Billy-Ray Belcourt on writing an 'instruction manual for a queer Indigenous future'
Rhodes Scholar and PhD student Billy-Ray Belcourt hails from Driftpile Cree Nation in Alberta. His debut collection of poetry, This Wound is a World, merges the personal with the academic, envisioning a "decolonial kind of heaven that is searchable, findable," he said.
In his own words, Belcourt discusses the many motivations behind This Wound is a World.
How the collection began
"I first started writing poetry around 19. There are a couple of early poems in the book. At that point, it was essentially me calling out memories, or sifting through the mess of the past and making poetry from it. Then I started to hone my craft. I read a lot of poetry, especially by Indigenous authors and queer authors.
"I wrote most of these poems between the last year of my undergraduate degree and while I was writing a master's thesis. I was in this institutional world of higher learning that requires you to think and write in a particular way. I think it definitely leaks into my poetry.
"I would say there's something almost uncanny about a poet who just puts it out there, who lays him or herself bare on the page. It is not considered fine-tuned evidence of one's training, in what is essentially a white, European, older tradition of poetry writing. For me to have been able to break into the writing scene at the age of 19, and as someone who is Indigenous and openly queer, I had to inject my poems with some critical, academic ethos. But I think, in the end, it made my poetry better."
What it would've been like to read it as a teenager
"This Wound is a World is unapologetically Indigenous and queer and at the same time. The book is, first and foremost, for people like me. I was on a panel at WordFest in Calgary with Chelsea Vowell and Leanne Simpson. They both joked in the van ride over, imagine the impact that This Wound is a World could have had when they were in their teens.
"And I said, 'For me too.' To know that there are others like me; to have representations of queer life that aren't solely and stubbornly white. Also to have a glimpse into the future, to have an idea of what's to come. At that time, I was incredibly blind to what my life could have been. You're closeted and you don't have a thick conception of the horizon of possibility. It is all banked on this moment of coming out and that swallows up your tension. This book would have been something of an orientation device.
"I think that this book is a call to arms of sorts. It is a manifesto, a prayer and an instruction manual for something like a queer Indigenous future."
On realizing the power of poetry
"When I read in public, I am emotional and sometimes I cry. That sometimes makes people deeply uncomfortable. I think for those whom a sight like that, of me choking up, is a feedback loop in which they see themselves or part of themselves or part of the world either of which they're part or the one that they want. That is incredibly important. I feel like I've learned that, despite the stereotypes governing how the average Joe thinks about poetry as a hopeless romantic's genre, I don't know if we know yet how to let poetry undo us."
"This book is a study of grief. It also is a study on how to make a world. I think that it is a preface that had to be written, so that I could write something else. Now I'm excited about what writing is to come."
Billy-Ray Belcourt's comments have been edited and condensed.