Saturday, December 10, 2011

John Drury

John Drury is the author of The Refugee Camp, which Turning Point Books published in October 2011. His other poetry collections include The Disappearing Town and Burning the Aspern Papers, both from Miami University Press. He has also written Creating Poetry and The Poetry Dictionary, both from Writer’s Digest Books. His poems have appeared in Western Humanities Review, Antioch Review, Southern Review, Poetry, American Poetry Review, and Paris Review, which awarded him the Bernard F. Conners Prize. He teaches at the University of Cincinnati.


Each morning I trudge uphill
to the refugee camp where I work.
Aliens huddle by the vestibule
while officials brush past,
muttering a password
to the guard at a glassed-in booth
who buzzes them—and me—
through the heavy door.
Turned back, the refugees grumble and curse,
kick cinders in the parking lot.

Everyone says they carry knives,
hands jammed in pockets,
their faces half scraped, half stubble,
women left behind
in cramped flats or muddy villages.
They stare at our questionnaires
and leave too many blanks.
I learn Do you know nothing, sir?
and See you later, mister
in languages I will never begin to fathom.

In the graveyard where Dürer is buried,
the tombstones rise from the ground
like stone couches—positioned
so that boars couldn’t dig up the bodies.

Shuffling through dossiers, what
am I digging for? Border guards
mapping their barrackseasuring compounds
and barbed wire, naming each dog in the kennel?

Thinly disguised in mufti, I try
to act natural, always forgetting to air out
my herringbone suit. Our chief tells a courier
"He’s a good boy, but green."

I joined to learn German,
which I still haven’t mastered,
mumbling and sputtering
and smiling as I listen, as if I understood.

At the corner, an American tank clanks by,
jeeps blare and peel off
with a shriek of tires: an occupation
I’m part of, but don’t belong to.

One day we process
a Bulgarian. Another name
to enter in the green ledger:
"No knowledgability, not
a prospective source."
Later in the week, someone knifes him
to death in his dormitory bunk.
I walk through the high-ceilinged
hallway, almost choking
on a bucket’s disinfectant,
and pick up the dossier on his case.
It doesn’t touch me
in the least. I wonder
when I last cried, and remember:
when a bus I was on
didn’t stop, and I called out,
and two girls sitting by the exit
laughed at my accent,
and the cut of my jacket,
and the redness darkening my face.

On a holiday I walk uphill
toward the refugee camp, the Lager,
strolling by the garden plots alongside the path.
As I near the summit, three children
leap from their bikes
jeering lager! lager! lager! lager!
in machine gun bursts, dancing
around me in a circle
and chanting their insult:
I belong in the camp, among those who don’t belong.

I should tell them
there’s a music for the lost, a song
that cannot be stifled, celebrating those who are.
It sounds like jangling, scraping,
a hacksaw through metal. But still
it’s a song, and its dissonance is lovely.
It belies the second-hand clothing
and the stubbly beards and the stumbling.
Through the jeers, the noise of machinery, the silence,
an anthem makes itself heard.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

During my last semester in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, in Spring 1980, I submitted a one-page poem called "Nuremberg" for discussion. It was heavy on culture, beginning with "I first saw Wagner’s opera / when I lived there" and ending with a reference to the sculptor Adam Kraft. I was a teaching fellow, and my office was located near the shelves where worksheets were placed for distribution. I remember hearing two of my fellow poets, whose voices I could recognize, picking up their copies and browsing through the drafts. One of them, Maria Flook, noticed the title of my poem and grumbled, "Just like him to write about something important!" Her companion, who apparently knew my office was around the corner, tried to shush her, but she was always forthright in expressing her opinions, and I’m glad she was, because it turned out to be especially useful criticism for me to hear. I realized that I wasn’t talking about why I was living in Nuremberg and that I needed to establish my credentials so I didn’t come off as a cultural tourist. I had spent a year and a half in Zirndorf, a suburb of Nuremberg, living in the attic of a rooming house and working undercover in an American liaison office of the West German Refugee Center, but at this point the poem had nothing to do with my personal life as a low-level spy for Military Intelligence. Thanks to Maria’s overheard comment, I realized that I had to write about the refugees and my relationship to them. But I still wanted to write about the city, where I spent a lot of my free time, as well as its medieval walls and towers, half-timbered houses, churches, museums, brothels, concert halls, shops, restaurants, and history. I didn’t want to dump the reference to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg; I actually wanted to spend more time spinning out variations on that musical theme, which I took personally, since it was about a guild of poets. I needed more room beyond a single page, so gradually (since it takes time for me to absorb criticism) I started thinking about expanding the poem into a sequence. I put "Nuremberg" at the end of my MA thesis with the idea that it would suggest the direction in which I might be heading.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

