An interesting story this week out of England about one of the Caribbean’s most famous sons – Nobel Prize winning poet, Derek Walcott of St. Lucia.
Walcott was up for the post of professor of poetry at Oxford University but withdrew suddenly this week after an anonymous smear campaign was launched against him.
The poetry professor is an unusual post in that it is not exactly like what it sounds – a university professor. Rather, prestigious candidates are selected after their names are put forward by supporters and then the Professor is elected by a group that includes Oxford academics and anyone who holds a degree from the uni. The poetry professor serves for five years and is required to give three lectures a year.
Anyhow, the title is considered a highly prestigious honour but the wheels came off of the whole process this week when dozens of academics at Oxford were anonymously sent packets containing photocopied pages of a book detailing sexual harassment allegations of sexual harassment made against Walcott in the 80s and 90s.
From the New York Times:
The charges of sexual harassment date back nearly 30 years and were detailed in the book “The Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus,” by Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner — excerpts of which were sent in the anonymous packages. They describe how, in 1982, Mr. Walcott was accused of saying a number of provocative things to a woman who was a student in his poetry workshop at Harvard, including “Would you make love to me if I asked you?”
When she rebuffed him, the student said, he gave her a C grade.
Concluding in 1982 that the complaint had merit, Harvard reprimanded Mr. Walcott and changed the student’s grade from C to “Pass.”
In another incident Nicole Niemi, a student at Boston University, sued Mr. Walcott for sexual harassment in 1996. She accused him of “offensive sexual contact,” claiming that he told her that unless she had sex with him, he would prevent a play of hers from being produced.
The case was settled out of court.
Explaining his withdrawal, Walcott told the Evening Standard in the UK:
“I am disappointed that such low tactics have been used in this election, and I do not want to get into a race for a post where it causes embarrassment to those who have chosen to support me for the role or to myself.”
Another twist in the tale came later this week when the latter of Walcott’s alleged victims, Nicole Kelby (nee Niemi) defended Walcott, saying she was “appalled and saddened” by the campaign and urged him “not to walk away” from the election.
Writing in the Sunday Times, Kelby goes as far as to say that Oxford should scrap the whole contest rather than letting it be undermined by dirty tricks. She also said that Walcott’s sexual (or over-sexual) nature is part of his genius.
However, while I believe that it is not appropriate to be sexual towards students, I also realize that it happens. Writers, by nature, have reckless hearts. Poetry is a passionate art. That is why it is crucial that institutions have strict policies against sexual harassment and are not too embarrassed to allow concerns to be heard. It is impossible to legislate behaviour, but to allow a student an opportunity to question behaviour in a safe and open forum is within our grasp. I believe that Oxford is capable of dealing with any situation of this nature.
Derek Walcott is not an evil man. Like any man, he is flawed. But, like any great man, he is retrospect and understands that his flaws are universal. And from them, he creates art.
Boy… what a ting.
Islandistas, what do you think of it?
On the one hand, as true independent-minded islandistas, far be it from us to defend sexual harassment. It is low and dirty and it is at its heart not about sexual attraction but about asserting power over the victim.
And God knows, that the allegations against Walcott were just the official documentation of what had been rumoured in literary cirles around the Caribbean, especially in St. Lucia for years – that Walcott would try a ting at nearly anything. On more than one occasion I remember hearing a family friend, the wife of another Caribbean literary man, suck her teeth and refer to Walcott as “dat wutless man”.
On the other hand, does Walcott’s alleged inappropriate behaviour have anything to do with him being honoured for his poetic talent? As Kelby indicated, if we were to exclude writers (and artists on the whole) from being honoured because of their inappropriate sexual behaviour, there would hardly be anyone left to honour.
Artists, moreso than other people, tend to be sexually aggressive, exploratory and even inappropriate. While we don’t condone it, we should be able to seperate it from their art.
It is all frankly quite dirty and for me the comments of Walcott’s leading competitor (and now odds-on favourite to win) British poet Ruth Padel when she says:
I just feel scooped out inside. He’s my colleague, and he’s a poet, and I don’t want poets to be humiliated. Of course we should take harassment seriously, but there are other issues here, too, and it seems horrible, this anonymous campaign.
Eh-heh. If she feels so scooped out inside, why doesn’t she withdraw from the contest? A group of Oxford academics issued a letter yesterday calling for herself and the other candidate, Indian academic Arvind Krishna Mehrotra to do just that, as that is the only way that today’s election can be called off.
An Oxford spokesman stated:
“It’s a bit like the Grand National, it wouldn’t stop unless there was not a single horse left standing.”
But tellingly, neither Padel nor Mehrohtra have pulled out so the farce goes on and the cloud of suspicion darkens.