Lesley Battler‘s debut collection Endangered Hydrocarbons channels the poet’s personal experience as an employee of Shell Oil into an ingenious suite of poems confronting the extent and the implications of oil production in Canada. As a veteran of Big Oil, Battler is able to write from the unique perspective of the poet-insider. Appropriating the corporate and scientific language of oil extraction through pastiche and wordplay, Battler provides a complicated but compelling portrayal of what happens when nations conspire with multinational corporations to core the natural world.
Selected by BookThug’s Poetry Editor Phil Hall, this exciting and important new collection breathes human life into a contentious national issue. Fellow BookThug poet, Wanda Praamsma, author of a thin line between, sat down with Lesley to discuss her debut collection, Endangered Hydrocarbons.
Lesley will be reading from Endangered Hydrocarbons tonight, Wednesday May 20, 2015, at Shelf Life Books (100 – 1302 4th Street, Calgary) along with Jamie Sharpe, author of Cut Up Apologetic (ECW). 7:00-9:00 PM. The event is free. Refreshments and snacks will be served. For more info visit https://www.facebook.com/events/1585859904994385/
WP: This is your first book of poetry – how did it come about? What spurred you to start this project (which seems, all in one, like a critique, a parody, and a somewhat affectionate portrait of the oil industry in which you work)?
LB: My poetry project originated from concerns that include environmental devastation, loss of individual agency, and the relentless consumerism that fuels “Big Industry.” The book focuses on the language of production, specifically that of the petrochemical industry, to voice these concerns.
All of the poems in this project are derived from texts generated by a multinational oil company, spliced with a variety of found material, including video games, home decor magazines, works by Henry James and Carl Jung. I am deliberately tampering with this found material, treating it as crude oil, excavating, mixing, drilling these texts to emulate extraction processes used by the industry.
And yes, rather than taking a didactic approach, I’ve intended to use pastiche, wordplay and parody to show the absurdity and pervasiveness of production language in all areas of human life, including art, culture and politics.
I’m glad you mentioned the “somewhat affectionate portrait of the oil industry.” Because that is something that struck me throughout the writing process. I’m happy some of that tone came through. The book was written out of a sense of ambiguity because I was both bothered and seduced by the industry. I loved learning about geology, geophysics, seismology, regions of the world, new technologies. The job was a challenge. Being a powerful industry made it a dynamic work environment up until the last couple of years.
So there is an affection and engagement with the job that always countered a more abstract fear of multinational corporate power. If I had truly hated my job and the industry, this would have been a completely different work.
WP: You work from found material – meeting notes, wellbooks, geological diagnoses, among other things. How did these things make their way into the poems? Did they determine the structure, or did you determine the structure?
LB: This is a bit tough to pinpoint. I chose texts for their subterranean or ambient sounds. The stranger or less familiar the concept, the more I was drawn to it. I was also deeply interested in the dissociation between information framed inside schematics, seismic logs, data runs etc, etc and the physical reality this information purports to predict. How I selected the other texts is something I can’t really explain. There was something about the spheres and terminals of liquefied natural gas that led me to the archetypes of Carl Jung. Seismic explosions, extraction or drilling techniques conjured the French Revolution. The entire “North” section focuses the colonialism of industrial language juxtaposed with indigenous knowledge.
My intention was to preserve at least a vestige of the original structure, whether it was an email conversation, mudlog, PowerPoint slide. Doing this seemed to give the poems a natural frame. I also can’t think of any construct that doesn’t retain vestiges of some sort of origin, past or force.
WP: This isn’t the book most people will curl up with in a cozy chair, cup of tea in hand. It’s dense, and I imagine that’s the point, as you bore through the oil industry vernacular. Is there something you hope people are left with after reading?
LB: You’re right it’s not meant to be a comfy chair tea cup kind of book. I wanted both the language and form to emulate violent, invasive extraction techniques. Also, part of that may simply be a personal preference. I don’t go to poetry for that kind of easy-chair reading; for that, I prefer a steam-punk mystery. When it comes to poetry I want to be challenged. I want to aspire, reach beyond my grasp, pay closer attention to the sonic kinesthetic qualities of language itself.
I guess what I want to leave readers with is a sense of upheaval, and that when it comes to corporate capitalism, there is no cultural high ground, artistic wilderness or religious sanctuary that can’t be exploited. The cultural references in the book become artifacts dug up in an excavation site; skulls, bone fragments from their original sources.
WP: I am particularly drawn to this short stanza in one of the final poems in the collection, “Doing Business With Poets”:
To me it seems to encapsulate some or much of what you’re doing in the book. Is that fair to say, or how would you interpret it?
LB: This is an interesting stanza to revisit. I think you’re right, that it does encapsulate the ambivalence of the entire work. The stanza, as well as the entire poem works two ways. Within the poem, the “Big Oil tycoon” is stripping the wild voices of geology, chemistry, geotechnology or archetype; power and experimental play to meet targets and serve shareholders. The magnate is all about reducing the risk and potential threat of poetic language to a form which can be measured and placed in a quarterly financial report.
On a larger level, I, as the poet, am trying to do the opposite. Even as hydrocarbon extraction threatens earth itself, the hydrocarbons are also threatened. I want to jam the algorithms, release language and send it back to the wilderness and playground.
WP: You still work in the oil industry. What is your current role and how has writing this book changed the way you work day-to-day?
LB: I’m actually no longer working in the oil industry. I recently took a job in the public sector (I really am a glutton for punishment). But there was a bit of unease over how such a book might be received, and possible repercussions of using information I had access to through my role as a project information manager. I sometimes felt a little bit like a Cold War spy even though there isn’t one line in the book that reveals any kind of secret the company would consider valuable. I also felt a bit like Clark Kent at work, just before flying out of a phone booth to go write poetry.
Born in Barrie, Ontario, Lesley Battler’s work has been published in Alberta Views, Arc, Contemporary Verse 2, dandelion, filling Station, Matrix, Other Voices, PRISM international, and west coast line. She won the PRISM international Earle Birney Award (2012), and the University of Calgary Poem of the Season Award (2009) for a poem that became part of Endangered Hydrocarbons. Battler received an MA in English from Concordia University, and currently lives in Calgary, where until recently she worked in the petrochemical industry. Endangered Hydrocarbons (BookThug, 2015) is her first full-length book of poetry.
Wanda Praamsma grew up in the Ottawa valley in Clayton, Ontario. Her poetry has appeared in Ottawater, 17 seconds, and Feathertale, and several literary non-fiction pieces have appeared in the Toronto Star, where she worked for several years as an editor. She has worked, studied, and lived at various points in Salamanca, Spain, Santiago, Chile, and Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and has travelled to many places in between and beyond, including Cuba, India, and the Balkans. Praamsma currently lives in Kingston, Ontario. a thin line between is her first book of poetry. Find her at www.whywandawrites.com or connect with her on Twitter @wpraamsma.