I always had a soft spot for Derek Walcott, the poet who died on Friday. In the mid-80s, on a gray winter’s day in Philadelphia, I had drinks with him and Joseph Brodsky. I had gone to a reading the two men had given, accompanying a friend of Hania’s – a tall, striking African-American woman – who had befriended Brodsky in New York. After the reading, the company headed out to a hotel bar, and I was allowed to tag along.
Brodsky was already quite full of himself. This was a couple years before he would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature; Walcott would get it five years later. Walking up Broad Street, I told Brodsky that his throaty recitations of poetry sometimes reminded me of Okudzhava, the great Russian singer-songwriter, thinking he’d be impressed by my worldliness. He gave a short, derisive laugh.
At the bar, the two men ordered Scotch. At one point Brodsky handed Walcott a new poem he had written, and Walcott read it with pen in hand, correcting a word here, a punctuation mark there (the privilege of the native speaker), before handing it back to him. Then, sensing I was feeling a bit out-of-place, he turned to me and asked, “What do you do, Tom?”
I answered the question – I was writing feature stories for the American College of Physicians – and the conversation quickly moved elsewhere. But I’ve never forgotten his unnecessary kindness.
I recently did a book reading (not in Key West) that was attended by about 50 people. Apart from the book fair, when I was on a panel, it was the biggest crowd I’ve had. They laughed at all the right spots, nodded frequently, followed every word. When I finished, there were very few questions (perhaps they’re shy, I thought) and so I closed by saying I’d be happy to sign books.
One woman approached, asking for my autograph. A friend who'd come out also bought a copy. The store's event coordinator, perhaps out of a sense of duty, had me sign two. I waited for more avid readers, newly won fans, but none appeared. People had come out to hear what I had to say, listened appreciatively, but felt no need to continue the pleasure on the printed page. One hour's entertainment from me was enough.
The wall at the public library doesn't have room for photos of all the writers who've lived in town so they limit the display to those who've won the Pulitzer Prize (Annie Dillard, Philip Caputo, etc.). Entering the auditorium I passed a man who could have been homeless sitting in the back and clutching a paperback copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor's Roumeli.
I gave my talk and then read a few pages from The Joys of Travel, specifically the story "What I Like About Key West." Afterwards, as I signed books, a woman said to me: "I'm so glad you mentioned my favorite travel writer - Freya Stark."