Learning from Derek Walcott: Bim Literary Festival, day one

How often do you get to meet a Nobel Prize winner?

That was my main rationale for going along to a Master Class with Derek Walcott yesterday – that and the prospect of seeing Earl Lovelace and Austin Clarke afterwards. The occasion was the inaugural Bim Literary Festival, a celebration of writers both from here in Barbados and elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Derek Walcott
Photo credit: Bert Nienhuis

The event with Derek Walcott wasn’t quite what I’d expected. It turned out to be a workshop for poets, who had registered in advance and submitted manuscripts to be read and critiqued by the man himself. I hadn’t done any of that, and I don’t even write poetry, but they let me stay and watch anyway.

To be honest, the event was quite brutal and I was intensely uncomfortable throughout. Walcott did not hold back in his criticisms: after one poet read out his work, he told him “the problem is, the entire thing hangs on a dreadful cliche”, and he asked someone else if they’d ever thought about giving up poetry and writing prose instead. As a lead-in to another attack, he said “I have to abuse you all, that’s what I’m here for.”

Is it really? Derek Walcott is one of only two Caribbean writers to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, he’s an 82-year-old man who has achieved pretty much everything a writer could hope to achieve, and now he has an opportunity to talk to a group of younger poets for two hours. What does he want to pass on to them? What does he want his legacy to be? It was interesting to hear Austin Clarke talk later in the evening about the support he received early in his career from Frank Collymore, a man who also nurtured the talents of Clarke’s schoolmates Kamau Brathwaite and George Lamming. How important a contribution is that? Barbados is a small island with an even smaller poetry-reading population. Being a poet here must be incredibly tough. Yet the thought of helping or nurturing clearly had not entered Walcott’s head. Even after all he’s received, he still has nothing to give.

The event reminded me of other times I’ve seen audiences with “great men” (yes, it is always men) who seem to derive pleasure from watching lesser beings squirm in front of them. At one point he threw out a pithy quote with Homeric allusions, waited for someone to smile and nod her appreciation, and then pounced on her and asked her to explain what the quote meant, which she couldn’t do because she’d been bluffing. He seemed to enjoy this immensely. It was one of those horrible situations in which everyone in the class is grasping tentatively for the right answer, the one that will please the great man and draw his praise, knowing even as they speak that they will fail, because praise is not what he has come there to give. Yet they must try, because this is Derek Walcott, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make an impression. God, it was horrible.

Despite all this, I did learn a few good things from Walcott. These were on the rare occasions when he strayed from generalised attack mode into specific, well-documented observation.

  1. “The qualities that are prosaic in your poetry are the best ones, not the poetic ones.” So don’t try too hard to be “poetic” – a simple line of observation about a common, everyday thing can be the most effective, for example Larkin’s “canal with floatings of industrial froth”. Describing the ordinary is the aim, Walcott said. As a prose writer, I translated “poetic” into “literary” and noted that I often write best when I’m describing everyday things, rather than when I’m trying very hard to be “literary”. Not that the language I use shouldn’t always be beautiful and fresh, but that I shouldn’t strive too hard for “literariness” at the expense of life.
  2. “In your work, I don’t find an agonised search. I find contempt. It all sounds too easy.” OK, this was another pretty brutal attack. But I think there was a good point in there, which is true for prose writers as much as poets. We need to be humble and dedicate ourselves to a lifelong study of the craft of writing. What I think he meant by “contempt” is trying to take shortcuts. Becoming a writer must involve reading widely, learning techniques from others and committing to a daily practice of developing the craft. If you don’t do this, if you just write something and publish it, then write more and publish that, then you’re showing contempt for writing.
  3. “The distinction between poetry and prose is very subtle.” As an example, he had someone read out the first line of To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway, and showed how it could be the first line of a poem. ‘The scansion is verse, but he writes prose. His work is full of it.” This made me think of a wonderful old 1950s book I read called The Anatomy of Prose (reviewed here), which analysed the rhythm and meter of English prose in great detail. Listening to the sound of my prose and breaking down its structure are things I need to focus on more often.

