Friday, March 14, 2008

Catching Up on the Blog 3: Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott read in Just Buffalo's Babel series last night. About 750 showed up to hear it. During the day I took him and his wife Sigrid out for lunch at the aptly named "muse," the in-house restaurant at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

The two of them are pleasant pair of polar opposites. She is quite warm and outgoing, while he is quiet, introspective, with a rather mischievous sense of humor. When I told the waitress I'd take water with my meal, he told me (jokingly) he thought people who ordered water at lunch were very "affected." I asked what we were trying to affect, to which he replied, "simplicity, honesty, wholesomeness." We spent much of the meal parsing Geraldine Ferraro's comments about Barack Obama. We then took a stroll through the permanent collection. Sigrid spent most of her time looking at Clyford Sill and Mark Rothko. He apparently is not a big fan of abstract expressionism nor of Milton Avery (see picture), but quite enjoyed looking at a pointilist effort by Pisarro.

At the event, I announced next year's line-up of writers to the assembled crowd. When I announced the first name, Chinua Achebe, I woman on the left half of the room shrieked with joy. When I announced Michael Ondaatje, someone on the other side of the room did the same. When I mentioned Marjane Satrapi, the crowd went quiet, until I mentioned "Persepolis'" Oscar nomination, which inspired hundreds of heads to nod in recognition. When I said, Isabel Allende, the whole crowd burst into applause. Hopefully that will translate into lots of subscriptions for next season!

After I introduced him, Walcott read from his Selected Poems. He's a great reader -- deep voice, not too performative, but with a great ability to use his voice to deepen the resonances of his poems' already impeccable rhythms. He didn't talk very much between poems, but was generally very witty and engaging when he did. Afterward, I joined him onstage to ask questions from the audience and to ask a few of my own. It went pretty well, but I ran out of questions and didn't have a good one ready to bring it on home, so it fizzled a bit at the end. The audience didn't seem to mind though, leaping to their feet to give him a standing ovation.

Afterward, we went back to his hotel for some food and conversation. A woman name Shirla from Trinidad, who had traveled from Wales (UK) for the reading, joined us, as did Carine Mardorossian and Lori. I drove them to the airport this morning -- Walcott generously asked for a copy of my book, which I quickly detoured home to provide him with. On the road, we got a few more laughs about the ridiculousness of Ferraro's comments before I left them at the airport.

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