Texas, Sexy Grocery Stores, and Making a Home: Alexis Interviews Luisa Muradyan, author of AMERICAN RADIANCE

I first heard Luisa Muradyan read her poetry on a cold and rainy night in the fall of 2016. It was a Glass Mountain event, one of the first readings I ever attended, so I didn’t even really know what was going on in the writing community yet, but I heard her read and thought she was simply amazing. One poem she read, “Marriage”, captured me with its wit and playfulness (the sexy grocery store poem) and I was happy to find it included in her brand new collection, American Radiance, along with a host of poems that address her immigration as a young child from the USSR and her subsequent immersion into American pop culture that has continued to shape her work today. Luisa is currently a doctoral fellow in the University of Houston’s Ph.D program for poetry and she will be reading in-store from her collection on September 4th.

Alexis Mercedes: So first, I’m going to ask that question that reporters often ask football players after they’ve won the Super Bowl: How does it feel? You’ve published your first collection.

Luisa Muradyan: You know, until I got my advance copies a couple of weeks ago I still thought it might be an elaborate prank, that someone was playing a trick on me, but now it finally feels real. It’s a book that’s been a decade in the making and in some ways, a lifetime in the making, so it feels pretty wonderful.

AM: Many of your poems have been published in online and print publications. Can you tell me a little bit about why you chose these specific poems and how the main idea for this collection came about?

LM: I think originally I just started writing poems and I didn’t know where they were going to go. Maybe I was going to Mordor but maybe I would go off somewhere midway through with David Bowie instead. I didn’t have a clear vision because I think I wanted too much. I wanted too many things in the book and that was always a fear when I first put the original collection together. I was always struggling with whether the work could sustain Bruce Willis in a helicopter, a sexy grocery store poem, some talking tuna, and World War II. Could all of that fit into the same house? It actually took years of having the support of a writing community to realize that, yeah, it might not be the house that everyone else is living in but it’s my house and I just need to sort of embrace the wackiness of the poems alongside the abject misery that also flows through.

AM: I like how you said that you wanted it to be so many things because that really feels very American. I think you beautifully capture that conflation of personal history and immigration from the USSR into this American identity where you reinvent yourself in America. You’ve written many poems about your history. How do you see those working in the collection?

LM: Building an identity is something that comes up for a lot of immigrants because you’re writing in a language that maybe wasn’t your first language. There’s this whole generation of people like me who came over when they were old enough that they’re never going to quite fit in here but they were also young enough that they’re not going to go back and still be solidly in that identity either. So you’re kind of trying to create a new world through language and for me at least, that was through grand, larger-than-life pop culture that I was surrounded with. I can still name the first several CDs we brought when we immigrated, like Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, and a Bach compilation. This mixture really shaped how I find my place in this world and also in the world that I go back to, when we do go back to Ukraine to visit family. In some ways, specifically for post-Soviet immigrants since the Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore, there really is no going back to the same type of place. So like I said, I’m delighted that people are excited about sexy grocery stores ‘cause I weirdly feel so alive in a grocery store. I don’t do as well with the nature poems. I try, truly I do, but I could talk about HEB all day long.

AM: Well, HEB is just amazing, first of all. Very Texan, very big.

LM: You know, I’ve studied the most in Texas and if you want something that’s larger than life, that’s just brimming with pop culture and identity, that’s Texas. I fell in love with that state for sure.

AM: I love hearing that grocery stores make you feel alive. It reminds me of going to Whole Foods every weekend after church on Sunday with my family.

LM: When we first came over, we would go to ALDI’s every week and when walking through, I really studied each aisle just fascinated with how different it was than where we had come from, from the types of packaging to the types of food. I remember the first time we came to this country and went to a Kmart and that was life-changing in some ways. Just the sheer shock of being in a place like that, it was quite something. There was this overabundance but also a different type of world that included both good and bad things.

AM: I think you capture that in your title poem, “American Radiance” with the subtitle “Walmart, 1992”. I like how it shows all those different categories of Walmart like in “the Home Improvement section/where you can get things to improve your life” I believe is the paraphrased line of that poem? You seem to take from different categories of your life just like the different categories in Walmart and put them into one collection.

You did write about these really vivid images in nature that I traced throughout the book. Often you use ants, spiders, birds, fruit, the peeling of fruits, and stars. What is alluring to you about these images? Did you intentionally write them in or did they just come up?

LM: I think I’m interested in nature in terms of the absolute micro-level, so I’m fascinated by ants and insects. I was that kid in school who wanted to talk about insects all day. But also, the biggest and farthest away that I can picture, like stars and outer space, are somehow on a similar sized level as an ant, just from the visual perspective of a child.

We had a big ant problem the first place we lived in America and there’s a poem that talks about living in a house of ants, and it very much felt like a house of ants, in a comforting way. I think you could look back and say it was horrible because there was such a bad insect problem but as a child, it was this wild adventure. I remember watching them form lines to walk through the kitchen. It was all about “making a home” and these ants were making a home in something we didn’t quite know how to make a home in yet. So I think the ants and that small insect level really stuck in terms of processing for me.

AM: You are currently a doctoral candidate at University of Houston in the Creative Writing program. What led you to study here in Houston at this program? I know you were at Texas State for your Master’s.

