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 and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015

TV

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
Arts and Entertainment
The episode saw the surprise return of shifty caravan owner Susan Wright, played by a Pauline Quirke (ITV)

Review: Broadchurch

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore