Opioids and Refugees: Why Not Poetry?
William Brewer and Javier Zamora on Writing For Damaged Communities
This interview took place in a backyard bar in Oakland, CA, on the afternoon of the eclipse, which was blocked by the morning fog. It has been edited for clarity and concision.
William Brewer: Our books are concerned with social issues. For you, the Salvadoran Civil War, which is both a subject and a kind of shadow hanging over poems, then there’s immigration ranging from the 80s and 90s up to the current administration. Were the poems born out of a more traditionally lyric space—private, meditative—or were they compelled by an urge to engage with these issues?
Javier Zamora: When I started writing in 2007, I wanted more visibility for Salvadoran immigrants. After our civil war in the 80s, El Salvador was absent from the US media until the crisis of the unaccompanied children at the border. I wanted to write myself into the news. Then, since the news became skewed with one stereotypical image of Salvadorans (gangs, criminals, violence), I hoped to write a more complex picture.
Now that the opioid epidemic is filling headlines, how did your work come about?
WB: I was very reluctant at first, because West Virginia is almost always portrayed in a negative light: backwards, poor, uneducated, wild. I didn’t want to be a part of that. But then the situation grew at a rapid pace. Suddenly everyone knew addicts, people were dying, crime picked up, and it made its way into my daily life. Eventually I felt like I had no choice. Once again WV was going to be negatively portrayed because of this epidemic, so what if I could make something that pushes against that?
More precisely, I became committed to this book after a distinct moment of frustration within myself. Someone came to me and my partner and admitted they were a heroin addict. I was extremely angry with them. I brushed them off, saying things like forget about them, they didn’t consider other people or their family, they put themselves in that position. Almost immediately after, within a matter of minutes, I was overwhelmed with repulsion toward myself for how quickly I’d slipped into such a damning, limited, and unsophisticated mindset.
Here’s someone at their most vulnerable, and I couldn’t be less humane. It occurred to me that, if I—someone who likes to think of themselves as a writer, which in my case means spending 99 percent of my time trying to imagine and understand the nuances of others’ experiences—am this susceptible to such a foolish, inhumane way of reacting to a problem, I was inclined to think the average response couldn’t be much better, and that to me was terrifying. I decided I should push against it by making something that instead argues for the humanity of the people dealing with this epidemic and that creates a space for them, whether they’re connected on a personal level or a familial level or a communal level.
JZ: In both our cases, frustration seems to be a big part of what we’re dealing with. For you, it’s this epidemic, for me, it’s immigration, the gangs, and even more broadly, the violence in my country. For a long time, I was frustrated that it wasn’t making the headlines, but now I’m frustrated that we’re only making headlines because of what wasn’t being talked about. There’s this fear now that we become complicit in this misinformation, but our goal is to humanize these issues.
WB: Doing interviews for the book, the first thing I say is that I’m an observer, that’s it. I don’t work in public health, law, medicine, or government. I watch and I listen. My concern is with the nuance of human experience. You bring that same perspective to your book, sometimes in poems that are attributed to specific people, written in the voice of mom, dad, aunt, grandmother. I’m curious how these voices came into the work. Did they arrive unexpectedly, or was there an obligation to include them?
JZ: I majored in history and my thesis was on the Salvadoran Civil War. I’d almost never heard my family speak about it, but then when they began to view me as a potential historian, they suddenly opened up. They wanted to have their voices heard, and they became more open to discussing things like how my uncle was disappeared because of his political leanings, their own journeys away from the country, etc. At the same time, I was reading Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a novel that’s told in different voices, and Tyehimba Jess’s Leadbelly, which is also built out of voices. As I read them, I kept saying to myself, I want to do that, I want to do that for my story, for my family’s story. It’s always been important to me to include the voices of the women who raised me. I always want them to be heard, and back when I was reading history books in college, voices like theirs weren’t there.
WB: Something the book does quietly, but which accumulates to immense effect, is show how the Salvadoran Civil War fractured not just your country, but also your family, causing political and physical divides. There’s mention of how the grandfather figure has no patience for leftists, but then the father figure is spoken of as hiding a red handkerchief in his drawer. It seems like these fractures may still be reverberating through your family. Were you scared to acknowledge or engage with this?
