Although Luisa Muradyan’s American Radiance (University of Nebraska Press, 2018) centers on the memories of migrating to the United States, it also expands on the meaning of the human condition, and it provides readers a chance to see how poetry can combine humor and complex experiences to arrive at a greater truth. There is considerable range in Muradyan’s collection; poems with Prince or Macho Man Randy Savage (not characters one would normally find as poetic inspiration) offer the speaker a chance to meditate on her assimilation into a new culture. In “Schwarzenegger in Prayer,” for example, Muradyan takes a scene from the movie Predator, and thinking about the way Schwarzenegger “slaps the hand / of Carl Weathers,” we see how the speaker translates the action into one of tranquility, one that she can now claim as her own:
and when I watch action movies I believe
there is a reason Bruce Willis
can jump out of a helicopter
and propel into a circus tent, that perhaps
Yippee-ki-yay is really
another way to say Baruch ata Adonai
that perhaps the choppa is a temple,
and when he says Get to da choppa
this is the call to return or just a call
to stand in the garden and marvel at the beauty
of wet flowers.
Despite the pop culture allusions, the focus remains on how one comes to accept a new place as home. American Radiance is a funny, tragic, and always moving collection, and poem after poem in this book illuminates the attempt to understand the everyday exoduses we carry with us.
The Making of American Radiance
Looking back on the manuscript as a whole, I always gravitate to one of the core poems of the book, “Boris.” There are no grand theatrics in the poem, the action mostly takes place inside of a refrigerator, and the speaker is struggling to process their attachment to an old can of tuna. This emotional tension explains much of my experience with immigration and assimilation, namely the pain of letting the past go. Several of the poems include a speaker who is in a new place and trying to make sense of their surroundings through language. The poem “We Were Cosmonauts” is perhaps the most literal as it describes our actual flight and arrival in America. The poem also includes a significant amount of popular culture references like Pepsi, Ace of Base, and Tetris. The cultural landscape of Post-Reagan America was a major influence on how I understood the environment around me and to leave that out of the manuscript would have been wrong. Many of the Soviet immigrants I’ve spoken to each have a series of movies or musicians who helped mold their view of America when they arrived. For me, it was a combination of Prince, Tina Turner, the World Wrestling Federation, and muscle action movies of the late 80’s/early 90’s.
One of my primary struggles with the manuscript was cohesion. When I finished the collection, I wondered how it was possible to have poems with references to Randy Macho Man Savage and Die Hard alongside poems about the Holocaust. Some advice I received early on was to separate the poems that dealt directly with the Holocaust into a separate manuscript, yet as I continued writing, images of the Holocaust seemed inseparable from writing about my family. For many contemporary Jewish poets, the Holocaust is a historical event that is still deeply connected to our present moment. Both of my grandmothers suffered significant trauma and loss during this time and those wounds are still deeply buried within our family. I intentionally chose to include the Holocaust focused work alongside poems about immigration and American life, to relay simultaneity.
Before the manuscript was accepted for publication, I spent years editing and sending individual poems out for publication. During this time, I actively tried to model my work to make it more “publishable” and my efforts were met with well-deserved rejection. I eventually learned the value of submitting to publications whose work inspired me. A-Minor was one of the first journals who accepted my poems and I still have my acceptance email saved on my laptop. The Editor (Nicolette Wong) complimented my poems for being different and I realized that I should stop suppressing the more bizarre elements that came naturally to my work. A potato powered lightbulb had gone off in my brain and it was one of the pivotal moments when I began to think about writing a full manuscript. Seven years later, one of the published poems from A-Minor made its way into American Radiance.