by Jason Gordy Walker | Contributing Writer
Boris Dralyuk is an esteemed Ukrainian-American poet, translator, and editor living in Los Angeles, California. He has translated Isaac Babel, Polina Barskova, Andrey Kurkov, Lev Ozerov, Maxim Osipov, Mikhail Zoshchenko, and many others. He edited 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 2016), and he is co-editor of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015). Recently, he published his first poetry collection, My Hollywood and Other Poems (Paul Dry Books, 2022). Full of poems that sing both on and off the page, this debut has been crafted for readers who enjoy rereading and memorizing poems.
As editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books, Boris stays busy supporting the work of other writers; he is a generous person who cares deeply about literature and the people who write it. From May to June 2022, we conversed over email about his new book, his writing process, what it means to be an émigré poet and translator, and the global role of poetry during times of war.
Jason Gordy Walker: Reading your debut poetry collection—which feels more like a proper tour de force than a debut—I was charmed by your close attention to various forms (the Onegin sonnet, villanelle, pantoum, ballade, heroic couplet, among others), and I wondered: How long have you been composing poems in form? I read somewhere that you wrote your first poem at age five—which leads me to also wonder: was Boris Dralyuk born a poet?
Boris Dralyuk: The first poems to which I was exposed as a Russian-speaking child in Ukraine were formal, but this alone wouldn’t account for my use of rhyme and meter now. The great majority of English-speaking children are also weaned on formal verse, from Mother Goose to Dr. Seuss and R.L.S. But in Russophone cultures, until very recently, form dominated outside the nursery as well. It wasn’t merely child’s play—adults could play too. And so, from an early age, formal devices seemed to me a defining feature of poetry as such. At the age of eight I was brought to the US, and as soon as I got my footing in English I began the hunt for poems that conformed to my understanding of what poetry was. That understanding has expanded, of course, but I find I still look for the ghost of meter behind the arras of even the freest verse, to borrow Annie Finch’s borrowing from Eliot.
Are some people born poets? I’m sure there’s something to that, but I don’t feel qualified to say anything definitive. There may be a special feeling for language, or a particular sensitivity, or a freshness of perception—or some combination of those and other factors—that predisposes a person to becoming, under certain circumstances, one kind of poet or another. You also need self-confidence or some source of support. You need to have, or to create, the time to write. That I do know: given time, you can develop whatever talent you have, refine your voice, find new voices. Born poet or not, you can improve your craft.
JGW: “Bargain Circus,” “Émigré Library,” “The Minor Masters,” as well as many other poems, build a sense of momentum via deft rhymes. The poems fit together like puzzle pieces to form a whole picture—yet they stand out as individuals, too. “Jonah,” a sonnet with one of the strongest rhyme schemes in the collection, compelled me to reread the Biblical text. Instead of simply one volta, you have included three (which is also the number of days Jonah lived inside the great fish). The “turns” mimic the motions of the fish before it spits out the prophet. Why did you choose the sonnet to form your vision of Jonah? What does the sonnet offer for other young poets who would like to re-envision old tales?
BD: That’s extremely perceptive, Jason! I’m not used to being read so closely . . . There are indeed three voltas in the poem—one after each completed stanza, leading towards the resolution of the final tercet—and these are linked to the three days Jonah spends in the fish, reassessing himself and his way forward. In order to comment on what old tales and sonnets can offer young poets, I should probably say how the poem came to me. As I recall, it began when a question popped into my head: “Is this the end?” I don’t believe the question was sparked by a moment of real crisis (certainly nothing like Edward G. Robinson writhing on the ground in Little Caesar, mother of mercy!), but it must have been born of some deep-seated uneasiness. I didn’t feel I had access enough to the sources of that disquiet to address it directly, nor was I especially eager to do so. To cordon off the crime scene, I immediately changed the tense to the past: “Was this the end?” That allowed me to push the question onto a different character. I saw this character enveloped in darkness but still kicking. Maybe he had a little Rico Bandello in him after all (my imagination is lousy with scenes from pre-Code Hollywood), but I immediately thought of Jonah. So I started groping in the dark for images, which, under the pressure of rhyme, began to take shape, develop sensory attributes. What can old stories offer a poet? In my case, the opportunity to get at the sources of my own emotions without direct introspection, which can be difficult for me; I prefer the indirect route—it’s more scenic and feels somehow more seemly. And the fixed forms, especially the sonnet, offer both boundaries for the journey and prescribed turns. On occasion a sonnet can reveal what you really think about a subject at a particular point, help you make up your mind by forcing you to change it.
JGW: After “Jonah,” you include “The Catch: On Translation,” in which the poet-speaker plays the role of “a famished angler reeling in a fish”—a humble stance for such a talented translator; following this rhyming raison d’être, you have an homage, “Russian Trefoil,” to poets Innokenty Annensky, Georgy Ivanov, and Yevgeny Kropivnitsky, respectively, that sets the stage for a series of exquisite translations: Vladimir Korvin-Piotrovsky, Vernon Duke, Richard Ter-Boghossian, Vladislav Ellis, and Peter Vegin. You’ve translated great émigré poets who may not be as familiar to some readers as they ought to be. How does your personal experience as an émigré poet inform your translation process, and how do your translations influence your own work?
