Posts Tagged ‘Derek Walcott’

Melissa Green and the long climb back from darkness

Sunday, April 30th, 2017
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green-melissaPoet Melissa Green has wrestled with mental illness all her life (we’ve written about her here and here). As a child, she knew she wanted to write poetry, but every two years she was felled by depression. Four years ago, the Massachusetts writer had a dozen shock treatments. The result was catastrophic: the woman whose poetry had entranced Nobel poets Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott could no longer read. She had no memory of having written anything, and said her “ziggurats of books meant no more to me than a pile of two-by-fours.” This is the story of her long climb back. She’s since published Magpiety: New and Selected Poems (2015), and last December a critical volume called Soundings: On the Poetry of Melissa Green was published about her (and Humble Moi has a short piece in it, too).

Melissa’s friend, Melissa Shook, a Boston artist and documentary videographer, made a short video about what she described as “my battle to find language again after a series of shock treatments destroyed my attachment to it, how as artists we try to negotiate Keats’ ‘negative capability’ when the press to be a maker is so strong.”

Conversation with Melissa Green is below.  She added: “I thank you from the bottom of my heart, for your caring friendships, and for taking the time to watch this, so important to me.” She’s not the only one suffering from mental illness. I think a lot of writers, poets, and ordinary people who have walked along the same difficult path will welcome this kindred spirit, and her courageous journey.

Conversation with Melissa Green from Melissa Shook on Vimeo.

“A Titan”: Caribbean poet Derek Walcott’s last voyage, 1930-2017

Friday, March 17th, 2017
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Shakespearean energy and scale

A few weeks ago, when I met Robert Pinsky for a quick coffee on San Francisco’s North Beach, he passed on the sad news that Nobel poet Derek Walcott wasn’t doing well, and to expect the bad news soon. And so I did, all the more when a Facebook friend, in touch with Walcott’s daughter, said the poet had slipped into a coma some days ago. He died today at 87.

The official cause of death has not been cited, but I’m pretty certain the poet died in the place, if not the way, he would have wished: on his native St. Lucia in the Caribbean, the sea that was the lifelong inspiration for his poems and plays. “I go back to St. Lucia and the exhilaration I feel is not simply the exhilaration of homecoming and of nostalgia,” he once said. “It is almost an irritation of feeling: Well, you never got it right. Now you have another chance. Maybe you can try and look harder.

He was born on the island, and attended the newly established University College of the West Indies in Jamaica. After graduating in 1953 he moved to Trinidad. He was awarded the Nobel in 1992. He is best remembered for his epic poem Omeros. The Caribbean’s brutal colonial history, as well as the native beauty of these islands, were his themes.

“He’s a titan.” That was from Garrett Hongo, another islander from another ocean, the Pacific: a Japanese-American poet from Hawaii. He continued:  “I’m weeping quietly and slowly. I cannot even begin to think of all the ways he has inspired me at different times in my life since I was a boy in an audience of a theater weeping at hearing his words in the dark, stage rain glittering down on the floorboards in front of me.”

“He was kind and encouraging to me when I was starting out. And he once called out my name as I stood in an autograph line, waiting with others. He said something to me I will never forget.” What did he say? “It was praise, I’ll just say that.”

garrett-hongo

Another island poet remembers.

Garrett had hoped to travel to St. Lucia in February for his birthday but was told he was ill and would not be seeing any visitors this year. He thought to present the essay that was a tribute to him, which had been presented at the Folk Center on St. Lucia. It didn’t happen. “He mana’o he aloha,” [I have a feeling of love] he said, in tribute.

According to NPR, when Walcott was teaching at Boston University 1984, he said that a book-length poem like Midsummer was a natural extension of the language all around him. “You would get some fantastic syntactical phenomena,” he said in an interview, “You would hear people talking in Barbados in the exact melody as a minor character in Shakespeare. Because here you have a thing that was not immured and preserved and mummified, but a voluble language, very active, very swift, very sharp. And that is going on still in all the languages of the Caribbean. So that you didn’t make yourself a poet — you entered a situation in which there was poetry.”

More from The Guardian:

Walcott continued his project to make the western canon his own, summoning up the spirits of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Yeats and Eliot in collections that explored his position “between the Greek and African pantheon”. His decision to write mostly in standard English brought attacks from the Black Power movement in the 1970s, which Walcott answered in the voice of a mulatto sea-dog in The Star-Apple Kingdom: “I have no nation now but the imagination./ After the white man, the niggers didn’t want me/ when the power swing to their side./ The first chain my hands and apologize, ‘History’ / the next said I wasn’t black enough for their pride.” While Omeros tackled the ghost of Homer head on, relocating Achilles, Helen and Philoctetes among the island fishermen of the West Indies.

