When Boris Dralyuk came to the U.S. in the early 1990s, the 8-year-old found himself navigating an unfamiliar environment. His parents, Jewish immigrants from the seaside city of Odessa, Ukraine, had moved the family to Los Angeles to escape the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

At school, Dralyuk met a fellow Ukrainian immigrant who helped him adapt to his new surroundings by becoming his unofficial interpreter, lifelong buddy and eventual UCLA classmate. This transition to a different country, city and culture would also shape his path.

“Los Angeles began to feel like home when I began to walk the streets of my neighborhood at a young age, getting to know each crack in the sidewalk,” Dralyuk said. “By the age of 10 or 11, I remember being unable to imagine living anywhere else. I fell deeply in love with my neighborhood — my part of L.A. — fairly early on.”

Dralyuk, who earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from UCLA, is a presidential professor of English and creative writing at the University of Tulsa. He is also former editor in chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books and is the author of “My Hollywood and Other Poems.”

In the spirit of National Immigrant Heritage Month, we spoke with Dralyuk about his experience with his adopted hometown — and how it has informed his personal and creative lives.

Can you share a memory that shaped your perspective as an immigrant and as a poet?

I think of my first visit to a supermarket, which I believe happened on our second day in Los Angeles. Seeing the extraordinary abundance of produce and everything neatly packaged, ready for consumption, filled me with awe and communicated to me the reality of the big leap that we had made. We would also go to bargain shops, which seemed like palaces to me. I appreciated that the people who shopped alongside us came from the widest variety of backgrounds. Being a part of that melting pot was a formative experience for me and fed into some of the poems in my book.

What first solidified your passion for poetry and translation?

One of the reasons I applied to UCLA was when I was in high school, I came across a review in a major magazine of a book translated from Serbo-Croatian. It named the translator, Michael Henry Heim. That was the first time that I had seen anyone doing what I wanted to do — translating — receive public acknowledgment for their work. So, I looked him up and it turned out he was a professor at UCLA. On my very first day of classes, I knocked on his office door with some of my attempts at translation. He invited me to sit at his desk, and we spent two hours looking at my drafts. I was only 18, but that interaction gave me confidence and affirmed that I was on the right path. I have UCLA — and extraordinary professors like Mike Heim — to thank for my career.

What has remained the same about Los Angeles that you grew up in?

Change is a permanent feature of the Los Angeles landscape. So is the influx of people with great aspirations and not many resources. But the challenges that people face are very much like the challenges that my family faced when we arrived. And the hope that we brought to Los Angeles is the same hope that so many people from around the world continue to bring.

That constant change, the snaking transformation of neighborhoods, that undulation is something I recognize and cherish — even as it scares me. It’s difficult to see your past erased. But that’s the nature of the past — it fades. The best way to hold on to what you love is to try to make art of it.

In the book, you translate a poem by Vladislav Ellis, who writes about the joys of Californian oranges and Ukrainian pastries. What foods — from any of your homes — resonated with you?

The first thing the United States gave me that I had never had before — and for a little while became a dangerous addiction — were Snickers bars. I haven’t had a Snickers in a decade or more. But when I was a kid, it was an explosive pleasure. And what I missed almost immediately, and continue to miss, is the taste of European tomatoes — the tomatoes of my childhood. I still haven’t had one that tastes quite as good as the lightly salted tomatoes I enjoyed on the beach in Odessa.

How can poetry, literature and translation contribute to the broader conversation about immigration and cultural identity?

Together, they give people the opportunity to experience the complex lived realities of other members of society — like immigrants whose lives look nothing like their own — and for a few minutes, feel how challenging and rewarding, how richly and recognizably human that experience is. Combined, poetry, literature and translation help people not to think of immigrants as hopelessly foreign, as simply statistics, but to see them as human beings who, like them, have mixed, deep feelings about the United States, and have great hopes for themselves and for their children. 

What does it mean to you to share your own immigrant experience through poetry?

It’s a connection in two directions. First, it inscribes me in an already long history of immigration, especially to Los Angeles. It connects me to those who experienced life as émigrés, as alienated people making a home for themselves in a new landscape.

Second, and this remains to be seen, I hope that the poems I’ve written will serve as solace for future generations of émigrés from all parts of the world who will find themselves in Los Angeles and wonder: “Has anybody been through this before?”

Read more about Boris Dralyuk and his work.