It would be hard to count the number of revisions, since I soon started adding sections and shuffling the order and didn’t finish the sequence until almost twenty-five years later. So I was generating and revising individual pieces and also moving them around, sort of like a film editor splicing snippets into a montage. I made lists of things I wanted to write about, but sections cropped up willy-nilly, not according to any plan other than a desire to include as much as I could, to be maximal rather than minimal.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was "received" and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

Yes, I like being ambushed by memory and imagination, and I do what I can to be vulnerable to those surprise attacks. But I also did a good deal of research. I read several books about the history of Nuremberg, and those sources are listed in the book’s extensive section of notes. I kept a journal while I was living in Zirndorf from December 1971 through May 1973, but there were way too many gaps that I needed to fill. Some of the things I remembered most vividly I did not record in my journal. After graduation, I didn’t have a job, so in September I jumped at an opportunity to teach at University of Maryland campuses on military bases in Europe. On a weekend while I was teaching at Ramstein Air Force Base in Kaiserslautern, I made a trip to Nuremberg so I could take notes and revisit the refugee camp in Zirndorf. Several years later, after my first year of teaching at the University of Cincinnati, I received a Taft Travel Grant and returned to the city. I heard that one member of the selection committee was skeptical about my project, saying "It sounds like he wants a grant so he can stroll around!" And that’s exactly what I wanted—and what poetic research often entails—a chance to make observations and see what emerges. Of course, I also did some fact-checking, but some of my questions were admittedly peculiar. I remember going up to an "Information" desk and asking, in German, "Are there swans in the area?" In a draft of one section, I had used an image of swans gliding on a lake near the Nazi Party’s rally grounds, but I wasn’t sure they could be found there. The clerk gave me an astonished look and said, "Living?"

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

After my trip to Nuremberg in November 1980, I started adding sections, jotting down some on the pages of pocket notebooks, some on lined yellow paper, one on a napkin from Dunkin’ Donuts, and others in the margins of typed drafts, letting the material accumulate. My practice has always been to compose poems in longhand and then type them up. As for technique, I was "playing it by ear." I wanted to make the facts lyrical.

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

My working method was like constructing a jigsaw puzzle the wrong way—cutting odd-shaped pieces and struggling to make them fit into a coherent whole—and then making new pieces that required an even bigger whole. It was also analogous to the method of sewing together a patchwork quilt, which involves selecting the right scraps, for variety’s sake and harmony, in the first place.

The excerpts here all concern refugees, and I’d like to talk about how I drafted and revised those passages in particular. Section 2 began as penned additions to a typed copy of "Nuremberg." I wrote a line establishing what I was doing there ("I worked in the refugee camp in a suburb") and added lines about how "Aliens huddled outside." I numbered each of the two sections I had in progress. At that point, I had written about ten lines of the new section, but it’s hard to tell exactly how many, because it was all messy, with slash marks inserted where breaks should go. Later I added the italicized translations of phrases I had learned in Hungarian and Polish. Section 37 began on a lined sheet where I was working on the bagpipe section (which became number 10). I skipped down a couple of lines and started writing about Albrecht Dürer’s tombstone. I don’t know if I meant it as a continuation or a jump, but the material that went into different sections often came up in adjacent bursts, fragments I had to sift through and separate. Originally, section 37 was simply an unbroken block of lines. I typed up the first nine and dropped the rest. Then I added new lines in pen, along with an arrow and a bracket to show where different parts should go. On the same sheet, there’s also an x-ed out passage that I deleted and a circled passage with the note, "New section?" Originally, section 40 began with a passage about cutting myself shaving: "Dabs of a styptic pencil on my chin / are all I can show / for grief." But after eight rhetorical, overblown lines, I came up with the simple, direct "One day a Bulgarian / was processed through our office." Section 48 combined two separate sections, one beginning "On a holiday, on a whim, / I trudged uphill to the center" and the other beginning "There’s a song / that cannot be smothered."

