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“The immigrant story has its own charm”: An Interview with Boris Dralyuk

The sun has set. She must not miss her cue

to bid Los Angeles her last adieu. - Boris Dralyuk, My Hollywood

For Boris Dralyuk, the pandemic has become its own sort of exile: not just from normalcy, but from compassion. In his debut poetry collection My Hollywood, he excavates the past through an assemblage of translations, epigraphs, and forms to reshape what home means—especially at a time when the present can feel alienating and exploitative. We talked to Dralyuk about the sonnet as the Hydra of forms, history as a site of personal resistance, and where the best LA hideouts are.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Austin Nguyen: Something that I observed while reading your collection is that the speaker of your poems is very observant of the political, social, and financial displacement that émigrés faced in 20th century Los Angeles. The title of your collection offers an oppositional position to this, claiming ownership of “My Hollywood,” feeling assured in its possession of a place. What does it mean to you to have a place that you can call your own, and how do you reconcile that with the looming threat of dispossession that a lot of émigrés face?

Boris Dralyuk: Wonderful question. You're right, there’s a tension in the poems. All of them are focused in one way or another on a vanishing past or a past from which the characters I describe are separated, sometimes by force. And part and parcel of the immigrant experience is the attempt to find a new home. What I’ve come to realize is that neither process is met with perfect success. The attempt to separate from the past is never complete. We can never let go of where we came from, even if we're forced out of it. Nor is the attempt to find a new home ever met with full success. We are always just short of setting down roots in exactly the way that we want. But that imperfect conclusion to the immigrant story has its own charm, its own beauty. What I try to celebrate in these poems is the partial ownership we take of the places in which we find ourselves; it's always slipping out of our fingers, the sense of belonging, but that doesn't mean we should cease to grasp at it.

Katherine King: As a broad overview, one of the main things I noticed reading through was the amount of epigraphs: they span a wide variety of texts, from the novella I Should Have Stayed Home to newspaper clipping. What was the process like for you of researching these quotes that you inserted, and what moved you to invoke the words of others in forming your own account of the city?

BD: They're terribly annoying aren’t they?

KK: No, I like them a lot!

AN: We like them!

BD: Okay, okay, well I’m glad. You're alone in that, but I'm very glad to have you on my side.

I would say that I came by these epigraphs honestly. Many of the poems in one way or another grew out of the epigraphs; I didn’t have to search for them after completing the poem. And sometimes the process proceeded along parallel tracks. As I was thinking of a subject for a poem, or of how to develop that subject, I was also researching and looking for coverage of these often very obscure places in Los Angeles, these forgotten or erased personalities. They didn't leave such a rich historical trail behind, some of these places. There are only two or three occurrences of a particular little park in the history of American letters. One of them happens to be in a novella called I Should Have Stayed Home. It's a novella I read years and years ago, and encountering Horace McCoy’s description of the park, which I could see with my own eyes, in my early twenties planted the seed for the poem that would eventually emerge from my morbid ruminations. The epigraphs are as often sparks for the poem as they are scaffolding for the reader.

AN: Have you recently read Hua Hsu’s interview with Ocean Vuong in the New Yorker—amazing piece. I think there's something you touched on with these epigraphs being encounters that you share and experience authentically with. Something that Ocean Vuong touches on in that piece was this idea of making space on the page for it to be a communal experience, and I was wondering if you think your use of epigraphs is reflective of that idea?

BD: Very much so. It’s finding community in the purest place to look for it, on the page. So it’s a matter of finding support and community among writers and journalists in the historical record, and also of daring to chime in on a larger conversation about what for me are important subjects and important sites. It’s an ongoing conversation that I hope will develop in years to come; my voice is just one voice, but one has to be fairly brave to raise one's hand and say, “Hey, I have something to say.” I suppose it’s both a daring act, to some degree, and a humble realization that you're only one of many contributors to the tale.

AN: I love the fact that you use the word historical record, and something that I had talked about with Katherine was the fact that many of your poems seem to follow this really traditional structure. I was thinking of Shelley's “Ozymandias”—they’re sonnets, and they rhyme at the end, and they also begin with epigraphs. And I know that in past interviews, you mentioned that these aspects of your poetry are the result of your Russophone upbringing, but I was also wondering: are there other reasons you adhere to these more traditional forms? And do you view your poems as historical relics, like a record of a place that has dissolved?