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Accepting the Nobel from King Carl Gustav

In 2012, he told The Guardian that he felt that he was still defined as a black writer in the US and the UK. “It’s a little ridiculous. The division of black theatre and white theatre still goes on, and I don’t wish to be a part of any one of those definitions. I’m a Caribbean writer.”

We’ve quoted Dana Goia, California poet laureate and former chairman of the embattled National Endowment of the Arts, a lot in the last few days. Let us do so once more. This afternoon he said: “Derek Walcott was justly celebrated as the historic figure who entered the great tradition of English-language poetry with his Caribbean identity intact, thereby both enriching and transforming the canon. It’s less known what a superb playwright Walcott was. His theatrical legacy is in every way equal to his poetry. Foremost among his dramatic achievements was his reinvention of contemporary verse drama in plays bristling with Shakespearean energy.”

I had the same thought when reviewing his verse plays, The Haitian Trilogy fifteen years ago for The San Francisco Chronicle. I wrote that Walcott was attempting to re-create West Indian history on a canvas as large and mythic as Shakespeare’s War of the Roses:

Commenting about his plays to the Caribbean Quarterly in 1968, Walcott said, “I hope that there is a moment, or there are moments, when the thing becomes a poetry on stage; and I would prefer to eventually write a play which would be a poem.”

If so, Walcott has hit the target. “The Haitian Trilogy is like the great hull of a lost ship, its crushed timber shot through with starlight. And what lies at the bottom of the seas it once sailed is the inevitability of time, the inevitability of history to crush kings and the certitude of conquerors, the inevitability of remorse for things done and undone – and, as always, the ability of gold to betray men.”

Godspeed, Mr. Walcott. Requiescat in pace.

Postscript on 3/18: Courtesy Elizabeth Amrienwe have a 52-minute podcast with Derek Walcott at Boston University, on the theme “Poetry and Politics.” Irena Grudzinska Gross moderates. It’s here.

Poet Melissa Green: Virgil would still be proud

Sunday, November 16th, 2014
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Father, I’m drowsy in April’s humming sun and think
A girl the color of autumn kneels at the Squanicook’s bank,
Who is the river’s daughter, dressed in driven skins,
Who knows a cedar wind at Nissequassick brings
The school of alewife, herring, yellow perch ashore.

– from the Squanicook Eclogues

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Then…

In 1991, Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky was asked what American poets he admired. Of the two or three he shortlisted, he mentioned Melissa Green for “tremendous intensity and tremendous intelligence.” He continued: “In the case of Ms. Green, I think it’s a tremendous facility. She’s a tremendous rhymer. There’s a collection of hers called Squanicook Eclogues, wonderful eclogues, I think. Virgil would be proud of those. Tremendous rhyming, tremendous texture.”

Then she disappeared. Her 1987 Squanicook Eclogues, which received awards from the Poetry Society of America and the Academy of American Poets, looked to be a solo product of a brilliant woman. Then, a decade later, a memoir of mental illness, Color Is the Suffering of Light, then, a decade after that, another collection of poems, Fifty-Two (try finding it anywhere, just try), and now, the next installment of her memoirs, The Linen Way, excerpted in the current Parnassus.

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… and now.

For my money, my favorite passage is a description of her Boston University class with Nobel poet Derek Walcott, which, in fact, brings back memories of his Russian friend’s classes. Walcott made his students memorize “Lycidas” – a suggestion that was met with “tittering and mumbled derision – most of the students seemed to resent having to memorize such a long, boring poem.” Here’s a sample of Walcott’s classroom style:

“His first class was held at 236 Bay State Road, in a shabby second-floor room with an unvarnished floor, empty bookshelves, and a dozen wooden armchairs crowded into it. Though bleak, this was also the room where Robert Lowell had taught Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and George Starbuck. Walcott walked in wearing a casual sport coat, without books or papers, and sat down. Cordially, he spoke about how the workshop was going to be run. He wanted us to read a lot, and we would look at our own poems only part of the time. He then gave us five minutes to write down the names of ten of our favorite poems. I quickly made a list: the Iliad, the Odyssey, ‘The Seafarer,’ DanteInferno [why not the Purgatorio? or Paradiso? – ED.], Paradise Lost, all of Shakespeare‘s sonnets, all of Donne, Herbert, Keats, John Clare, and Robert Browning. Finally, I added ‘The Schooner Flight.'”

linenway“When I lifted my head, the other students were looking puzzled, chewing the ends of their pens in some combination of aggravation and disbelief. Walcott went around the room and asked us to read our lists aloud. Most of the students said nothing – it seemed they couldn’t call to mind a single poem. When Walcott came to me, my heart sank into my shoes. By naming ‘The Schooner Flight’ among my favorite poems, I would look like the biggest kiss-up ever born. I read my list, and when I looked up I saw that a line had been drawn in the sand between me and the other students.

