There Was Light A Mile Deep: Interview with Poet William Brewer
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The West Virginian landscape exists as one of the great splendors of North America, but beneath the canopies of spruce and maple and folded inside the canyons smolders a public health crisis whose effect has verged on apocalyptic for some communities, both spiritually and literally. Peddled by big pharma, opioids found special traction, furthering the hardships inherited from a history of economic injustice. Like new gears spinning a rusted machine.
These conditions have sown a very human consequence, which looks out from the porch of William Brewer’s debut book of poems, I Know Your Kind, with lines like: “[I] have placed my lips against the shadow / of his mouth, screamed air into his chest, / watched it rise like an empire then fall.”
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Born and raised in West Virginia, the poet left Appalachia to pursue higher education, but his craft was drawn back towards the hills of his youth, rendering the anguish and ghosts that multiplied rapidly there in the mid-aughts when the state ranked as having the highest overdose rate in the country (it still does).
With delirious imagery, Brewer uses natural subjects such as flies and logging to express deep emotions, at the same time accessing the past in order to help explain the unbelievable present. His poems have been published in The New Yorker, The Nation, American Poetry Review, and his chapbook Oxyana was selected by the Poetry Society of America for their 30 and Under chapbook fellowship.
Then, last year Ada Limon selected I Know Your Kind as a winner of the National Poetry Series. A practice in empathy, the book illustrates not only the spirit of a place struggling to stand, but a cross-section of the epidemic timeline on a local level when the national media was just starting to grasp what was happening. Before the big policy responses. Despite all the graves already in the ground.
Interviewed by The Fix, Brewer hikes into these “terrible truths” and cracks open the question of what drives someone to give themself to an artificial comfort, underlining that rural living can marginalize culturally and politically.
Estimates place the number of people recovering in the United States around 25 million, and close to the same amount experiencing active substance use disorder. More than ever, there is a need for a strong literature to reflect this population, how we lived and how we want to live. I Know Your Kind stimulates our thinking about the prismatic possibilities of a modern addiction poetry.
Note: This is sometimes a sad conversation, about suffering caused by substance use disorder. Seek out another interview if you’re unbraced.
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The Fix: Your book opens with the poem “Oxyana, West Virginia,” which establishes the setting of I Know Your Kind as a place where both splendor and suffering co-occur. Can you talk more about the relationship between the people and the land?
William Brewer: Oceana is a small town in southern West Virginia, a blast site of the opioid epidemic. The nickname Oxyana refers to Oxycontin, the drug that took over. This poem takes the notion of a single place and applies it to multiple regions of the state to create a condensed fictional stage, to build out a landscape. Throughout the book, when I talk about one place, I’m talking about the whole state, because the problem is everywhere. The whole state is a kind of Oxyana.
Now, with the idea of splendor and suffering, I think the word you used was co-occur—that’s absolutely right in West Virginia. It’s an immensely beautiful state, but it’s a state of contrasts. The ancient hills are beautiful, but that ancientness meant coal, which meant prosperity, but only for a very few until the mid-20th century. Coal, for much of its history, has meant a very hard way of living that has benefited very few. So the thing that gave West Virginia its prosperity is also the thing that has caused most of its destruction environmentally, economically, and to the physical well-being of its citizens.
Now that the coal industry has died away, people are left in drained away communities, isolated from the outside world by the mountains and rivers, which also prevent jobs like manufacturing from coming in. The landscape becomes a beautiful prison.
You often manipulate the symbol of light, twisting away from classic associations, or at least complicating them. For example, in “Overdose Psalm,” a tree is cut down and the line goes “Snow committing its slow occupancy, / filling the column like words, the light / saying in so few of them, like all terrible / truths, something here did not survive.” Besides being very very sad, it’s so resonant. How does light function in your book?
In IKYK, I’m interested in exploring the power opiates have to mimic a kind of divine energy. They aren’t like psychedelics, which connect you to the feeling of a greater universe. Or amphetamines, which accelerate our reality. This is something simple: an optimism, a brightness, a luminosity, therefore light will function in the mind of the speaker as positivity, but for the reader the function is more sinister. Here, our feelings about beauty (which light is often in service of) become less straightforward than they seem.
Writing has to look carefully at the way certain chemicals make people feel.
We must recognize the ways substances make you feel fulfilled.
Yes. And in the case of West Virginia, you have a largely poor, often isolated populace that is, in many respects, ignored by the rest of the country. When the outside world does engage with WV, it’s often through joke and insult. “Trash,” “Hillbilly,” “Did you marry your cousin?” “I’m surprised you wear shoes.” In her essay “The Fog Zone,” Leslie Jamison gets it right: “West Virginia is like a developing nation in the middle of America. It has so many resources and it has been screwed over again and again: locals used for labor; land used for riches; other people taking the profits.” With all that in mind, it’s suddenly a lot easier to understand how big unfulfillment can be as an idea, and how deep unfulfillment can function like a kind of pain. Through that pain comes the chemicals.