I should mention that I also jettisoned a number of possible sections, such as one about crumpling newspapers in a fireplace back in the States while thinking about Wagner’s opera, and I rejected a lot of passages that contained extraneous details or windy philosophizing. Before I figured out where new sections belonged, I labeled them "*" or "#." The construction was modular and the overall arrangement improvised, based on contrasts and a sense of the flow.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

Carolyn Forché accepted a thirty-part version of the sequence for an American Writers Abroad issue of Open Places that she guest-edited in Winter 1986/87. The magazine is now defunct, but it came out of Stephens College in Missouri and was edited by Eleanor Bender. I should mention that Leslie Adrienne Miller was the reader who liked "The Refugee Camp" enough to send it on to the guest editor. As it turned out, the sequence wasn’t finished, and I went on to add eighteen more sections. My first impulse was to write a companion sequence of prose poems, called "The Golden Funnel," but eventually I realized that it would seem anticlimactic to give the reader another sequence on the same subject. I had to integrate all of the sections, both verse and prose. A merger was required. That actually upset the main formal principle of the free-verse: each section contained twenty lines that were arranged in couplets, quatrains, five-line stanzas, ten-line stanzas, or a twenty-line block. I’m obsessive-compulsive, so I made sure that the sequence contained an equal number of sections in the different stanzaic arrangements. Adding an equal number of prose poems didn’t really disrupt the numerological scheme. If anything, I figured that prose poems would emphasize the variety. In the finished sequence, I made sure that no adjacent sections were in the same "form." I did break up some of the original prose poems into verse, but I can no longer tell which ones, so I guess the transformations were successful. There is, in fact, a little bit of meter and rhyme in the sequence. One of the sections I count as "prose" actually mixes in some verse (as in several poems by Yehuda Amichai), and those stanzas are in song form, with each fourth line serving as a refrain. The section (number 6) was originally published as "Interrupted Song." A number of the other prose sections also appeared in periodicals under individual titles. The most recent section, number 36 (which begins "Note how a man walks carefully"), came to me originally as an entirely separate poem, but I saw how it fit in with the rest, so I cut it down to twenty lines and found a place for it. The sequence reached more or less its final form in about 2004, when Richard Howard chose it for the Paris Review Prize and it was supposed to be published, along with a long-lined coda called "Crossing the Border," by Zoo Press.

How long do you let a poem "sit" before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

I get so excited that I send new poems out almost immediately. I don’t like letting them sit. That’s obviously going to be premature in many cases, but I feel it’s also part of my long-term revision process. When poems come back, I take a hard look. Sometimes I’ll send them right back out again, but many times I put them back in the shop and pull them apart. Rejection might as well be helpful instead of merely hurtful.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

The sequence is based on personal stories that are mostly true. The facts about the city of Nuremberg, the town of Zirndorf, the West German Refugee Center, and the music drama of Wagner are accurate, but I do give myself a lot of leeway and liberty. Some of the poems are dream sequences (sections 29, 31, and 36), many elaborate on Nuremberg history (such as section 10, which is about the story behind the statue of a bagpiper), one is an imagined interrogation in which a refugee does most of the talking (section 16), and some are out of proper time sequence. The episode in the last section, for example, actually happened when I returned to Zirndorf in 1980 to conduct some research. It seemed like the perfect way to end the sequence, so I felt justified in including it, even though the actual experience occurred beyond the time-frame of my work at the refugee camp. My journal notes, however, differ from what I finally used:

2 boys rode directly at me on their bikes, making machine gun noises &
taunting me "Lager! Lager! Lager!" as if I lived in the refugee camp.

The "2 boys" became "three children" because I wanted more of a gang circling me but also wanted to emphasize how young they were, how some might be boys and some girls. I originally had three "Lagers" but it sounded wrong, not enough like machine-gun fire, so on a later draft I penned in an extra "Lager." I was actually thinking of how, in "I Can See for Miles," the Who sing an extra "miles and" before the end, one more repetition than the listener would expect. I thought it would sound better for a song whose "dissonance is lovely."

Is this a narrative poem?

Yes, it’s a fractured narrative.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

At Iowa, in a seminar on long poems, we had read W.D. Snodgrass’s "Heart’s Needle" and I was thinking about how Snodgrass put personal matters in a historical context, his divorce against the backdrop of the Korean War. I admired how he gave each section its own stanzaic form, and although I didn’t emulate his use of meter and rhyme, I did make a point of varying the free-verse stanzas in the sections of my sequence. I was thinking of Robert Lowell’s sequences too, from "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket" and "Life Studies" to History and The Dolphin. I was also conscious of Yehuda Amichai’s blending of the personal and the public. The first draft of section 40 (which then, in a much shorter sequence, was number 10) originally had an epigraph by Amichai: "When did I last weep?" from his poem "To Summon Witnesses." In the sequence itself, I mention Pound’s Cantos, and I was thinking of that mixed bag as well, partly as a cautionary tale so I didn’t strain to make it too "important."

