In Boston, Lilt Of the Caribbean

Poet-playwright Derek Walcott, teaching far from home, never loses touch with his origins

`THE only thing that holds the world together is theater," Derek Walcott says. Since winning the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature, this poet and playwright has dedicated himself to supporting and expanding the global cohesiveness of theater and the arts in general.

Born on the small Caribbean island of St. Lucia in the West Indies, Mr. Walcott teaches literature and creative writing at Boston University here.

He plans to use part of his million-dollar Nobel Prize award to establish an international center for the arts on Rat Island, three acres of land off the northwest coast of St. Lucia.

Although the idea is still taking shape, Walcott envisions a retreat for people working in all branches of the arts.

In St. Lucia, the weather is warm and welcoming year-round. But Walcott's center would operate on a "four-season schedule," including the seasons of writing, music, dance, and visual arts.

"I don't want to run another kind of writers' colony or summer school," he says. "I don't want a detention camp where you can only write, and you're not supposed to talk to people."

Instead, small groups of artists will come together to work and share ideas. Poets Joseph Brodsky and Seamus Heaney have already agreed to run workshops on the island. Boston University is supporting the project.

"The island would be there for people to work in whatever method they like," Walcott says. "It will be entirely up to individuals what they want to do. It doesn't have to be related or Caribbean-based. But the international aspect of it is very important."

WALCOTT'S own work is a blend of Caribbean, English, and African influences. Whether writing from Boston or the islands, Walcott's subject is his native Caribbean. "The nostalgia increases in proportion to the distance," he says.

Tall and lanky, Walcott is serious about his work but lighthearted about life and himself. His self-deprecating humor regularly breaks through the intensity of his focus.

Walcott has published nearly 20 collections of poetry and plays. His play "Dream on Monkey Mountain" won an Obie Award in 1971. The writer's latest poetic work is "Omeros" (1990), a 325-page poem that weaves together classical themes and Caribbean folkways.

Although best known in the United States for his poetry, Walcott thrives on playwriting. His version of Homer's "Odyssey" will open at London's Royal Shakespeare Company in June.

"I am still working in verse [when writing plays]," he says. "You're not abandoning one form for another. They're cooperating with each other."

Playwriting for Walcott simply provides a larger audience for his poetry. "You feel happier when you're writing a play because you're getting a lot of people involved in it," he says. "You write at the same pitch, and you're not writing about yourself. You're writing about 10 or 12 characters, each of whom has his own life. So that's much more challenging and exciting than your miserable little existence."

This poet spurns the notion of an aloof writer separate from the world. "People think of the poet as being somebody by themselves, up there clutching their brows," he says.

Although few poets work in the theater, Walcott views playwriting as the perfect antidote to isolationism and egotism. "The fact that you're working in the theater keeps the poetry less hermetic and less private," he says.

AS an outsider living and writing in the United States, Walcott has some incisive perspectives on American theater and society. "You have more money, and that makes a lot of difference," he says of American theater. "But you have other problems that we don't have in the Caribbean."

Race issues, for example. Americans are "maniacal" about race, Walcott says. "In the Caribbean, it's of no consequence who the artist is.... Of course, people write about the background they come from or their ancestry, but we don't make that Ellis Island distinction about what kind of writer someone is."

The explanation for this difference isn't simply that blacks are in the majority in the Caribbean, Walcott argues.

"It really has to do with the question of survival and temperament in the Caribbean," he says. "These are small countries, and you live together. It's like being on a boat. If you start unbalancing the boat, everybody is going to go overboard."

Walcott recently directed one of his plays at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. "All the actors were white but the play involved black characters. It just proved that it really doesn't matter what color an actor is if you can convey the same thing," he says. "The content of what they were saying told the audience what color the characters were. The idea is stronger than the complexion. That's what theater is about."

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