2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Documentary Now Available To Stream

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The melodic beckoning of Caribbean steel-pan drum greeted guests at the Midwestern premier of Dutch filmmaker Ida Does’ Derek Walcott documentary, “Poetry Is An Island.” The title, and inspiration for the film, came from Walcott’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992. A dozen years later, Walcott won an Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement award.

Jointly hosted by the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards and Karamu House, the afternoon began with Karamu actors staging a powerful 15-minute excerpt from Walcott’s 1970 play, “Dream on Monkey Mountain.” Karamu last produced the drama in 2006, when it was named Best Stage Production by Cleveland Scene.

The documentary begins with a handful of Walcott’s confidantes: his childhood friends, Arthur Jacobs and Sir Dunstan St. Omer; his domestic partner of 26 years, Sigrid Nama; his former personal assistant, Michelle Serieux among others. Despite their various roles in Walcott’s life, they all make similar observations: Walcott is a serious man, with a serious work ethic, who sees the world as few people do.

Born 84 years ago on the island of St. Lucia, Walcott came to see his early efforts to paint and write as an homage to his father, Warwick Walcott, a painter and a poet, who died at age 31 of an infection when his son was a toddler. By the time Walcott was 14, he had published his first poem in the local newspaper; at 18 he had written enough to compile his first book. “I asked my mother for $200, which was, I don’t even know how much that would be today, and she gave it to me. I sold my books for $1 a copy and I made the money back.” Walcott’s eyes twinkled. “But I don’t think I paid her back,” he added with a laugh.

Does’ film-making style is that of inconspicuous observer, but occasionally viewers get to sit across from Walcott and take in his words, one on one. In a moving scene, Walcott reads a poem about his parents and tears begin to pool in the corners of his eyes. “Oh, this is wicked,” he said as he paused to compose himself. His love is palpable.

Most of Walcott’s work centers on St. Lucia, and it is revelatory to see him in his element. Yet the artist expressed considerable frustration over a dream that has stalled: the creation of an artist’s colony on Rat Island, a small, unoccupied bit of land off the St. Lucian coast. After Walcott won the Nobel Prize, he built a home, and donated some prize money toward an international arts center.  But there has been no discernible progress; nor are there any museums or theater for live productions on the island. In the documentary, Walcott criticizes the government and wonders aloud if he would see St. Lucia embrace and encourage a thriving arts culture in his lifetime. “Poetry gives us…consolation,” Walcott says in the final scenes. “It provides spiritual strength. It is…the language of love.”

After the premier, filmmaker Ida Does took questions from the audience via Skype from her home in the Netherlands. Does said she first approached Walcott about making a documentary in 2008 and characterized the five-year journey to complete the film as a labor of love. “I was fascinated by him,” Does remarked. “It is amazing to see what a great thinker he is.”

“Poetry Is An Island,” the new film directed by Dutch filmmaker Ida Does, presents poet and playwright Derek Walcott in his element: his home island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean. Place has proved central to the Nobel Laureate in his writings about the island, colonialism and beauty.  He won a Lifetime Achievement Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2004.

“I wanted to feel and smell St. Lucia in the same palpable way that I experience Walcott’s poetry,” Does said in a recent interview. “When I was there, it felt like I could literally touch Derek’s work, the heart of it.” After an early screening, Walcott, 84, praised Does for doing a “beautiful and gentle job” with the film.

Now Northeast Ohioans can see for themselves. We are pleased to sponsor the Midwestern premiere of “Poetry Is An Island” at 2 p.m. Sunday, August 17.  The program is hosted by our partner, Karamu House, 2355 E 89th St, Cleveland. Guests will be greeted by St. Lucian steelpan music from islander Eustace Bobb and actors Cornell Calhoun III and Kenny Parker will stage an excerpt of Walcott’s play “Dream on Monkey Mountain.” Cleveland Scene named the Karamu production, directed by Terrence Spivey, its Best Drama in 2007.

Following the movie, audience members will be able to ask questions of the director in a Skype interview from her home in the Netherlands. “From an educational perspective, the Skype interview will add substance and interaction that will enrich the experience,” said Interim Director Patricia G. Egan. “Karamu is celebrating 99 years of nurturing artists. This is just one example.”

Tickets are $12 and can be purchased at the door. For more information on the screening, please call Karamu House at 216-795-7070.

…If you know where to look.

We enjoy getting writing advice from our winners because they’re so impossibly good at telling stories. Whether the story is about a 13-year-old girl winning a spelling bee or a look at three Southerners who tried to reinvent themselves in the unfamiliar North, telling a compelling story is the focus.

2004 nonfiction winner Adrian Nicole LeBlanc knows her way around a good story. She was honored for her 2003 work “Random Family,” a look at the decade-long immersion she spent tracing the lives of one Bronx family. Adapted from a presentation she gave at the Conference on Narrative Journalism, here’s her technique for finding stories worth writing:

I like to insert myself in situations – identified as a journalist but not necessarily working on a story – to educate myself. After my book “Random Family” came out, I spoke at conferences for social workers and youth workers. At these conferences, I signed up for every mailing list, so I’d receive notices for their workshops. One was called “How to Handle Traumatized Children.” I attended, not knowing whether it would become a story, but I was sure that by the end of five days there I would have 10 story ideas. An idea might be a simple profile of an interesting social worker. Or it could be an analysis of how the skill sets that social workers are encouraged to adopt both liberate and confine them.

I keep story files. I clip and file whatever strikes me: new slang words, fashions, particular towns and neighborhoods, someone’s turn of phrase. My idea files are full of things that interest me, in ways that often aren’t clear to me. Some story ideas hit me immediately when I meet a person who engages my interest. Other ideas take years to develop in my mind, and even longer to sell to an editor. My story files provide the ammunition to convince an editor, to explain why a story is worthwhile. They allow me to draw from a whole pack of information, not just one or two anecdotes.

Major stories come to me through my straying curiosity. Even as I lose myself in that story, I’m keeping track of new people and ideas that surface during the fieldwork – half hunches and ideas that I hope to explore, eventually.

2004 winner Edward P. Jones is a skilled writer. That seems to be understood quite well by all who have had the pleasure of reading one of his stories. We here at Anisfield-Wolf have said of his 2004 novel, The Known World, “Impossible to rush through, The Known World is a complex, beautifully written novel with a large cast of characters, rewarding the patient reader with unexpected connections, some reaching into the present day.” 

We’d say that’s some pretty good praise. In this interview with the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, Jones is asked how he feels about being dubbed the “Tiger Woods of American Literature” and his own writing process. Enjoy. 

Have you read The Known World? What did you think? 

We tend to have a lot of historians on our winners list. They’re the people who can take what we’ve learned in history class and add life to it, making it relevant to our future. 2004 winner Ira Berlin is tops among those who can make you care and make you think. In this series of videos from PBS, Berlin discusses the state of American on the eve of the Civil War. Perfect for history buffs and lovers of American culture alike.