Julia Spicher Kasdorf is a poet, and professor of English and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Penn State University. Steven Rubin is a photographer, and Associate Professor of Art, also at Penn State.
About six years ago, each started exploring, independently, how the Marcellus shale industry was affecting land and people in Pennsylvania. They met through the Penn State Marcellus Shale Gas Ethics Interest Group, and began collaborating. The result is “Shale Play: Poems and Photographs from the Fracking Fields,”a book of Rubin’s photographs and Kasdorf’s documentary poems.Kara Holsopple spoke them recently to learn more about the project.
Kara Holsopple: So how did you come together?
Steven Rubin: Magic. I mean, I’m joking in saying that, but I think there really was an element of it. For me, I was feeling a certain sort of deficiency in my own medium, and feeling like the photographs needed something more. They needed history; they needed backstory; they needed description; they needed some kind of way to help the viewer understand what the images were about without necessarily explaining them away.
Julia Spicher Kasdorf: Wallace Stevens talked about the poets who were writing politically during World War II, and he talked about “the pressure of the real,” and how this pressure can burden the poem. I was feeling that. In many cases, I’m trying to work with the language that I hear, or the language that I find in documents, and the language that I see on signs. And so I was feeling this pressure, and hoping for something more immediate or transcendent or charged, which visual images bring to text.
KH: In the beginning of the book, I think it might even be in the preface, there are two full page photos that are pretty striking. They face each other, on opposite pages. On the left, there’s a line of workers in boots and hardhats, facing some sort of shale gas facility. And on the opposite page, a line of protesters who are holding up signs. Can you tell me a little bit about the photos, and some of the issues that you were trying to get at with their placement in the book?
SR: I know that on your show, you’ve done a number of pieces that relate to forest fragmentation, and the biological impact that fracking has had on Pennsylvania forests. And I found myself as a documentary photographer focused on the idea of social fragmentation–how people would view essentially the same thing from very different vantage points. That’s what that side-by-side comparison of images is about.
The left hand side features students from Westmoreland County Community College. As part of their studies, they got to go to a drilling rig, and view it up close–just to be physically close, and be able to stand in front of it, and really get a good look at what they had been learning about. We get the sense that they are looking at this industry–looking at this technology–with kind of a hopeful future.
The opposing image was actually taken in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, and this was a protest on Memorial Day. A couple of years ago, when Corbett was our governor, he had–on the Friday right before Memorial Day– lifted the moratorium on drilling in state forest lands. Certainly you see a lot of the divide between people, even people within the same family, who have very different experiences. You have neighbors with different points of view on this issue.
KH: You’ve characterized the book as an opportunity to meet the invisible citizens of the shale play, including moving beyond caricatures of the white working class. What are some of those stereotypes as you see them? And can you tell me about someone you met who really challenged that?
JSK: I hear those stereotypes on public radio when they go out and interview people who are still supporting Trump, and I feel like there’s a way in which that story gets told again and again. It’s a setup because it flattens the complexity of people’s lives. It never asks why people are situated the way they are.
The poem, “A Mother Near the West Virginia Line Considers the Public Health,”–I think that woman is a person who is much more complicated than she might seem if somebody would just meet her somewhere.
The poem is a monologue in her language, and she begins by saying, “The industry thinks I’m too dumb to back down…” And then there’s this long narrative of their family’s experience of dealing with having gas wells on their farm, when they didn’t own the mineral rights. They didn’t lease the land, someone living in New Jersey did. And her understanding of the public health and environmental and health implications for her family, in the way she describes what happened in that experience, is extremely deep and complex and smart.
KH: And that poem was written from someone’s personal experience. This is a documentary poetry process, right?
JSK: Yes, the process was pretty simple. I was, for a while, attending monthly meetings down in Uniontown, of a citizens group that was organized to try to share information and understand what was going on in their county. I met her at that meeting, and then she welcomed me onto her farm one day. I spent an afternoon walking around and talking and writing things down, both out in the field and also back in the house. And she has also testified in New York state, so I was able to listen to her language from some other sources, too. And then I just compiled the narrative from those notes.
KH: We’re about a decade into the shale gas industry in Pennsylvania, and you’ve been gathering and creating these materials for the book for several years. What do you want people to take away from it now, in this moment?
JSK: I really want people to ask if it’s worth it–worth the expense, the risk, the environmental degradation.
SR: Right, I think it’s part of that wanting people to to see it. Because I think as widely as this is practiced across kind of key parts of this state, it’s very easy to miss it. It’s very easy to drive around, and have no clue that it’s there.
It’s hard to notice what’s going on, so I think that’s part of the purpose of the work, is to get people to pay attention, to notice it. and to think about what’s gained, but also what’s what’s lost. Our tendency is to always to be looking ahead.
JSK: Another thing that sort of dawned on me, gradually, as I was talking with people, is how important it is to understand this industry in relation to our history in Pennsylvania. People who are not transient, people who remain in local communities, have that long memory, and can draw connections–for instance, in Fayette County, between coal and coke, and natural gas.
That knowledge is very important, I think, as we consider the possibilities and the potential, but also these cycles of boom and bust that come with this kind of extractive industry.
KH: So just back to where you said you’d like people to ask themselves if it’s worth it. Is that a question that you’ve answered yourself?
JSK: I guess so. I didn’t enter the project with a with a clear position in mind at all. But, I think the people who bear the burden of this industry are bearing a very great burden. And I’m not sure that’s worth it.