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Digging Deeper

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Albright College lecturer Craig Czury.

When he’s not teaching writing courses at Albright College, Craig Czury is hitchhiking in Northeastern Pennsylvania, gaining insight and material for his poetry about natural gas drilling.

By Hilary Bentman

During the week, poet Craig Czury can be found in Master’s Hall teaching Albright College students how to craft creative prose and poetry.

But on weekends, the former Berks County poet laureate heads north to hitchhike. For the last three years, Czury has been dropping his thumb along Route 29 in Northeastern Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna County in the hope that passing motorists will pick him up.

And they do.

“People think I have a DUI or my car broke down,” said Czury.

Neither is true.

Czury’s real purpose for hitching a ride is to chat with folks about the region’s new reality, marked by drilling rigs, pipelines and truck traffic – lots of truck traffic.

The area, part of a once-robust anthracite coal industry, sits at the crossroads of a new energy boom – natural gas, buried in the depths of the Marcellus shale, which runs through this and other parts of the Commonwealth.

Czury’s chats with the Good Samaritan motorists – farmers, mothers, out-of-town gas workers – are fodder for his so-called Thumb Notes, snippets of other people’s thoughts about the impact of drilling.

The Thumb Notes are eventually incorporated into poems. A portion of Czury’s writing, his Marcellus Journal, was recently published in the anthology Vigil for the Marcellus Shale (FootHills, 2013), while some of his Thumb-Note poetry has been posted at Borderbend, an online arts collective.

Czury is in the midst of compiling the Marcellus Journal and Thumb Notes into the Thumb Notes Almanac, which he hopes to have published.

A native of the Back Mountain region of Luzerne County, Czury, a prolific writer, calls his work “poetry of witness.”

“I want to document a region divided that will change forever because of this infusion,” said Czury.

He succeeds:

Before the gas came in
there was no change for years and years and years
that’s one thing
 It´s beautiful country all around here
but that´s all we got and they´re tearing it up
 

Gas drilling, particularly the process known as hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), is a contentious and litigious issue in Pennsylvania, pitting neighbors against neighbors.

“Everyone knows who signed [gas leases] and when,” said Czury.

Those leases are paying some residents more each month than their jobs will pay over years. But there are moral dilemmas to be pondered and water quality to fret over. There are journalists, documentary filmmakers and environmentalists who have latched onto the issue.

Czury says the purpose of his Thumb Notes is to cut through the noise to tell the people’s story:

We own this We don’t own this  
These are hard decisions between the haves and the used-to-haves

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Czury organizes his "Thumb Notes" into poems.

Czury never tells the drivers who offer him rides his true reason for hitching. In fact, Czury doesn’t broach the drilling topic.

Inevitably, however, the conversation turns in that direction, usually when they drive by the pipeline in Dimock.

After parting ways with the driver, Czury jots down their thoughts in a journal. No names are used. He then returns to his weekend home, a former schoolhouse in Springville, which has been converted into an art gallery with studio apartments for artists.

Czury tapes the Thumb Notes to a large wall and “listens to them. I listen to the voices speaking to each other.” He then assembles the poems.

Czury has done this all before. The 62-year-old spent a large chunk of his life hitchhiking across the country. “It’s in my travel vocabulary,” he said.

In the 1980s, Czury began documenting his upbringing in the anthracite coal region through poetry of family, environment and witness.

“The fragmentary language of poetry lends itself to the fragmented lives of workers, a fragment of how people reflect on the environment,” he said. “The people looked like where they lived – hard, dark, with masculine sensitivities. And when the industry left, the people were abandoned as the earth was.”

Czury plans to continue hitchhiking for the foreseeable future. “I like it up there. I’m home,” he said.

Czury’s efforts have been part of COMMON GROUND: A Community Conversation about Natural Gas in Northeastern Pennsylvania. It's a partnership involving Czury and regional historian Kimberly Glemboski, along with representatives of Keystone College, land conservancies, and Cabot Oil and Gas.

Czury’s role was to create a poetic response with participants on regional bus tours, as well as documenting the voices of residents and workers through his hitchhiking interviews and community writing workshops.

Czury has received a $15,000 F. Lammot Belin Arts Scholarship to continue his work.

 

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