So that’s it! I’ll write a post about the Austin Clarke and Earl Lovelace event soon. This afternoon I’m going to something called Bim Rock Variations, which has no description other than a list of authors so could be anything really! I’ll let you know how it turns out. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your comments on the points Derek Walcott made, or on “great men” and the role of writers as teachers, or anything else that’s on your mind!

Update: I’ve now written the posts on Austin Clarke and Earl Lovelace, as well as reports on the rest of the festival. For a roundup of all the posts in my series on Bim Literary Festival 2012, click here.

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There are 23 comments

  1. Ouch! I would have been just as uncomfortable as you. I think teaching is about drawing qualities out of students, not squashing them with cruel critique. But I know plenty of academics who would not agree. My only thought is that DW himself must have been subjected to some pretty rough criticism over his years, as he’s got to have learned that technique from somewhere. But no, I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of it. There’s a feeling in some writers’ groups that writers ‘must grow a thick skin’ but to me that seems ludicrous when we’re talking about the most sensitive and attuned people in a society.

    1. Hi litlove,
      Yes, I agree with that approach. I have no problem with telling someone honestly when something isn’t working, but I think the criticism has to be highly specific and also phrased in a way that doesn’t do permanent damage. Praise the things that work, and highlight the things that don’t. You’re probably right that he’s received some of that himself over the years, but to me he should know better. If I’d been part of that group, I’d probably never write another line of verse.

  2. Thanks a lot for sharing this, it was very fascinating. Maybe lucky you had no poem prepared…. I don’t get this apparoach. while I think it’s vital to tell people with zero talent that something is lacking, you should be kind when you do it and I don’t think the people present were of that category anyway. Bring out the best could maybe even make some without talent for poetry a good writer in another genre. Gues sthat’s what he tried to say at one point…
    I think it’s done quite often like this.

    1. 🙂 I was VERY happy I had no poem prepared. In fact, if I did have one, I would probably have eaten it! Yes, it is vital to be honest in critique, but you can’t just tear down – you have to give them something to build on. The thing is that he did say some things that were very useful, but I think the participants were so shocked that they probably didn’t take it in. And you’re right, they were not zero talent people. I’m no judge of poetry but I could tell they were not absolute beginners. Their work had merit, to me, and even if it had flaws, there had to be a more compassionate way of pointing them out. I’m still left wondering whether he honestly thought he was helping them.

      There’s a second class today, in which the poets are supposed to have rewritten their poem from yesterday and present it again. I’m not going, of course, because I wasn’t supposed to be at the first one and I can’t make the same ‘mistake’ twice in a row! But I’m tempted to look in through the window just to see how many people came back for more punishment.

  3. Thanks for your post. I find it curious that I’m a black West Indian woman with a PhD, an academic position, working on a book about West Indian reading audiences, tried to gate crash the same event and the organizer would not allow me to sit in. I wonder if there was some specific technique you used to make that gatecrashing possible. It seemed like most of the Bim LitFest was pre-scheduled closed workshops and not events that were open to a wide reading ‘public’ as I imagine such a festival would want to do. This is my first time really getting to participate in one in the islands so I’m grateful that you did get to gatecrash and let me in on the inside scoop. Sounds like an ambivalent experience.

    I wonder how much of the attitude that Walcott displayed towards his class, and their subsequent awe and seeming fear, comes from the intellectual and classed politics of the islands. How did you feel then, in direct and indirect ways, about the festival’s overall tone in setting up itself as a social elite affair (or if you didn’t, I’m curious about what you did think)? Honestly, my experience that day turned me off from the events, mostly because of the tone and posture with which I was denied, not so much the fact that I was. And now to find out that you weren’t…

    1. Hi scholarly, thanks for visiting, and I’m sorry to hear that they turned you away. To be honest, I think it helped that I am a white man. My wife is a black Barbadian and I have noticed that I often get treated better than she does in her own country. It’s heart-breaking to see. Colonialism’s roots run deep. There was one other gatecrasher in the class – a white American woman.