BD: I don’t believe anyone’s ever asked me how my experience as an émigré informs my translations, though I imagine some people might make half-conscious assumptions about the quality of my work based on the fact that I was born elsewhere and am, technically, non-native. That’s not how I think of myself: in my mind, I’m apple pie. Yet I’m aware that there’s that extra dollop to my identity—the émigré experience, which I share with so many Americans—so let’s say I’m apple pie à la mode. As an émigré poet I’m naturally drawn to the work of other poets of my kind, especially those who walked the same streets as I have—streets that were foreign but grew familiar. I suppose that, through their work, my individual experience comes to seem a bit more communal. I come to feel, in other words, a little less lonely. What I think I bring to my translations of my fellow émigrés is an awareness of the full range of exilic feelings, from nostalgia to joy, with one sometimes eclipsing but seldom wholly extinguishing the other. In that section of Russophone Angeleno poets you’ll find pain, both dull and acute, as well as optimism, both guarded and wide-eyed, at times commingled in the same lyric. These and other translations of mine influence my original poems in myriad ways. First, translation affords me an opportunity to work on my craft, to experiment with meters, rhythms, rhymes, line breaks, etc. But it also introduces me to new modes of expression for my various moods. The elegant despair of Annensky and Ivanov, the homespun existentialism of Kropivnitsky, the wistful buoyancy of Duke and Ellis—c’est moi aussi, from time to time.
JGW: In the face of totalitarianism and violence (Putin’s insatiable bloodlust, for example), what is a poet to do? “Write Poems!” feels like an answer to me, but perhaps it is too simplistic. What is the global role of poetry when the Ukraine is being bombed, when genocide has become commonplace in a world hypnotized by billionaires and their cronies?
BD: I don’t believe that “Write Poems!” is too simplistic an answer. There is, of course, no end to other things one might do to help the victims of violence in tangible ways, but one can also write poems. Personally, I find it difficult to respond to wars and atrocities through poems of my own, at least directly. That may be another manifestation of my constitutional diffidence—a fault, not a strength. But I greatly admire those who take up the pen in response to injustice. I suppose I do take up the pen, actually, but it’s the translator’s pen. I seek out poems written by those in the line of fire—or poems from the past that I feel may enrich readers’ understanding of some present disaster—and try to bring them into English as skillfully as I can. Those whose lives are inevitably reduced to bare statistics and flattened into horrid images by the news (what else are reporters to do?) can regain their full human dimensions if their voices are heard. That’s one reason to write poems under fire: to register a human reaction to dehumanizing circumstances. And that’s one reason to translate: to preserve and convey those vital human responses. So my answer is “Translate Poems!” But in order for mine to work, someone out there has got to “Write Poems!”
JGW: In “Late Style,” an ars poetica dressed as a sonnet, the poet-speaker sits at a table, waiting for a date, his “late style,” to show up. The date doesn’t seem to be a go, but the speaker says it’s “[w]ell worth the wait . . .” and the poem concludes with two of your strongest lines: “I’ll keep my vigil till I turn to stone, / stubbornly silent, artlessly alone.” I’m generally wary of adverbs but yours are artful, not artless. Like the speaker, you are a patient, determined, and stylish poet. Unfortunately, our country prizes instant gratification over what Michael Wood, in your poem’s epigraph, calls “late blossoms . . . perfectly punctual.” Can you speak to the importance of “await[ing] . . . late style” and what it means to hone your vision as a poet playing the long game?
BD: I’m very glad you gave me a pass on those adverbs. Recently I was speaking to a friend of mine, a Russophone writer of prose, and he mentioned Coleridge’s definition of poetry: “the best words in the best order.” He said that he and another friend—this one a Russophone poet—disagreed with Coleridge, maintaining that the Romantic’s definition of prose suffices for poetry too: simply “words in their best order.” I think what they meant was that no word, however homely or even repellent in most contexts, is inherently unpoetic. What matters is its fitness to the poetic subject and position in poetic speech. And I, of course, agree with that. Although I am, by nature, a glutton for uncommon words, when I sit down to write I often reach for the plainest items — chars that do the hard daily scrubbing and never get asked to the ball. Maybe I want to prove their beauty and usefulness, as well as the usefulness of entire parts of speech we’re taught to suspect, for good reason; adjectives and adverbs proliferate in bad writing because they present an easy solution to the difficult problem of effective description, but when chosen with care, they can really shine. This is a roundabout means of addressing your question concerning the long game. Some poets pare down their styles or, as you say, hone their visions as they grow older. They return to the rudiments, in terms of both subject matter and lexicon, but wield them with the casual confidence of master craftspeople. Boris Pasternak is an example, as is Auden. It doesn’t always happen that way, but I like the idea of people coming full circle with a new level of skill or new perspective. And I also admire poets who emerge—or at least publish their first books—when fully formed, like Frost with A Boy’s Will, at 40, or Stevens with Harmonium, at 44. These are very different books by very different poets, who never saw eye to eye (subjects vs. bric-a-brac, etc.), but both are late debuts that are at once fresh and display a confidence of manners quite different from the cockiness of youth. Something to aspire to, something that takes time.
Boris Dralyuk is the Editor-in-Chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New York Review of Books, The Hopkins Review, The New Criterion, The Yale Review, First Things, Subtropics, The Georgia Review, and elsewhere. He is co-editor (with Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski) of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution and Ten Poems from Russia, and translator of Isaac Babel, Mikhail Zoshchenko, and other authors. He lives in Los Angeles. My Hollywood is his debut poetry collection.
Jason Gordy Walker (he/him/his) has received scholarships for his poetry from The New York State Summer Writers Institute and Poetry by the Sea: A Global Conference. “He has published reviews and interviews in Birmingham Poetry Review, Subtropics, and the blogs of NewPages and Dos Madres Press.