Just call him Al - and call me Derek

Derek Walcott, the Nobel Prize-winning writer of the epic poem Omeros, is now working on a Broadway musical with Paul Simon. Phil Johnson encountered him at a shopping mall in St Lucia
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The Independent Culture
Looking for a Nobel Prize-winning poet in a shopping mall is a strange experience. Though Gablewoods is pretty much the only mall in St Lucia, and small as malls go, the poet is not to be found. Searching through the aisles of the supermarket and checking the duty-free sunglasses shop proves unhelpful; there's a pile of copies of Omeros waiting on a table in the bookshop, but the author isn't there. Confusingly, there's also a couple of entrances; would he be more likely to arrive at the groceries section - clearly the main hanging-out area - or via the more sedate bank end? You can't really imagine the late Samuel Beckett, say, at either, but nor could you see him collaborating with Paul Simon on a Broadway musical, which is what Derek Walcott is doing at the moment.

At last he appears, exactly on time, outside the mall's cafe. As we sit down and begin our interview, people at neighbouring tables wave greetings. Everyone seems to know him, but then St Lucia is a very small island (though it also produced another Nobel laureate, the economist Sir Arthur Lewis, in 1959) and Walcott is very famous. He's even had the main square of the capital city, Castries, named after him, although most locals persist in calling it after the previous incumbent, Columbus. Walcott is also a real charmer. At a crowded performance of his play Ti-Jean and His Brothers, presented by the Trinidad Theatre Workshop as a curtain-raiser to the annual jazz festival last month, he had given up his seat to my partner and found another for me; at the launch of the festival the next night, he was there for an exhibition of his paintings, and when I asked him for an interview, he suggested the mall.

Though he has for years divided his time between Boston, where now he teaches only the fall semester ("Can you say 'semester' easily?", he asks. "To me, it will always be 'term' "), and Trinidad, he has spent more time in St Lucia since the Nobel in 1992, and he's building a house there, perhaps as permanent base. Though he won the Nobel for his poetry, Walcott is equally celebrated, especially in the West Indies, for his plays. As a child, he and his twin brother Roderick, who now directs the Theatre Workshop of Toronto, made a toy theatre with twigs as actors at their home in Castries on the verandah, where Derek would declaim epic poems. His first play was written in 1946, when he was 16, and he has since written more than 80, directing the Trinidad Theatre Workshop - a Caribbean equivalent to Brecht's Berliner Ensemble - from 1959 to 1976, and recently reuniting himself with it after the Nobel. The collaboration with Simon isn't as unlikely as it seems; Walcott has written musicals since the first version of Ti-Jean in Trinidad in 1958, and he has worked with Galt McDermot, composer of Hair, on The Joker of Seville, O Babylon, Marie Laveau and Steel over the past 20 years.

"I met Paul through a friend," Walcott says, "and I went to his studio and became quite friendly with him. He played me The Rhythm of the Saints, which was just coming out, and dedicated a song on it to me. After some time, he asked if I would be interested in collaborating on a musical about a Puerto Rican gang in New York, but particularly about a guy called the Cape Man because he wore a nurse's cape, and another guy called the Umbrella Man. We've been working for nearly two years."

The Cape Man is intended to open on Broadway next autumn, though neither casting nor a director have been decided on. The collaboration is unusual because it's Simon as much as Walcott who is providing the words. "It was a curious way to work and it would be interesting if it ever got published as a text because the principal work, the bulk of the lyrics, is by Paul; I have stuff in there and sometimes we might work on a line together or just choose a word. It's a curious method, but when it works it's very exciting, because he's a terrific writer and his lyrics are great.

"In other experiences I've had, you write the lyrics and then the composer makes them into a song, but he's such a good writer himself - a poet, really - that he has to hear simultaneously the words and the music. There's still a lot to do on a tune, but we're getting close to it. The symmetry is there."

The Cape Man is based on an actual bank robbery in New York, committed by a Puerto Rican gang called the Vampires, and the setting moves between the island and the city. "Because it's Puerto Rico, it is Caribbean theatre in a sense," Walcott says, "but I'm not sure that's why Paul asked me. I think the rhythms are easy to understand in a generic way, but the balance has to be struck between three cultures - Puerto Rican, neo-Rican and New York. That kind of triangulation is a familiar thing to me."

The complex of cultures parallels Walcott's own background. He was raised by his headmistress mother Alix as a Methodist amid the Roman Catholic orthodoxy of St Lucia, where, while English is the public language, what most islanders actually speak is a French Creole patois. At the age of 14, he was accused in print of heresy by a Catholic priest after a poem he had written was published in The Voice of St Lucia newspaper. His education at St Mary's College, Trinidad, introduced him to Irish teachers who read Synge and Yeats, and his earliest plays and poems affected a classical style, mixing his beloved Elizabethans with the fashionable verse drama of Christopher Fry and Dylan Thomas. When he first visited New York, in 1958, on a Rockefeller Foundation grant to study theatre, he discovered Negro writers were expected to write protest plays and poems, though in the Caribbean, the question of his own "red" colour was far less settled. Evidently frightened by his experience of the city, he stayed in his hotel room and wrote the first version of Ti-Jean, splitting iambic pentameters into the rhythms of Calypso.

The play remains a key one for him. "Like any writer who gets older," he says, "you think you get better, but that's not necessarily true." Performed out of doors against the backdrop of the rain forest, the Theatre Workshop production boasted a thrilling central performance by Wendell Manwarren as the Devil. Walcott, though, is angry at the way the Trinidad government fails the workshop and its actors. Despite being, in effect, a national theatre, it receives no subsidy and is about to lose its home (only recently gained after a long, peripatetic existence) to a new library. "I'm furious at Trinidad for not realising what it has got - not in me - but in its talent. All the sacrifices made by a previous generation of actors are being repeated, and to see that happening again is just tragic. Because carnival is self-defining and spontaneous, they think the arts should be the same, but even if you look at England, at Stratford, the theatre is part of tourism. The St Lucian Tourist board realises this, but not the one in Trinidad."

Walcott's relationship with the Theatre Workshop has been a stormy one, but he's now back in the fold and is at the mall to attend a meeting with artistic director Albert Laveau and actor Stanley Marshall about further visits to St Lucia, and their dream of establishing an inter-island touring circuit. Walcott is also finding his poetry enriched by being back in St Lucia and its creole culture. "Because I'm back here, I'm understanding the language much more. It's sweeter. I don't think it's affecting my poetry linguistically, but I think my next book will be very boring, because all it will be saying is, 'This is a very nice place; it's a nice place in the morning, very nice at noon, and in the evening, it's wonderful'. But if Cezanne can paint apples over and over..."