An Interview with Billy-Ray Belcourt

Interview by 
Selina Boan
billy-ray belcourt

Billy-Ray Belcourt is from the Driftpile Cree Nation. He is a PhD student and 2018 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholar in the Department of English & Film Studies at the University of Alberta. This Wound is a World is his first book and it won the 2018 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize, the 2018 Robert Kroetsch City of Edmonton Book Prize, and a 2018 Indigenous Voices Award. It was a finalist for the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award for Poetry and was named by CBC Books as the best collection of Canadian poetry in 2017. His next book, NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field, is due out with House of Anansi Press in the fall of 2019.

Room was excited to have the opportunity to sit down with Billy-Ray Belcourt to chat about obsessions, long form poetry, and struggle at the edge of language. Billy-Ray Belcourt appears at this year’s Vancouver Writer’s Festival in several events including The Poetry Bash on Friday, October 19th at Performance Works.

Selina Boan: What would a younger you be surprised to learn about yourself?

Billy-Ray Belcourt: I think a younger me would be shook that I’m a poet who gets paid to travel across the country to read poems.

SB: What has that experience been like?

BRB: It’s still hard to wrap my head around. It is really powerful to know that the ethical, political project that I’m pursing—which is about the proliferation of native flourishing—has resonated with so many people.

SB: I read your tweet about being on tour and watching how power is choregraphed by a set of entities//forces in literary spaces. I am curious to hear how being on tour has been for you?

BRB: Literary gathering or festivals aren’t perhaps the best place to perform a more radical kind of sociality. They are places where we sell books and interact with our readers and our audience. I always wish that there could be more opportunities to collaborate with other writers or to spend more time in the communities we are visiting. I will say though that it’s always lovely when I get to hang with other native writers and it becomes the context for a more enlivening, caring communality.

We are in the midst of a kind of shift in the literary world. Our generation of native writing is witnessing structures shift and that can be both rousing and frustrating. At the end of the day the question of whether indigenization is happening comes down to whether or not native people have been given the agency to construct these events, to build literary worlds.

SB: I read in your judge’s interview for PRISM that you have been experimenting with the long poem? How has that experience been for you?

BRB: I’m calling it a kind of short story in verse about native grief, performance art, and the apartment I lived in for a year in Edmonton. I have a draft that is about ten pages. When I think about the possibilities of the long poem I think of the opening sequence titled “summer, somewhere” in Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead. The total effect of the sequence relies on each page. Each page is inextricable from one another and together they marshal the power of narrative to indict the anti-black violence that demarcates both Black life and death. Importantly, Smith ends with a utopian bent, one that banks on Black freedom. These thematic strands are what the long poem can hold.

SB: Do you find you are more inclined to experiment in a longer poem than in shorter ones?

BRB: I think so. I’ve actually been finding it harder to write shorter poems. I’m working on a project that I’m thinking of calling “NDN Homo-Poetics”. The project is a bunch of notations that all gesture towards a book but are not. To me, it renders a struggle at the edge of language, at the limits of language. I think that is what poetry does. I recently read Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry, and I was quite convinced by his argument that all poetry is bad or in a sense a failure because it can’t translate the more planetary, cosmological understandings that we share about Poetry as a liberatory genre. My new work, then, is comfortable being a kind of hypothesis of Poetry.

SB: This reminds me of a question I’ve been thinking about recently which is, how do you reveal and draw messiness into a creative work? I see the connection between these ideas of messiness and what you are talking about in relation to notations, footnotes, and struggling on the edge of language.

BRB: I remember reading the beginning of David Wojnarowicz memoir called, Close to Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration. The first sentence goes on and on and feels as if it doesn’t end even when it does. There was a kind of feral-ness to the writing. A structural door opened after reading that. He operationalizes a sort of poetics of uneditedness. It makes available more frenetic ways of thinking and reading.

SB: Is there anything you are obsessed with right now?

BRB: I’ve been watching Alyssa Edwards’ documentary series called Dancing Queen. It is a pretty moving exploration of the struggle for an artistic life and it’s also really good reality TV with all the tropes you expect. I will also mention a book I’ve been reading that I’ve been really fascinated by called Indecency by Justin Philip Reeds, which is a finalist for the National Book Award in the US. The poems are all incredibly different from one another in terms of form and structure and language. There is a poem in the collection that is a circle with an axis through it and it asks to be rotated and read in a planar way such that “the book” isn’t just the context for reading but a part of the poem’s field of comprehension. Because that is not the kind of poetry I write, it baffles me to be able to think at that register and choregraph a poem like that. His experimentation and formal innovation are used in the service of voice and feeling. He doesn’t diametrically oppose the two.

SB: I noticed in some of your new work you’ve been using capitals. Is this something that is in your new book, NDN Coping Mechanisms, coming out in Fall 2019.

BRB: The capitalization is partly campy because I know that capitals letters can actually repel reading and resist being read. On the other hand, camp for me is a vehicle for critique or theorization. I am simply wondering what happens to my poems when they are typographically modified. The new book is about reading as much as it is about native everyday life.  

SB: Is there one question you were wished you were asked more or one you would ask other writers?

BRB: I would be interested in hearing a poet talk about the theoretics that empowers their writing and if they see themselves as part of a school of thought and if so, what that is. For me, my field of study is native freedom and my theoretical stance is a desire for native freedom.

Selina Boan lives and works on the traditional, ancestral, unceded territories of the Musqueam, Sḵwxwú7mesh and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. She won the Gold National Magazine Award for Poetry in 2017 and is currently working on a collection of poems exploring her Cree and European heritage. 

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