The Marcellus Shale, in Poetry

  • The pipeline is part of the Mariner East Project designed to transport ethane and propane as natural gas liquids from Houston in Washington County to the Sunoco terminal in Salem Township, Westmoreland County. Photo: Julia Spicher Kasdorf

October 3, 2014

"Where we live, among boulders and trees, thumper trucks gain uneven purchase. So a rig, driven by one man, traces a grid through the woods, grabs saplings with a metal claw, holds them until a saw blade, tosses them aside." 

This is how a scene in Marcellus Shale development is described in poetry by Julia Spicher Kasdorf, a Penn State University Professor of English and Women's Studies. If Kasdorf's name is familiar, it may be because you've heard Garrison Keillor reading her work on The Writer's Almanac.

Her latest collection, called Shale Play,

Shale Play is "docupoetry," or  "documentary poetry." Kasdorf describes it as "a kind of marriage of non-fiction writing, journalism and poetry. It takes the interest in being accurate and documenting events from journalism, and it marries them with some of the artistic techniques of poetry." 

Kasdorf says she’d been teaching a course in docupoetry at Penn State, and wanted to try her hand at it—to give a new kind of voice to the Marcellus shale debate.

"Often documentary poets are motivated by the desire to extend history, to bring to light voices that might not otherwise be heard, to complicate our understanding of events that might turn up on newspaper pages, but often documentary poetry sticks around longer than the newspaper story," Kasdorf says.

About a year ago, with a sabbatical coming up, she headed out to Northern and Southwestern Pennsylvania, to visit areas affected by natural gas development.

"I started out in Tioga County. And I just talked to anyone I could find: so workers, people in diners, waitresses," Kasdorf says. "People working in the industry, people who’ve leased their land—and these voices then contributed to my sense of what’s happening on the ground in these different places."

She found people very open to talking with her.

"This is so enormous in these places," Kasdorf says. "It’s so pressing. People’s lives have been so changed by this. And particularly in the Southwest, where there are people who are really suffering, they are just happy to get the story out in any form."

Some of those stories are heart-wrenching, as in this excerpt of Kasdorf’s poem titled “September Melon.”

She writes: "A 70-year-old woman stands up in a public meeting to tell how she showed the gasmen a map of her farm, said 'Blast anywhere but here and here.' They agreed. But, wouldn't you know it? They blew up the two places where she buried her husband and horse."

Kasdorf also spoke with people with positive views of fracking. 

"Even if they’re working as well-tenders, it’s better than not having a job at all," Kasdorf says. "I mean if you go up Route 15, north of Williamsport, there’s a restaurant there at the summit of Steam Valley Mountain, called Fry Brothers Turkey Ranch. And the waitresses there said for the first time, the year before, they didn’t have to shut that restaurant down in the winter and lay people off." 

Kasdorf says that, as a documentary poet, she strives to remain objective. Her work doesn’t take a side on the issues surrounding fracking.

"My purpose is to document, and observe—to feel and be present alongside the people who are really experiencing this incredible change in their communities," Kasdorf says.

Kasdorf is still working on her Marcellus Shale project. She hopes it will become a book of poems with photographs in the near future. 

The work is being highlighted in a showing of the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project at the Palmer Museum of Art.

Photo of Julia Spicher Kasdorf: Philip Ruth