JZ: In a way, acknowledging it on the page has been healing for me and my parents. The poems after their voices really come from their mouths. As I wrote them I’d show them, they’d read them, and it’s funny because sometimes they’d say, No, you’re lying, that’s not right, but then I’d press them and say, No, you told me this, you told me that, and eventually they’d say Yea, you’re right, that’s right. But there’s always that initial denial. And to this day I still haven’t spoken to my grandpa about some of the things mentioned in the book. We don’t talk about what he’s done to us.
How was this process of opening up for you and your subjects?
WB: With the epidemic, it’s so present that information comes right to you, and because West Virginians (in my opinion) speak frankly, they aren’t “opening up”; they’re just talking. I’ve been coming and going from WV for a decade. I’d leave for a few months, come back, meet up with people at a bar and they’d say, This person is hooked or This person is dealing, I’d stay for a month, observe, leave, come back, and see more changes. This created a system of contrasts, almost a system of measurement, that made very clear the severity of the situation. These observations would simmer in me, building and combining, and then a poem would arrive through a voice—again, that fiction impulse. Essentially none of them are in my voice.
JZ: What I appreciate about your book is that it encapsulates this anxiety about leaving and returning, both as impossible quests. When I was younger and naïve, I always used to say that poetry was like going back to my country, which is wack to say. When I was younger, I really wanted to go back, without understanding that I had already changed and my country had already changed.
WB: It seems that both books swirl around a unique space, a theater almost. In my case, with WV being this small, forgotten-about pocket isolated in the hills, a distinct visual space that’s been ravaged by industry and power, then left to its own devices. You have El Salvador, a unique space just by being a different nation, but then you have La Herradura, and then on an even more micro level, the Estero de Jaltepec that keeps getting mentioned, the analog to which in my book would be the Monongahela River. For both of us, it seems these places created distinct visual vocabularies in our brains. For years I didn’t want to write about WV, but I basically couldn’t engage with visual landscapes in my imagination without ending up there, and it seems like you were almost haunted or kept within that space until you wrote your way through it. Is that true?
JZ: I really missed mangroves, the flora and fauna that’s not here, those absences were very shocking. So I wrote them on the page. But the first few drafts of the book, my partner Monica told me I had way too many fucking mangoes. She was right. What’s there now has been cut back. There’s always a danger of falling into the trap of painting an “exotic” landscape.
In your book, the sky seemed to function as a space where the imagination could thrive, in the way I think “The North” functions in my book. That similarity struck me. I don’t know that part of the country, and I don’t necessarily know any opiate addicts, but for me, you’ve written it in such a way that I was like, oh shit, I’m throwing experiences into it and saying to myself, this isn’t dissimilar to wanting to go to the US.
WB: The simple truth of the situation in WV is that any time you’ve got a place burdened by rampant unemployment, poor education, and significant isolation, bad things are going to happen. But the bigger point is that Big Pharma, specifically three major drug wholesalers, pumped 780 million painkillers into that state. They knew what they were doing and made a choice: their profits are more important than these peoples’ lives. These people are worth killing for the bottom line.
Similarly, some Americans might have a hazy idea of our involvement in El Salvador, but I wonder how many people are really aware that it was an American-funded war, from both sides of the aisle. Even people that we generally think of as benevolent, like Jimmy Carter, have as much blood on their hands as Reagan. Was that on your brain? You knew you were writing a book in America that would be read by Americans, you have that poem in there, “Disappeared,” that names those responsible. I feel that so often the narrative around immigrants from Central America is that it’s a matter of economics, whereas in reality for many Salvadorans it was a matter of safety. Is that something you wanted people to better understand?
JZ: The naming of US presidents, Salvadoran families, etc., is deliberate. I want readers, Salvadoran, or others, to see the names of people and the name of the political party that ruled El Salvador after the war. A US-funded party. It’s not only Americans that need education. There is a lot of silence in the Salvadoran community as to who did what. That being said, Americans need a lot of education regarding the rest of the world. The worst case is when I get asked what part of Mexico El Salvador is in. I still get asked that, here, in California!
