Books·Magic 8 Q&A

How the hip-hop duo Snotty Nose Rez Kids inspire Griffin Poetry Prize winner Billy-Ray Belcourt

Billy-Ray Belcourt, author of This Wound is a World, answers eight questions from eight fellow writers.
Billy-Ray Belcourt is the author of the poetry collection This Wound Is A World. (Frontenac House)

This Wound is a WorldBilly-Ray Belcourt's debut book, won the $65,000 Griffin Poetry Prize. The poet from Driftpile Cree Nation champions colonial resistance in a collection that is at once emotional and academic, creating "an instruction manual for a queer Indigenous future."

Below, Belcourt takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A. 

1. Jalal Barzanji asks, "What is the purpose of writing and what changes does your writing bring to your life?"

Recently, I had an epiphany that many have likely had too: writing is a mundane feat. There is little "special" about the writer, for a vast swath of the population writes, daily. Ours, those of us who write professionally, is merely a subgenre of this democratic practice. So, I'm not sure there is an elusive or glamorous "purpose" to writing other than the deeply normal act of documentation, of accounting for the world and worlds-to-come. I might add, though, that being a writer who is paid for it and who travels to read things I've written, writing does make me sit at my desk more than the average Joe, which is by turns a blessing and a curse!

2. Eden Robinson asks, "What was the most unexpected inspiration you've ever had?"

In April, I was on a flight from Vancouver to Edmonton and I had been listening to the discography of Snotty Nose Rez Kids, a phenomenal hip-hop duo based in Vancouver. They have a line that goes something like: "You can take the snotty nose rez kid out of the rez, but you can't take the rez out of him." This cut through the tumult of the plane's descent and sparked a flurry of ideas in me about what is different about "the rez" in relation to the reserve proper.

3. J.J. Lee asks, "What kind of food do you eat during a writing day?"

I eat a bunch of things during a writing day that are not particularly special, because most of my days are writing days (I'm also a PhD student). I was just eating peanut butter out of the jar, though, which is definitely a procrasti-snack!

4. Rudy Wiebe asks, "Who helped you most in becoming a writer? How?"

My Grindr hookups and ex-boyfriends! Many of them inspired poems in my first book, This Wound is a World.

5. Canisia Lubrin asks, "How important is realism to you in your work?"

It is at the core of my poetics, which seeks to not only lay bare the vulgarities of settler colonialism, but also the practices of care and joy that nod to the blueprints of a more capacious time and place, which already exists in bits and pieces. In This Wound is a World, I also have poems that directly address moments in the recent history of Indigenous peoples and settlers. A professor of mine, Dr. Sockbeson, told me once that if we are to be public intellectuals, our work needs to tackle political life as it is unfolding, in real time. I take that praxis seriously.

6. Sharon Bala asks, "When and how do you say no?"

It is difficult to say no, especially those of us who are queer and/or racialized who perceive ourselves as being in a culture of scarcity that comes out of a history of structural violence. I have, however, said no on a number of occasions — to turn down invitations to read or to submit work, all for very practical reasons. For the most part, barring a couple times, those on the receiving end of the "no" are fine with it. I have also gotten some "nos" on a number of occasions and I am fine with them, so I try to assume others will be fine too. A "no" is better than no response at all, which I've learned from being at both ends of the inquiry.

7. Anthony Bidulka asks, "What book do you wish you'd written?"

I don't think there is a book I wish I had written — there are plenty that I spend a lot of time with because they approach or are bound up in the writing practice I am interested in performing. These are Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts, Terese Mailhot's Heart Berries, Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson's This Accident of Being Lost — all books I couldn't have possibly written myself!

8. Cherie Dimaline asks, "When do you feel the most confident and purposeful as a writer?"

When I am reading my work in front of an audience that is actively listening — so, laughing, sighing, nodding along, etc. This shows me that I've pieced something together that resonates or that is being felt at an affective level and that I am engaging with an audience, that I have one at all, that is not just the imagined one I conjure when writing at my desk.