Sunday, March 31, 2013

On Derek Walcott and Inspiration

I went to see Derek Walcott read.

He came to my alma mater, and it was a nice excuse to get out of work for a day (because everything in the world I want to do typically happens within my working hours).  I confess, I was largely unfamiliar with his work, though that was all right; he read from his most recent book, White Egrets.

I was interested to learn, during the introductory speeches, that Mr. Walcott actually had something of a long relationship with Hartwick College. He'd written a play, Ghost Dance, for the Cardboard Alley Players, directed in 1989 by Duncan Smith, who was still in the theater department at the time of my attendance. I wasn't a theater person, not really; I auditioned for things, I knew a lot of theater people, I belonged to CAP freshman and sophomore years (interestingly, the slogan on our t-shirts was "Get off your high horse and ride the pony"). Rubbing shoulders with fame and all that (history? Giants?)

I took notes through the reading, because I thought I'd be a good doobie and blog about it. Of course a number of weeks has passed, and of course my notes are nearly incomprehensible. I got down something of a "set list", but since he read only from White Egrets, it's unnecessary to relate here. It was my first real poetry reading, and it was interesting for a number of reasons. The college president, newly elected a couple of years ago, gave a speech that could literally have preceded any "creative" visitor. One of my former writing professors gave a considerably better one, having (one assumes) previously interacted with Mr. Walcott.

When Mr. Walcott read, he did so in a straightforward manner. He paged through to the poems he was going to use, did not patter in between, and engaged in no theatrics. He made the occasional wry comment; "As you get older, you write more elegies." When he came upon yet another, he said "Oh, here we go." It was a situation in which most of the room seemed not to know if it was permissible to laugh. I did.

There was a short question session before they let him off the stage. One professor I did not take classes with went on about his use of light in his poems, and asked about painters he admired. One student said that she was interested in poetry again, because of him. One student asked where he got his inspiration, which gave me pause.

We're in the room with a Nobel prize winner, having just heard scraps of wonderment from his lips, and you're asking him about inspiration?

I wonder if some people think inspiration is a rare beast, the white whale that we Ahab writers quest after across the years, braving storm tossed seas and certain death in order to fling that harpoon and yes, finally find flesh. I wonder if some people are enamored with the idea of writing, but don't much write themselves, and hold dear to their breast the idea "If only I had the inspiration." I wonder if some people never write at all, only read, and wonder at these bright things writers put on the page, these bits of sea glass that we cannot recreate, only pick up and wonder at in the sun. I say all of this not to make fun, but in wonderment of my own.

Mr. Walcott's answer was the beauty around him. He came from Saint Lucia, a beautiful place, still a young place finding its voice, and how such a thing was very fulfilling.

One of the last questions was a young man, asking Mr. Walcott's advice to young writers. In another moment of muted laughter, Derek Walcott deadpanned "Don't do it." After we quieted, he said "No, I don't mean that. The elation you feel, you still have it. But you should learn humility. Don't be arrogant, or suicidal."

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