For El Salvador, it didn’t matter if the American president was a Republican or Democrat, the funding went to the right-wing government and did not stop. That’s the angry part of the story that I’m still trying to heal from. I’m safe here, I owe my education to here, etc., but there’s still a deep anger about living in the empire that funded people who made my family afraid, who made us leave. And then there’s the frustration with headlines not calling immigrants refugees. Reagan refused to call Salvadorans refugees, had he called us refugees we’d all be legal. Only 1 to 2 percent of the Salvadorans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, who applied as refugees back in the 80s got a green card. Those are the same countries that are now called “The Northern Triangle;” the same countries plagued by gang-violence. There’s no coincidence.
WB: Why a book of poems? Were you attracted to poems because they offer certain possibilities?
JZ: Poems are faster. There’s an immediate satisfaction once you finish one that, for me, was necessary due to my own traumas. Writing this was one of the first few instances of “coming out” as an undocumented immigrant, which was empowering, and the poem could immediately hold that, which I needed, because I needed to feel better about it.
WB: I think of something Eavan Bolan said to us, which is the idea that the poem is actually a weak medium for expression, but is a brilliant medium for experience, perhaps the greatest. When she said that my synapses caught fire, because that’s ultimately the goal, right? It certainly was for my book. I want someone who has no clue what any of this is like to read it and gain even a glimpse of an idea. That, to me, is a move in the right direction.
JZ: Absolutely. Marie Howe says something along the line that poems rarely convince someone, but that, for her, they’re like a kind of religion, that when we’re at our lowest a poem can reach down and find us. Did you have that in mind, that perhaps the poem could reach an addict and they may be like, oh, shit?
WB: That was precisely the goal. I’ve been grateful people’s responses to the poems, saying things like, “these poems give me the feeling of a place where I can go.” The idea that the poem could provide recognition, that they can say, “someone heard what I thought through that hard time,” or “that is what is going through my head right now,” that’s all I could hope for. It’s a nerve-wracking, a project like this, trying to represent a community, a people, a state, and then the community of people who are dealing with this epidemic across the country, with whom I also want the book to connect. This subject is extreme, difficult, and terrifying to approach, so I constantly checked myself, making sure I was doing my absolute best to make the most human expression possible.
JZ: It’s written to non-poets.
WB: Yes! A general readership, but not in the formulated, digestible way we associate with aiming toward a general readership. I want a reader who has maybe no real sense of the epidemic to have a different mindset when they put the book down. The ultimate goal was to connect to a person that feels alone, misunderstood, dismissed, ashamed, a person dealing with this issue, and help them feel less like that. Then I want that person’s sibling, say, who can’t understand what the other is going through, who maybe is scared, frustrated, confused, even resentful, to be able to pick up the book and suddenly find a way closer to that person’s experience. We both write about something that gets turned into statistics, graphs, talking points–
JZ: But it’s about the human experience.
WB: And our job is to preserve that, to make it the crystalline thing, the most important thing, the thing without which bar graphs mean nothing.
JZ: If only we could send these to Trump, maybe he’d read them.
WB: I don’t think he can read anything now. He just stared at the sun.
William Brewer is the author of I Know Your Kind, a winner of the 2016 National Poetry Series, as well as the chapbook Oxyana, which was awarded the Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship 30 and Under. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Kenyon Review Online, The Nation, Narrative (where it was awarded the 30 Below Prize), New England Review, and A Public Space, among others. Brewer is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He was born and raised in West Virginia.
Javier Zamora was born in El Salvador and migrated to the US when he was nine. He is a 2016-2018 Wallace Stegner Fellow and holds fellowships from CantoMundo, Colgate University, MacDowell, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Yaddo. In 2016, he was awarded a Ruth Lilly/Dorothy Sargent Fellowship and the Barnes and Noble Writer for Writer’s Award. Unaccompanied, Copper Canyon Press Sept. 2017, is his first collection.