      I also inadvertently helped myself by arriving 15 minutes late, which meant that the class was in full swing and I just walked in mouthing an apology and sat down, and I guess they didn’t want to interrupt things so nobody said anything.

      I understand your point, especially after your nasty experience at the Walcott event, but I didn’t really find that the festival as a whole was elitist – there were quite a few free events open to the public. In London we’d usually have to pay for events like that, especially with big name authors like Walcott, Lovelace and Clarke, so I thought it was good to make the events free.

      It’s true, though, that there were several workshops and classes which were all full quite early. There didn’t seem to be much publicity about the festival, so the problem was that by the time most of us heard about it, the events were full, mostly with people connected to the organisers or the university. I think better publicity would have enabled the general public to sign up in time.

      I’d love to hear more about your book – it sounds fascinating. I’ve asked questions about West Indian reading audiences in some of my other posts, so it sounds as if this book would be for me. Do you have a publication date yet? Is there anywhere online I can find more information about your work – or can you email me about it? Thanks!

      1. It was interesting to read scholarly’s comment and your response to it, Andrew. Your comment – “Colonialism’s roots run deep” – made me think. It is also made me sad at the way things are.

        1. Hi Vishy, yes, it’s very sad, isn’t it? I’m reading a history of the Caribbean at the moment, From Columbus to Castro, by Eric Williams, and it’s such a long and horrific story that it’s really not surprising that the region has not recovered from it yet.

  4. Nice post, Andrew! Enjoyed reading your experiences at the poetry workshop. Derek Walcott makes me remember the teachers and headmasters of boys’ schools of a bygone era 🙂 I can’t imagine why he conducted the session the way he did. I think it is easy to tear down someone’s work, but difficult to give feedback which is genuinely useful to the artist who created the work. I am not even sure of Walcott’s criticism that someone’s work was cliched. Wasn’t Shakespeare accused of the same by the critics of his era? 🙂 Of course, my own response to Walcott’s behaviour is based on what I believe in – that it is difficult to say whether a work of art is good or not-so-good, because sometimes works-of-art which were not regarded as not-so-good by one generation, come to be regarded as vitally important and are acclaimed by critics and the general audience later. Have you read John Carey’s book ‘What Good Are the Arts?’ It is a wonderful book on this subject. I wish though that Derek Walcott had been more gentle in his criticism of the works of people who came to the workshop. The audience had treated him with respect and they had shown a lot of courage by putting their works out for criticism and that is the least they deserved.

    1. Hi Vishy,

      Yes, it reminded me of that too! The school I went to was very traditional and old-fashioned, and some of the teachers there, particularly the older ones, delighted in humiliating us. That style was going out of vogue even at a very old-fashioned school 20 years ago, so I was amazed to see Derek Walcott still clinging to it.

      I haven’t read that John Carey book, but it sounds really interesting. Have added it to my ever-lengthening to-read list!

      I think you make a lot of great points in this comment, but the most important one to me is when you say “I think it is easy to tear down someone’s work, but difficult to give feedback which is genuinely useful to the artist who created the work.” The main problem I had with Walcott was not that he criticised people, but that he did it in such a generalised and damaging way, and provided very little specific feedback. If he’d taken one of the poems and gone through line by line and pointed out how it could be improved, that would have been useful.

      But I really got the impression that being useful to the students was not his goal at all. Even after everything he’s accomplished in life, it still seemed to be more about what he needed from them (respect, admiration, ego massage, etc) rather than what he could give them.

  5. Very, very interesting and vivid account of the experience. It seemed you survived a literary slaughter house! I was thinking about going but withdrew the thought not so much in anticipation of the bloodbath I sort of knew would be there, but because of the vastness of the Derek Walcott persona. After reading this, I don’t know how or what to feel….

    1. Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment! Yes, it did feel like that. I was considering calling this post “Blood on the carpet”! You’re not alone – I still don’t know how or what to feel either! Part of me wishes I’d never gone, but another part is happy to have seen it. I just hope that the people who took part were not affected too badly.

