Anyone Who Would Talk with Me: An Interview with Julia Spicher Kasdorf

By Amy Lee Heinlen, for The Fourth River


Julia Spicher Kasdorf visited Chatham University as the guest poet for the 2014 Summer Community of Writers (SCW). It was here that I heard Julia read from her enquiring and provocative new project in which she folds language, history, and place into powerful and distressing poems which record the voices of those involved in the Western Pennsylvania natural gas industry boom. Intrigued by her new poems,, I emailed Julia to find out more about her project and this fierce poem.

The Fourth River: At your reading during SCW, you read a series of profoundly moving poems from a current project. Will you elaborate this project?

Julia Spicher Kasdorf: Oh, thanks for saying that you found them moving! The project, which I’m now calling Shale Play, is a series about impacts of shale gas development in Pennsylvania. I’m still working on it, hoping to eventually publish it with photographs.

Last year I was fortunate to have time off from teaching, thanks to a sabbatical from the English Department and a fellowship from the Institute of Arts and Humanities at Penn State. I took 17 or 18 trips to northern PA (Tioga and Lycoming Counties) and southwestern PA (Westmoreland and Fayette Counties, where I grew up). At home and on campus, I learned all I could through print and on-line sources about the history, engineering, and technology of this industry. It can be argued that the current gas boom started at Penn State, with the research of geoscientist Terry Engelder, and that Penn State has shaped state policy and local practices, for better or for worse. Quite a few faculty members in fields outside of geoscience—forestry, agricultural economics, hydrology, rural sociology, landscape architecture and education—do research in this area, too. I will add that the faculty is not of one mind on the issue, despite the common perception that Penn State is in collusion with the industry.

But I really wanted to see what’s happening in local communities. Like Zora Neale Hurston says, “You got to go there to know there.”

I have contacts in western PA from growing up there, and Judith Sornberger and James Guignard at Mansfield University helped me to understand the lay of the land up north. Then I just drove around and sat in diners and talked with anyone I could find who has had experience with shale gas—landowners, leaseholders, workers in the industry and workers around the industry like waitresses, people who live near compressor stations, people who live near wells, an attorney, clergy, activists, anyone who would talk with me. One conversation led to another, and I wrote down everything I could.

TFR: During your craft talk at SCW, you noted the difference between a poet of document and poet of witness. I’m interested in how you think about your role as a poet while you work on Shale Play. Has your view of your role as a poet changed during this project compared to your previous poetry collections?

JSK: This is different from previous collections in that it’s my first self-conscious project of poetry. Sleeping Preacher reads like an autoethnographic project book, but I wasn’t mindful of that when I was writing many of those poems in graduate school. My most recent collection, Poetry in America, makes documentary gestures, quoting voices in my small town during the Iraq war, for instance, and citing historical events. But this is the first Project Book I’ve attempted. It came after teaching a course in documentary poetry: Reznikoff, Rukeyser, C.D. Wright, Mark Nowak, and so on. I’m intrigued by that work, and then we have this industrial invasion happening in rural Pennsylvania that I wanted to understand and record. I’m a poet. I start with language. I’m not an activist who must simplify the discourse. I’m an artist drawn to the complexity and emotional intensity of the situation. I listen. I want to hear how this development will change language along with the landscape. I want to amplify voices—including the voices of memory—that shape experience. That’s how I entered the project, anyway. The more I see and hear, the more I’ve come to identify with those who have been harmed.

TFR: I’m interested to know more about the relationship between the “citizen with too much memory” and the “I” in your poem, “Among Landowners and Industrial Stakeholders, a Citizen with Too Much Memory Seeks Standing to Speak of Recent Events in Penn’s Woods.” What does it mean that she “seeks standing to speak?”

JSK: The “citizen” is the speaker, is the author. The title comes from something I was thinking about. In these Marcellus Shale communities, when there’s a public hearing about something—a pipeline going in, say, or a compressor station venting volatile organic compounds or making a ridiculous amount of noise—there are often restrictions on who has “standing,” which means who is permitted to speak at the meeting. You might have standing if you have a business interest at stake or if you own property within a certain distance. So what qualifies me to speak about shale gas development? This poem is my answer to that question. I guess “too much memory” is a way of saying that I’m a “stakeholder” because of all I carry in my mind and body. My only claim on this place is knowledge of public and private history, how that information comes off the land when I move through it.  

