Bringing the Past to Life: Interview with Boris Dralyuk

Photo: Jennifer Croft

Boris Dralyuk is a poet, literary translator, and editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books.

His collection of poems, My Hollywood and Other Poems, was published in April 2022. He has also written Western Crime Fiction Goes East: The Russian Pinkerton Craze 1907-1934; edited 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution; and co-edited The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry.

Boris’s translations include Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees and The Bickford Fuse, Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories, and Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Sentimental Tales.

He has also taught at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

Boris was awarded the first prize in the 2011 Compass Translation Award competition and, with Irina Mashinski, first prize in the 2012 Joseph Brodsky / Stephen Spender Translation Prize competition. In 2020 he received the inaugural Kukula Award for Excellence in Nonfiction Book Reviewing from the Washington Monthly.

Talking About Books asked Boris about his poetry and his translation work.

TAB: Your poetry in My Hollywood and Other Poems is very evocative of a bygone era, both of Hollywood and the world of émigrés. What inspired you to write about this?

BD: You’re right, of course, and I would even say bygone eras, rather than any single era. It seems I’m preoccupied with the past—with its irretrievability and with the power it holds over some of us, precisely because it cannot be retrieved. We’re barred from it and so we dwell on it, like Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poor Miniver Cheevy, who “thought, and thought, and thought, / and thought about it”. I do a lot of this sort of thinking, and that may partly be due to my childhood experiences as an immigrant. At the age of eight, the wall between what came before in Odessa and my life in Los Angeles appeared insurmountable, and so my memories felt tremendously precious and fragile. At some point I also came to realize that my memories were changing, growing purer—which is to say, less accurate. My mind was cleaning them up, shaping them into more poignant wholes. The workings of memory fascinate me, and Los Angeles itself is a first-class laboratory for testing the process. The landscape changes at a dizzying rate, yet it is littered with fragments that trigger personal recollections, or around which one can construct an imagined past. Norman Klein called his study of the city The History of Forgetting, and I suppose my little poems present a history of remembering, or of trying to remember, which is really just another angle on forgetting.

TAB: How do you decide when to use certain verse forms like the villanelle, Onegin stanza and the ballade?

BD: Usually the subject goes searching for a form, but sometimes the form finds the subject, or demands it. I’ve spoken elsewhere of my attraction to the Onegin stanza and of its suitability to the subject, and the refrain-heavy forms of the villanelle and ballade, too, seem appropriate: a strong undercurrent of obsession flows beneath their lilting surfaces. Both the villanelle and the ballade in my book use questions as refrains; because these questions are difficult for the speakers to answer, the speakers repeat them again and again.

TAB: How has your poetic voice developed over the years?

BD: Recently I found some poems I’d published in my late teens and early twenties (before I took a prolonged break from seeking publication) and was surprised to see that they read like the work of an older person—or rather, of someone trying to sound like an older person. It was touching. I sincerely hope my voice has improved in some way since then—that I show better taste in my diction, more sophistication in my syntax and rhymes—but I suspect what happened is that I simply grew into the voice I had been trying on for size all those years ago. It was baggy then, fits better now.

TAB: When you translate a work, what do you bring to it as a writer? How much freedom do you have within the boundaries of the text?

BD: I bring all of myself, or at least all the parts of myself that I feel are in tune with the self I imagine to stand behind the original work. I try to find, or to build, within my psyche an English-speaking person who might have written the original work, had it been written in English, and for this I draw not only on all my own experiences in the world but also what I’ve encountered on the page. In the case of Isaac Babel’s stories, for instance, I drew both on my memories of Odessa and on my reading in American fiction of the early to mid-20th century. In translating, I feel I have all the freedom a creative mind needs to create. Yes, I want to remain faithful to the original text, but not necessarily to any individual word or combination of words in it; I want to remain faithful to the creative self I perceive behind those words, to its vision.

TAB: Has your translation work at times helped spur a poem, or in some way influenced your own creativity?

BD: Oh, certainly—in My Hollywood I include poems inspired by my translations of Innokenty Annensky, Georgy Ivanov, and Yevgeny Kropivnitsky, as well as my translations of Babel. That process I described—the process of building a person within myself in order to translate—leaves excess creative energy: the translation is finished, but the person remains, and may have something else to say.

TAB: Do you feel that there are misconceptions around the work of translators that should be addressed?

BD: The primary misconception is that translation is more craft than art. It is an art first and foremost, and its practice is shrouded in all the usual mysteries of creation. This is why the more I work, the more I shy away from theories of translation, however insightful they may be. I find that too much rational thinking about my approach interferes with my creativity.

TAB: If you could talk to any dead poet, who would you resurrect to chat with? And why?

BD: Oh, goodness, what a great question … I’m not sure I would resurrect anyone, frankly, as I have the pleasure of chatting with them on the page—chatting with them at their finest. And who knows what they’d think of me, anyway? Or what they would think of the world we’ve made …

TAB: How long have you been writing? Did you write as a child?

BD: I’ve always written, but have also always written little—small forms in small quantities. My first poem, my mother tells me, was a two-liner about a bird diving into the Black Sea to scoop up a fish. I must have been five.

TAB: What advice would you give to a poet starting out?

BD: Read and read and read. Seek out the voices that speak to you, the ones you’d like to sound like, if only you could. You’ll know you’re doing something right when, through the attempt to sound like someone else, you suddenly sound like yourself—like your best self.

TAB: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us on poetry and translation. I love the way your poems capture the past and transport me to another world.

Read my reviews of My Hollywood and Other Poems by Boris Dralyuk. Also, my reviews of Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees and The Bickford Fuse, translated by Boris Dralyuk.

Go to Boris Dralyuk’s website.

3 thoughts on “Bringing the Past to Life: Interview with Boris Dralyuk

  1. Pingback: My Hollywood and Other Poems: Boris Dralyuk – Talking About Books

  2. Pingback: Grey Bees: Andrey Kurkov – Talking About Books

  3. Pingback: The Bickford Fuse: Andrey Kurkov – Talking About Books

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