Poetry Addressing the Opioid Epidemic
William Brewer’s recent book I Know Your Kind came out in 2017. It won the National Poetry Series in 2016, and has gained a lot of attention because of its subject matter. This book is an advantageous effort to present and discuss the current opioid epidemic in America. The poems are placed in Oceana, West Virginia, where the epidemic has hit hard. Brewer’s book opens with the definition of Oceana, Virginia’s recent nickname—
“Oxyana (n): A nickname given to the town of Oceana, West Virginia, after becoming a capital of OxyContin abuse. Following a successful crackdown on prescription painkillers, heroin has now flooded the state. West Virginia has the highest fatal overdose rate in America, nearly three times the national average.”
These poems are simultaneously dreamlike and a stark image of reality that is hard to bare. If sometimes they feel a little too dramatic or harsh—such lines as “So many voices screaming— Wake up”—it is largely because of the real severity of the epidemic described.
Sensitive Subject of Addiction—Education or Exploitation?
While reading the book, it is hard to say whether or not Brewer himself is in recovery from addiction. He uses the personal “I” over and over, but the poems don’t necessarily feel confessional. In an interview, he explained that he pools a “fiction impulse” in this writing—inspired and informed by the multitude of stories he has heard first hand.
These stories are just one aspect of the life that his hometown takes on—Oceana, ground zero of the book and a major front of the opioid epidemic.
Still, the assumption of these identities and experiences seems a bit presumptuous. Of course a sensitive subject, addiction is surrounded by a lot of pain and stigma. How can someone properly represent not only the phenomena of it, but the experience of addiction, if they have not been through it personally? This is a difficult question, indeed. One might see it as an insensitive exploitation of others’ hurt and pain.
Brewer’s goal for the project, though, was to create a more thorough awareness and understanding of addiction. It is important to remember that being from West Virginia, Brewer has witnessed addiction take hold of many people close to him. He has experienced the epidemic, just not immediately from the addicted person’s perspective. In this way, he is less posturing as he is allowing the stories and insights of these people to be heard.
We Needed a Book About the Opioid Epidemic
The current opioid epidemic in this country is undeniable and the media is taking it on, but poetry and literature has been slow to accept the challenge. Brewer is brave to be taking on such a difficult topic.
He works to humanize those suffering from addiction with great compassion and no judgement, reframing drug abuse with the bigger picture. He shows us the realities of a population, like many others in the country, suffering from poverty, low employment, poor education, and isolation. He points to the drug suppliers who have fueled this epidemic, big pharma, and fearlessly accuses them of valuing profit over human lives.
A Book for Addicts and Normies Alike
It is utterly clear how close this place, this town and landscape, is to Brewer. The geography of the land and sky are entwined with every line. He eloquently demonstrates how capitalism and industry has invaded the local resources with toxic waste dumping. Then, a parallel is drawn to the poisoning of individual’s bodies that is happening, for the sake of capital, with drug sales.
William Brewer provides a space of empathy and admiration for the many humans suffering addiction. It is important to him that those going through the struggle and others on the outside of addiction alike see this, so that the cycles of shame and judgement can lessen. In their place, hopefully ambition to solve this massive crisis will arise—in love, acceptance, and value of all human lives.
If you are struggling with addiction, there are people who care about you and want to help. Call (877)670-8451 to speak with someone about different options of treatment and community resources.