Hilbery, Nisula translate favorite poems

By Ian Flanagan
Photo Courtesy of Ian Flanagan K'13
Russian and American rhythms cascaded through Olmsted Room this Sunday at 7 p.m. as Dasha Nisula and Conrad Hilberry gave a cross-cultural performance of Hilberry’s poetry—he in English, she in Russian translation—before a crowd of faculty, staff and students.

Hilberry is a Kalamazoo Professor Emeritus of English Literature, credited with jump-starting the creative-writing program at the college, and author of prominent collections of poetry such as After Music and This Awkward Art.

Nisula is a Professor of Russian and World Literature at Western Michigan University, who formerly taught Russian at K and has translated the works of Russian poets into English.

The two traveled to St. Petersburg to give bilingual performances of Hilberry’s works. Their venues ranged from the city’s university to the boiler room at an apartment complex where underground poets gathered.

The poems ranged from the haunting—dancing with skeletons in “Macabre”—to the intensely personal—the death of Hilberry’s wife in a poem by his daughter Jane.

The audience giggled at his daughter Ann’s childhood antics atop a unicycle and Hilberry’s description of the mustache as the graying gatekeeper to language. Jaws dropped at Hilberry’s depiction of the negative space in pieces of art as “an abandoned building once that building is gone.”

“It just makes me think a lot about language, not just about translating across languages, but across cultures,” said Professor of English Gail Griffin. “I thought of three poems I wanted to write during the reading.”

“He is a poet who truly deserves to be heard in countries other than our own,” said sophomore English major Kim Grabowski, on the translation of Hilberry’s works into Russian.

Hilberry, who continues to write poetry, expressed great satisfaction at Nisula’s translation of his works and at his opportunity to return to K’s campus, which “feels like the place where I belong,” he said.

“I’m really honored by Dasha’s translation,” he said. On her translation of his poem “Adam’s Christmas,” he said, “Adam [my grandson] would be honored.”

Nisula has been thrilled to work with Hilberry’s works. “I feel like I’m a lost sister of Conrad’s or an adopted daughter,” she said.

Once she has translated more of Hilberry’s poems, she hopes to publish a bilingual collection of his works.

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