      I’m very interested to hear that you anticipated it would be a bloodbath. Does he have a reputation for doing this sort of thing, then? What’s the Derek Walcott persona? I didn’t really know anything about him before this – I’d just read some of his poems and knew he’d won the Nobel Prize. Would love to hear more, if you come back to read this…

  6. How awesome that is: Meeting a Nobel Prize Winner. I took a lot from this. One that strikes me the more…I shouldn’t strive too hard for “literariness” at the expense of life. Thanks a million for this post. You did have a lovely day! I should think.

    1. Hi Geosi,
      Glad you liked it! Yes, it was a good day, although I have to say I preferred the Austin Clarke/Earl Lovelace event in the evening to this one. But there were some good points in there!

  7. Andrew, I enjoyed you post. Your mistake may have been that you went with preconceived notions of what a great poet ought to tell other writers. Those who know DW are quite aware that his comments can be caustic, at times. The irony is, that while in your piece you were bristling at DW’s brutality to young writers, you were were attempting to get even with the great man by saying, “After all he’s received, he still has nothing to give.” Anyone who knows Walcott’s work would know that he has given more than most writers ever will. Aspiring writers need not subject themselves to his acid tongue, they just need read him – carefully.

    1. Hi Henry

      Thanks for visiting and sharing your thoughts! I admit I do have preconceived notions, but they’re more about how human beings should treat each other. I’m quite liberal about what you say, but more particular about the way you say it, and it was the tone of the event that shocked me.

      Re giving and receiving, you’re quite right of course that Walcott has given a lot to the world through his poetry. I wasn’t questioning his literary merit. What I meant by that comment was that he has received so much praise, so many rewards, so much adulation, that I was genuinely surprised to see that he still needed more. I thought the event would be about the students, but it seemed to me to be about him and what he needed from them, rather than what he could give. You’re right, of course, that people can just stay away, but that strikes me as such a missed opportunity.

      I’m really sorry if the piece came across as an attempt to get even – that was not my intention at all. I went to Bim Literary Festival with the idea of blogging about each event I attended, so that my readers, who are mostly from other parts of the world, could get a flavour of the literary scene here in the Caribbean. I gave my honest reaction to the events, good and bad. As I mentioned, I did learn quite a bit from Derek Walcott, but I wasn’t going to hold back from mentioning the other aspects of the class as well. That said, I will stick to reading him in future!

  8. I suppose few lives compare to Derek Walcotts’s, embodying the white and black culture in its deep conflict. It’s of course one thing to be congruent to oneself and another to be congruent to the moment.
    Did you talk to Derek about your impression? He may have benefitted to know of the affect his authority as a Nobel has on those who look up to him. Your position as a bystander should have made an impact.
    Apart from great poetry and prose, if a writer could learn during his lifetime the incredible power of words, that would be his/her highest spiritual achievement.

    1. Hi Ashen
      Thanks for stopping by! You make some really interesting points. I would have liked to talk to Derek Walcott about my impressions, but to be honest it took me a while to get my head around what had happened. I’m never very good at saying the right thing when I’m on the spot – I need to go away and think about it first. That’s why I like writing! But I often wish I was better at dealing with situations in the moment, rather than waiting until afterwards.

      1. The way you describe it, I think I know the feeling. And there’re people whose tenacity takes one’s breath away. A matter of temperament. Writing opens layers and layers, lots of space to reflect, what would we do without writers? 🙂

        1. You’re right, it’s all down to temperament. It’s good to have the outlet, to be able to go home and get things straight in my head and set them down on paper. I’ve done it since early childhood. But I do envy more forceful people. Who knows, maybe they envy me too! We often admire the qualities we lack, or at least those ones that we believe we lack. Thanks for the contributions, Ashen! Broadened the discussion out beautifully. Love the image of layers and layers – it does feel like that, when I’m writing well, or reading something well-written.

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