Poet and photographer document fracking in PA

By Abby Wargo


There was something for everyone at the Rose O’Neill Literary House on Thursday, Nov. 21 when poet Julia Kasdorf and photographer Steven Rubin visited and shared excerpts from their documentary poetry and photography collection, “Shale Play: poems and photographs from the fracking fields.” The reading, which blended multiple disciplines, was sponsored by both the English Department and the Center for Environment and Society. 

“Shale Play” is an investigation of how the fracking of the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania is affecting not only the environment but the people living there, often to their detriment.  

“Shale Play documents a cavalcade of distinctly human behavior,” said Dr. Kimberly Andrews, assistant professor of English and creative writing, in her introduction. “The point is to provide us a glimpse under the hood of the American machine, at the landscapes and people that make it, for better or worse, run.” 

Several courses utilized some of the poems and photographs in “Shale Play.” Students in the Dr. Andrews’ Poetry Workshop course read and discussed the book as a part of the curriculum. Kasdorf and Rubin also visited Professor Heather Harvey’s Art as Inquiry class on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the book. 

Kasdorf and Rubin are both professors at Penn State University; Kasdorf is a professor of English and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and Rubin is an associate professor of art, specializing in photography. Kasdorf has written four books of poetry: “Sleeping Preacher,” “Eve’s Striptease,” “Poetry in America,” and “Shale Play.” She is the recipient of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, the Great Lakes College’s Association Award for New Writing, a Pushcart Prize, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. Rubin has worked as a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer, and his work has been published in national and international outlets such as the New York Times Magazine, Time, and National Geographic. 

At the beginning of the reading, Kasdorf gave a crash course in fracking to help with comprehension. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a method of natural gas production that involves using high pressure to inject liquid into subterranean rocks to create fissures from which to extract gas or oil. Then, she read five poems from the collection while Rubin played a slideshow of the corresponding photos, which included images of methane bubbles from fracking activity polluting a stream, fracking equipment on a family’s farm, and oil workers laying pipes, to name a few. 

The poems Kasdorf showcased at the reading covered a variety of subjects, from how gas is discovered underground, to court battles over land rights, public health crises, and the complexities of working for gas companies discussed over turkey sandwiches. 

Kasdorf also discussed the process of writing the book. Rubin had started working on the project independently in 2012, and Kasdorf came to it later on. They worked separately for a year and a half before coming together and collaborating on the project. Kasdorf had to act like a journalist, documenting people, places, and events but instead transcribing them into poems. Many of the poems are persona poems written from the perspectives of different voices to convey the wide-ranging effects of the fracking industry. To do this fully, she captured and used the language that people were using, so the collection reads more like a narrative than a complicated lyric.  

Kasdorf also has a personal connection to the subject. She grew up in Westmoreland County in southwestern Pennsylvania, which is now affected by fracking. The final poem in the collection is written from her point of view, and tries to answer the question, ‘why do I care about this issue?’. Kasdorf described it as a long litany of the history of the places, as well as the memories that come up out of the land.

“It explains the project in a way frames fracking as yet another form of violence in this landscape that has witnessed so much violence,” she said. 

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