A Conversation with Heidi Czerwiec, 2015 Prose/Hybrid Contest Winner
Kate Partridge: Your chapbook Sweet/Crude, which we're delighted to be publishing in 2016, responds to the impact of fracking and the ensuing population boom in North Dakota. The work parses many of the impacts of this “boom or bust,” including the dimensions of violence that have followed—not only ecological, but also public and domestic damage to women, children, safe housing, public safety, and Native Americans. The book is also highly associative, though, and makes intriguing demands of the reader to bear with you as the pieces come together—you write in “I.”, by way of explanation, “(This is all connected.)”
What do you see as the role of lyric writing in responding to the effects of the Boom, and how have you tried to address them in this book? How do you see form as significant to this piece?
Heidi Czerwiec: First off, I have to thank Bill Caraher for his work on the Bakken, which was a huge influence on this piece. Many of our colleagues in different departments at the University of North Dakota have been collecting data to try and make sense of the various effects of the Bakken Oil Boom, but he put together an interdisciplinary group – including himself (an historian trained in the classical archeology of ancient mining sites and the communities that sprang up around them), a social work professor, a photographer, and a communications/journalism professor – to document the Boom at regular intervals as it progresses. While their work is limited mainly to the mancamps, his project allowed me to think about the multiple and interconnected approaches to this complex event.
I think the lyric/poetic mode is uniquely equipped to handle these multiple approaches simultaneously, embodying its contradictions, shuffling and reshuffling images and refrains to create new connections and new shades of meaning each time they appear. Until recently, most of my writing has been poetry, much of it in traditional forms, so I come to nonfiction from that sensibility. Once I realized the importance of representing the interconnected issues of the Bakken Boom, the form this piece required occurred to me fairly quickly. Sweet/Crude is a lyric essay sequence in prose, but based on the heroic sonnet crown form (15 parts; the last sentence of one becomes the first sentence of the next; the last part consists of the 14 repeating sentences) to illustrate the interlocking issues – environmental, social, political, cultural, and economic – facing western North Dakota.
The lyric mode of “I” also attempts to bring these huge issues down to the human level. While the essays give some socio-historical context to frame these issues, the power of zooming in on human details – a passenger looking out his plane window at the lights from the Bakken, math teacher Sherry Arnold who was abducted and murdered by two workers on meth, an Indian girl lured into sex trafficking by her “boyfriend” – are what make lyric writing so immediate and powerful. In combining the linguistic power of the lyric and the information of documentary prose, I’ve emulated the work of my friend Nicole Walker, another poet-turned-essayist, and that of Terry Tempest Williams, each of whom write pieces that braid together the personal, scientific, historical, and environmental in ways that are both beautiful and wrenching. The fluid work of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Argonauts is another big influence. I also incorporated a lot of the language of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian throughout this piece, because his visceral descriptions of violence on the American frontier intersect with my project at various points.
KP: A great deal of information in this book comes from your research on this topic, but also from on-the-ground observation. How do you envision the relationship between providing historical and social context for this topic and contributing a personal synthesis of the experience?
HC: I think my discussion of the possibilities of hybridizing the lyric mode with documentary nonfiction above gets at part of your question, about the relationship between socio-historical context and personal reaction, the balance between the informative and the human. But to talk about it in a little more detail, I think it’s about the responsibility of the writer to bear witness. For ages, the bard told the stories of the tribe to the tribe, and I see that as my role here: to take a current event that I have a front seat to, and show readers how and why it’s relevant to our cultural story. North Dakota is a blank spot in much of the country’s imagination – the state’s visitor information center actually sells t-shirts for “The Best for Last Club” because for so many, it’s the last of the 50 states to visit. As a result, that makes North Dakota expendable – as long as there’s a source for cheap domestic oil and natural gas, it’s easy to ignore the negative effects on what’s imagined as a virtually uninhabited state. Since this Boom began, it’s been covered by some major news sources – NPR and New York Times each did a series examining the effects – these are great stories, and I used them in my research. But they’re written from the point of view of journalistic tourism and tend to play up the Deadwood vibe, and I wanted to get more sustained, personal observations over time, from people living here: my own experiences, and those of Bill and his project, local and regional newspapers, colleagues teaching at schools in western ND, and regional social media, like the Facebook page Bakken Oilfield Fail of the Day. I am obligated to bear witness as truthfully and completely as possible, because it feels like this is a moment that won’t be captured otherwise, due to a lack of attention. But in the interest of complete honesty, I feel obligated to acknowledge and represent my complicity as well: I benefit from the cheap fuel and from the increased tax revenues, even though I live on the other side of the state. By including myself, I hope that I’ve found a way to gently remind readers that we’re all complicit without sounding too didactic.
