His eyes are set in the horizon. Atop the pedestal he can see the mouth of the river Tagus, the ships in full sail and toward the Atlantic Ocean. Months, sometimes years will be spent at sea. It is unknown if they will return. The XVI century poet and adventurer, Luis de Camoes, looks pensive. In his left hand he holds a book with his poems: Os Luísidas. He seems eternal, unaffected by the passage of time. He is observed, photographed by passers-by in Lisbon. Musicians and performers gather around him. A few meters down the hill, another poet greets people: António Ribeiro Chiado, after whom the neighborhood is named. And less than fifty meters away, on Largo de São Carlos, Fernando Pessoa awaits visitors in a posture characteristic of his playful spirit. With an open book covering his face, he stands in front of the building where he was born and lived until the age of five.
Lisbon is a literary city. It has a long cultural history and a thriving young literary scene. What better place for writers to come and find inspiration in the cafes of Baixa, Alfama and Bairro Alto, to take respite in one of its many miradouros, its unique and longstanding bookshops. The DISQUIET International Literary Program was created by a group of North American writers with ties to Portugal. Running for more than ten years, the program takes its inspiration from Fernando Pessoa’s masterpiece The Book of Disquiet; from Lisbon; and from the late Portuguese poet Alberto de Lacerda, who believed above all in the importance of literary community.
Jeff Parker is the Co-Founder and Director of the DISQUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal, and the editor of the DISQUIET imprint of Dzanc Books. He is the author of the novel Ovenman and the story collection The Taste of Penny. His writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, the Best American Nonrequired Reading, Ploughshares, Tin House, and others. He co-edited two anthologies of contemporary Russian prose, Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia and Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States. He teaches in the MFA Program for Poets & Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
He spoke with Travel Tomorrow about DISQUIET and the Luso diaspora in the US, the challenges faced during the pandemic, literature and finding one’s voice, the balance between literary tourism and sustainability, and more.
1. Why Lisbon and what is the connection between Disquiet and the work/life of Fernando Pessoa?
Lisbon is a writers’ city and for better and worse, Pessoa has become its mascot. But wandering the labyrinthine pathways of Lisbon the city is not unlike wandering the labyrinthine pathways of The Book of Disquiet. And I think that Pessoa is a very important writer for apprentice writers, particularly those put upon by the need to find Their Voice. As the experimental life that Pessoa lived shows us, sometimes the truest way to be and the truest way to write is to find a way to embrace the fact that we are all many voices, a polyphony of individuals sometimes in concert but more often in conflict with ourselves.
2. What role do the CNC, FLAD and other Portuguese partners play in the success of the program?
We’re fortunate to have a number of partners and sponsors on the Portuguese side, which is absolutely essential. The Centro Nacional de Cultura gets us into the most interesting venues–literary, artistic, and cultural spaces around the city–and help us connect with the lively scene of contemporary writers active in Portugal and beyond. FLAD is the original supporter of our Writing the Luso/a Experience Workshop, which is absolutely unique in the world. We’ve partnered with many other Portuguese organizations over the years in our attempts to thread the DISQUIET program tightly into the literary and cultural activity of Lisbon.
3. How did Disquiet International fare during the pandemic? Was the possibility of moving to an online program ever considered?
The in-person Lisbon program was cancelled for 2020 and 2021, which was sad but necessary. Fortunately we had a donor who was able to keep us alive during that period of time when we couldn’t operate. Going online wasn’t really an option for us since essential to our mission is active, in-person cultural engagement and the disquieting experience of removing someone from the day-to-day of their regular lives. Incidentally all of us were pretty disquieted during the whole pandemic and oddly removed from the day-to-day of our regular lives by having our regular lives completely upturned, rendering, I suppose, our project temporarily irrelevant. We did do some online programming, fantastic craft talks with past Disquiet faculty that were very successful, and maybe we’ll do more of those down the line.
4. Can you tell us what the Luso Experience is? How has Disquiet helped develop the cultural relationship between the US and Luso countries?
I think it’s safe to say that Luso-American literature wasn’t mush recognized as a diasporic literary community. But the Writing the Luso/a Experience Workshop has changed that significantly, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of about our program. Well over 100 writers have gone through that workshop now and, as Luis Goncalvez has written, he now sees two eras in Luso-American Literature, before DISQUIET and after DISQUIET. That said I don’t know if it has helped develop the cultural relationship between the US and Luso countries, but it has created a sense of community among a group of disparate writers who share a connection to the Lusophone world and such a thing can be very important.
5. Any success stories you could share of Luso authors being discovered by American editors thanks to the program?
I wouldn’t single any one success out over another. But alumni of that workshop have published books and anthologies and articles in all the very best places. Again, that’s great but it’s not the point of the workshop. The point is to bring writers from the common Lusophone background together to realize the strengths of being part of such a community.
6. A number of alumni come back as instructors. How does Disquiet foster the sense of community over time?
It’s one of our favorite things to do, to be able to invite someone who attended DISQUIET and has gone onto some success back as an instructor. We have so few spots every year and so many accomplished alumni it’s impossible to bring everyone back but hopefully in the long term we’ll get to many more. It is really great for the whole project when someone sitting at the front of the room has once been in the chairs of the participants and can bring that to their workshop approach. It also gives folks hope, which is in too short of supply these days.
7. In terms of sustainability, how do you see the program evolving in the future? What discussions are being held at Disquiet in terms of the impact such programs have on the environment (number of flights, plastic bottles, etc)?
These are real and important concerns to be sure. We were reminded of the global in global climate change this year when the forest-fire smoke from Canada clouded Lisbon across the ocean! Like everyone who wishes to curate ethical programming of any type, we’re having those conversations. The answers aren’t always so easy. We try and do the little things–instruct folks to bring portable water bottles and glass containers for grocery-store bought food and remind people to be conscientious about recycling. Connected to these issues are concerns about how to be good tourists in the 21st Century. There’s certainly more we can do in terms of sustainability and we welcome the conversation.
8. Three lessons you have learned from running the program all these years
- Faculty must be interesting writers and also exceptional teachers of writing – this combination is rarer than you’d think.
- In terms of footwear on the cobblestones you want flats or wedges – no heels!
- Paraphrasing Pessoa, each of us individually are nothing, but within us we have all the dreams of the world!