TFR: One thing that struck me is the difference in the tone of the title from the poem itself. I think the title feels distant both because it is written in the third person and because it is explanatory. This has a similar feel to the titles of the poems you read at SCW. How did you come to decide to title this piece and other poems in your project this way?  What work do you feel it is able to do first for you as the writer and then for the reader?

JSK: Yes, this title! Maybe it won’t stay. The poem used to be called “Witness Trees,” but that sounds too much like POETRY, doesn’t it? I’d begun writing these flat titles for the other monologues. The poems are often quite raw, but the titles establish the identity of the speaker with reference to place and often a topic or central concern, for example: “A Student from Tunkhannock Articulates Shale Gas Aspirations” or “A Mother Near the West Virginia Line Considers the Public Health.” The title functions like a handle for the reader to grab onto. This is one of few poems in the series that’s spoken in my own voice, so it seemed only fair to pin that kind of title onto myself, too.

TFR: There is so much history in this piece. It is American history in so many experiences: Native Americans, settlers, the lore of your ancestors, family you’ve known, and your personal ties to the land all show up here. I was struck by the gas company’s invasion of the landscape, most notably in places important to the speaker’s family history, juxtaposed with the early Pennsylvania pacifist settlers’ often violent encounters with the Native Americans. Do you feel that pacifism influences the actions of the people living in these regions today? Or how do you view the juxtaposition working in this piece?

JSK: Certainly for some pacifists living in these regions, that ideal persists and determines actions, and yet one lesson of Penn’s Holy Experiment is that violence cannot be externalized or eradicated entirely.

The piece works associatively, turning from one form of violence to another. You’ll find trees or wood in almost every section. Trees have been associated with human bodies from antiquity—think of Myrrha. Jeff Gundy, a poet friend, read this and said he thinks it’s like surrealism, except that the piece is made of events from memory and history, not imagination and dream. Every statement is factual, as far as I know, except the location of the place where my dad’s feed truck lost its brakes in the 1950s; that happened on another mountain nearby.

TFR: Clearly, you have researched this topic in a variety of ways. What has the process been like as you decide what historic morsels stay in, what gets set aside?

JSK: So much of it relies on the sifting of memory; I have the kind of mind that hoards details and trivia. When people have been able to live in the same place for a long time, stories get inscribed on the landscape the way junk collects in the attic. Yet, places change. That compressor shed at the end of Peight’s lane felt like a violation when I spied it. I was thinking about gas development and suddenly seeing its signs everywhere on the landscape.

I grew up knowing the story of what some people call “the Hochstetler massacre,” but after he was rescued from the river, Jacob had to make a deposition to General Bouquet, so there are records I could read. I researched in various ways, mostly digitally, which felt like such a luxury, discovering all those mostly useless but really interesting details! The corner trees/witness trees turned up in a New York Times piece about forestry studies. Some of the details in the fifth section were passed on from my father-in-law, John Ruth, who’s working on a book about the early history of eastern Pennsylvania, the arrival of the Mennonites, and Penn’s sons and the broken treaties that led to the involvement of Native people in the Seven Years War between England and France.

I wanted to move through time and think about violence in this landscape, but beyond that, intuition determined which details to include.

TFR: This piece explores the complicated, even violent relationship the speaker has to the land she calls home. One of the last sentences of this poem rings with a tension that I have often felt myself, “I drive home and cook my groceries on a gas stove.” What have you found that poetry is able to do when confronted with the dualism of the negative impact of the gas drilling practices on the land and communities close to the drilling versus the modern conveniences most Americans have come to expect?

JSK: Poetry can help us face the facts and feel the grief of this reality. We’re all in it. We’re all implicated. Perhaps there can be hope in that, too, if it means that we can see that we’re all responsible for caring for these places and communities, and for finding sustainable ways to live.

Amy Lee Heinlen studies poetry in the MFA program at Chatham University where she also works as a librarian. Her poems have appeared in The Mom Egg Review, multiple volumes of Voices in the Attic, and The Red Clay Review. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, daughter, and two cats.