There are a few other writers from North Dakota who are writing about the Boom – Ojibwe poet Heid Erdrich, Debra Marquart in her most recent collection Small Buried Things, Taylor Brorby who edited the anthology Fracture: Essays, Poems, & Stories on Fracking in America. But we need more.
KP: One of the probing questions of this manuscript is about “what lies beneath”— an explicit reference to the oil economy, but also to the suppression of the local residents, to the responsibility of Americans to face this crisis, and to that which is unspoken/concealed in this industry’s actions. Money, of course, is a driving factor in the changes you describe, affecting everything from the availability of emergency services to the emergence of a nouveau riche class. How else is the idea of submersion and concealment relevant to understanding these essays?
HC: You’ve detailed many of the ways “what lies beneath” refers to the literal – oil, the Ogallala Aquifer, reinjected fracking wastewater, and the nightmare that will ensue if those elements mingle – as well as to what’s more figuratively concealed – where the vast amounts of money are flowing in the oil industry and our one-party state government. Recently, comedian and talk-show host John Oliver did a fantastic segment on the Boom that skewered the state for its “North Dakota Nice” approach that amounts to nonregulation of Big Oil. But there’s a lot more ugliness that lies beneath that “North Dakota Nice” veneer: xenophobia against all “those outsiders” who don’t share “our values,” a culture that polices women’s bodies and that only recently has started to aid rather than arrest trafficked women. And our country’s treatment of Native Americans, which the Boom has thrown into relief: reservations created on land so bad it’s called the Badlands, suddenly desirable because of the oil beneath it, experiencing sudden growth with few resources to support it, and because Indian law has little to no jurisdiction over non-Indians there’s a lack of criminal prosecution – drug and sex traffickers are having a field day there. And, of course, the exacerbation of climate change lies underneath all of this.
KP: A striking contrast in imagery in this work is the difference between the “desert” of North Dakota (and its vast emptiness and slowness) relative to the suddenness and cramped quarters of the oil industry camps that seem to have permeated the entirety of Bakken. In a particularly lovely phrase, you describe the roads “overrun with overweighted, overfreighted trucks driving overtime,” as well as the tremendous drain on public services by people who aren’t making a lasting contribution to the local economy. How is the idea of the “boom” in the American West significant to this work? What is different in this iteration than in the days of the railroad barons, which you reference?
HC: The American West has experienced numerous boom cycles – gold and silver, uranium, oil – and is dotted with ghost towns. North Dakota is no exception: Ghosts of North Dakota has three books, a website, and a Facebook page dedicated to them, and has seen two oil boom/bust cycles before the current one – in the 1960s and 1980s. These are the “virtually uninhabited” areas I referred to earlier, irrelevant until they’re suddenly relevant due to gold standard instability, the atomic age, or high foreign oil prices. Outside investors usually make all the money, while it’s the locals – often Native Americans – who suffer the long-term consequences. As one of the “virtual uninhabitants,” I feel obligated to document this iteration. What feels different about this particular boom is that it’s occurring at a moment when people finally are acknowledging how our human actions exacerbate climate change. We are being forced to decide whether the long-term effects to human life and environmental resources are worth the short-term convenience and profits. And with the recent bottoming-out of oil prices, drilling and staff have both been cut way back – some are saying this Boom is over. So, to return to the West’s history of boom/bust cycles, these sites may be abandoned too, leaving all its detritus – waste both merely unsightly or even dangerous – behind.
KP: A significant impact that you describe is the overcrowding of primary and secondary schools while colleges lose prospective students to the opportunity for quick cash. Why is the effect of the boom on education important?
