The Indigenous Brilliance Podcast – Episode 2 (April 16, 2021): Poetry with Brandi Bird and Billy-Ray Belcourt

Karmella Cen Benedito De Barros

Stories hold the incredible power to heal wounds, connect people, and bridge generations. This is an incredibly important time to be centering the brilliance of our communities through Indigenous storytelling across diverse mediums. The Indigenous Brilliance Podcast is an important project of the larger Indigenous Brilliance Collective, and features innovative and exciting episodes, highlighting the multi-disciplinary voices of Indigenous women, Two-Spirit, and Indigiqueer artists as we discuss cultural resurgence in Indigenous arts. Hosted by creatives jaye simpson and Karmella Benedito De Barros, the Indigenous Brilliance Podcast carves out space for the celebration and witnessing of this beautifully visionary community.

Episode 2 (April 16, 2021): Poetry with Brandi Bird and Billy-Ray Belcourt

In this episode of the Indigenous Brilliance Podcast, co-hosts jaye simpson and Karmella Cen Benedito De Barros explore the topic of Indigenous Brilliance in poetry and writing through interviews with a couple of Prairie Poet legends Brandi Bird and Billy-Ray Belcourt

0:00 – Intro
1:55 – Brandi Bird
19:37 – Billy-Ray Belcourt
43:10 – Close

Music by Edzi’u and cover art by Sylvey Sampson <3 

IG: @indigenousbrilliance
T: @IndigeBrill



Indigenous Brilliance Podcast: Episode two transcript

jaye and Karmella: Hello? Hi, welcome to the indigenous brilliance podcast. Ani boozhoo! My name is jaye simpson. Tansi! My name is Karmella Benedito to Barros. We are your co-hosts for a new initiative to the ever-growing Indigenous Brilliance reading series recorded on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations. Indigenous Brilliance began as a quarterly reading series, brought to life by Patricia Massy of Massy books, Jónína Kirton, and Jessica Johns of Room Magazine throughout the years, Indigenous Brilliance crew inviting myself, Jay, eventually Emily, Dundas Oak, and more recently Karmella Benedito De Barros into the collective. Indigenous Brilliance, Massy books and Room Magazine acknowledge that we operate and exist on the unceded, therefore unsurrendered territory of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish nations. It is important to not just acknowledge the land, but also investigate and learn our proximity to the many villages, homesteads and ceremonial grounds that were upended and developed to create the city we now colonially know as Vancouver. We invite you to look up where you live and find the traditional name for it, not just research who was displaced from there. It is also incredibly important to acknowledge and name that people displaced in these territories as well, including the Black community of Hogan Ally, the continued gentrification of Chinatown, the destruction of Japantown in BC’s history of Japanese internment and the Komagata Maru incident in the Burrard inlet. Thank you for tuning in. We hope you enjoy!

jaye: On today’s episode. Our guests are Brandy Bird and Billy-Ray Belcourt Brandy Bird.

Brandi: Ode to Diabetes: God answered my prayers. Pray for sickness, not illness. Pray to be Rouge, cheeked, Prayer for sweat. Let my pancreas die. The all plus flesh pinprick of a glucometer on my finger trigger rosary bead smudge insulin in my stomach. Fat medicinal clouds, a sky darkened by endocrine storms, metabolic shock. The the sweet smell of a perfume called abundance worn in church. When I was 11 years old and white dresses. Pneumonia when I was 12, my father in the oxygen tank breathing him in incense and raw hide. When I got better, I ate attention. The praise for being alive. There is no praise now. A needle, a sharps box, yellow asking me to slow down. I eat an apple and it spikes my glucose. Dawn phenomena, the sun phenomena, a phenomena of language and its failures in the light of day. Give a squad mixed gland in the Anishinaabemowin medical dictionary, there is an error in the way I speak, the way I eat my mouth is inhuman. It curls when I’m punished. Prayer for what I’m better. When I better take care of myself, prayer for hiding insulin, from my father, prayer for the ritual at bedtime, the grip on the needle, the puncture, the pump, there is no pill to dry swallow now. Medicine is subcutaneous. It is molten and it changes form insulin collects and pools like Holy water. I’d sneak sips of in church. All those babies baptized in water I put my lips on. Let God run through me like sugar. Like he is so sweet I’ll gag.

jaye: Oh my goodness.