BD: Yes, I mean I’m at once fascinated with the past and in love with forms, and I realize that forms are, in some respect, a relic of the past. I do think they have continued relevance, that they continue to live. You can't kill a sonnet; it will spring back to life. It's like the Hydra—more and more pop up. Nonetheless, sonnets are associated with a tradition, and when covering historical subjects it seems only natural that I would draw on a form with its own rich history. You're absolutely right to bring up Shelley. “Ozymandias” is all over this collection, especially the poems about statuary. You can't write a sonnet about a statue without invoking that poor man and his lone and level sands.

KK: In the title poem you make mention of the “disenfranchised grass” and “how rents climb out of reach for emigres,” while in later poems you describe the “polished plutocracy of condominiums.” This clearly politicizes the urban landscape in a way. Would you say that these poems are acting as a site of resistance or activism? And how would you describe the political function of your poetry?

BD: Well, poems make nothing happen, we know that, so why even try? But I do think they may be sites of resistance—that's a very, very nice phrase. I don't think, however, that it’s necessarily a site of political resistance, but rather of personal resistance. If I thought of the poems as politically active or as having agency, I don't know whether I’d be able to write them. I can only—and this is a personal limitation—I can only write about these subjects from the perspective of an observer, a pained observer. My hope is that my pain will infect others, but I don't know what they'll do with this infection, how they'll carry that into the world. I aim to memorialize and to capture, as it disappears, something that I treasure. And if my attempt to do that had some effect on the world beyond its effect on readers, I would grow mad with power. But I’m not mad with power. I realize the limitations of this art. And I aim only to move people. Where they move, after they're moved, is up to them.

AN: I love the fact that you cited Auden. I had actually just read this interview with Solmaz Sharif in BOMB, and she cited the exact same quote. I was actually going to reference an interview that she recently did in the LA Review of Books, where she describes the 2016 election as a turning point for the poetry community—where this overtly political poetry started to become foregrounded and appreciated, instead of being derided. You mentioned that your poems serve as a site of personal resistance, but I think it obviously still has these observations, as you mentioned, of these broader political structures that could somehow be hidden or implicitly accepted in a city. Was there anything specific that compelled you to make these hidden structures, such as gentrification, more explicitly visible in your poems?

BD: I think that's very beautifully put, and you're absolutely right to stress visibility. What moved me to write a number of these poems, which had been brewing for a very long time, is the activity of developers under the cover of Covid. During the pandemic, I saw developers take advantage of the absence of people from the streets to implement their longstanding plans to convert neighborhoods, to evict tenants, to demolish buildings, to replace bungalows with condos, as I say. That process was well underway, but people were raising a hue and cry, loudly complaining, until Covid struck and they had a very good reason to stay home. It was at that moment that many developers chose to push their plans forward. I suppose I felt, in a way, like a lone masked—but not like Batman, more like a fearful person without a viral infection—like a masked avenger walking these small neighborhood lanes and just pointing a finger at what was happening.

KK: I like the image of the masked figure in our new sense. The first time we met, you told me that you consider yourself first and foremost a translator, and the sentiment really shines out from this section “Russian Hollywood,” which features your translations of work by five Russian poets who also found their way to LA. So to quote your poem “The Catch: On Translation,” what is it about the act of literary translation that you find “imbued with living magic,” which captivates you so.

BD: The notion of “living magic” is important to me because I do think texts are imbued with life, and I think the miracle of translation is the transposition of life from one body to another, the recreation of life. It's a Frankensteinian, Promethean—okay, we keep going back to the Shelleys—but it's a Promethean theft of fire from the gods. If the original text is a creation itself, then the act of recreation is just as impressive. The act of breathing new life into something that simply didn't exist before is part of the translation process, so what draws me to translation is precisely what draws me to any kind of creative effort. It's the opportunity to breathe life into a new creature, but with translation you're also soaking up the life of the original. You're doing your very best to understand that original miracle of creation, to figure out, reverse-engineer, how life was made in the other language, and then, through your own ingenuity, to recreate that master plan in the target language. And when writing my own poems I’m also, in a way, recreating something. I’m recreating that hazy, inchoate, sometimes confusing, sometimes murky mood and cluster of thoughts that struck me at a particular moment; I'm recalling that in tranquility and recreating it on the page.

AN: I don't know if you're familiar with the podcast In Another Voice, but it's this podcast based in the UK about literary translation, and I think they recently featured Daniel Mendelsohn, the Editor at Large at the New York Review of Books, for this episode they had on Sappho. It mentioned the idea of translation as this perpetual act of sacrifice, and I was wondering, when you're drawing from the past, how do you distinguish between what you have to honor versus what you have to sacrifice? Like, while we're on the topic of “Ozymandias,” dissolution, etc.