“On the occasion of our first student-teacher conference, Walcott sat behind a large, empty desk. When I entered the room he looked me up and down with an exaggerated leer, which seemed more of a friendly joke than an insult. I sat and handed him my poems, my heart thumping so loudly I thought he could surely hear it. He set the poems aside and smiled at me, his sea-green eyes bright and congenial.

‘What can I do for you?’ he asked.

I cleared my throat and blurted out, surprising myself, ‘I want you to teach me everything you know.’

His eyes widened, and he grinned. ‘You’re hungry, aren’t you, Emily?” he said. “Or should I call you Sylvia?'”

squanicook“Illness married me,” she later wrote. Soon after the publication of her first collection – “I could say ‘my head spun,’ but the world also spun around me; my sense of self became frangible, and I felt my mind and body crumble. I spent the next eleven months in the locked ward of a psychiatric hospital, shattered and suicidal. I remember the sound of the long key chains the staff all wore, clinking and turning locks.”

Her memories of her friendship with Joseph Brodsky, who befriended her during the difficult years, shows a more tender, caring side of the exiled poet: “As a lifelong insomniac, I am often awake in the middle of the night, and Joseph sometimes called at an ungodly hour to read an English-language poem he’d just written. … At other times, he called just to talk. He would ask what I was doing or reading or working on, and I would find myself sitting on the kitchen floor, twisting the telephone cord, chain-smoking, and talking into the wee hours. He never said goodbye, but rather, ‘Tender kisses on both your cheeks.’ I’d sign off just as Jimmy Durante did, but substituting the name of Joseph’s lovely cat for Mrs. Calabash: ‘Good night, Mississippi, wherever you are!'”

An interview with her at Rosa Mira Books here. Hear her read her poems at the Ottoman Estate here. And about twenty of her poems over at Agni here.

I’ve already ordered a copy of Squanicook Eclogues. And if anyone knows where I can find a copy of Fifty-Two, please drop a line. Meanwhile, I’ve a sudden urge to memorize “Lycidas.” All of it.

Joseph Brodsky: “If we have all this here, why do we need Europe?”

Monday, May 23rd, 2011
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The city where Adam Mickiewicz taught secondary school. (Photo: C. Haven)

“If we have all this here, why do we need Europe?”  That’s what Joseph Brodsky reportedly said in 1966 when he surveyed not Rome, not Athens, but humble Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city.

The words come from Ramūnas Katilius, fils, quoting his father, Ramūnas Katilius, père, from this vantage point overlooking the city.  The elder Romas, a physicist, was one of the poet’s greatest chums, sometimes seeing the poet several times a day when they were in Leningrad.  Romas was in the photos of Joseph Brodsky departure from the Soviet Union forever in 1972.

Both Romas and Algirdas Avižienis, professor emeritus at director of the Czesław Miłosz Birthplace Foundation, hosted my visit to Miłosz’s Issa Valley.  I’ve just returned to Poland.

While much of my discussion with Romas was about his friend, Tomas Venclova, the physicist was interested when I told him that I had been a student of Joseph’s (he called me part of “the family”) – and hence our discussion returned to his memories of Leningrad, and J.B.’s time in Lithuania. There’s even a plaque in downtown Vilnius where the Russian Nobel poet stayed.

Admittedly, the quote I have cited above is secondhand, but it’s suggestive of how much the poet liked Lithuania. You could guess that, perhaps, from his poem “Lithuanian Divertissement.”

Ramūnas Katilius, Joseph Brodsky, Tomas Venclova in 1972 (Photo by Marija Etkind from the archive of Ramūnas Katilius and Elė Katilienė)

This remote and stunning little city was the temporary capital of Lithuania, when the Polish army occupied Vilnius in 1920.  The Nazis occupied it during the war, of course, and it was a Soviet Socialist Republic at the time Joseph Brodsky visited.

