The poet and the power plant

The poet and the power plant is reprinted here by permission of the Texas Energy Report

December 23, 2014

When an English major shifted gears, art happened

‘I long to be one with this machine—steam-driven, spinning, and shifting’ 

Cindy Huyser, a poet and photographer, moved to Austin three decades ago with a plan to gain a master’s degree in English. While toiling 50-60 hours a week, attending graduate school and working at a pizza parlor, she heard about a better-paying training position with the city.

Huyser applied, and Austin Energy picked her and nine others for a federally funded program aimed at preparing women for nontraditional jobs.

“Little did I know this was the beginning of an industrial career that would last more than 15 years,” she later wrote.

After four months of training, the poet got hooked on power, ultimately leading to this year’s release of her striking new work, an award-winning poetry book called “Burning Number Five: Power Plant Poems.”

From the very real dangers posed by the powerful machines to the human drama behind keeping air conditioners humming during hot summer days, the poems mesmerize with their unexpected turns as technology transforms into art.  

“Of the countless poetry collections I have been privileged to enjoy over the years, few indeed have been as startlingly original,” wrote 2009 Texas Poet Laureate Larry D. Thomas who named Huyser’s work co-winner of the Blue Horse Press Chapbook Contest, 2004.

“The poet’s intimate and detailed knowledge of the boilers and other equipment of a power plant is matched by her knowledge of the intricacies of language, employed in this instance with masterful precision and economy,” he wrote on the book’s back cover. “Burning Number Five is a memorable, seamless merging of art and science.”

Huyser, who now works as a software engineer at Austin Energy, rose in the ranks from trainee to the first female control board operator and first female power plant operations supervisor at the municipal utility’s old Holly Street Power Plant.

The 500-megawatt natural gas and oil-fired plant was decommissioned in 2007, but its history, folklore and struggles live on in Huyser’s rendering in which the “beast is all steam breath and metal intestines” and, “at seventeen degrees, the oil will spill as slow as cold molasses.” She pulls from cautionary training tales of old-timers who talked of a man “dragged through the narrowest of openings – the long half-minute death, the belt they found, streaming with entrails.” And, she shares the supernatural mysteries of the “lady in white,” downtown, “where the old plant slumbered.”

The poet’s journey into the allure of producing power for Texas’ capital city turns the esoteric into the enchanting, the seemingly obtuse into vivid and precise imagery.

As she writes in the title poem:

Inside the furnace, one by one, we slide
each slender metal gun and latch its port.
Two turns of steam, then oil; ignitor’s flare.
We peer through cobalt at the brilliant light.
We’ll need asbestos gloves to take them out.
My breath blows white into the brittle air.

Back in the 1980s, women didn’t typically land jobs in power plant operations. The work required experience and skills usually gained by men. Military experience working in a naval ship’s engine room prepared one well for power plants as did the high pressure responsibilities of air traffic control work.

Huyser adapted well to 12-hour shifts and drew on her strong background in math and science. She had minored in math while earning her bachelor’s in English, but she had also started out studying mechanical engineering with its emphasis on physics and chemistry. After three years, she qualified as an assistant control board operator, entering a new level of training.

“Most of the time they were like, ‘Don’t touch anything!’ right?” she recalled, laughing.

But she paid attention, knowing the control board needed constant monitoring to keep the boiler, the terminal and the generator operating. Countless displays relayed the temperature in different parts of the plant. Burners needed to be manually started and stopped.

“It’s hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror,” Huyser said of her graduation to the greater responsibilities of control board operator. “You’re watching stuff and you’re monitoring stuff and there’s a lot of minor adjustments and kind of routine things, but then there’s also having to learn about what do you do when something goes wrong suddenly. When that happens you have to act very, very quickly.”

In her poem, “Until the Outage,” Huyser describes the Holly Street Plant as growing ever more fragile with age but still needed by demanding energy consumers.

She isn’t young anymore.
Her hydrogen-embrittled boiler tubes
are porous as old bones, cracks spider
from steam drain entries
on the wall of the condenser.
Breakers wear tags like bandages:
burned up bearings, the pump
that just gave up. 

And, later:

The operators coax her along. Last week,
they bypassed a #14 Feedwater heater
when three tubes gave way.
They’re gentle with her now,
bring up the pressure slow. Please, they ask,
just a little longer. In a few weeks,
the summer will be over. 

The poems began forming as Huyser grew, by necessity, ever more intimate with the machines, tending to them with special care during hours when others slept.

“You’re there for that experience and you’re there for those very long hours. You’re there under all these difficult conditions. And really they test you,” she said.

In “Rosebud,” Huyser describes the challenges faced by workers battling the elements six stories up, slipping on ice and blown by hard wind against the freezing Holly Street Plant’s railing.

Already, in Houston,
there are rotating blackouts.

A welder in three pair of overalls
stands between megawatts and off-line,
training his torch on a gland water line,
while an operator releases an oil gun
from its furnace port overhead–
struggling to keep the tip down,
to keep from wearing hot, black fuel.

We drive on banned roads,
work an extra 12 hours after our 12,
wait for relief delivered by
4-wheel-drive vehicles.
We hold these machines on line
while power goes to Dallas,
all of Austin’s lights on.
We take turns relieving the welder
outside, holding the rosebud. 

For Huyser, working at the old power plant brought an appreciation for its engineering, and appreciation for its equipment, an appreciation of the dangers and an appreciation of the plant’s ever vibration and whine.

“There’s a kind of awe sometimes in that experience. It’s almost like you’re an extension of the machine,” she said.

Indeed, as Huyser writes in “Night Shift on the Turbine Floor”:

I long to be one with this machine: steam-driven,
spinning, and shifting.
I long to feel my bearings snug in soft babbit
and washed in pure filtered turbine oil.
I long to press my pulse outward, through miles
of copper windings.

In Austin, Huyser’s book is available at Book Woman on North Lamar or at her website.

More information on Burning Number Five: Power Plant Poems can be found here.

By Polly Ross Hughes

© Copyright December 23, 2014, Harvey Kronberg,, All rights are reserved

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