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

Each poem feels like a message in a bottle that may, with luck, find a sympathetic reader. I’m curious about other people’s experiences myself, so I try to do what I can to make what I’m saying, observing, and recounting interesting and compelling.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

When the germ of the sequence appeared on the worksheet at Iowa, my classmates gave me some helpful suggestions. A couple of my fellow poets thought the poem should "start later," but they disagreed about where to begin. I deleted some of the opening material, moved some down, and put the thirteenth line at the top. But then I inserted two new lines above that as a kind of establishing shot, "In the ruined city / of toymakers and singing guilds," and continued, "they were so fanatical…" Some people wanted me to "compress this catalogue," but I went the other way and expanded the poem.

I have belonged to several poetry groups through the years, but it seemed like too much material to foist on my friends for one of our get-togethers, and I didn’t want to break up the developing sequence into fragments when I had other new drafts to share, so I worked pretty much in private. Later on, when I was writing a poem that eventually became the final piece of the proverbial puzzle and fit into place as section 36, my friend Pat Mora helped me cut it down to the 20-line standard.

As I look through a spiral notebook in which I kept a record of my submissions, I notice that soon after my graduation from Iowa I sent the one-page poem, "Nuremberg," to Richard Howard, who was then editing Shenandoah. He rejected it, although he did accept a poem called "Publication of the Bride Sheets" at the same time. Several years later, I sent him a twenty-page version for Shenandoah, and his rejection letter gave me the best advice I ever received about the sequence:

Of course it is not magazine verse at all, and can only be dealt with as a
whole, not pieced apart and published in fragments. And it gets better as it
goes on, much better—the first half, really, is too direct, too immediate, and
offers too little resistance (poetically, even prosodically) to the intensity of
your message. The second half seems more varied and "right" in its verbal cast, but the total effect is a little like the sound of one hand beating the shit out of the reader. Can’t you vary the pieces a little more, so that some might be
seen as lyrical and celebratory, thereby casting the others into an even
stronger mode? As it is, the achievement of each section is too much like that of each other section, in its intention, in its meaning. Perhaps the ironies are too heavily underlined, and perhaps, too, one needs a stronger sense of the
place—its geography, geology, some of which you brush by far too readily—it
seems to me there’s lots more in here than you have "extracted," but of course it is very impressive too: I should like to see what will become of it if you brood over it more…
I did brood over it more, and tried to vary the sections more, and allowed myself to be more celebratory. Richard Howard’s comments made me more dissatisfied with the poem and yet more encouraged too. When I finally started submitting the completed book manuscript to contests, he was the judge who chose it. But the press went out of business in a fiasco that was the subject of a Poets & Writers article, "The Collapse of Neil Azevedo’s Zoo," so I had to start submitting it all over again, and it took several years for it to get accepted a second time.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

It’s much longer, of course, but the main difference is that I kept on adding to it even after it was published in a magazine.

What is American about this poem?

It’s the Henry James theme of the American ingénue in Europe. And I was reading James while I was living there, so the influence is conscious.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

It was released, like a motion picture. The sequence is now entirely on its own, but the material still has a claim on me, and I’m currently revising a memoir, The Bad Soldier, that explores those experiences in narrative prose that it is not so fractured.


  1. One must applaud your courage as well as your staying power in taking on such a challenge. I wish I could be in a position to be taught in classes that are available in so many places these days, but not to me. My degree is over 60 years old, reminding me too often of yet another reason for wishing I were young enough to go back to formal learning. Thank you and the Net for putting this wonderful poem where I might read some of it, and feel how the literary world marches forward.

  2. He is an exceptional teacher as well. We had lots of people sit in on classes when I was getting my degree a few years ago. I would think about doing that. Being in school made me feel in the stream of only interesting thinking. Barring that, there are some wonderful books (including Drury's: Creating Poetry and The Poetry Dictionary,) written about poetry. I really enjoy Edward Hirsch's How to Read a Poem. I recently picked it up at the library and loved it. Clearly you are plugged in enough to find this essay. I applaud you for that.

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