It’s also very early evidence, before he had seen Venice, Paris, or New York, of his early partiality of the cozy places on the outskirts of empire.  He was later to defend Russia’s historic hegemony in an acrimonious exchange with Miłosz, Derek Walcott and Susan Sontag, as described in Irena Grudzińska Gross‘s Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets.

I’m in Poland right now, and obviously don’t have access to Irena’s book or anything else in my library, but a Keith Gessen’s piece in today’s New Yorker (with a dynamite photo by Irving Penn) makes the same point:

Poetry was immortal, he argued: “That which is being created today in Russian or English, for example, secures the existence of these languages over the course of the next millennium.” But this wasn’t true, as Brodsky eventually acknowledged in a great and furious late poem, “On Ukrainian Independence,” in which he berated the independence-minded Ukrainians for casting aside the Russian tongue. “So go with God, you swift cossacks, you hetmans, you prison guards,” it says, and concludes:


Just remember, when it’s time for you, too, to die, you bravehearts,
as you scratch at your mattress and visibly suffer, you’ll forget
the flatus of Taras, and whisper the verses of Alexander.

Alexander Pushkin, that is. Despite itself, the poem is an anguished admission that a Russian state and Russian-speaking subjects are still vital to the project of Russian poetry.

Now.  Here’s an interesting bit about the photo above.  See the white double spires?  That’s the Jesuit church.  Now take a look at the rather nondescript yellowish building in front of it.  That’s where Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish language’s ur-poet (and, like Czesław Miłosz, he was born in Lithuania) taught at secondary school to pay off his university tuition  at the Jesuit’s Vilnius University.

Note to self:  Must read Mickiewicz when I get back to California.  Anyone know the best translations?

The Poles throw a party: postcard from Kraków

Monday, May 9th, 2011
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Jagiellonian University's Collegium Novum

When the Poles throw a party – they don’t settle for half-measures.  And what better occasion than the Czesław Miłosz centenary?  This is easily the most lavish, labor-intensive, high-class shindig of its kind I’ve ever attended.

We’re not just talking about the obvious:  swag bags with books and DVDs; Miłosz pencils, pens, and t-shirts; Miłosz’s signature on the dinner napkins, and just about everywhere else.  It’s not only the stunning setting at Jagiellonian University, one of the oldest universities in Europe.

Collegium Novum's Assembly Room

Everyone is here:  Derek Walcott, Bei Dao, Thomas Venclova, Adonis, Natalia Gorbanevskaya, and Adam Michnik are among the luminaries – but only among. There are many more.

Queen Jadwiga's portrait watches over us

Though the Book Haven has been relatively silent lately, obviously I have not been idly eating bonbons.  Or at least, not only. This conference at the university’s Collegium Novum and the “Miłosz Pavilion” has pretty much been running me ragged – and the Milosz365 festival continues into the weekend and next week.

And organizers Jerzy Illg, publisher of Znak, and Aleksander Fiut, Miłosz scholar, have bags under their eyes …  Well, they’re not the only ones.

Consider this a down payment.  More later.

Postscript on 5/14:  Walcott’s a no-show, nobody knows why, though a pleasant, vague letter was read by Jerzy Illg at one of the events.  I understand this is not the first time Walcott has bailed.

“Marry your heart to your right hand”

Thursday, August 12th, 2010
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I attended last night’s reading of Omeros at Stanford Summer Theater. If this passage doesn’t describe the life of a writer, what does?

At the corner of Bridge
Street, we saw the liner as white as a mirage,
its hull bright as paper, preening with privilege.

“Measure the days you have left, do just that labour
that marries your heart to your right hand: simplify
your life to one emblem, a sail leaving harbour

and sail coming in. All corruption will cry
to be taken aboard. Fame is that white liner
at the end of your street, a city to itself.”

— Derek Walcott, Omeros

Walcott to Europe: “What is the meaning of your empires?”

