Alumnus Will Brewer '14 Confronts Opioid Crisis in Poems Featured on PBS NewsHour

October 26, 2017

For William Brewer ’14, the opioid crisis is personal.


Brewer and his latest collection of poetry were featured on PBS NewsHour Monday night as part of the public broadcast channel’s series, “America Addicted.”


His collection, I Know Your Kind, published by Milkweed Editions in September, tackles the opioid epidemic and poverty in rural Appalachia, West Virginia, where he’s from.


The collection was selected by Ada Limón for the National Poetry Series and is already in its second printing.


"William Brewer’s exquisite I Know Your Kind is a rare confluence of addiction and surrender in an unsung American landscape," wrote Limón. "The poems brilliantly attend to the world with surreal lyricism, bitterly truthful narratives, and an ache that’s eased by the thing that saves: language. This work quakes and blooms and dares us to try to resist the world’s grace."


According to Publishers Weekly in a starred review, “Brewer descends the rabbit hole of opioid addiction and its cycles of despair in his penetrating debut . . . Despair-inducingly relevant as opioid deaths soar across America, Brewer’s depiction of his triumph over his “shrieking private want” is a revelation.”


On PBS, Brewer said he would come to his home state of West Virginia for the holidays, and he’d find out that “someone I knew suddenly wasn’t around anymore.”


The state has the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths in the nation, with one every 12 hours, according to the PBS.


Brewer said at first he was reluctant to write about the state of emergency, all too aware of how West Virginia is portrayed in the news – but as the epidemic has affected nearly every family he knows, he decided to confront it head-on in his work.


“I wanted to write something for people who are going through the experience of deep isolation, of shame, of confusion,” he told PBS.


Brewer brings West Virginia to life in his collection, which is filled with vivid images of the Appalachian landscape and touches on once-thriving industries like timber, coal and agriculture. He said there is likely a direct correlation between the disappearing jobs and the rising opioid crisis.


“Your connection to the land was very deliberate. So when the coal stops or the timber stops, you notice that absence,” he said. “There’s this strange shadow problem where you walk around and it’s immensely beautiful but you know there’s this terror going on privately in the homes of its people.”


Brewer speaks in many different voices in the collection: sometimes as an observer, sometimes a concerned family member, and most often the addict himself. In one poem, “Early Oxyana: an Anecdote,” Brewer depicts the desperate lengths two addicts go to obtain more pills.


“The poems in William Brewer’s powerful and profound debut give America’s worsening opioid epidemic ‘a local habitation and a name,’" wrote Writing Chair Timothy Donnelly. "Bristling with urgency but impeccably composed, harrowing but determinedly non-sensationalistic, I Know Your Kind acknowledges the socioeconomic factors contributing to this crisis, but its emphasis lies instead on the cycle of disillusion and loss that the crisis both begets and feeds on."


Brewer is also author of Oxyana, which was selected for the Poetry Society of America’s 30 and Under Chapbook Fellowship. His poetry has appeared in Boston Review, The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review Online, Narrative (where it was awarded the 30 Below Prize), The Nation, A Public Space and other journals. He is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.


He is currently working on a novel and another collection of poetry that explores the opioid crisis.