Brandi: Hi I’m Brandi Bird. I’m Saulteaux Cree and Metis from Manitoba treaty one territory. I grew up in Selkirk, Manitoba and Winnipeg, Manitoba. And I’m a poet and editor from on living on Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh territories right now.

jaye: Thank you so much for being here. I am so appreciative of you. I loved your chapbook with Rahila’s Ghost Press “I am still too much”. I think your chap book is so revolutionary in really cementing your spot in the pantheon of Indigenous writers in Canlit. When did you first begin writing?

Brandi: So I wrote and thank you for all that, by the way. I wrote when I was a child, but I stopped writing at age 15 ish. Because I was going through a lot. I was in foster care. I just had no voice. I thought I had no voice. And so I didn’t want to write, I was so afraid of making mistakes and saying the wrong thing because I was punished for saying the wrong thing and I couldn’t have journals or anything like that. Cause they’d automatically be read. And so I stopped writing until I was 26 and entered the Douglas College’s writing program and Elizabeth Buczynski, one of the profs there, she told me I was a poet and I was like, Oh, I guess, I guess I am. And just started writing from there.

jaye: I think our stories are so similar. I used to be punished for writing in my journal. And so I stopped writing for a very long time. And then I started writing again in university and I think that’s so interesting. I don’t want to dive into it because I think candlelit consumes indigenous authors in a really horrific way. So we’re not going to go down that stream, but we can, we can talk about that, how we want to talk about indigenous brilliance and this whole concept of it came forth by trying to carve space. And I think Patricia Massy and Room Mahazine have really done so much of that. You were a reader at Indigenous Brilliance.

Brandi: Yeah, I was on Granville Island two years ago

jaye: At growing room, correct. Yes. how have you felt your career and artwork have grown from then to now?

Brandi: Oh, well, I, I started writing a whole ass book, so..

Karmella: Oh my goodness. That for one.

Brandi: (laughs) Yea, that for one. But I also think I’m, I got into the BFA program at UBC. So I’m learning a lot and learning that maybe the way I wrote before I wouldn’t sustain a career. So I, I’m learning more and more about how to be attentive to my process and attentive to the processes of others, because you can always learn from others, other writers, other artists just like the world in general. Like right now I’m doing a project where I’m writing something beautiful. I see every day I’m not necessarily trying to make things, make the world, this like pollyanna place. In fact, I’m actually talking about some pretty dark stuff in the things that I’m observing that I want to start off from this like curious and grateful attitude in the world.

jaye: I think the way we move in community is so fascinating. Are there any new writers or artists you’ve interacted with or discovered?

Brandi: So Jessica Popeski’s collection, “I didn’t want to be read, I wanted to be believed in” from Frog Hollow Press. I really enjoyed that chap book. It’s like it was part of their disability series, I believe. And it’s a lot about psychosis and experiencing the fallout of psychosis with like your family and within yourself, which I have some experience with. So that was a really powerful collection that I discovered during the pandemic.

jaye I think one of the most brilliant things is that books are still coming out in the pandemic. And we’re able to interact and engage in some very beautiful ways. Has there been anything that you’ve been more lately? Have you done any rewatching of TV? Like what, what’s been your favourite pass time?
Brandi: Well, first off I’m eagerly awaiting a lot of collections for next year. So like or this year, I guess now 2021, like “Undoing Hours” by Selina Boan. Um “Sulphurtongue” by Rebecca Salazar. “Exhibitionist” By Molly Cross Blanchard. And “Letters in a Bruised Cosmos” by Liz Howard, who’s like one of my favourite poets. So I’m eagerly awaiting those collections, which I think all come out in the Spring.

jaye: I know! It’s heavy. It’s like the Avengers this Spring!

Brandi: Yeah. I’m so excited. And then I’ve been watching right now. I’ve been watching so much Schitt’s Creek cause I like, okay. So I hated the first season. I thought it was terrible. I didn’t laugh. I like hated all the characters and then I just got sucked in. Cause I, I was like, I have to figure out why people love this show. And I’m so happy I did cause I’m on the fourth season now and it’s just the sweetest, most gentle show I’ve ever watched. It’s very funny and cute.

jaye: This is like a combination of two podcasts. If folks don’t know, I have my own podast with Emily Riddle called shit-talking Crees. And we talk about Schitt’s Creek. I, the first season is definitely a choice, right? Am I right? There’s a lot of things where I’m just like, Ooh, and it’s hard because the show makes you care about rich white people and it almost makes you want them to have their wealth again, it’s like… What the heck is going on here. And also I really love the intentionality of them making this show homophobia free, but there’s no Natives. There’s no Indigenous people and they’re in a small town.
Karmella: Are we surprised though?
jaye: And I’m just like, Dan Levy, please reply.

