, was at the Hilton Hotel – but this time in Barbados rather than Jamaica. We had just finished breakfast at a grand event that opened another Caribbean literary festival. Even the prime minister had been in attendance, sitting uncomfortable and dwarfed at the head table in the presence of the Nobel laureate. Breakfast over, the prime minister left to do the things I imagine prime ministers do. It was then that Walcott waved at me from across the room, a summoning gesture. I went.  

‘So you’re Kei Miller.’ It was a gruff voice textured from a lifetime of smoking. And it felt as if he was informing me of the fact of my name, in case I had forgotten it. Perhaps in his presence people do forget their names.

 ‘Yes, sir. I am Kei Miller.’

‘We’ve never met.’  

‘We have, sir.’ I corrected him, and tried to tell him of the other small meetings.

He squinted and observed me, those aspects of sea and ice surprising me all over again. He seemed to weigh the matter in hand, and then arrived at his verdict. ‘No.’ As simple as that, as if history – the subject he had written about with such profundity – did not exist without his approval.

‘Well, you’re coming with us,’ he informed me, and so we went for drinks by the pool. ‘Us’, it turned out, was not just him and his partner Sigrid, but a most august company of Caribbean writers. Again there were Lorna Goodison and Earl Lovelace, and Kendel Hippolyte and the Barbadian novelist Austin Clarke – writers who had long disproved Naipaul’s 1962 statement that nothing was ever created here. Theirs was the story of creation, of giving things their true-true names; they had created West Indian Literature. There were now entire university departments devoted to the subject. There were entire theses written about each of these writers. Their names were secured in the history books. But more than that, they were simply friends, enjoying a lime by the pool. I was the interloper, a writer from another generation completely. This was confirmed when Earl Lovelace leaned in to ask, with genuine concern, ‘What do you guys have? You know – we had Independence, Nationalism, Black Power. We had anthems to write, histories to record. You see what I mean? But your generation… I’m not sure I know what it is you have? I’m not sure what you stand for?’

I sipped my drink and turned my head towards the pool. I didn’t answer him then, though the question lingered and over the years I have been fortunate enough to find myself again and again in the same room as Earl Lovelace, and each time I try to answer his question a little bit more – a small voice trying to escape the shadow of its heritage. Sometimes I simply repeat the old Rastafari saying – the full of the story has never been told. At other times I try for a metaphor. I tell him that his generation of writers, they had created a house. And always with a house there is an inside and an outside. We are interested in the outside – in the people you left out. We were interested in those people who were not a part of nationalism or Black Power. What of the Syrian-Caribbean writer who could never chant ‘Black Power’? What of the queer Caribbean writer who never felt the freedom of independence? There was always an outside – a dark and unwritten place – and language has always been there waiting for us, waiting for its writers. In a sense, my generation’s project is no different – at least, no different from Walcott’s. For who has tried more valiantly than the great poet to acknowledge the complexity of what it means to be from the Caribbean, the hybridity of it, the ways in which race could never be essentialised. But I did not know how to say any of that then. At the table I was too aware of my youth, too suspicious of my earnestness.

After some time Walcott excused himself to go to the toilets. He was only just out of earshot when others at the table suggested that I too should use the facilities. ‘No, I’m alright.’ I said. Frowns gathered around the table like a small storm. Again the suggestion was made, more insistent this time: if you want to go to the bathroom you should go now!

‘But I don’t need to go! I’m ok!’ I felt like a child, so it was spelt out more clearly for me.

‘Kei, he is getting old. He might need your help. Please follow him.’

So I went, a bit sulkily. I wondered if this would be the height of my career in poetry, the humiliating task of unbuttoning then rebuttoning the laureate’s trousers, maybe flash drying the laureate’s penis. Or what if he needed to do more than pee? Thankfully none of this happened. Still, it was good that I followed him. Walcott didn’t feel up to walking back to the group and so I was able to fetch him a wheelchair.

Drinks extended into lunch and there Walcott became nostalgic. He told me about himself as a younger poet wanting desperately to meet Aimé Césaire. How odd to think of Walcott as a young poet impressed by the achievements of others. And what would it have meant – this meeting of the young poet and an older poet, even as such a meeting was taking place at that very moment? Certainly, it could not have escaped Walcott that he had not only become the figure that Césaire once represented for him but had exceeded it.


6

In October of 2014 I would become the first writer of colour to win the Forward Prize for Poetry. That distinction would sit uneasily with me, as if no writer of colour before had deserved. Certainly Walcott had, but in the year that Ruth Padel had been chair of the judges, he hadn’t even been shortlisted.

That year – 2014 – was a big year for me. Before the Forward Prize there had been the Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. I had won the non-fiction Prize for a book of essays. At the awards ceremony in Trinidad, I stood in the lobby sipping a glass of wine. I had not expected to see Walcott. No one told me he would be there, and so I was genuinely surprised when Sigrid wheeled him in. In the strange lighting of that lobby, my own shadow fell over him. He looked up at me and I smiled, ‘Why hello, Derek.’

His squinting eyes expressed no recognition whatsoever. He frowned and looked away without answering.

This report is taken from PN Review 235, Volume 43 Number 5, May - June 2017.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this report to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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