BD: That’s a very interesting notion. I tend to think that I gain so much from the process of translation that my sacrifice is over-compensated. I mean the gains are so great that I forget about whatever time or creative energy I had to invest. It is a form of submission—of submission to the experience the poet has created for you, through inspiration and painstaking labor. But that's the same offer of submission, just at a higher degree, that any reader makes to a work of art. Whenever you give yourself over to a poem, you are submitting yourself to the poem, to that experience. You're showing trust, you're showing devotion, you're showing vulnerability, and I feel that as a translator I do the very same thing—only in a more sustained way, over a longer period of time. And unlike a regular reader, I also get to create while I'm doing it. So it’s very little loss and a lot of gain. But I understand, I think, what Mendelsohn means about sacrifice. I understand the notion of a translation as an offering to the original poet. It is a kind of gift, and it does take work—but I feel that I'm compensated fully, and then some.

AN: Something else I noticed about your non-translated sections is that you tend to operate in different registers. You’d mentioned this idea that a lot of times you take an observational position and you're pointing out pain, and I think some of your poems which tend to be longer can be told through an anthropological remove almost. And then you have the shorter, more spare poems that tend to be more lyrical, and Katherine noticed that your final poem offers this succinct, haunting final note on the shimmering inaccessibility of the past.Did you always intend to close the collection with “Lethe” and, if not, what moved you to choose this poem?

BD: Once I began to shape the collection, I realized straightaway that “Lethe” would be its conclusion. It's hard for a poem like that, a very slight poem, to sit in the middle of the book; it’s hard to go on speaking after whatever it says is said. It seems to me that it encapsulates much of what drives this collection, which is the agony of forgetting, and it expresses in spare mythic terms what all of these poems embody. They embody the attempt to recollect what cannot be fully recollected. They're shoring fragments against ruins, and all of that stuff that other people have said so eloquently. In any case, I feel that “Lethe” is a final statement; it is the last thing that I have to say on the subject for now. On the other hand, it’s also a poem that opens up new possibilities. Yes, we cease to be what we were, but we become something else. We're born anew, and what that new life is—well, I want all of us, including myself, to discover that on our own.

KK: Two final rapid fire questions: 1) What is the spot in LA that feels most yours, and 2) what is your fondest memory as a Westwind staffer?

BD: Oh, what wonderful questions. The spot in LA that feels most mine, I would say, is probably Canter's Deli. I am as close to being the mayor of that deli as anyone else, including Rodney Bingenheimer. I spent so many mornings there when I should have been in homeroom. No, strike that. Canter's is very dear to me, but just as important, if not more important, is the Farmer’s Market, because it contains the multitudes that, for me, make up Los Angeles. You can see people from every walk of life eating every kind of cuisine; just as Vernon Duke, my great Russian-speaking American predecessor in the book, put it, the place is a “lavish abode fit for Lucullus.” Everything is available—the promise of Los Angeles is right there at 3rd & Fairfax. I also spent a lot of good school hours there.

My favorite memory as a Westwind staffer, I think, would have to be the receipt of the final issue we produced during my time, with its glossy cover featuring a photograph that I myself took of the special collections room at YRL (you know, with the Barcelona chairs, very handsome). It was obviously not a professionally produced issue (I was involved, so all professionalism was out the window), but it was a finished product I was proud of from cover to cover. The receipt of those boxes—cutting that cardboard and taking out those issues and putting him on the desk in large stacks—is probably my fondest memory.

Boris Dralyuk is the editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books and translator of Isaac Babel, Andrey Kurkov, Maxim Osipov, Mikhail Zoshchenko, and other authors. His poems have appeared in The New York Review of Books, The Hudson Review, The Hopkins Review, and elsewhere. His collection My Hollywood and Other Poems appeared from Paul Dry Books in 2022.

Katherine King is a third-year English major and history and professional writing double minor. On the weekends she works in a bookstore, bakes bread, and gossips with her houseplants.

Austin Nguyen is a second-year English and psychology double major with writing featured or forthcoming in the Rumpus, the Adroit Journal, Ploughshares, Paste, FLOOD, and more. He's been told his handwriting resembles "Greek" and "hieroglyphics"—thank the universe for the digital age.

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