What about the power dynamic between other parts of the U.S. and West Virginia? In your poem “Oxyana, West Virginia” you have those lines about river beds being wine glasses for the Roosevelts. It seems to me this dynamic could compound with the marginalization of the state, worsening the epidemic, distancing external aid.
You’re absolutely right. That Jamison quote again. This is a place that gave everything to America during its rapid rise through the last century, and then when it was finished America turned its back on them. This was and continues to be a form of erasure. When people are told they don’t matter or feel like they don’t exist—that’s going to worsen a problem like the epidemic. The drug problem has been going on for over 10 years, but it’s only just now garnered attention. That’s in part because a lot of people—a lot—still don’t know WV is its own state. A few months back I was seated at a dinner beside an Ivy League graduate who kept referring to my home as Virginia, even after I corrected them multiple times.
Yeah, that’s a completely different state.
And when your country doesn’t know you exist, it’s like your suffering doesn't exist. Then it’s like, who are they to tell you how you handle your suffering?
All of this leads to the larger point, the key point about the book. IKYK is not about the opioid epidemic, and it’s not about WV, it’s about how these two subjects are bound together through a continuation of history. The history of WV is the history of massive industry making gargantuan profits off the lives of WV citizens. Timber, minerals, oil, coal, gas, and now: pharmaceuticals. They pumped 780 million pills into a state of 1.8 million people. By doing that, those companies, that industry, made a conscious choice: The lives of West Virginians aren’t as important to us as money; this is a population we can afford to kill.
Leads me to think of “Daedalus in Oxyana.” There’s a line... “I gave my body to the mountain whole. For my body, the clinic gave out petals inked with curses.”
I want to hear more of how you funneled real life places and people into this book. What was your research process like?
The research was living and seeing the issue grow. The research arrived. But I don’t necessarily like that word, “research,” because it suggests I went looking for it. It’s more that the problem appeared. Things snowballed very quickly. Sometimes I didn’t realize it, other times I did. In conjunction, at one point someone came to my fiancée and me and told us they were a heroin addict and they were terrified. I got angry, thinking they got themselves into the mess and didn’t care about anyone else. Ten minutes later I realized this reaction was repulsive. I wrote the person off at their most vulnerable. A flip switched, and I realized this was something deeper I wanted to sit with and look at. That meeting between personal interrogation and social observation is how the book came to be.
I like how the initial motivation for this book was a reaction to the stigma you had fallen into initially. You were like, “Wow, this is the way I think, so I’m going to do some work and examine it.”
The disease of addiction has taken a toll on my family throughout my life and my parents’ lives, so I’ve seen how people come to reckon with it. I thought I had developed sophisticated responses, but in that moment those responses failed when presented with this new problem. I’d seen what alcoholism can do, and how as a culture we accept it as a problem. But we were turning away from opiate abuse and denying its reality, and I felt I needed to resist that turning away.
I think it’s stunning for someone who hasn’t experienced addiction himself, how you put words to those unique feelings and moments. There’s a line from “Resolution,” “...I stood in the yard // and decided that sometimes / you have to tell yourself / you’re the first person // to look out over / the silent highway / at the abandoned billboard // lit up by the moon / and think it’s selling a new / and honest life.”
There are details about the way of life that can accompany opioid use disorder, which echo the conversations I’ve had with people. “Leaving the Pain Clinic,” you write “...and though the door’s the same, / somehow the exit, like the worst wounds, is greater / than the entrance was. I throw it open for all to see / how daylight, so tall, has imagination. It has heart. It loves.” Like, how did these lines come to be in such striking detail?
For me, the writing of a poem is an impulsive act. But there’s a lot of gestation and thinking that goes on behind the scenes, before I write—a lot of thinking. And there’s living that goes into them, too. When I was in college I had an accident that required some heavy surgery and a long rehab period. Opioids were a big part of that period, I was on them for a long time. The power of those drugs, what they could do, has remained vivid in my mind, and always will. That passage about daylight comes from that.
In regard to the former passage: I’ve dealt with serious depression my whole life. Depression and substance abuse are often bedfellows. What depression can unleash in someone—hopelessness, dependency, fear, recklessness towards how we feel about our lives, suicidal impulses—can certainly be unleashed by substance use disorders, too, with the volume turned up to 11. To be clear, I do not mean in any way to suggest that depression and substance abuse are the same thing. Rather, what I mean to articulate is that I brought every bit of myself to every poem. This is not just a matter of aesthetics. It’s me doing my best to extend myself out, to say, “Dear Person X, the possibility that your pain may feel even remotely similar to my pain is why I’m trying to do my absolute best to recognize you in hopes that you may feel less alone, but even more importantly, so that you may feel loved. Loved.”
I come from a spoken word community that preaches sticking to your own story. Personally, I think your book is an important addition to literature, both generally and in the addiction/recovery sub-genre. But throughout it you often speak through the persona of someone with substance disorder. I worry other poets will take this as license to do the same, without possessing the knowledge or respect you have for the subject. What are some potential hazards here?
