Why Griffin Poetry Prize-winning poet Billy-Ray Belcourt writes with passion and an urgent call to action
'I'm trying to see how much I can get away with, in terms of having my radical politics in my work.'
Billy-Ray Belcourt is a writer and academic from the Driftpile Cree Nation. His debut collection of poetry, This Wound is a World, issued a call to turn to love and sex to understand how Indigenous peoples shoulder sadness and pain without giving up on the future.
Belcourt won the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize for This Wound is a World. The collection also won the 2018 Indigenous Voices Award for most significant work of poetry in English and was a finalist for the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry.
In his second book, NDN Coping Mechanisms, Belcourt uses poetry, prose and textual art to explore how Indigenous and queer communities and identities are left out of mainstream media. The work has two parts — the first explores everyday life and the second explores influential texts such as Treaty 8.
Belcourt spoke to CBC Books about his approach to poetry.
What was it like winning the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2017?
"It was sort of a morale boost, but I was in an early stage of my artistic development when I won. But I still felt an urgency, a feeling that I had a lot more to say and a new forum in which to say it. Between the publication of the first book and winning the Griffin, I had already written a substantial portion of NDN Coping Mechanisms.
"When This Wound is a World came out, it was not attended to until months later in terms of reviews, news interviews, even with social media picking it up. There is this weird dichotomy by which people bring their generosity to work because of their familiarity with it. Because of my success, and being a young queer Indigenous person from the Prairies, I felt people might not be as generous with the work — they might now read it in a way where they feel it doesn't match to my earlier work.
I never imagined that my work could reach so many people and in so many places.- Billy-Ray Belcourt
"It's interesting having to try to negotiate those two things. But when I travel across the country to festivals for readings or to speak in numerous communities, I never imagined that my work could reach so many people and in so many places. My books are getting in the hands of Indigenous people — queer and trans youth in particular — which is why I wanted to write in the first place."
How did NDN Coping Mechanisms come to be?
"The book was coming together as the Gerald Stanley trial was unfolding in Saskatchewan. He was later indicted by an all-white jury in the killing of Colten Boushie. I was looking at how this case was taken up in the media. The resulting verdict had the effect of altering what it felt like to be Indigenous in the country and in the Prairies.
"People had to wake up differently. We went to bed differently. We went out into the world differently, a better people. But I felt that there is a dissonance between what we Indigenous people were experiencing and what non-native people weren't.
"I was angry about that. I wanted the book to directly call on non-Indigenous people to think about living differently in the face of that gratuitous legal violence. Unlike This Wound is a World, NDN Coping Mechanisms became a direct response to a current events."
Where do we stand right now in terms of recognizing Indigenous rights and self-determination?
"I do think that general public awareness about Indigenous history — including colonization and the ongoing racism against Indigenous people — has heightened in this country. But it's still to be seen whether that will translate into direct action or policy change.
Will it change the way that many Canadians interact with Indigenous people? Will they view themselves as inheritors of a painful past that is theirs to repair? I think this will be interesting to see unfold.
I wanted the book to directly call on non-Indigenous people to think about living differently in the face of that gratuitous legal violence.- Billy-Ray Belcourt
"While these issues were very much at the forefront of the 2015 federal election, we saw how reconciliation receded as an important nodal point in the platforms of federal parties that campaigned in the 2019 election. This is where art comes in, to say that this is not something trendy or has a four-year expiry date. It's something that has to be done with immediacy, care and robust ethics."
Given that progress isn't a linear thing, how do you account for this in your work?
"In a sense, NDN Coping Mechanisms is an indictment of Canada and its citizenry. I'm trying to show how the violence of what I call the 'long 20th century' — when you saw some of the most brutal, programmatic and state-sanctioned violence against Indigenous people in human history.
"I wanted to show how all of that is made and view it in various forms, including the social, legal, emotional and psychological aspects. I'm not trying to let anybody off the hook. The 'feel good' politics of national redress can't do that in a way that solves political action.
"I'm also trying to figure out if a book of poetry can also be a work of ethnography. I'm investigating 20th century history events that I don't think are at the centre of national consciousness but should be because of how clearly they bring into focus the logic of oppression and state violence."
When you look at the scope of Indigenous authors and writing in Canada at the moment, do you feel inspired that change can happen soon?
"When it comes to Indigenous writing, we are seeing a lot more books being published from a wider range of writers. There isn't a scarcity culture like in the past where it was understood that only a lucky few could experience and could reap the rewards of the industry. So in a very pragmatic way, I am optimistic.
I'm trying to see how much I can get away with, in terms of having my radical politics in my work.- Billy-Ray Belcourt
"But then there's also the worry that something might be lost when something becomes mainstreamed in that way. That's a concern that radical politics might be dimmed in the public sphere. I'm trying to see how much I can get away with in terms of having my radical politics in my work."
How does structure and form inform your poetry?
"Writing this book was a bit reactionary. I saw the ways in which lyric poets and confessional poets are sometimes talked about as though what they're doing isn't serious thought or studied artistic practice. I wanted to try to meld the lyric form, the experimental form and conceptual form to see what that might generate.
"I was also influenced by the work of Indigenous poets like Jordan Abel and Layli Long Soldier who use a set of documents from which to mine poetic material. Their aim is to show that what has been written about it can be subversively remade. As an academic and someone trained in a feminist theory and queer cultural theory I wanted to also bring a more theoretical pulse to the book. I'm still trying to figure out how to put language to use in a way that doesn't mirror the language of the state or of everyday life."
How are you building on the lessons and legacy of Indigenous writers that came before you?
"Writers like Lee Maracle, Maria Campbell and Gregory Scofield built this theoretical and conceptual bedrock that proves that Indigenous people should be known according to a different set of ideas than the stereotypical ones that were in circulation at the time. They were able to say that our subjectivity was ours to construct.
The Indigenous writers that came before me did the work of consciousness-raising awareness, which allows my generation to not just focus on the single issue of race, but also race, gender, sexuality and class.- Billy-Ray Belcourt
"The Indigenous writers that came before me did the work of consciousness-raising awareness, which allows my generation to not just focus on the single issue of race, but also race, gender, sexuality and class. They enabled the ability for writers that came after them to then bring a fully intersectional analysis to our work. They established that Indigenous people aren't always confined to the role of the oppressed — that we are desirous of freedom and joy and we practice those things in daily life. That work had already been done by those writers and it set the stage for even more nuanced, complicated and complex work."
How do we make space for hope amidst the hopelessness of the modern world?
"I intended to communicate that despite everything that has happened to us as Indigenous people — and despite our ongoing subjection to colonial violence of many kinds — we're still desirous of security and freedom and joy. There's a way to write about Canada that does not foreclose the possibility of a decolonial tomorrow. The current arrangement of bodies and feelings and environments isn't the one that we're beholden to.
"There's always the risk that when one writes about the past, especially from an Indigenous point of view, that it might appear as if we are entirely given over to it. I wanted to try to figure out how to write about the difficult things in a way that didn't suggest that we haven't already been building something furtively on the margins. That our work, for decades now, has been and amounts to a loud refusal of misery and suffering."
Billy-Ray Belcourt's comments have been edited for length and clarity. You can read more in the In Conversation series here.