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010
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Rush Rehm‘s kind comment on yesterday’s post, “From Troy to the Caribbean: Homer onstage,” returned me to another passage from Irena Grudzińska Gross‘s Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets.  The passage occurs after an acrimonious confronation between Miłosz, Brodsky, and Susan Sontag on the nature of empire.  Walcott “rejects linear thinking, the straight line linking today to the past. Because the straight line, in the words of Peter Viereck, ‘is the longest distance between two points. And the bloodiest.'”  She continues:

Walcott "rejects linear thinking"

“During the conference in which Miłosz debated Brodsky on the matter of Central Europe, Walcott also spoke.  He had been hesitating, he began, before speaking: ‘I’ve a very great difficulty here between friendship and ideology. And I think that’s a penalty of ideology.’ This conflict causes in him ‘flashes of rage and an alternation between that and nausea. … The imperial voices dominates this conference and its range increases with every representation by European tribe, by European nation. This is not merely a historical posture of ancestry and tradition which goes under the general name of “civilization.” I am talking about tone … about a linear concept of progress and experiment in literature which I find no different from the presumptions of the priest and the conquistador. You writers of Europe continue that tone, that responsibility of carrying the banner and the cross or the book.  I have found no breadth, no expanse of imagination and, even at the risk of sounding corny, no evangelical vision.  What is the meaning of your empires? To hear all this from contemporary writers is only to deepen my conviction that for all its wars, its museums, its literatures, its revolutions, the provinciality of Europe and of Russia increases. Writers are not inheritors of history.'”


From Troy to the Caribbean: Homer onstage

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010
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Callender and Donnie Hill (Photo: Stefanie Okuda)

Last year, during the Stanford Summer Theater’s Electra by Sophocles, one performance stood out remarkably in the mixed bag of university theater. L. Peter Callender played a role that might have been negligible for a less accomplished performer.  The faithful family retainer, in this case a tutor, is a staple in Greek tragedy, but Callender infused it with dignity and distinction.

I’m not the only one who noticed him last year: A San Francisco Chronicle review praised his performance in Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa!, a play that some consider too persistently didactic, although in this production “one dedicated teacher’s tragedy is a fierce reminder of the complexity of trying to right social wrongs.  L. Peter Callender embodies that complexity with every paternalistic utterance and sidelong glance he casts as the prematurely aging black teacher,” Robert Hurwitt wrote.

He’s back.  I sat in on some of the rehearsals for a few weeks ago for the Stanford Summer Theater’s Homeric cycle, which showcases The Wanderings of Odysseus, an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, opening Thursday night.  It was the second year of the Greeks, but not for Callender, who has performed Greek tragedy for years, everywhere from his alma mater (Julliard) to Berkeley Rep.

“It’s one of my favorite types of theater when it’s done well,” he told me later by phone, “because of the language, because of the history, the mythology, the depth of character and the depth of passion.”

But he admitted, “I’m finding a lot of this very difficult to memorize.”

With Courtney Walsh (Photo: Stefanie Okuda)

No surprise.  His work with Shakespeare (he’s logged in a couple dozen Shakespeare roles in the California Shakespeare Theater alone) has given him a feel for the iambic beat of the Bard’s blank verse — the beat that mimics the rhythms of the heart.  Oliver Taplin’s translation of The Odyssey, which Rehm directed for the Mark Taper Forum in 1992 at the Getty Museum, uses a loose Anglo-Saxon prosody – a quicker four-beat line that’s dependent on a lot of alliteration and a big caesura in the middle of the line (think of Seamus Heaney’s bestselling Beowulf.) It’s a bit of a rhythmic (and therefore psychological) shakeup.

During the rehearsals, Callender joined Rush Rehm in making suggestions for the fine detail work of the challenging production. ”This text is not a play but a poem, it’s a very difficult task. Everyone has to be on the same page at the same time,” he said.

His self-confidence in the director’s chair isn’t a surprise, either:  he’s the founding director of San Francisco’s African American Shakespeare Company, launched in 1994 to “create an opportunity and a venue for actors of color to hone their skills and talent in mastering some of the world’s greatest classical roles; and to unlock the realm of classic theatre to a diverse audience who have been alienated from discovering these time-favored works in a style that reaches, speaks, and embraces their cultural aesthetic and identity.”

The “L.” at the front of his name was a sort of augury for things to come:  It stands for “Lear.”  (In answer the inevitable follow-up question, he replies, “I don’t know what my parents were thinking.”)

Walcott

The Trinidad-born actor will probably excel also at the August 10 and 11 reading of Derek Walcott’s Omeros – which takes place in the poet’s native Saint Lucia.  It will return Callender to blank verse, as well as combining his love of the Greeks and his Caribbean heritage.  I was recently reading Irena Grudzińska Grosss comments on the Nobel poet:

Instead of history, which is degrading and calls for revenge, Walcott proposes a narrative, or a myth, which, because of its continuous present, opens time, making the new world equal to the old one.  His long poem Omeros show that the world of the Caribbean islands is as epic as Greece, because it contains a journey, a return to the native island, the fear of ancestors, gods.