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.

Anthologies are tricky – and a new one called “Poems That Make Grown Men Cry” might seem like a gimmick. But readers who venture here will find that London editors Anthony and Ben Holden, a father and son, have come up with an engaging conversation-starter and a new angle on some marvelous work.

They asked 100 men to write a brief introduction to a poem that choked them up. The “vast majority are public figures not prone to tears,” writes Anthony Holden, “as is supposedly the manly way, but here prepared to admit to caving in when ambushed by great art.”

One, Simon Schama, is the Anisfield-Wolf juror and historian. Two are recent Anisfield-Wolf winners: Mohsin Hamid and Andrew Solomon. Poet Terrance Hayes picks former juror and Anisfield-Wolf recipient Gwendolyn Brooks for her poem “The Mother” and two contributors – novelist Mark Haddon and actor Tom Hiddleston — choose separate Derek Walcott poems, both published in 1984.

Schama, fresh off his new book and PBS series, “The Story of the Jews,” decides upon W.H. Auden’s “Lullaby.” The historian writes that “tears come to me reading Auden’s ‘Lullaby’ to a lover already asleep because the poem suspends time and the brutality of the world (‘1937 when fashionable madmen raise/Their pedantic boring cry’) at the moment of unanswerably perfect love.” The honesty in the poem “makes the eyes prick and the heart knock,” Schama writes. The actor Simon Callow, for his own reasons, picks the same poem.

Hamid, who won his Anisfield-Wolf book award for the novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” chooses Robin Robertson’s “Keys to the Doors,” a 14-line piece addressed to a daughter and published in 2012, the book’s most recent poem. Hamid writes that he cut it out of the New York Review of Books, mailed it to Lahore and taped it to his printer – “It’s there now, stirring to the beat of my ceiling fan as I write this.”

A young father when he found it, Hamid writes that the poem captures something of the way his own little girl would “stride into my room where I was novel-writing, and talk to me, and ask me questions, and bring her fantasies into where I sat draped in mine.”

Andrew Solomon, who won last year’s nonfiction Anisfield-Wolf book award for “Far From the Tree,” picks Elizabeth Bishop’s 1976 work “Crusoe in England.” It is one of a dozen poems in the book by women, in the voice of an imagined aged Robinson Crusoe. Solomon writes that “the meticulous dryness of this narrator, so bereft of the spirit of adventure even when recalling adventures, seems to catch in the throat of the old man who speaks it.” Solomon esteems this voice for containing “not so much bitterness as restraint. Love is circumstantial; we can love anyone if need be; and losing the one we love is the singular catastrophe.”

Terrance Hayes writes that Brooks’ 1945 poem that begins “Abortions will not let you forget” was instrumental to him as a college student: “It is, in fact, the poem that made me choose the path of a poet rather than that of a painter. (No painting had ever made me cry.)” He writes that his continuous relationship with the poem as an older man is “a testament to its craftsmanship.”

Finally, Mark Haddon selects Walcott’s “Midsummer: Sonnet XLIII” and writes that he dislikes the sentimental. But the Nobel Laureate accomplishes something different here: “the sublime sublimely articulated.” A few pages later, Hiddleston writes that he reads Walcott’s “Love After Love” at least monthly. “I read it to my dearest friends after dinner once, and to my family at Christmas, and they started crying. Which always, unfailingly, makes me cry.”

All these tears caused Billy Collins to jokingly ask “how any of us make it through the book without succumbing to a complete emotional breakdown,” editor Ben Holden writes. And then he shrugs: “What could be more human, honest, or pure than tears?” 

Chairing the jury for the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards is one of the single pleasures of my life. The thought that a poet – a white, female poet – had the foresight to endow a prize to honor excellence and diversity, at the height of the Great Depression, is something of a miracle, isn’t it? And in a few days, we will honor her commitment to racial equality and justice by recognizing this year’s winners of her prize, the 76th such occasion. It is humbling to thumb through the names of previous winners, including Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and three Nobel laureates, Wole Soyinka, Toni Morrison, and Derek Walcott. God bless Edith Anisfield Wolf, and the Cleveland Foundation for so judiciously protecting her legacy.