Quarclet: The Poetics of Big Oil

Although my postal code locates me in Calgary, I actually live in a Pale of Settlement reserved for Big Oil employees who would be poets. All I own are the questions on my back. How does a woman who once dreamed of helming a Greenpeace zodiac end up in a multinational petrochemical company notorious enough to appear in No Logo and Gravity’s Rainbow? How does she respond to old friends who call her a sell-out and bosses who accuse her of spying for the Sierra Club? Most of all, how does she navigate through a land where her passions, especially language and science, meet professional aspiration and the bottom line? These questions, and my inability to answer them, have fuelled my current poetry project, “Endangered Hydrocarbons.”

This project grew from my own workplace concerns which include environmental devastation, relentless consumerism, and alienation from the physical world. My aim is to address these concerns as an insider, one who is involved in the shaping and disseminating of information. My focus is on the language of production, which I consider the industrial, militant arm of science. In this cosmology, disciplines such as geology, chemistry, geophysics are stripped of their power and experimental play. Instead, purpose-driven numbers and letters are recruited, put to work and sent off to serve the shareholders.

All of the poems in this project are derived from texts generated in a multinational oil company. Items such as wellbooks, mudlogs, geological prognoses, and regulatory assessments are spliced with a variety of found material—travel guides, home décor magazines, book reviews, or excerpts from the works of figures like Carl Jung, Henry James, and Gertrude Stein—to show that there is no cultural high ground, artistic wilderness, scientific or religious sanctuary that can’t be exploited. I am treating production language as crude oil, excavating, treating, mixing, injecting these texts to emulate extraction processes used by the industry.

The “NEB poems” originated from transcripts of National Energy Board public consultation hearings into a natural gas pipeline project proposed for northern Canada. These transcripts are divided into two columns. On the left side is the highly processed pseudoscientific jargon of oil company spokespeople, bolstered by an array of graphs and statistics. On the “other” side are the indirect, self-deprecating but pointed stories from First Nations witnesses, people representing communities living on land coveted by the legions of stakeholders circling this megaproject.

This suite of poems is intended to directly address the dissonance and power differential between the two sides by fusing these two opposite discourses, breaking the two-column structure in order to invite more, and more pointed, questions. Who decides when data becomes information, when information becomes policy and is put into action? What do you do when the language that will destroy you is also the only one that can empower you in a material world? What happens to production language when it is torn from sequestered head offices and dropped inside an anecdotal, indigenous knowledge?

Once again, I have no answers. But maybe a divided woman in the Pale of Settlement is in a perfect position to reveal the questions lying beneath the surface of production science. Who is better qualified than a sell-out would-be poet to recontextualize oil and gas vernacular, reveal its hidden poetics, deflect it from its goal (more barrels a day), and prevent it from meeting Q4 targets?


Read the poems: language as crude oil in Quarc.

Lesley Battler lives in Calgary and works in the petrochemical industry.


Sylvia Nickerson is a Hamilton-based artist whose illustrations have been published widely in Canada and internationally, including on both covers of Quarc.


For more of Battler’s eloquent extractions and Sylvia Nickerson’s epic-scientific ink, get your hands on Quarc! Offer ends soon—subscribe to both The New Quarterly and Arc for 38% off!


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