HC: We’ve long undervalued and underfunded our education systems, despite the fact that a strong educational foundation could help reduce poverty and produce informed citizens, among other benefits. In the case of the current Bakken Boom, there’s no easy answer – with limited resources, how do you plan for this? Do you build more schools and hire more teachers to deal with the influx of students when they might be gone in five years? And what teachers and professors will come? Even with hiring bonuses, the pay isn’t great, the K-12 classes are crowded, the climate is harsh, the rural commute takes hours and is dangerous because of all the truck traffic, and the cost of living (food and housing) is the worst in the country. Many don’t want to bring their families here. Plus, public school teachers are usually women, who cannot move about safely and often are targets of sexual aggression in the Bakken. The region’s colleges serve a vast area, but many of its students who used to graduate, remain in the area, and fill higher-skilled positions are leaving to make quick money. Who can blame them, when Millenials are a generation in debt? But as a result, there’s a shortage of skilled labor – not just a lack of good teachers and professors, but also nurses, government workers, etc. The children in the schools are being underserved, and the region is experiencing a gap in trained jobs that likely will last until years after the coming downturn or bust.
KP: How do you see this book as feminist, and what interested you in publishing it with a feminist press?
HC: I would argue that both the form and the subject matter of Sweet/Crude is feminist. I find that the most exciting work being written in this hybrid lyric essay format is by women, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence – women’s bodies and experiences are messy and fluid, bleeding over into each other, chimerical.
I write the body. A lot. And as a woman, that body is usually female: pinups, mothers, conjoined twins. In researching the Bakken for Sweet/Crude, I found that most of the focus has been on men and the mancamps, with some sensationalized coverage of the vices that follow men with too much money and time, mainly drugs and prostitution. And I do include these elements, because they’re a huge part of the Boom. But as a woman, I wanted to bring attention to the other ways this Boom affects women. Because a lot of the men travel here to work dangerous jobs, their families have to deal with almost military-like deployments. For the families who accompany men here, the mothers often raise children in haphazard RV parks in undesirable conditions with little support. Women just trying to live their lives are daily the targets of unwanted sexual aggression. The closest Planned Parenthood clinics are over 300 miles away in Billings, MT or almost 400 miles in Fargo, and ND’s legislature is trying to pass the nation’s most restrictive abortion ban; there’s a Planned Parenthood over 600 miles away in Sioux Falls, SD, but it no longer performs abortions. Sex trafficking is rampant, with Native American girls especially vulnerable: they’re the most likely to be rape victims, least likely to have their usually non-Indian rapists prosecuted. Many of these are issues facing women around the country and world, but like everything else, the Boom is concentrating and revealing the worst aspects of these issues. And again, the recent cutbacks in production are turning some people mean and desperate – I’m afraid for some of these women, especially the ones in sexual slavery. What will happen to them?
Also, while some people think that feminism only means women’s issues, or that feminists hate men, that’s not true – patriarchal constructs are also responsible for the unfair idea that men have to be tough and be the breadwinners and do these dangerous jobs without complaint or they’re wusses, or can’t control themselves around women, or have to act a certain “masculine” way in groups of other men. These prescribed gender roles are feminist issues, too. One could even make an argument that the forceful drilling and injecting of the land is a feminist issue.
I’m thrilled to be publishing Sweet/Crude with a feminist press like Gazing Grain. Organizations like VIDA, which does its annual count of women being published and reviewed, and certain online communities have called attention to the need for more women’s voices, and to represent experiences other than the dominant narrative. Presses like Gazing Grain publishing these projects and featuring them at writing festivals like New Leaves amplifies women’s voices, and when women writers know about what a positive experience it’s been, more excellent writing gets funneled to feminist presses. Women promoting other women is a beautiful thing, and when that happens, we all benefit.
KP: What are you working on now?
HC: Right now I’m working on a group of essays that I’m hoping will become a book, tentatively titled Real Mother, about my relationship with my adopted son’s birthmother – as mothers and mothering bodies. We have an open adoption, and while I’m a proponent of this option, I’m discovering that open adoptions open up the relationship to further issues that haven’t been as discussed in literature about adoption. In writing these essays, I hope to highlight both the surprising parallels and huge divides in her and my experience of woman- and motherhood in a way that honors her, her adoption choice, my son, and his families. Two of the essays – “My Son’s Brother” and “Nervous Systems” – are available to read online, if you want a taste.
I’m also sketching out a new poetry project. It involves a mother and daughter, the selkie myth with the seal recast as a bear, and is set in a Northwoods landscape that resembles contemporary Chernobyl – simultaneously post-apocalyptic and old-school violent folktale forest. But I don’t want to talk about it because I don’t have it figured out yet. In fact, I’ve already said too much.
Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who teaches at the University of North Dakota, where she is poetry editor of North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of two recent collections, Self-Portrait as Bettie Page (2013) and A Is For A-ké, The Chinese Monster (2015), and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets (2015).