Remembering Derek Walcott

The death on March 17, 2017 of Derek Walcott surfaced memories of his visit to New Orleans in the spring of 2002 with his wife, Fay. Major Jackson, a young poet friend then teaching at Xavier University, now at the University of Vermont and poetry editor of the Harvard Review, asked if Faulkner House Books would, with Xavier, cosponsor Walcott’s visit to New Orleans. We did and on April 15, with a large gathering of readers and admirers we celebrated the life and work of the Nobel Laureate from Castries, St. Lucia, West Indies.

Following his comments on how pleased he was to be in our city, Walcott read a few of his poems, answered several questions, signed books, and mingled comfortably and cheerfully with the awed crowd. Rosemary and I hosted a dinner at a French Quarter restaurant for the Walcotts, Major Jackson, and a few local poets and writers. We were an animated group until Derek asked, “Who here has read James Joyce’s Ulysses?” Our responses were either unintelligible mumblings or complete silence. He smiled and in consolation allowed that our replies were typical of what he heard from other groups.

We should have anticipated the question. Walcott was a classicist. He certainly admired Homer. His book-long poem, Omeros, is a contemporary re-telling of the Odyssey. He also wrote a play entitled Ulysses.

To commemorate the evening the bookstore published 100 letterpress broadsides of a Derek Walcott poem from his book The Bounty. Carolyn Schleh, a local artist, designed, printed, numbered and signed each one. My apprehension about whether Derek would also sign them was quickly dispelled. He was quite pleased with the broadside; he immediately sat at my desk and neatly signed each one as I handed it to him. When we finished, he gave me one of his cards, which I still have, and asked that I send the first ten broadsides to him at his Greenwich address in New York City. Most of the remaining broadsides were sold that evening. Number 64 is framed and hangs prominently next to the poetry cases in the bookstore. Very few are left.

Another Walcott connection occurred a few years later. His publisher, Robert Giroux, donated most of his books and papers to Loyola University in New Orleans. I was asked to appraise the gift; a tedious but pleasurable task. Included were first editions of Derek Walcott’s books, all warmly inscribed to Bob Giroux. More exciting were the letters – real letters – they wrote to each other. To see, to hold, and to read their correspondence was a most exhilarating treat. One of the special joys of a hopeless bibliophile.

-Joe DeSalvo, Owner, Faulkner House Books

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