First, thank you for saying that. I appreciate it greatly and don’t take it lightly.
While you come from a spoken word community, my literary life is rooted in fiction. The literary texts we had in my house were Herman Melville, Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, Nathaniel Hawthorne. They sat on a single shelf at the top of the stairs. I can still see them. Likewise, at school, literature = fiction. I read maybe two poems in high school, so my life in books began, and in many ways persists, through fiction, and so because of that, the root of my literary practice has always been—to use Roth’s (for better or worse) definition of fiction writing—“the crafting of consciousness,” with the understanding that this requires immense care, thought, patience, and humility. Do as much work as you can to get it right, and then do more. IKYK is very much a book that attempts to synthesize this quality of fiction, in addition to its immense capacity for world building and social examination, with poetry’s sense of deeply distilled emotional and psychological textures, its power to challenge language, and its unique ability to find unexpected connections.
As for other poets taking my work as license, I’m not sure what to say about that. It would seem to me that the potential for bad poetry, and bad poems about this subject, was there long before any of my poems came into the world. At the same time, for as long as that potential for faulty work has existed, there’s been a concurrent tradition of very valuable work being done in persona, poems by Bidart and Ai being just two gleaming examples (not to mention what has been done in fiction). So, maybe we could reframe the thinking in more positive terms, i.e. maybe this book can stand as an example of what persona can do? What the poem can do?
What eats at me is how there aren’t a lot of poets writing about their personal experiences with substance recovery, at the level where they’re prominent within the poetry industry or community. Are these poets dead from overdoses? Did their time go towards using instead of writing? Or maybe they’re not writing openly because of stigma? Can you speak on the importance of us all lifting up and listening closer to people who have personal experience with these issues?
I’m not sure about this, though it’s a wise question, one of huge importance. I don’t know of a clear answer. But it seems like the work you do in your day to day is connected to this and is very valuable. That’s something to be optimistic about. People have reached out and told me how they have brought my poems or the book into spaces like meetings, support groups, halfway houses, and that has been very humbling to hear. Just getting poems into spaces where maybe they’ve never been before—maybe that’s part of how we turn it around? As for the importance of lifting people up and listening closely—it is the most important thing. At the same time, the responsibility to write about this problem, which is now a national problem, shouldn’t rest solely on those suffering, should it?
What do you hope your book accomplishes?
Someone contacted me when the book came out, who had very recently lost a parent to heroin. She said to me, and I’ve held on to this, “The poems gave me a feeling that I had a place to go.” This was the greatest response I could have received. I hope that on a larger level, the book can extend the realities of the epidemic in WV to people who maybe had no idea what was going on, or didn’t believe it, or didn’t think it mattered—i.e. didn’t think the lives of West Virginians mattered.
To graft onto that statement, I think the book is educational for people who don’t understand West Virginia, and how the opioid epidemic has taken root so deeply in this specific place.
I surely hope so. That’s one of the book’s largest aims.
I also want to add, while it’s a needed pursuit to write a place for pain to feel seen, it’s also necessary to create sites for recovering peoples to draw strength, hope, and triumph. What are some lines in your book that are doing this work?
I think strength is an impulse that runs through much of the book—books about WV are inherently about strength. I think “Resolution” is a poem that leans toward a sense of hope or even triumph, even if it may be the first of a few failed attempts toward a larger triumph. Overall, though, I don’t think hope or triumph are large elements in the book, again this is because it’s a book about a specific situation in a specific place, and when I was writing it and editing it, things didn’t seem very hopeful or triumphant. I turned my book in to my editor in the fall of 2016. At that time, it felt like a situation that no one much cared about. The New Yorker hadn’t yet run its large profile about the state, the Charleston Gazette-Mail hadn’t yet run its now Pulitzer Prize-winning expose that gained national attention, Netflix’s Heroin(e) hadn’t yet been released, etc. etc. That said, I agree wholeheartedly that these sites and books are necessary, and I’m confident that they are coming, especially as our relationship to this epidemic, and our ability to help those afflicted by it, changes. So, while some of those elements may not be as present in my book, I don’t believe every book can or should do everything. Moreover, this subject, and its impact on our country, is vast. Perhaps, when it’s all said and done—if it’s ever all said and done—this book will be seen as one part of the larger record and discussion.
Last question. What’s next for you? Anything that involves substance use disorder?
I’m working on a novel that looks at the larger social, political, and economic networks that can be at play in making something like the opioid epidemic thrive in a place like West Virginia. I’m also working on a second book of poems about paranoia, suicide, and the idea of inherited death. And let me say thank you for taking the time to talk to me, your generosity toward the work, and for everything you do.
More poems by William Brewer:
“In the New World,” Southern Indiana Poetry Review
"Oxyana, WV: Exit Song,” Diode Poetry
Other interviews in this series about poetry and addiction: