Open Book News

Poolside with a Nobel Laureate: How I Spent My Summer Vacation

By Erin Knight

Your desk is a hammock with a view of the Caribbean Sea and a turquoise blue swimming pool. Your writing project is Shakespearean sonnets from the perspective of Robinson Crusoe sending letters in a bottle. Your classroom is a studio lined with original watercolour paintings of Seamus Heaney and other renowned artists. And your instructor, who has welcomed you into his St. Lucia home to share not only his love of language but his love of good food, swimming and laughter, is Nobel Prize winning poet Derek Walcott.

Not a bad way for an emerging poet to spend his summer. For Richard LaRose, a University of Alberta student who grew up hunting, fishing and raising chickens in the Alberta countryside, it was an experience that changed not only how he writes but also how he thinks of himself. If you'd asked him before he packed his bags to travel to St. Lucia for two weeks of intensive writing and workshopping, he might have admitted to you that he was kind of into poetry. But during his stay on the island, while he learned watercolour painting and "metrical swimming" from Walcott, wrote poetry and shared his new work with local musicians and poets over dinners on the beach, something significant shifted. When an islander asked Richard if he was a poet, his reply, without needing to think about it, was "yes."

Richard studied under Derek Walcott and Canadian poet Bert Almon as part of a Poetry Master Class that began with six weeks of study at the University of Alberta and concluded with a two-week course at Walcott's home in St. Lucia. Despite the severe contrast in climate, the Nobel Laureate has visited Edmonton as a Distinguished Scholar in Residence on three occasions, to teach in collaboration with professors in the Departments of English and Film Studies and Drama.

While studying with one of the masters of contemporary poetry gave Richard the inspiration and confidence to call himself a poet, the experience wasn't always easy. Walcott has a reputation among the writing students for being honest — but tough. Richard was electric with nerves when he realized his poems were at the top of the pile for their first workshop. "All I could think was, Derek Walcott is going to read my work," he remembers. "The first poem went over pretty well. He said he liked the last couple of lines, which meant a lot coming from him."

But Walcott interrupted him a few lines into the second poem, casting a stern glance around the table. " 'This line is almost unbearably arrogant' he said in his most gravelly voice, " recalls Richard. "Then he turned to me and said, 'As a person, you are about as far from arrogant as I could imagine. But the line is arrogant. This is a problem that many young poets have.' Class was like that every day. You never knew what he was going to say, and you didn’t know whether he was serious until he laughed — or didn’t."

In St. Lucia, the writers got to know a whole other side of Derek Walcott. He's a Nobel Laureate who doesn't always need to take himself too seriously. "Over dinner, he could go on for hours telling jokes," says Richard. He was a total riot outside of class sometimes. We spent an entire Thursday afternoon telling terrible jokes about peanut butter. I’ve never seen someone laugh so hard."

Despite the delicious food, the ocean swims, the tropical breezes and the music, for Richard and the seven other writers taking part in the Master Class, this was far from a holiday. Workshops ran for two hours a day, four days a week, and the students were expected to spend the greater part of each day working on their poetry. They lodged at a hotel in Rodney Bay, but they were welcome to work in the Walcott home. When the class first arrived, Derek showed them around his house and garden, giving each writer a designated spot to work. The property was well equipped with tables, chairs and hammocks, and from every spot on the grounds and every room in the house, you could hear the crashing of waves against the shore.

"Derek and his wife, Sigrid, were the most gracious hosts anyone could ask for," says Richard. "To be completely honest, we didn’t feel like students taking a course. At best, we felt like family. At worst, like the luckiest students in the history of travel study. "

Richard's preferred writing spot was at an Italian cafe called Elena's near the marina. He would watch the boats sailing into the bay while he worked on his poetry, then join everyone else for lectures with Walcott at 2 p.m. Lectures began with discussions of poets such as William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane. Before long, the class had their assignment: to write a series of six iambic pentameter Shakespearean sonnets in the voice of a castaway Robinson Crusoe.

The work didn't end with the writing of the poems, however. On the last day of class, Walcott asked the students to work on a joint book project that included six sonnets and two other poems from each writer. In the weeks after returning to Canada, they edited, designed and self-published the book, only recently completing it and sending Derek Walcott and Bert Almon the finished collection, titled Letters from Crusoe and other Poems of St. Lucia.

The finished book is a memento of a singular experience in Richard's education as a poet, but the memory of a conversation he had with Walcott on the final day of lectures will stay with Richard for as long as he's writing poetry. He had gone into the studio for a drink of water when Walcott looked up from his desk. "Richard, I want to speak with you," he said. In his hands was Richard's portfolio.

The young poet stopped in his tracks. After eight weeks of lectures together, it was the first time Walcott had addressed him by name, and the first time he had taken a direct interest in Richard's work.

"He sat me down and told me that he thought I’d improved tremendously over the two weeks. He said that I had a lot of talent, and asked me how I’d managed to improve so much in such a short time. He asked me what I’d thought of the class as a whole."

Richard was worried his response would sound cheesy or cliché, but Derek assured him that he wanted to hear his honest feelings about the experience.

"I told him that everything was a dream come true, and that my whole life I’d wanted to learn from someone who I thought was among the best in the world. Saying it now, I still can’t believe how lucky we all were to have had this chance."

"And do you feel like you’ve improved?” asked Walcott.

Just as he did when he had been asked a few days earlier if he was a poet, Richard responded, "yes."

The more experienced poet leaned back in his chair and directed his gaze towards the sea just beyond his studio. “That’s what I wanted,” Walcott said.

Richard LaRose grew up hunting, fishing and raising chickens in the Alberta countryside. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Ancient and Medieval History at the University of Alberta in 2011, and studied poetry and fiction under Bert Almon, Shawna Lemay, Christine Weisenthal, Thomas Wharton, and now Derek Walcott. He is currently working on a book about his great-great grandfather, George LaRose, the Half-breed Horse-thief.


Erin Knight is Open Book: Ontario's Contributing Editor. Chaser, a collection of poems on tuberculosis and manic economy, has just been published with House of Anansi Press.

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