Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Yes, I Knew Derek Walcott

Poet Derek Walcott is in the news, the NYT reporting 30-year-old charges of sexual harassment forcing him out of a professorship at Oxford. He was the Hurst professor I studied with at Wash U. This was 1989, before his Nobel Prize.

How gruff Walcott was. Students had to go to his special visiting-professor apartment to meet with him. He answered the door reluctantly. He said some snappish thing as I walked in. I stopped, looked him in the face and said, "You're a tyrant."

He did a double take. Immediately he dropped the tyrant act, and we had a productive discussion. Later he told me my poetry was "damn good."

Normally I wouldn't have faced down Derek Walcott, except coincidentally he shares my birthday, 23 January, and I felt as if that were a key to his personality. What else I remember: his light-blue eyes. His white girlfriend. His urge to level things. I wrote a poem that made fun of a Hawaiian bar. He urged me to rewrite it, have yet more fun, and "destroy Hawaii!"Now circumstances conspire to level him. What goes around comes around.

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