Interviewer: When you were really little, how do you remember feeling when you read a book?
My earliest memory of reading was perhaps a memory of finishing a short children’s book. The book was on archaeology, or rather, on Greek myths. I was thrilled—I thought I had determined the course of my life. I would become an archaeologist. Everything was clear as day. But of course that didn’t come to pass, I didn’t become an archaeologist. I ended up rejecting that career because I’m too finicky and wouldn’t want to dig around in the dirt.
But I think my first memory, my first conscious realisation that behind books stood authors, occurred at the local library in the Soviet Union, in Odesa. I was with a number of other kids, watching some kind of propagandistic presentation. I wasn’t listening. I was very small. What I remember was that behind the speakers was a mural of the poet Mayakovsky, I believe wearing a striped sailor’s shirt, with one hand outstretched and the other over his heart. Declaiming verses.
I was sitting in a little plastic chair, as I recall, looking up at this enormous bald headed man, wanting now to be that—to command a room the way he commanded the room, although he was flat, on a wall, while these three dimensional people were yammering on. It was Mayakovsky who drew my attention, and that was, I think, my earliest memory of authorship. My sense of what an author was—what a poet was.
When did you start consciously making decisions about what you read?
Much later, when I was in the States. What I was reading were poems, largely in Russian. They were introduced to me by my mother, who suggested that I start reading in Russian again after abandoning the language in favour of English. Since I had found myself living in an English speaking country, I had neglected my Russian. But three or four years after emigrating I tried to reconstruct what I had lost with the help of poetry.
How did your move to the United States, that shift in place and language, change your orientation in how you experienced art? Did you feel as if you were looking for answers sometimes in art, because the new place was confusing?
When you moved, did you feel as if you had to steal from this new place?
What was your reaction, to the art you gravitated towards?
After getting used to my new surroundings, the Russian poems I began to read represented, for me, a purer art than perhaps they would have, had I remained in a Russian speaking environment. They seemed all the more special when divorced from their origins. They were a kind of precious, encrypted document, that not everyone around me had the power to decrypt, to decipher. And I did. That gave me a sense of special ownership over these documents, over these voices. It inspired me to translate them, because what I wanted to do was to open them up to those who were barred.
I keep thinking of you reading a book about archaeology and wanting to discover the past. In some ways translation and reading are both ways of looking for codes.
It’s a bit like I was in possession of the Rosetta Stone! Absolutely. It’s a connection I don’t think I consciously drew, but it makes perfect sense. Russian, at first, was a hindrance—some vestige of a former life. Then eventually it became more like a cherished secret. An artefact. Of course for all native speakers, of any language, there are certain things that will only sound right in their native language. No matter how much their command of that language has deteriorated, still the word for ‘love’ will mean more in that language because it’s the word that their mother used to express her love.
So there were certain things that felt more real, or concrete, in Russian than they did in English. But with time you accrue concreteness in the second language. The more you use certain words, for a range of purposes, the more meaning they accumulate.
I’m also a person by nature who… does not love being in the moment. I’m not eager to be current, to stay abreast of all the latest developments circulating in the air. I’m naturally drawn to older things. Like archaeology.
It’s coming back!
Exactly. I find particularly precious and meaningful the language of older Russian speaking authors. The language that was spoken in the 1920s, 1930s, for instance, means a great deal to me. Both the Russian that was spoken then and the English that was spoken then. When I do delve into Russian I’m not delving into the Russian that is generally spoken, not diving into the Russian that’s spoken today. I delve into the Russian of a particular person or the Russian of a particular era. If you drop me in the middle of Moscow right now, the chances of my ‘passing’ for a Moscovite are very small. And thank goodness. I don’t want to pass for a Moscovite now, never have. But even if you drop me in Odesa today… the last time I was in Odesa was 2019, and I passed for an Odesan. But it’s because the Odesan language still contains echoes of what it was in the 1920s, 1930s, it’s all so miraculously preserved. Nevertheless, the Odesa that means the most to me is the literary Odesa of a certain era.
What does your research process look like, for getting in the ambience of a past time?
I would describe the process as intuitive pursuit and instinctive immersion… I follow leads. Names dropped by the authors I admire, say. And I browse endlessly, both online and in libraries and bookstores, until I discover a title or a cover steeped in the styles of the times I hope to evoke in my writing or translations. And I should stress that I don’t have to work especially hard at this. I’m hopelessly drawn to the cultures of the early to mid twentieth century, and by this point my eyes and ears detect the hallmarks of that era with little conscious effort. If I have the luxury of an hour to myself, you can be sure to find me sunk in some antique rarity.
It sounds in some ways as if you think of language as an imaginary. That descriptions of objects or spaces can take on these worlds, outside of what they are right now; but the history can vibrate around it. I was wondering for you, when trying to write about these spaces, do you tend to focus on objects first or does language come, as a rhythm that you’re chasing in a way? Alternatively, how do you find your way in linguistically, when you’re writing? Given it sounds, and correct me if I’m wrong, even when you’re using English the rhythm of Russian is behind you sometimes, poking its way through.
Of Russian and various other languages. I love voices. When I’m writing about, say, Russian émigrés of the past, I’m giving them voices more typical of a certain community of English speakers of their time but also inflecting the English with what I perceive to be characteristics of émigré Russian. I’m not ventriloquising these particular émigrés. They don’t sound exactly the way they sounded in English. It’s really a weird utopian scheme of mine to meld all of the languages I love into an amalgam. The result is about as close to the language I would speak if I could.
I wrote a poem about Sarah Bernhardt based on an anecdote that I discovered: she lost her leg, late in life. Some people believe this was at least in part the consequence of a car accident she had in Los Angeles. She had this big wreck on the way to the theatre but still performed. It’s such a Los Angeles story, you know. The actress of the 19th century comes to LA and gets in a car wreck. It just isn’t how we imagine Sarah Bernhardt.
I was fascinated and imagined a scene.
I had read up on her preferences when she was in Southern California, found out what she loved about the place. That turned out to be Venice, a relatively new part of the landscape, developed in imitation of the Venice of Italy. Every time she passed through the United States on tour, she wound up in Venice. I started reading up on the Venice of that era.
Even now, it’s a place that goes up and down in status rapidly. One decade it’s the worst part of Los Angeles, the next decade it’s the priciest. Today it’s home to a number of tech companies, including Google’s local HQ. All of the old bohemians are hanging on by a thread. This happens to Venice every ten to twenty years. At some point Google will collapse or move elsewhere.
Exactly. Then Venice will be on its uppers again. I read up on Venice’s rises and falls, and apparently it was ever thus, part of the history of the place. So I imagined Sarah Bernhardt coming to Venice and liking it, then coming back and finding it a little less ideal, a little less polished—I imagined her being disenchanted. That seemed to me an emblem of Los Angeles, an emblem of a certain kind of experience that I think we all go through when we idealise a place only to have the ideal deflated by reality.
I imagined her in a particular place, in Venice, on the pier. I imagined what a narrator of that era would sound like. Not exactly Henry James, but a low rent Henry James. An Elinor Glyn or somebody who wrote for the pictures, some late Victorian or Edwardian novelist who was already flirting with writing for the screen. And I imagined what Bernhardt herself would sound like, as a Frenchwoman, if her French were poorly translated into English. What would a Frenchwoman of that era sound like, if French were English?
All of these are half conscious questions I posed to myself. The structure of the poem is a fixed form. It gave me the scaffolding within which I could explore these questions.
The way you just described making and building your poem sounded just like a scene study. How do you select what you write about? Do you begin by brainstorming or writing in a kind of free association? Or do you more often tend to want to write or translate in response to a character, place, or sensibility you find intriguing?
I seldom brainstorm, though I probably should do so more often. I might get more writing done. Generally I latch on to some detail, a historical fact or an image, that carries a mood or, to use your well chosen word, a sensibility I’d like to capture. I let the detail gestate until a phrase or a line emerges around it. Then I’m off and running, developing the scene around the phrase or line, following the mood or sensibility.
You’ve spoken before about Los Angeles as a kind of shadow literary city. But given you've recently chosen to relocate to another one, do you have anything you want to say, about what it means to transition away from the city of mirages to a different one, with its own literary and artistic scene?
I’m already exploring Tulsa, starting with our neighbourhood and with the area around the University of Tulsa, where my wife and I are now teaching. It’s a slow process, acclimation, but I’m eagerly soaking up the town’s culture, visiting its terrific museums and public spaces, and marvelling at the Art Deco masterpieces of its downtown. I’m sure the poems will come in due course. I don’t want to rush them. That’s not how we do things in Oklahoma. And of course there’s a great poetic tradition here, from Woody Guthrie to the Tulsa School of the 1960s to Joy Harjo and beyond. I don’t want to horn in on that. Before I can write about ‘my Tulsa,’ I have to find a Tulsa all my own.
You’ve also written about your very deep relationship with Julia Nemirovskaya, whose poems you often translate. Would you mind talking a little bit more about how you see your relationship with this poet and her poetry? Do you feel that you and her are mirrors of each other? Or is it based more on the work?
Julia is not a mirror of me. But, from a certain angle, if I take a certain angle and she takes a certain angle, prismatically… almost. There is a slice, of her that may look like a reflection of me or something that I want to see in myself.
So if we do want to mirror each other, we have to position ourselves at a certain angle. She’s already done her work. She’s already created the poem. And poems, in my view, are a reflection of an angle of a person. Poems are, not necessarily distorted mirrors, but images from one angle. Impressions of a person’s ego. Even when they’re extremely fragmented, they’re impressions of a subjectivity, but a subjectivity at a certain place, at a certain time, facing a certain direction—only a piece of a person, a kind of reduction of a person, captured perfectly. A human being, in a snapshot in time.
I think of one of my favourite poets, Philip Larkin. When he sat down to write a poem, he worked to capture the perfect ‘depressed Larkin,’ let’s say—the perfect ‘morbid Larkin.’ Yet through the course of the day, we would have to assume, he had a thousand different moods that went uncaptured. Think of the joyful Larkin who had just finished capturing, successfully, the morbid Larkin.
Julia captures something of herself, an angle on her. I have to see that, identify with it—in other words, to recognise my reflection in it—in order to produce a translation.
Boris Dralyuk is the author of My Hollywood and Other Poems (2022), editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (2016), co-editor (with Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski) of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (2015), and translator of volumes by Isaac Babel, Andrey Kurkov, Maxim Osipov, Leo Tolstoy, Mikhail Zoshchenko, and other authors. He is the former editor in chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books, and his poems, translations, and essays have appeared in The New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, The New Yorker, Granta, and elsewhere. He teaches courses in literature and creative writing at the University of Tulsa.