By Ewart Rouse
I first met Derek Walcott, who died on March 20, in the late 1960s when we both worked as reporters at the Trinidad Guardian and the Trinidad Evening News in my native Trinidad.
Walcott already was an established poet and playwright from St. Lucia. He had migrated to Trinidad, one of the larger Caribbean islands, because it offered him greater opportunity to practice his craft.
The Guardian and the Evening News were owned by the same publisher, and they shared stories and newsrooms.
One event shortly after our first meeting stands out: a concert by the Mighty Sparrow, the island's leading calypsonian. Sparrow had been eclipsed by younger singers and the show at Queen's Hall, the island's premier concert hall, was supposed to be his attempt at a "comeback."
My review was to appear first, in the morning Guardian, and Walcott's in the Evening News, hours later. I gave the concert a five-star review, and remember being scared stiff that Walcott would say the opposite. He was an authority on such things, and I knew I would never live it down. I remember my relief when he, writing very poetically, also gave the concert five stars.
Walcott is best known as a poet. But in addition to his reporting for the Guardian and the Evening News, I remember Walcott as a major force at the Little Carib Theatre, and the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, in Trinidad. He produced and directed the plays of local playwrights, as well as his own The Dream On Monkey Mountain and other early plays.
Today, a half a century later, I vividly remember Walcott strolling down the aisles of those theaters during rehearsals, calling out in his deep, resonant voice to the actors on stage, "Louder! Louder! I can't hear you!"
I remember Walcott, copy of a play in hand, as a prompter on stage behind the curtains, feeding actors their lines when they faltered on opening nights.
Those memories came to the fore when I read of his collaboration with Paul Simon in the 1998 Broadway musical The Capeman, and his founding of the playwright's theater at Boston University, where he had taught poetry and playwriting for almost three decades.
The memories also came flooding back to me when I read of his feud with another celebrated Trinidad author, V.S. Naipaul, a feud that began with Walcott mocking Naipaul as a mongoose in one of his poems. We had both interviewed Naipaul for the Guardian - Walcott in 1965 and I three years later. Both interviews were reprinted in the book Conversations with V.S. Naipaul.
The two men, both winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, couldn't have been more different. While Naipaul was viewed by his Caribbean critics as a writer who denigrated his fellow West Indians, Walcott celebrated his roots, his region of the world, and his ethnicity. It was what made him beloved in the Caribbean.
I remembered Walcott more recently after getting a call from a longtime friend, former Associated Press reporter Tom Baldwin. He said one of his daughters was planning a trip to St. Lucia. She wanted to know if I knew anyone on the island with whom she could hobnob. When I mentioned that the island's best-known product, Walcott, was a former newspaper colleague, she responded, "How neat!"
Turned out that in college she had studied Omeros, the epic Walcott poem that cemented his place in world literature.
It's a small world.