LM: To rewind back, when I went to Texas State I loved the poetry by some of the faculty there, like Cyrus Cassells and Kathleen Peirce. Kathleen’s work was really pivotal for me, so it was a dream to study with someone whose work I admired so much. You know, I’ve probably read The Oval Hour...I can’t even tell you how many times at this point. I didn’t come from a poetry background and actually when I studied for my undergraduate I got a History degree. I took one poetry class in college and I was not a star student. The professor told me to stick to history.

AM: Oh! Rough!

LM: Well, I still sort of felt like writing was what I needed to do and I’m thankful that I had that big conversation with my parents. I told them, “You know how I was gonna go to Law school? Well, like that, but with poetry”. They didn’t even miss a beat and said, “Yes, of course, we’ve been waiting for you to say this for years”. So I ended up getting into a school and I loved my time at Texas State. In some ways that kind of put Houston on my list when I was thinking of a doctoral program because I love Texas, I fell in love with the culture there. Houston is such a vibrant, multilingual city with so many wonderful cultures and communities. I was thrilled when I was able to get into that program because they also have great faculty. It’s been an incredible experience and especially just making friends and having people who you trust with your work is probably the best thing I’ve gotten from either program. Those things will happen, being able to get out of a writing program and have people you can share your work with, especially in times when it’s hard to keep writing.

AM: Did you start writing when you were young? How were your parents able to say “We knew writing was for you”?

LM: It’s kind of an interesting story. I used to have these horrible nightmares when I was young, when I was 6, 7, 8 years old and they would always be awful, dark, Holocaust-related, traumatic dreams and my parents were at a loss for what to do with me. On a whim, my mom put me in a writing class, a summer writing camp, and I remember sitting down, starting to write and it was electric for me. I thought yes, this is what I should be doing. I fell in love with language, I fell in love with writing, and I fell in love with reading poetry. You don’t get a lot of access to poetry at a young age and then when you do, it’s like the floodgates open and I would say I probably spend the most time reading instead of writing. That has been a gift for me.

AM: What kind of poets did you read at that age? Who were your favorites?

LM: I read children’s books by Pushkin, the Russian fairy tale writer who wrote in very rhyme-heavy verse. So a lot of earlier poems from Luisa Muradyan had quite the lively rhyme scheme.

*laughs* Growing up, I read poets like Kathleen Peirce and Gerald Stern, and then when I was older, I read Ilya Kaminsky’s first book, which was really quite something for me. He’s a poet from Odessa, where I came from, and seeing someone come to America and write this incredible book was exciting. And oh man, I read Yiannis Ritsos, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva—it was really a mix of Eastern-European writers and then Wislawa Szymborska was huge for me. Everybody should read her, every poem is absolute fire. Then I read people like Dorothy Parker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Harryette Mullen, and Adélie Prado. Reading people with a sense of humor on the page was pretty thrilling for me.

AM: There’s definitely a lot of humor in this collection along with the deep history and intelligence that really attracted me. Do you have a writing routine or a daily practice? What’s your favorite or most common situation you find yourself writing in?

LM: It’s really changed since I’ve become a parent. I used to love writing at night when I could get my cup of tea, put on my comfortable, oversized Star Wars pajama pants, and get the party started. Now that I’m on the schedule of my toddler, I wait until he’s asleep and I might have fifteen minutes to focus. Whereas the writing time used to feel like a luxury, now it’s a holy time in some ways because I sit down and get to fully immerse myself in a creative work. A lot of being a parent is exhausting with the full focus on raising the child and I’m beyond thrilled, I love being a parent, but if I were to wait until the evening time to put my party-writing-pants on, I would be asleep before I even got the first sentence on the page. So for me, it’s about discipline and being thankful my child takes a two-hour nap every day.

AM: What do you hope that readers take away from American Radiance and your continuing work?

LM: That’s a really good question, I don’t know if anyone has ever asked me that. I hope that at the very least there is an emotional resonance but you know, I hope that they laugh at at least some poems. There’s not enough discussion of women and humor, especially in the writing world, and there are so many funny women writing. I would hope that this helps make even more room for you know, a fart joke in a poem. If I work for nothing else, I hope that I am the whoopee-cushion of writers.

AM: That’s great because I feel like I don’t hear much about humorous poetry either and these poems did make me laugh, so you definitely achieved that. At the same time, “American Radiance” made me feel emotional, so I think you did capture that emotional resonance as well.

LM: For me, humor can be a corridor into incredible sadness. Oftentimes, they’re on the same pendulum. We go from laughing to weeping at the drop of a hat—I know my toddler does! I’m very much drawn to that type of wild hysteria that can operate on both registers. When I started writing, I thought I was going to do very funny poems, as though maybe you could just read these stand-up style at a mic. At Texas State, my writing mentor was Kathleen Peirce and I remember sitting in her office after I gave her my manuscript and she said, “Well these poems are actually incredibly sad”. It took someone else to read the poems and say “these poems are incredibly sad” for me to really see how much the humor was operating as a vehicle for sadness. Like a sad Jerry Seinfeld. There we go.

AM: That’s an amazing discovery. I know everybody else will enjoy American Radiance just as much as I do. It’s currently on my staff shelf at Brazos and I’m looking forward to your event on September 4th. I’ll definitely be there to hear you read from the collection. Thank you for talking with me!

LM: It was such a blessing to be able to talk about this and thank you for spending the time with the book—I am very grateful.


American Radiance (The Raz/Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry) Cover Image
ISBN: 9781496207753
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: University of Nebraska Press - September 1st, 2018

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