WHERE ELSE COULD you expect to find two Nobel literary laureates simultaneously, listen to the chanting of ancient Chinese poetry, shrug off earthquakes, and broach the topic of race in modern America? The longer you're in Taipei, the more astonishing it becomes. 'Earthquakes? Did you say earthquakes?' Derek Walcott leans across the dinner table as someone from Taipei's Bureau of Cultural Affairs (whose guest Walcott is) explains that in Hualien, where he was due to travel mid-week, a mild tremor is felt every few days. So I offer a distraction by way of a question. How does he feel as a poet being co-opted for their scenario by academic post-colonialists? 'Well, it's not untrue,' he replies. 'I am post-colonial.' Most of the great writers in English in the 20th century were Irishmen, he says, and as such were Britain's colonial subjects. They nevertheless opted to write in English, as Walcott does. His partner of 16 years, Sigrid, first met him in the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburg. Nowadays, they spend about half the year in St Lucia in the Caribbean, and half in their New York apartment. During that first evening in Taipei, Walcott refuses to take anything overly seriously. Introduced as a Nobel laureate, his address is two sentences long. If anyone is in need of wisdom, he says, they can have his phone number and should feel free to call him. His first reading takes place in the room where Japanese officials signed a document of surrender in 1945, giving up Taiwan after 50 years' rule. Here Walcott proves he is one of the most lucid and memorable poets of our era. He's learned a lot, he says, from translations of Chinese poetry, especially its clarity of feeling and lack of sentimentality. Japanese haiku, too, is calm but deep - an effect hard to achieve in English. He finds the deliberate obfuscation of some modern Western poets tiring. The further poetry moves from its origins in music, he says, the more it loses its audience. Yet many rap lyrics are 'almost poetry', not quite powerful enough to stand on their own without their musical accompaniment. In relation to one of his early poems, A Far Cry from Africa, Walcott says the pain of conflict is often suffered by civilians. A dead child represents a crime that should remain on the conscience of those in power. 'It's okay for Bush to talk about nuclear war,' he says, 'because he'll be the first guy in the bunker.' Stormy applause greets another assertion: 'There's one catch in the greatness of the US - Denzel Washington cannot kiss Julia Roberts. How great a democracy is that?' Walcott is an immensely impressive figure, softly spoken but formidable. He is also a natural teacher and defends creative-writing courses as apprenticeships. Several well-known Taiwanese poets attend these sessions. Veteran surrealist Kuan Kuan holds Walcott in high esteem and admires that the visitor dares to speak his mind. Cheng Chou-yu, elected Poet in Residence at Yale last year, says Walcott is not only a true poet, but one of the pre-eminent masters. And when Yu Kwang-ching chants an ancient Chinese poem in the antique manner, Walcott says he is honoured and intrigued. Gao Xingjian, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000, is also in Taipei, and a public 'Dialogue of Titans' is scheduled. Walcott has said poetry is beauty that survives personal or racial suffering. Who would remember the names of the Soviet leaders other than Stalin? But Pushkin and Osip Mandelstam are written in history. Some scholars are pessimistic about the future of literary culture, he says, but people have been worrying about that for centuries. Poetry itself is indestructible.