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Why this poet couldn’t avoid writing about the opioid crisis

The opioid crisis has plagued poet William Brewer’s hometown in West Virginia. His vivid poems tell the story of the opioid epidemic from different voices and depict the sense of bewilderment people find themselves in as addiction creeps into their lives. As part of our series “America Addicted,” Jeffrey Brown gets a poet’s take on the nation’s opioid crisis.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now our America Addicted series continues with a different take on the nation’s opioid crisis, this time captured in verse.

    Jeffrey Brown is back with the story.

  • William Brewer:

    I would come back for the holidays, Thanksgiving or Christmas, and someone I knew suddenly wasn’t around anymore, and I would ask, what happened to this person? And they would say, oh, well, you know, they’re on the pills. They’re on the pills. We don’t really see them anymore.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The pills that poet William Brewer talks about are opioids. And they have become the scourge of both the city and state where he was born and raised, Morgantown, West Virginia.

    The state has the highest rate in the nation for overdose deaths, with one happening every 12 hours.

  • William Brewer:

    There’s no doubt that something that wasn’t going on 10 years ago is now going on, on a massive scale.

    “I gave my body to the mountain whole. For my body, the clinic gave out petals inked with curses. Refill, refill, refill, until they stopped.”

  • Jeffrey Brown: 

    The opioid crisis is also the subject of Brewer’s first collection of poetry, called “I Know Your Kind,” published last month.

    It was a topic Brewer initially wanted to avoid.

  • William Brewer:

    West Virginia is very rarely looked at in a positive light.

    And so here again is a situation where something really quite terrible is going on, but it became so clear that this thing wasn’t going to go away and was starting to seep into my daily life. So, eventually, I kind of couldn’t help but engage with it. And once I started, it kind of took over and kept going.

  • Jeffrey Brown: 

    And what did you see that compelled you?

  • William Brewer:

    It got to the point where it was a matter in my daily life every day, not with me. I have not suffered with opioid or opioid addiction.

    But I was seeing the ways that it was impacting both the individual suffering and those that care for that individual. And when that’s going on, it’s quite difficult to really think about anything else.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In the book, Brewer speaks in many different voices, sometimes an observer, sometimes a concerned family member, most often the addict himself.

    In one particularly vivid poem, Brewer describes the lengths two addicts go to get more pills.

  • William Brewer:

    “We were so hungry. Tom’s hand on the table looked like warm bread. I crushed it with a hammer, then walked him to the E.R. to score pills. Why’d you keep hitting, he asked. I don’t know. And I didn’t.”

    One of the things, I think, that is really crucial is the sense of bewilderment that people find themselves in. And no one really just starts out shooting pills or heroin into their system. No one quite understands how they get there.

    It happens so quickly that someone can turn around, and it’s been a year, and they have been abusing opioids for a year.

    So, I spent a great deal of time here playing around in the barn or in the creek.

  • Jeffrey Brown: 

    As a young boy, Brewer spent time on his family’s farm and on hiking trips in the region. He left West Virginia to go to college and grad school, and is now on a fellowship at Stanford University.

    But he’s always been fascinated by West Virginia’s landscape, and sees a connection to the opioid epidemic.

  • William Brewer:

    West Virginia is one of the most distinct and beautiful landscapes in the entire country, in my opinion.

    But it is a landscape that is rarely ever free from the influence of industry. So, any space you’re in, there’s a good change that timber has been there or coal has been there or agriculture has been there in one way or another.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Well, good times and bad.

  • William Brewer:

    Good times and bad.

    Labor and how you make your life here for a lot of people meant you work with your hands. And your connection to the land was very deliberate. You can’t really separate the two.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In a very visceral way.

  • William Brewer:

    Yes, it’s very visceral.

    And so when one of those is taken out of the equation, you notice it. So, when the coal stops or the timber stops, you notice that absence. And there’s this sort of strange shadow problem hanging over somewhere like here, where you walk around and it’s immensely beautiful. But you know that there’s this terror kind of going on privately in the homes of its people.

    “Where once was faith, there are sirens,red lights spinning door to door, a record 24 in one day, all the bodies at the morgue filled with light. Who can stand another night stealing fistfuls of pills from our cancer-sick neighbors, of the railcars crying, the timber trucks hauling away the history of a million birds? Pitiful, maybe. But oblivion is all we have.”

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown in Morgantown, West Virginia.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you can

    read more from poet William Brewer

    , and find all of the stories in our America Addicted series on our Web site,

    PBS.org/NewsHour

    .

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