Brandi: There were no Natives. That’s true. I didn’t even notice that I was like, this is a fantasy world with like rich white people. So I didn’t even notice that.
jaye: Honestly. It’s very interesting.

Brandi: I like, I like love rest and development too, even though it’s like such a show. But like with that show, I didn’t care about any of the characters. So it was a lot easier for me to watch them fail. So for which Schitt’s Creek it’s it’s harder to see them fail and luckily {SPOILER ALERT} they are no longer failing in the fourth season. So…

jaye: Yeah, that’s true. I, the show gets better. I do have to say. But I do feel like they’ve really failed in a lot of ways when it comes to diversity. But it was very liberating to see a healthy relationship unfold in front of our eyes. And I have a lot of feelings about the relationship and it gives me little butterflies. So I like it!
Brandi: Ya I cry every episode It’s crazy.

Karmella: So, I’m curious to know like what you’re working on currently and like how do you balance your creative writing with your schoolwork? Cause I’ve found that really difficult.

Brandi: Yeah. Um you submitted a piece for together apart which I really enjoyed. And so I really hope to see more of your writing around you. Yeah. and you too, jaye but, but jaye you already know that. Yeah. and so how I balance my creative stuff with my work stuff as well, it’s helpful that like I’m in a BFA where a bachelor of fine arts record for creative writing, so that a lot of my writing isn’t necessarily by choice, but it is writing. And it is practicing. I’m being forced to try other genres like fiction right now. I’m actually publishing a piece of fiction and Carousel for the Indigenous and Afo-Futurisms issue, which is really exciting because I’ve never done that before. And what I’m working on right now is I’m trying to write a book. Like I I’m trying to write a book about the body and the unhealthy body in particular. Because I feel like we live in a society that is not moderate, but preaches moderation. And like I am diabetic and I have this mystery illness right now that is that, that affects every day of my life where I’m incredibly nauseous all the time. And I’m just thinking about like my body all the time. I want to write it out. Like I have a piece about a called to diabetes that is just about that. And yeah, I, it just, it’s such a strange illness because it’s a colonial illness. And I was really young when I got it. I was 27, I believe. And it’s because of like some various things I did to my body that weren’t very good for it when I was a teenager, which unfortunately made my risk of diabetes more like bigger like I had an eating disorder. So that sucks a lot, but like, I want to, I want to just like tear it apart and figure out what the hell I think my body right now.

jaye: I think that’s all. So like, I am so enthralled. I can’t wait to see what comes of this. And I think I’m excited to see your perspective speak on experiences like this because when we read some work about bodies it’s often white feminists who talk about it and they just, don’t a hundred percent understand the nuance of what’s been done specifically to the Indigenous body and the very specific things that have culminated in the experiences that we have now. Because growing up diabetes was held over my head throughout my whole life growing up and it was weaponized. And I think what we do to survive is really valid, but no one talks about the accountability process of after how the consequences are oftentimes are, is to hold. But there, there needs to be some accountability with those involved specifically.

Brandi: Um yes, I, I agree. And I don’t think necessarily that someone needs to be healthy in order to be taken seriously or respected. Like I’m not a person. I try my best, but like, my body is ill and I don’t need to, like, when people say like, Oh, this part of like fat liberation where people are like like I’m a small fat person, but when people are like, Oh, fat people can be healthy too. I’m like, who cares? Like fat people can be healthy, but fat people can be, can be unhealthy. And that’s okay, too.

jaye: Exactly, exactly. The focus seems to be on this idea of health, which is still a very colonial structure of understanding and bias and let people have bodies and hold space for people talking about unhealthiness. Like, let that be a thing. But also, I think what they’re trying to do is unsettle ideas, but they don’t have the full grasp of the whole situation yet.

Brandi: Yeah. I also think that like, it’s easier for us as a society to be healthy when we know that it’s okay to stumble and we don’t, we don’t get shamed, you know, like a way to help is to get rid of shame. Really.

jaye: Exactly. Well, a lot of issues in in my opinion in modern day processing in society is shame. And I think it, it has a lot to do with my processing of desirability and how as like an Indigenous trans woman desire and shame deeply and negatively impact my life. And the same is said for like me, I’m a fat person. I am that that’s who I am. And so I’m just so excited to see what comes of this. I’m like waiting in antici…pation.
Karmella: I’m hearing a lot of really powerful messages coming through when you’re talking about what you’re writing. And I’m just wondering if you have any intention or hopes for what a reader might take away from your, your book that you’re working on.
Brandi: Oh, that’s a good question. I tend not to think about my readers, which is like, or my audience or whatever, which probably isn’t the best way to think about writing. But I hope what I hope they get away from they take away from it is that Indigenous people are varied and have different experiences. And my experience won’t be like another person’s experience. And like, I guess I write “Indigenous poetry” and like quotation marks, but I’m hoping that like it is for me really, it’s not necessarily for every indigenous person. It’s for people with similar experiences to me, but it’s like some, someone will not have the same experience as me and they’ll be indigenous. Like I’m hoping I’m writing for Indigenous people, but like, I know that my experiences are not universal. Even within Indigeneity.

