Highlight on Fulbright: UI grad discovers poetry in a new language and land

By Katelyn McBride

Geoffrey Hilsabeck in Prazeres Cemetery,
Lisbon (Cemetery of Pleasure)

Why Portuguese?– A question that Geoffrey Hilsabeck didn’t always have a clear answer for when he started learning the language in 2008 while attending the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Perhaps the interest stemmed from his grandfather’s study of the language at the Naval Academy, or from the Portuguese scholar and Hilsabeck’s former professor at the University of Chicago, Miguel Tamen; or maybe, as Hilsabeck describes, it was saudade – a Portuguese word meaning nostalgia and longing that can also imply a feeling of emptiness.

Hilsabeck, who earned his Master of Fine Arts in poetry writing from the UI Graduate College in 2009, had only studied Portuguese for a year at the UI before he received the opportunity to travel to Portugal, but says he really loved the language and was eager to reconnect with Professor Tamen at the University of Lisbon.

“Portuguese poetry seemed sort of undiscovered, so that was exciting also,” Hilsabeck said.

With the support of a Fulbright fellowship grant, Hilsabeck just finished a year studying Portuguese poetry and teaching a class in U.S. history and culture at the University of Lisbon.

The United States Student Fulbright Program offers assistance to students, scholars and professionals to travel internationally and undertake advanced research, graduate study and teaching opportunities. Five University of Iowa alumni received Fulbright fellowships for 2009-10.

In Hilsabeck’s case, like many students trying to understand global topics and languages, a personal, cross-cultural study experience was essential to truly grasp the material.

The beginning stages of making an octopus salad--a common dish in Portugal

“Very little Portuguese poetry has been translated into English,” Hilsabeck said. “Consequently, the only way to read it is by learning Portuguese, and to do that, you really have to live in a Portuguese-speaking country.”

It also helps when translating poetry to be close to what the poet is writing about, he says; whether it’s the olive trees in the countryside, the chestnuts he buys on the street, or the sea.

Hilsabeck chose Lisbon as his international destination for the chance to work closely with Tamen for the entire academic year translating poetry from Portuguese into English – a rare undertaking.

“I wouldn’t know anything about Portuguese poetry if it wasn’t for him,” Hilsabeck said. “I still don’t know much, but that I know anything is thanks to Miguel.”

The approach Hilsabeck used in his research was fairly unsystematic – as it should be with poetry, he says. He followed his nose and soon discovered many admirable poets with distinct styles, such as António Osório, Ruy Belo, Alberto Caeiro and Adélia Lopes.

“Each poet is compelling for different reasons,” he said. “Osório identifies with surprising things, the voice is quiet and off-kilter; I like Belo’s music and the scope of his poetry; I like Lopes’s humor.”

Although there were “endless challenges” during the project, mostly related to the language, Hilsabeck says he plans to continue working on translations and eventually get some of them published. He will be teaching English at Middlesex School in Concord, Mass., in the fall and will continue writing poetry and translating in his free time.

Hilsabeck hopes to return to Lisbon soon, perhaps to further explore Portuguese poetry and master translations, or to reconnect with the University of Lisbon, or, the more likely reason, to fulfill what can only be described as newfound saudades.

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