Acclaimed poet Sheryl St. Germain is a college professor whose son died of a heroin overdose in 2014, after a long struggle with drug abuse. He was 30 years old.
St. Germain directs the master’s program in creative writing at Chatham University and is co-founder of the writing initiative Words Without Walls, a writing program for inmates at the Allegheny County Jail and residential drug-and-alcohol treatment facility Sojourner House.
She confronts the experience of her son's death in her new poetry collection, The Small Door of Your Death, released through Autumn House Press. She spoke with 90.5 WESA’s Bill O’Driscoll.
Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
BILL O’DRISCOLL: Sheryl, the poems in your book are very powerful. Could you read one for us?
SHERYL ST. GERMAIN: Yeah, sure. “Loving An Addict.”
Yesterday the skies were troubled / Gusts almost knocked us down / Today, sun, kiss of a breeze / It was always fights or lies / Maybe at the end I preferred the lies.
O’DRISCOLL: Thank you. I wanted to talk about the poems in the context of your family's history, as well as the history of substance abuse there, especially alcoholism.
ST. GERMAIN: So my father died of cirrhosis, my brother died of a drug overdose and several other members of my family have substance-abuse problems. As a little girl, one of the things that I would do is write in my journal -- and I have 50 years of journals -- and I found that there was something, I'll use the word “healing,” about writing that down.
So I’m hoping that these poems are not just moans, that they are sort of shaped offerings to a reader, of grief.
O’DRISCOLL: There's also an element of trying to get inside your son's head. Do you feel like writing the poems gave you insight into him?
ST. GERMAIN: Yeah, there are a couple of poems where I imagine him speaking, and there's even a found poem that's a Facebook post that he made. I do feel like those poems helped me imagine a son that I couldn't fully know.
O’DRISCOLL: There's a lot of juxtaposition in the poems of your own recovery process with your son’s often sort of abortive attempts to clean up.
ST. GERMAIN: I will never know why I recovered, and he did not. It’s a mystery to me. I think the thing that's helped me the most and will help maybe anyone else with poetry is metaphor and imagery and the fact that I see addiction as like a river that we fall into. And some of us stay close to the edge. Some of us, like my son, are in the deep waters and you throw branches to them. They drop the branches. They just don't come back. And some of us for whatever reason -- often no good reason -- or are just there on the side and climb up out of the shore.
O’DRISCOLL: This is a very personal book, obviously. But it also has an unfortunate kind of topical relevance with the opioid crisis. And your son, I didn't gather he was someone who had been prescribed, say, opioids at any point.
ST. GERMAIN: No, he was actually he was diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder when he was 5 and prescribed Ritalin and then later Adderall, and that was the first drug that he abused. It's the most abused drug on college campuses today. And his drug of choice was meth, actually, so it's a little bit paradoxical that he died of a heroin overdose.
And you know, I do get tired of that one story that seems to be out in the media that says if only doctors would stop prescribing pills, everything would be fine. I think that's not true. I happen to believe that the crisis is a spiritual crisis and that what works for one person will not work for another person.
O’DRISCOLL: You talk about some sort of hints with your son, or characteristics of his. At one point you refer to him sort of hating the world.
ST. GERMAIN: You know I think some of us are born with our eyes wide open. You know, we see everything. And I think my son was like that. He was very thin-skinned. We would go into a grocery store and he would see everything that was wrong, you know, there was maybe someone who could hardly walk, or there was someone who was struggling with something, and he couldn't close his eyes to that.
You have to focus on the positive. But I think there are some who really struggle there. He tried to be happy in the world, but he was not.