Billy-Ray: The Creator Is Trans. The creator is trans and the earth is a psychology experiment to determine how quickly we mistake a body for anything but a crime scene, the product of older crime scenes. There is a heaven and it is a place called gay. Gay as in let’s hold up a world together. Gay as in, happy to make something out of nothing and call it love or anything that resembles a time in which you don’t have to be those shitty versions of yourself to become who you are. Now. One day I will open up my body to free all of the people who have cages inside me. I want to visit every Tim Horton’s in Northern Alberta, so that homophobes can tell me sad things like; I love you. Your hair looks nice. You have nice cheekbones. Until someone kills me. And then the creator will write my eulogy with phrases like. Freedom is the length of a good rim job. And the most relatable thing about him was how often he cried watching wedding videos on YouTube homo-nationalism am I right? My grandma thought there was a portal to the other side in her basement, but it was all of the women she had ever met praying in a circle that she would give birth to a world without men, only women made from other women’s heartbreak.

Billy-Ray: Part of my poetic development has to do also with my time working for the native youth sexual health network. They really like opened their arms to me, a young queer native kid, and help radicalize me. And I think this comes the notion that the creator is trans comes out of my experience with them and what they taught me.

jaye: Hi, welcome. I’m so excited that you’re here with us today Billy Ray Belcourt joining Karmella on the Indigenous Brilliance podcast. How’s it going?

Billy-Ray: I’m doing good. Thank you. Lovely to be here. It is an honor.

jaye: Fantastic. I’m so excited that you’re here. We had a Brandy on earlier. We had such a great conversation and we are so excited to also have you, maybe the shows are our Prairie fascination. One could say. We particularly wanted you on our podcast just to begin. This is our first big episode outside of our introduction, and I wanted to have a conversation with you regarding the work that you are doing in community, but also the work that resides within your work. There’s like so many different levels here. And I’m sure Karmella will also have a few questions. One of the first things I always ask, which are really, to me, it’s an annoying question, but I ask it out of irony. Is when did you begin to write? I always, I hate being asked this, but then I’m like, you know what, let me just be annoying.

Billy-Ray: Uh we love a bit of irony. So I sometimes get frustrated with this question too. And I actually don’t know why. I guess partly because it’s difficult to ascertain. Part of what makes one a poet begins before one writes or even thinks of themselves as one. So our poet hood is so mysterious, but technically speaking, I wrote my first poem. I think when I was 19, I had been in various courses that spoke to me in a new political way. So women’s studies native studies, and I had some experiences lived experience. I was able to conceptualize differently and to see my upbringing and my family’s life as a deeply historically contingent one. And so poetry was a kind of shelter for me in my consciousness raising.

jaye: I really like what you say here, because this question is so weighted in that, we just happened upon this craft and it just happens that way, which to me is a very white narrative. When it’s an exploration of so many things. You have three books out of differentI would say they’re all genre defying. As someone who was just getting into the literature scene. Your, your book, “This wound is a world” was one of my first books that I read that represented indigeneity in a way that was, was very real. And it had such a modernity to it that didn’t follow the, traditional perceptions that indigenous people exist. It didn’t have this weird mysticism about it. And I think that made it so much more visceral. Can you talk about your process with This wound is a world? Even though it’s been a few years it’s award-winning, it’s multiple prints and multiple additions and, it’s so successful because it’s so true.

Billy-Ray: When I think about the process of writing that book, I think about how I wrote a quarter of the book at my mom’s kitchen table after I had left the UK moved back to, and I had broken up with someone I was seeing there in the UK who, as an example of his questionable behavior tried to convince me to stay in the UK by sending me links to museums with Indigenous exhibits. So I was very much in my feelings and the book was an experience in writing from both desperation and hope. And so there’s a level of emotional intensity that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to recreate because I was essentially so raw to the world. I’ve since, you know, hardened and I have my, you know, NDN coping mechanisms, you know, before that poetry was the, the primary one. And I wasn’t worried about some of the formalities of the institutional world, because I had no idea how this book would live or circulate. I had no idea what it was to be a published poet and the book deal kind of happened accidentally. I was self-publishing my poems on a little blog I had made and the editor at the press set of Calgary Frontenac house, she happened to see one, and then I got this book deal. And so I was writing firstly to save myself. And I think that’s part of why the book resonates with folks who go to poetry for particular for similar reasons.

