Penn State Professor Turns Controversy into Poetry

By Sarah Steighner

Co-Editor-in-Chief

NEW KENSINGTON, Pa. – Professor and poet, Julia Kasdorf presented Penn State New Kensington with a glimpse of her “docu-poetry” work titled “Shale Play” during her visit to campus on Oct. 14.

Julia Kasdorf reads from one of her published books of poems during a presentation at Penn State New Kensington on October 14. (Photo by: Sarah Steighner)

Julia Kasdorf reads from one of her published books of poems during a presentation at Penn State New Kensington on October 14. (Photo by Sarah Steighner)

Kasdorf began her presentation by reading the title poem from her “Poetry in America” book. After captivating the handful of faculty and staff in attendance, Kasdorf began to explain her current writing endeavor, “Shale Play”; a collection of poems focused on the impacts of Marcellus Shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania.

Kasdorf stood in the front of the conference center, clutching a black leather bound book containing her latest written work. The collection of poems for her “Shale Play” project of poetry, which she read from, embodied the spirit and perspective of the narratives she had collected.

During a sabbatical that Kasdorf took two years ago, she said she started visiting diners and farms in Pennsylvania to talk with people who have been affected or merely witness to Marcellus Shale gas drilling.

After hearing a variety of accounts and attitudes towards living and working on drilling property in Pennsylvania, Kasdorf transformed the stories into a docu-poetry narrative. Docu-poetry refers to the infusion of poetry in documentary style work. Kasdorf explained the concept behind docu-poetry and how it combines factual research with non-fiction poetry impulse.

“I fact check, but I am also committed to portraying what I see,” Kasdorf said.

While “Shale Play” is still a work in progress, Kasdorf explained that it is still quite different than her other published works. She clarified that her other books of poetry were written mainly from her own perspective or even hypothetical. However, “Shale Play” on the other hand has taken much more research than her other published literature.

Kasdorf reiterated that her commitment to this particular project and the docu-poetry style stems from her mission to bring the information about Marcellus Shale fracking into meaning.

“There is an abundance of information from the drilling and environmental groups about the effects of drilling,” Kasdorf said. “However, no one has really documented these people’s stories.”

Her project seeks to take the stories, highlight various angles of the drilling industry and put it into poetry.

While Kasdorf says she hears a range of attitudes towards drilling, both positive and negative, she conveyed that she tries not to insert her outright opinions into the writing of this current project.

“It’s not my job to take a stand or figure it (the controversy of drilling) out, but it’s my job to write the narrative,” Kasdorf said. “I use their language and shape it into poetry.”

After the formal presentation, Kasdorf and the audience seamlessly transitioned into an informal question and dialogue session on drilling and western Pennsylvania.

Having been born in Lewistown Kasdorf was able to relate with the audience, some of whom also grew up in Pennsylvania, having been witness to the drilling in the area.

In attendance was Jennifer Wood Professor of Communications at PSNK. “I love the way Julia’s poetry amplifies a rich variety of voices,” Wood said.  “Her “Shale Play” poems in particular help me to understand and appreciate different experiences and perspectives with gas drilling in PA—voices that may not make it to the news or be noted in a survey.”

Wood discussed her appreciation for Kasdorf’s visit and poetry readings.

“I think amplifying voices is what makes docu-poetry so powerful,” Wood said. “Sometimes, people’s personal experiences are not exactly, ‘news worthy’ but they are still worth hearing and being told. Poetry makes it possible for us to hear them.”

Although “Shale Play” is still in the works, the foundation for its future has been laid out. Kasdorf has connected with a photo journalist and hopes to pair her text with pictures of drilling in a complete published work.

Kasdorf is well educated having received her B.A. in English, M.A. in Creative Writing, and Ph.D in English Education from New York University.

Kasdorf is currently a Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Penn State University’s main campus.

She has a mixture of published poetry, essays, and non-fiction works including “Sleeping Preacher,” “Eve’s Striptease,” “Poetry in America,” “The Body and the Book: Writing from a Mennonite Life,” and “Fixing Tradition.”

 

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