Derek Walcott: Of poetry, prizes and post-colonialism

Derek Walcott, the winner of this year's TS Eliot prize, talks to Rob Sharp about why Britain means little to him

A summer's day at the University of Essex cannot infiltrate the gloom of the institution's Lakeside Theatre. Lit dimly from the stage, a second-row seat is occupied by one of poetry's shining lights, Derek Walcott, who fails to hide his darkened mood.

Walcott, winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature, last year attracted acclaim for his latest collection White Egrets, which won this year's TS Eliot poetry prize. Now 81, he continues to master his poetic "calling", though attracts controversy. Two years ago, his bid to become Oxford University's poetry professor was stymied by an anonymous smear campaign over a 1980s sexual-harassment allegation. He later withdrew from the race.

Walcott has made a rare foray to Britain to promote a Lakeside Theatre retelling of his 1958 play Ti-Jean and His Brothers, which tells the story of three St Lucian brothers who "leave home to seek their fortune". Walcott's familiar themes of an island idyll blighted by colonialism were re-explored, though this time the poet said he reworked the poetic dialogue to become "more conversational".

"I don't think of it as a poem, I think of it as a play, but I think of the dialogue being more immediately poetic in scansion and rhyme than anything I've done before," he says.

In person, Walcott looks younger than his age, even though he slumps in his seat. He ponders his responses carefully, mostly replying with one- or two-sentence answers before tailing off.

Before the interview his colleagues at the University of Essex, where he is poetry professor, say he refuses to discuss the Oxford row. Walcott also responds to questions over a 2008 public falling-out with VS Naipaul – in which Walcott described his fellow Nobel Laureate's work as "dead" – as "irresponsible". He regards the term "post-colonial" in reference to themes in his work as "a cliché". He is scarcely more forthcoming over the TS Eliot prize.

"I didn't think about it," he says. "I am not in England, I live in the Caribbean. So I am not hungover by prizes and awards because it does not happen very often. After a while, when the writer is mature, it doesn't really matter, not because of finances, but because of reputation. It doesn't really matter how many awards you get". Though he does admit that "it was nice to have won it".

The poet seems to be distancing himself from British life. In 1999, he said he would be "very flattered" to be offered the chance to be British poet laureate (even though giving the position to a foreigner would be something of a break from protocol). Now, he says: "I don't have anything against it, but it's not my tribe. I don't want to write poems about the royal wedding. I would have to be moved by the event. My relationship to Britain is of no consequence."

He is happier describing the work of younger Caribbean writers, such as Lorna Goodison. "There are a couple of younger writers coming through who are very solid in terms of structure," he adds. "Syntax used to be vehement. Now it is more considered. There is a new generation who is taking the craft of writing much more seriously".

Walcott is now working on two film scripts. Famously, he used to get up at 4.30am to work; now he tries to take things easy. "It used to be to smoke, not to work," he corrects. "So now I sleep late. I like to conserve what I am doing because there is a tremendous amount of waste in plays. Stuff you are not going use. That's happened to me my whole life."

Arts & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit