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Boris Dralyuk: California Poets Part 4, Three Poems


Boris Dralyuk (photo by Jennifer Croft)


December 29th, 2021

California Poets: Part IV

Boris Dralyuk

Three Poems



R. B. Kitaj’s “Los Angeles” Impossible to say he was diminished, or that his final efforts were unfinished. Each fallow plane of color, each bald spot of canvas was the harvest of long thought. The early work, on which his learning lay in patches of midrashic appliqué, broke down to this one solomonic plea, myrrh-scented murmur: Lover, come to me. And she, at the expense of earthly things, returned, perfected, on angelic wings.

The Minor Masters On Santa Monica I know someone who’ll etch forms of a hair’s breadth in a rubber stamp. No molds or lasers: just the human touch. If darkness overwhelms an heirloom lamp, head west on Beverly, and east of Kings you’ll find Pairpoint’s prometheus. If age brittles a book, on Cahuenga there’s a man who’ll bind its outcast leaves. Such people make things look immune to time and innocent of pain, intact, immaculate, as none of us remain. Long live the masters whose quaint crafts are holy. They work in solitude. Now by appointment only.

Plants in Pots for Samuel Menashe Calm captives, inch by inch, they make their flight, and reach the window, bent on seeing light.



Interview


November 1st, 2021

California Poets Interview Series:

Boris Dralyuk, Poet and Scholar

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: Russian culture is incredibly rich—in the sense that it’s both European, but also very distinct from that tradition. Its Orthodox religiosity affects almost all aspects of life and the specters of communism seem to make their presence felt now and then. Geographically, too, the country straddles the line between East and West. In 2000, Oxford Professor G.S. Smith wrote this eerily relevant statement in an article published by the Modern Language Review: “In the political world, and in the academic world that reflects it more and more directly, a tendency has begun for Russia to be marginalized. Influential people increasingly seem to want to exclude Russia from Europe, and especially from its principal political articulations, which begin with the EU.” Twenty-one years later, the marginalization project seems to have been completed by the West. In this respect, to what extent, if at all, have political changes over years affected not only your work as a Russian scholar, but also personally?


BD: I’ll start by thanking you for inviting me to take part in this series, and for posing such provocative questions. I was born in 1982 on the periphery of the Soviet Union, in Odessa, Ukraine—very much in Europe, very much in the South—and so the Russophone culture I knew as a child was a warm and welcoming one, garrulous and gregarious, if more than a little rough around the edges. The twenty-four hours my family spent in Moscow in April 1991, on our way to the United States, were just as disorienting as my first day in Los Angeles. Perhaps even more so. I’m a great believer in sister cities—in the bond between towns that share certain cultural and physical attributes, like a similar climate, similar degrees of ethnic diversity, similar age, similar sprawl (horizontality, rather than verticality). And by many of those measures, at least in my blurred vision, Odessa and LA are not so very different, though of course LA is much larger. I’ve found myself entirely at home in other sister cities, too—in Buenos Aires, for instance. Moscow isn’t one of these cities, nor is St. Petersburg.


What I’m trying to underscore is that I tend to think less in terms of national cultures and more in terms of local ones, and that I see myself as an Odessan and Angeleno. When I began to study Russian literature academically, of course, I refined my understanding of the overarching features and trends that have come to define Russian culture, which is ever evolving but not without repeated patterns. I entered UCLA in 2000, the very year that Smith made his observation, and I was so excited to be reading Pushkin and Lermontov, Teffi and Yuri Olesha, that I paid little mind to the marginalization of Russia; Russophone poetry seemed the be-all and end-all, as did Anglophone poetry and all the subjects that lit up like targets in a pinball machine as I bounced between classes. Only later did I begin to give thought to the status of the field of Slavic studies in academia, and to the attitude towards Russia on the political stage—but I have to be honest, it never felt to me personally that the image of Russian politics abroad was any more tarnished than it deserved to be, or that the average American or European was any more hostile towards Russians than towards members of other nationalities, and this despite the Putin regime’s despicable, criminal behavior in Ukraine and elsewhere. I may be wrong about this, but in any case, I don’t feel that political attitudes towards Russia have seriously impacted my work as a translator—certainly not negatively. I translate the stories and essays of Maxim Osipov, who lives in Tarusa, 101 kilometers outside Moscow, and these brilliant, highly nuanced, not at all black-and-white depictions of Russian life have found an eager audience in the United States and in the United Kingdom. My translations of the equally brilliant, equally nuanced, though more surreal work of the Russophone Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov are just as well received. It’s true that interest in new Russian authors waxes and wanes, but many factors are at play: general interest in work in translation; the economic health of the publishing industry; growing demand for perspectives from other cultures; and so on. But there’s always a contemporary Russian author “breaking through”—and more and more often these are women authors, authors from minority Russophone communities, experimental authors …. What’s to complain about?


DG: The great Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, once famously said the following: “Only in Russia is poetry respected; it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder.” Indeed, during Soviet times, people filled stadiums to hear poets like Andrei Voznesenski and Yevgeny Yevtushenko read—a feat perhaps utterly impossible for a US poet. Two questions: As a scholar of Slavic languages, how do you view the USSR in relation to all of Russian history and what do you make of Mandelstam’s claim?


BD: Important questions. My own sense is that in practice, from the time of the Civil War into the 1950s and even beyond, Soviet rulers reiterated, formalized, and intensified the worst, most oppressive tactics of past Russian tyrants, from Ivan the Terrible to Peter the Great. Population control and suppression of dissent through state terror and secret surveillance, the use of slave labor for construction, total censorship, imperial expansion and isolationism …. What was new was the scale of the enterprise, and the brazenness of the regime’s hypocrisy. And I think this brazen hypocrisy is one of the core legacies of the USSR; we see it in the smirking duplicity of Putin and his circle, in their hollow whataboutism.

Mandelstam was right, of course, about the high stakes of writing non-conformist poetry under Stalin. But do we really need poetry to matter in this particular way? There was and remains a degree of nostalgic envy in the West for the fatal significance of Soviet dissident art. But I feel dissident authors themselves would have much preferred to pursue their art without persecution and fear. It may have been a political poem—the infamous Stalin epigram—that ultimately cost Mandelstam his life, but I suspect what he wanted most was to write and publish freely on any topic he chose, not to use his poems as a political tool. To claim that art is apolitical is also a political stance, of course—but that’s the stance many dissidents took. In their view, politics were forced on art, like a straitjacket. Even Voznesenski and Yevtushenko, who were semi-official poets rather than dissidents, filled stadiums because they wrote about their subjective experience, about the individual, about love—a breath of fresh air after decades of formulaic Socialist Realism. The Thaw weakened the political demands placed on poetry, and the public responded. And I don’t mean to say that expressly political poetry is necessarily bad, only that those who are forced to politicize their poetry might desire greater freedom; in such circumstances, to be apolitical is to be radical.


Cults rise up around those who were, like Mandelstam, martyred for their art, but I would much rather have had more Mandelstam poems than the tragic story of his end, which lends, in my view, the wrong kind of significance to his work. I translate Isaac Babel, who was murdered by Stalin’s regime, and nothing bothers me more than the sight of his mugshot in articles about his work. I’ve even seen Mandelstam’s mugshot on covers of selections of his poems. Is that how these life-embracing artists, whose work overflows with vitality, would have wanted to be read—as victims? This sort of thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth.


DG: With Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski, you co-edited The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, released in 2015. Can you talk about the way this collaboration began, along with how this specific anthology is different from other ones dedicated to Russian poetry, and also about the particular authors you enjoy that appear there?


BD: My collaboration with Robert and Irina was formative—one of the great lucky turns of my life. It began when I met Irina and her late husband Oleg Woolf at a reading in New York City. I was instantly enveloped by their kind, open spirit, their irrepressible creative force. Within a week, I began translating the marvelous, sui generis, lyrically surreal prose of Oleg’s Bessarabian Stamps. At the same time I began to correspond with Robert by email, having answered one of his queries on a Slavic Studies mailing list. Robert and Irina, I learned, had recently begun work on what would become the Penguin book. Before long they invited me to join them. To say that I was honored would be a gross understatement—I walked on air for days on end. I was then a graduate student at UCLA. I had applied to study there as an undergrad a decade earlier with the goal of becoming a translator. This project felt like the goal I had been working toward all that time, and the four years that followed—during which Robert, Irina, and I, as well as all the translators whose work we included, exchanged thousands of letters and drafts—were the real education in translation I had been yearning for, the real on-the-job training. When we put the finishing touches on the book, I felt bereft; how would I go on without the daily inspiration afforded by my exchanges with Robert and Irina? I’m glad to say I never had to find out. We still write to each other every day, still collaborate on our many joint projects, and, through the Penguin book, have even recruited a fourth member to the team: Maria Bloshteyn.


What makes the Penguin book special is that we included no poem that doesn’t work as a poem in English, by our standards. Often enough, anthologists of poetry in translation are guided by the academic impulse to include whatever is deemed important in the original language. But in the absence of successful translations, how can one hope to convince readers with no access to the original that this or that important poem is indeed important? Poetry is lost in translation when we approach translations of poems as translations first and poems second; a translated poem that isn’t a poem does no one any good. True, it may be a tool for learning the original language, but then it isn’t really a translation—it’s a trot. Translations worthy of the name aren’t made for those who can read the original.


Of the lesser-known poets we included in the book, the ones I feel most passionate about are Georgy Ivanov (1894-1958) and Anna Prismanova (1892-1960), both of whom left Russia after the Revolution, never to return. You can read Prismanova’s poem “The Jolt” here, and a late poem by Ivanov here. Incidentally, in the introductory note to our selection of Ivanov’s poems in the Penguin book, we quote G.S. Smith, who describes the mood of the extraordinary lyrics the émigré poet composed in his final years: “An aging, careworn man, almost always alone and speaking to himself (except in a few love poems, among the most delicate ever written in Russian), quietly probes the balmy-rosy atmospheric permutations of an alien Mediterranean coastline into which remembered snowstorms threaten to intrude. Among provocatively offhand gestures about the pointlessness of it all, potentially redemptive values drift in with the snow, evoked and guided by the formal mastery of their verbal articulation.” Prismanova is often more visionary, more metaphysical, but the notes she strikes are not dissimilar. Both poets capture fundamental strains of the émigré sensibility, and I respond to their work at a deep level, for reasons that are perhaps obvious.


DG: Apart from Moscow and St. Petersburg—indeed incredible places—what’s one city in Russia you’ve always wanted to visit but haven’t been able to so far?

BD: I look forward to visiting Tarusa, the home, as I mentioned, of my friend Maxim Osipov. It has a fascinating history. During the Soviet era, it was just far enough from Moscow to serve as a legal residence for former political prisoners and other “undesirables.” As a result, it was a quiet hub of dissidence. And having translated Maxim’s stories and essays set in Tarusa, like “The Children of Dzhankoy,” which you can read here, I feel I’ve already “lived” there, as it were, and now I have a great urge to walk its streets.


DG: Let’s talk about translation. I do apologize for the length, but I’ve posed this question in more or less the same way to a couple different translators already—it’s one I particularly enjoy, and it deals with untranslatability. Essentially we’re dealing with the fact that individuals to whom certain literary legacies belong are more inclined to believe in the untranslatability of their own national poets and writers—a phenomenon, which, in their minds, attaches greater mystique and importance to these cultural figures; those looking in from the outside, however, that is those (we may call them foreigners but they might also be immigrants who can no longer speak the language of the country from which they emigrated) eager to consume the riches of another culture tend to believe exactly the opposite—that translation is not only just as effective but can also improve the original. For example, in a 1998 review article praising Robert Daglish’s translation of Quiet Flows the Don, scholars Barry P. Scherr and Richard Sheldon argue that readers looking to discover Sholokhov’s “original intentions” would actually fare better by reading the novel in translation, rather than in the original Russian, further stating that “in terms of textological issues, Daglish’s translation is arguably superior to any of the available Russian-language editions of the complete novel.” What’s your stance on the issue, not just in terms of Sholokhov, but Russian literature in general, and has there been a work you’ve translated that presented particularly peculiar challenges?


BD: A fascinating set of questions, really. You’re absolutely right to say that many people regard their favorite authors as untranslatable. That kind of proprietary attitude is easy to understand. Part of it owes to the affective connection we feel with one language or another; you hear people say that the word for love, in their mother tongue, means more than the equivalent word in some other language—and so naturally a love poem in that language would mean more …. But this is of course purely subjective, and has little to do with translation per se. It’s about what you know first and best, about the language you’re weaned on. Consider the case of Borges, whose first encounter with Cervantes’s Don Quixote was in English. When he later read the “original” it felt like a translation, and a “bad” translation, at that. So it isn’t a matter of translation – it’s a matter of first love.


As I said earlier, translations aren’t made for those who can read the original. It’s useful to hear what speakers of the original language have to say about one version or another, and certainly useful to have input from as many native speakers as possible when translating, but I feel a translation’s artistry ought to be assessed on the same terms as the artistry of any original work in the target language. The argument Scherr and Sheldon make is different. That’s a case of censorship and self-censorship. The translation of Sholokhov’s novel, like Robert and Elizabeth Chandler’s masterful recent translation of Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad, is a heroic feat of reconstruction. Works that could not appear in the Soviet era without massive cuts and distortions—and, thanks to those cuts and distortions, are still partly discredited in Russian readers’ eyes—finally appeared in their true form only in English. Yet another gift of translation: it recovers treasures lost even to the original culture.


As to peculiar challenges, every text presents its own. But the more I work, the more I realize that the hardest obstacles I face aren’t technical but temperamental. If I find myself at loggerheads with an author’s worldview, to the point that I rebel against it rather than trying to understand and sympathize with it, even the seemingly simplest text proves intractable. This doesn’t mean I only translate people I find savory—that’s not at all true. I can easily relate to the lowest of the low. In fact, it’s often those who feel they’ve attained absolute moral clarity, and who try to force that vision down the reader’s throat, that rub me the wrong way.


DG: We can safely turn to something less cumbersome—Los Angeles. What are some of your favorite Russian-American establishments in the city?


BD: In my collection My Hollywood and Other Poems, I have a poem set in Plummer Park, which is the center of the Russian émigré community in West Hollywood—a fading community I’ve written about here—and another set at the Russian Library, which was once based in Plummer Park but is now across the street. You can read about that library, and take a small visual tour, here. These are the places that tug at my heart …. And then there are the little Russian shops all up and down Santa Monica Blvd., which are the setting of the third poem in the title sequence of my collection.


DG: Your 2020 blog entry “True Love for Women or for Mountains:” Peter Vegin Sees Ararat in Los Angeles” offers not only a unique perspective on LA, with its large Armenian community (many of whom are Russophone), but also a refreshing look at Russian literature, away from the usual emphasis on Chekhov, Akhmatova, or Tsvetaeva. The entry includes your translation of a poem by Vegin, who can hardly be considered well-known, much less often read. What are the challenges and rewards that present themselves with translating such writers as opposed to more prominent ones?


BD: I’m so glad you enjoyed that entry. Vegin is one of several Russophone poets of Los Angeles whom I’ve been translating, and whose work will appear in My Hollywood. It’s profoundly rewarding to unearth these lyrical threads and, gradually, to weave together a tapestry of Russian LA. The challenges of translating lesser-known poets are no greater than those of translating well-known ones, and the rewards are enormous. If I can bring a poem by Vegin, Vladislav Ellis, Korvin-Piotrovsky, Richard Ter-Boghossian, Vernon Duke, Natalya Medvedeva, or Zinaida Kovalevsky to just one reader, it’s a major victory against the forces of oblivion.


DG: If you had to recommend one Russian dish, which one would it be and can you find a good version of it in LA?


BD: Well, that would be (don’t even have to think about this) Olivier—Russian potato salad—which was invented by a Belgian chef at a fashionable Moscow restaurant in the 1860s. You see? Russia and Europe are indeed united, or can at least sit at the same table. If you happen to be in LA, go down to Traktir at the corner of Santa Monica and Crescent Heights. And order some herring on dark toast (“Moskovsky”) to go with the Olivier. And a shot or two of horseradish vodka.


DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?


BD: I am, happily, not working on any big translation just now. My co-translators Alex Fleming and Nicolas Pasternak Slater and I have prepared a new volume of Osipov’s stories and essays, Kilometer 101, for NYRB Classics, to be published in the fall of 2022, and I’ve just finalized the copyedits on a new selection of Isaac Babel’s stories, Of Sunshine and Bedbugs, to be published in July. Right now I’m translating poems, mostly—poems by Russian Angelenos, other émigrés, and by Julia Nemirovskaya, whose work has been an essential part of my life for a decade. You can read one of my recent translations here, and more at Caesura, Exchanges, and elsewhere.


Author Bio:

Boris Dralyuk is the editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books. 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, Andrey Kurkov, Maxim Osipov, Mikhail Zoshchenko, and other authors. His poems have appeared in The New York Review of Books, The Hopkins Review, The New Criterion, The Yale Review, and elsewhere, and his collection My Hollywood and Other Poems will be published by Paul Dry Books in April 2022. His website can be found here.

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