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Friday, 6 June 2008

DW vs VSN: addendum

Today's Caribbean Magazine programme on the BBC Caribbean Service runs an interview with Derek Walcott, in which he talks (briefly) about "The Mongoose" , his anti-Naipaul poem that has made headlines around the world (the Walcott segment starts about three and a half minutes into the audio file). At one crucial point, the sound quality is poor--as if he started speaking before the microphone was properly pointed his way--but it sounds as if Walcott is saying something like, "The poem is not very good--but it's abusive enough for what I wanted."

Of course, I could be mishearing. But I think most people who heard Walcott read "The Mongoose" at Calabash--or listened to an audio recording after the fact, or read some of the lines transcribed--must agree that, craft-wise, this is very far from Walcott at his loftiest. As a friend of mine remarked that afternoon in Treasure Beach: "It sounded like something he wrote on the back of an envelope over breakfast." The truth is, coming from an absolute master of poetic technique, "The Mongoose" does seem dashed off, at best. Discussing the Walcott-Naipaul "spat" with a friend via email earlier, I even found myself suggesting that Walcott had deliberately written a bad piece of verse, as a way of heightening the insult to Naipaul. Far-fetched?

More certainly, "The Mongoose"--and the choice comments the two writers have exchanged over the years--do fall squarely into a very Caribbean tradition of (male) public sparring. Interviewed a few days ago by the BBC, Naipaul's biographer Patrick French pointed out that Naipaul and Walcott both grew up listening to calypso, and their barbs do resemble the picong--sharp, insulting comments--traditionally traded by duelling calypsonians. Colin Channer similarly compared them to the dancehall rivals Beenie Man and Bounti Killa. There is definitely an element of performance about their rivalry, an element of theatre--with West Indian literature as their stage. (And a fortnight before Calabash, I imagined the two literary eminences in a stage performance of a different kind.)

Naipaul has thus far declined to comment on "The Mongoose", but Walcott's ire will perhaps be further stoked by the publication of the American edition of A Writer's People (lagging six months behind the British). Reviews are appearing in the US press even now. My eye was caught today by this one, written by David Rieff for the New York Times. I rather liked this passage, especially its concluding phrase:

Is there really an essentially English way of seeing and an altogether different Indian way of seeing, as Naipaul asserts in "Looking and Not Seeing: The Indian Way," the first of the book's two chapters on India, part reminiscence about his family's roots, part portrait of Gandhi? And are there also, as Naipaul suggests in pages on his native Trinidad, still other ways, one black, the other immigrant Indian? One may question Naipaul's premise, but it in no way negates that he is a very great writer. And even if, in this book, his oddly skewed and more than a little self-referential views take up too much space, his work over the past half-century entitles him to those views, especially since they may have been the fertile mistake from which his best writing has emerged.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Calabash retrospective

What happened, dear readers? There I was, two weeks ago, promising coverage of Calabash--then silence, and meanwhile the festival has come and gone. It's not that the Calabash weekend was too uneventful to write about--far from. The opposite, perhaps: there was so much going on that I never found the free minutes to sit down and blog, and then before I knew it Calabash was over and I was on my way to the Caribbean Studies Association conference in San Andres.

Luckily, some of my friends and colleagues and others did a better job. Georgia Popplewell recorded a group of Calabash housemates--myself included--discussing the events of the first day and a half, and posted an entertaining podcast over at Caribbean Free Radio. (Be warned: we'd all had a few drinks before she switched on the microphone.) The podcast also includes a short interview I did with the Jamaican writer Thomas Glave, who was the very first reader on the Calabash '08 programme, and who opened the festival with a stirring and timely denunciation of Jamaican prime minister Bruce Golding's recent homophobic comments. Look out for further CFR/Antilles podcasts incorporating interviews with Lorna Goodison and Kei Miller, both of whom read at this year's festival.

Chris Lydon of Radio Open Source was also prowling round Treasure Beach with a mike, and he too has posted a series of Calabash podcasts. The first contains, almost in its entirety, Derek Walcott's Saturday afternoon interview and reading--the Calabash headline-stealer, thanks to the final poem Walcott read, a vitriolic attack on V.S. Naipaul called "The Mongoose". In Chris's second and third Calabash podcasts, he interviews a range of writers, Jamaican and foreign, about their work and their perspectives on the political situation in the United States.

The poet Kwame Dawes--one of the Calabash triumvirate, along with Colin Channer and Justine Henzell--returned to Harriet, the Poetry Foundation blog, to give his own inside perspective on the festival, in four installments: one, two, three, four. His take on the Walcott event--it was Dawes himself who interviewed Walcott on stage--is especially interesting. In another post, Dawes writes:

I have now learned what I suspected would happen after Walcott’s scathing poem about V.S. Naipaul. That it was a headline stealer, that the scurrying around taking place after the reading and interview, and the gathering of folks with their laptops around the almond tree shaded lobby of Jake’s which is one of only two wired areas of the resort compound, meant that reporters were sending dispatches to the Jamaican papers and the international papers about this. Colin, Justine and I smile wryly at this. Calabash will be making headlines this year and this thanks for Walcott’s poems.

And that's exactly what happened. The highlight of Calabash '08 for me was the Sunday afternoon reading in which, in an spine-tingling crescendo, the poets Aracelis Girmay, Jackie Kay, and Kei Miller one after the other galvanised the massive crowd under the big tent, raising pores and dampening eyes. But it's Walcott's "Mongoose" that's stolen the world's attention thus far, with reports appearing in the UK Observer, the Telegraph, and the New Statesman. Your Antilles blogger was even asked to write about the Walcott-Naipaul rivalry for the UK Guardian's books blog--where I tried to hint that readers might profit from searching out some of the other writers (eg Girmay, Kay, and Miller) whose readings made this year's Calabash such a delight.

In fact, it was the Jamaican writers in this year's festival--Glave, Goodison, and Miller, but also Erna Brodber amd Margaret Cezair-Thompson--who I most enjoyed seeing and hearing. There was a specially joyful rapport between them and their huge home audience, a current of language and love that flowed back and forth through the Calabash tent, that energised the whole weekend down in Treasure Beach. I've been to three Calabashes now, and by far I enjoyed this one the most. I've even, dear readers, booked my place for next year. Perhaps at Calabash '09 Antilles coverage will be a little more timely.