Walcott finally wins his poetry professorship

Nobel laureate chosen by Essex University after smear campaign cost him Oxford job
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The Independent Culture

A Nobel laureate has been named professor of poetry at Essex University after he was forced to pull out of the race for a similar post at Oxford following a smear campaign against him.

Derek Walcott, the internationally acclaimed Caribbean poet, playwright, writer and artist who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992, will give a series of lectures and workshops at the university's campus in Colchester.

In May, he withdrew his candidacy for the Oxford poetry professorship when details of two sexual harassment claims made against him became a dominant theme of the campaign.

Academics and graduates eligible to vote in the election were anonymously sent a lurid dossier accusing Walcott of being a sex pest. It recounted a sexual harassment claim made against Walcott, 79, when he taught at Harvard in the 1980s. Another harassment allegation against the poet dating from 1996 in Boston also re-emerged.

The Oxford election descended into farce when the eventual winner, Ruth Padel, was forced to quit nine days later when she was implicated in the smear campaign.

Professor Walcott, who is often decribed as the greatest West Indian writer and intellectual, divides his time between St Lucia and New York and does not often travel to the UK. He will arrive in April for student workshops and a public reading at Essex University, which gave him an honorary degree in September 2008.

The partnership may seem an unlikely one, but the university – which was known in the 1960s for protests by radical left-wing students – is home to experts on Walcott's work and other Caribbean literature.

He said yesterday: "I am delighted to be professor of poetry at the University of Essex. When I was awarded my honorary doctorate last year I was impressed by the warm atmosphere and intellectual drive of the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies, which is home to formidable scholars and committed Caribbeanists.

"While I was there, I also had the opportunity to meet talented and enthusiastic students, and I am really looking forward to working with this cohort of emerging writers."

Dr Maria Cristina Fumagalli, a senior lecturer in the literature faculty at Essex, said: "This is an incredible opportunity not only for our students, but also for the general public. Very rarely do people get the chance to learn directly from a writer of this calibre."

The novelist Marina Warner, an Essex professor and personal friend of Walcott's who had backed him for the Oxford post, said: "[He] is a major poet whose writings include drama, essays, lyric and epic poetry. It is a marvellous and exciting boon that he is coming to us as professor of poetry.

"Our strong tradition of research and teaching in creative writing, as well as in the literature of the Caribbean, is growing vigorously, and Derek Walcott's presence will be an added inspiration."

Professor Walcott, a father of three, is a national hero in his native St Lucia and has a square named after him in his home town. His fans include Barack Obama, who was photographed clutching a book of Walcott poems three days after winning the presidential election.

Oxford is still waiting to fill its poetry post, and has changed to its voting system to prevent a repeat of this year's election chaos.