Billy-Ray Belcourt on the meditative power of prose

The Cree poet and scholar on his debut poetry book.
Billy-Ray Belcourt is the author of the poetry collection This Wound Is A World. (Frontenac House)
Listen10:20

The personal is most definitely political in the poetry of Billy-Ray Belcourt. He writes about sex and desire as an gay Indigenous man from Driftpile Cree Nation. But he also writes about the trauma of colonialism and how it continues to blight the lives of Indigenous people. His debut collection is titled This Wound is a World

In addition to being a poet, he's a Ph.D. student at the University of Alberta. In 2016, he became the first Indigenous person from Canada to be a Rhodes Scholar.

Therapy through prose

"It was firstly a therapeutic practice. There are things that I needed to work through in my intimate life, but also my larger personal history. I was drawn to poetry as the place where I could render myself anew, essentially.

"The primary thing that I wanted to do with that title was push back on normative ideas and stereotypes about Indigenous peoples, as people who are always sad, dying or dead, and to say that yes, we do experience all these different forms of political violence. We are mired in the miseries of the world, like a lot of other people. Ours is racialized, ours is historical. It's ongoing. And that we are always futurebound."

On reflection in isolation

"It was a time of both introspection and personal growth. When I was in Oxford as a First Nations person without a community, without a network of care, like the one I had in Edmonton and elsewhere in Alberta, it became very clear to me that I needed to be with people like me to flourish. Being at Oxford, a place where the coloniality of history very much rears its head again and again, which brutally created Canada and the U.S., I was able to diagnose these structures of violence as ones that would fundamentally inhibit my happiness.

"I represented everything and nothing to a lot of people here. Because I was one of the first First Nations people they had met, they were able to project onto me all these ideas about Indigenous peoples — mostly archaic — and that meant that I was something different to them, an empty signifier, something that they could horde meaning in."

On support systems

"I had a group of friends who were fiercely supportive and who were experiencing similar things as me. They were also people of colour, who had come from places where they were immersed in communities they belonged to. We were able to commiserate and weather the storm together. I was also motored by the possibility of what was to come and I figured that if I could endure what felt troubling — and of course it wasn't 100 per cent bad — that I knew it would make me partly a better activist and person, in a sense that after this I knew that I could fight for what I wanted and that I would have the ability to make decisions that would better me and my communities."

On a world of possibilities

"I say that my poetry pits language against itself. There is this sort of double bind, where I'm using a language that isn't mine but I'm also reworking its codes. I am putting it to rebellious use. Language is at the core of where a world gets imagined. That's why I think that poetry is a place where we can dream up different worlds, alternate set of political possibilities and of course, intimate possibilities too."

Billy-Ray Belcourt's comments have been edited and condensed.