For many across Appalachia, the region’s mining and drilling heritage is a source of pride. But it’s a complicated pride, according to West Virginia poet Susan Truxell Sauter. She is one of 50 writers featured in a new book called Fracture—an anthology of poems, essays and stories exploring the impacts of fracking on America. Recently, Kara Holsopple talked with Sauter about her poem in the book, and how she sees the natural gas boom as following a problematic—and all too familiar—path.
Allegheny Front: Many of the writers in the book have a personal connection to fracking. What’s been your experience with fracking as a resident of West Virginia?
Susan Truxell Sauter: It’s so emotional for me. It hasn’t happened yet to us, but I feel like I’m laying on a railroad track and it’s going to happen and I’m going to lose everything. We did see a little bit about what fracking was going to do to our farm. We have a 128 acres in Preston County. When this whole thing about fracking came out, all of a sudden, we were seeing these blue tanker trucks. They were fracking wells vertically, but we did not know that. It was a frightening time. It was loud. We couldn’t keep our windows open. So that’s my very personal connection.
LISTEN: “A Poet Reflects on the Fracking Boom”
AF: The title of your poem in the anthology is “The Academy Awards of Expendable.” It reads like an acceptance speech. What’s the concept behind the poem?
STS: Well, I literally was watching the Academy Awards. And I just thought, what would an Academy Awards of West Virginia look like? There are three voices [in the poem], and I start out by calling out the guilty ‘all of us.’ We took too much, you know? And in the next voice, I have the emcee tell everybody to drink up their Marcellus martinis. And then West Virginia comes to the podium and she speaks. And I think West Virginians—we are very confused about what we are to be proud of. We’ve sacrificed so much. My farm has been strip-mined already. Our waters have been polluted. The rivers are orange. Our tourism industry was destroyed in Preston County. And yet we’re proud, but we’re kind of confused about that. So that’s that last voice of West Virginia, and how she approaches her ‘thanks.’
I want to thank the titans of industry,
my producers, the consumers, the
stunning script, my stunned surface,
the neighbors who sold out,
the directors of apocalypse. I share
this award with all, including the vigilant
E. Gordon Gee-bow-tied, tongue-
tied board members who sat at the table
of the largest mining disaster
in recent history. And, for you,
the audience so adorned,
let me thank: fur-bearing animals
for dying, the canaries, too,
as our oxygen thins worldwide.
—from “The Academy Awards of Expendable,”
courtesy the author and Ice Cube Press
AF: You mention E. Gordon Gee in the poem. Can you explain briefly who he is?
STS: He has been president of quite a few universities. When we was president of Ohio State, he was also head of the safety, health and policy committee of Massey Energy. He served nine years on that committee, during the time of the Big Branch mining disaster. That is what West Virginia, in her acceptance speech, is referring to.
AF: Through the poem, you do connect West Virginia’s long history of coal mining to this current wave of fracking for natural gas. How do see the relationship between the two?
STS: We have a script that we’ve done before. West Virginia knows how to do this. And they don’t know how to do anything else. I don’t think we know how to claim what is rightfully ours. A good, safe life—on land that we can go back to. It’s all of us, and I struggle with that. It’s easy to proclaim care, but it’s harder to put our care into action. But there are consequences if we don’t. And I am so angry, and I think that poem has a lot of anger in it.
AF: And a little humor as well.
STS: Yeah, I think it’s hilarious. And yet we’re all so sensitive here in West Virginia about ourselves. And it’s an uncomfortable position to be putting myself in to be poking fun, but I think we have to. I think with poetry you’re given more license for emotion, and for the reader, to experience more of their own selves in the poem. Poetry is like a concentrated punch. It’s a good kick-in-the-pants summary of where we’ve been.
Susan Truxell Sauter is a writer from West Virginia. Click here to read her poem, “The Academy Awards of Expendable.” Photo (top): A miner gathers his thoughts before taking part in a rescue mission, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2006, in Tallmansville, W.Va. after a mine explosion trapped 13 miners. Twelve of the miners died in the accident. Credit: AP / Haraz N. Ghanbari, Pool