CBC Literary Prizes

Entering the CBC Poetry Prize? Juror Billy-Ray Belcourt has 5 tips for you

The 2019 CBC Poetry Prize juror and past Griffin Poetry Prize winner shares his advice for emerging writers.
Billy-Ray Belcourt is a juror for the 2019 CBC Poetry Prize. (Tenille Campbell)

Billy-Ray Belcourt is an award-winning poet, Rhodes Scholar and Ph.D. student from Driftpile Cree Nation in Alberta. His debut collection of poetry, This Wound is a World, won the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize, the 2018 Robert Kroetsch City of Edmonton Book Prize, a 2018 Indigenous Voices Award and was a finalist for the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry. His forthcoming collection, NDN Coping Mechanisms, is due out in fall 2019.

Belcourt is also a judge for the 2019 CBC Poetry Prize. He was on CBC Radio's Daybreak Alberta with Russell Bowers to give advice to writers thinking about entering the prize.

1. Let the poem lead you

"What is so tantalizing about poetry, about the work of constructing a poem, is that you can begin in a particular place — for me, it is often a political one, a historical one, one that is about a current event — and then that'll take you elsewhere. It then becomes a poem about intimacy as much as it is about a facet of our social world."

2. Enjoy the process

"If someone has a poem that they can objectively know is an excellent poem according to whatever criteria or rubric they've come up with, then they should by all means submit that. But sometimes a contest is what compels you to write, it gives you reason to write, regardless of whether you end up placing or winning. We should celebrate that call to write." 

3. See poetry as freedom

"When I think about This Wound is a World, I think about how it allowed me to do this intellectual work of interpreting the political structures in which we as Native people are mired, which is something that academics are also doing. But what set my work apart, I think, is that the poem always allowed me to return to myself. I'd never had to disappear who I was from the writing, that I was always speaking about an 'I' and 'we' and an 'us.' It meant that I had very particular people, bodies, demographics, communities in mind. It was always, first and foremost, about how to figure out how to live better in the world." 

4. Be ambitious

"I'm interested in seeing a whole array of different types and subgenres of poetry — so lyric, narrative, concrete experimental, theoretical — I want to see all of that.

"Folks need to keep in mind that we are seeing these poems severed from their contexts. We don't know your body of writing. We don't know your intellectual or artistic aspirations. The poem needs to do a lot of work to be able to house all of that under 600 words. It's an ambitious task, but you have to be ready to inhabit that ambition to see your poem on the shortlist."

5. Don't be discouraged

"I've been longlisted, shortlisted, I've judged prizes in the past, I've won a number of book prizes, I've lost a number of prizes, it's the name of the game. It's just one of the ways that we participate in the act of being a poet. Which isn't, I want to remind people, poetry. There's a difference between how you occupy the literary world and what your writing looks like.

"But I want to stress that there are many avenues for institutional recognition, for having your writing taken up, and the CBC Poetry Prize is one of many."

Billy-Ray Belcourt's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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