Karmella: So I’m curious to hear, like, if you have any advice for writers and poets who are a little bit earlier on in their career or less published you talk about writing for survival and then also exercising like really strong boundaries within your professional life and your life as a writer and a poet and someone who is published. And I know you work at UBC now as well, and, and your name is big it’s out there. And I imagine a lot of people maybe like, feel entitled to your vulnerability or entitled to your perspectives. And, yeah. Do you have any advice for, for how to keep yourself and your spirit safe in this big, big world who oftentimes like wants to exploit us or wants to see us fail?

Billy-Ray: Yeah, I think one of the biggest lessons I learned from touring is when as a world is that we don’t have to put all of our trauma on display, that there are things that we can keep ourselves. And the unfortunate truth is that in public life, there is still this dominant narrative of indigenous deficiency. And so sometimes our performances of, you know, whatever sadness suffering will be co-opted by that narrative. And it will feel incredibly brutal and demoralizing. But on the other hand, at some times the work we’ve already used it for you metaphors for it like a life raft or a streetlight or something, some kind of beacon for others. And we can never know how the work will move through the world. I think of, for example, someone writing to me from a reserve near mine who had read the book, This wound is a world, his mom had gotten it for him when she found out that he was questioning his sexuality or when he had told her. And he had messaged me on Instagram to say that he had been keeping the book with him in his bed, like he would sleep in his bed. And I was like, that is so beautiful and exactly the kind of relationship a writer wants people that have with over that kind of intimacy. So that’s all to say that there’s a lot at stake and to keep a solid network of writers and friends and friends who are writers and friends who aren’t writers to really keep you afloat and remind you to go back to the famous Mary Oliver quote that we are on a wild and precious earth.

jaye: Hearing that your work is landing in hands that that one needed to be held, I think is, is very gorgeous. But that also speaks to, to your work on striving for utopia. And, and you talk about it a lot. And it’s something that has honestly inspired me in the past couple of years where my narrative was very much so to burn it all down and, and something I know from your work is that it, that is something that you witness alongside this idea of utopia and that there are so many multitudes and nuances that exist in, in creating this future. Can you speak on, on some of your, your dreams of utopia?

Billy-Ray: Yeah, so I learned from the late theorist José Esteban Muñoz, that utopia is not something that is in the future or out of reach. It’s something that we already enact. In a way that people of colour in particular, he says relate to one another and experience joy and build alternative modes of kinship that run counter to the state and to other systems of oppression, indicates that we aren’t totally overdetermined by this cruel past that continues. And I take a lot of hope and energy from reading his work. And though I very much do not shy away from writing about difficult subject matter, whether that be my own experiences of racism or emotional hardship or our general collective experience of settler colonialism. But the point for me is that in writing about those things and exposing the many different ways that the state continues to try to stifle our livability in our survivability, that what is always most important is our, what Leanne Simpson calls our “beautiful rebellion”. And so I think about for example, my kookum and her defense of our lives, it’s both, you know, that’s, I think the best way to describe it, not just that you, you know, raise my brother and I, but she, you know, defended our lives as Indigenous kids. And that there’s something really deeply sociologically significant about that. And so, yeah, there are many writers I think, who are doing this as well, indigenous writers who know that we’re already building alternatives, we’re already striving for freedom. You know, Leanne Simpson’s work is about this. You know, I think your love letter to trans Indigenous youth, jaye, is part of this aesthetic tradition. And it’s exciting to see that become a more popular narrative amongst Indigenous writers. Although I think it’s always been it’s always been there.
Jaye: You are in such a beautiful position as a professor, that you are interacting with some of the voices that are pursuing this in, in an academic realm, but we all know that folks leave academia or they never go And, and you, you do workshops and you’re doing one in the States this, this will obviously probably air after it. But what are, what is that like to, to be interacting with these, these new voices of different experiences?

Billy-Ray: Well, something I notice with my students in my intro to a native writing Indigenous creative writing is that many of them begin the course with a deep ambivalence about English. They already know that it is the um there’s a poet, her name is Solmaz Sharif and she says, English is the language of our dispossession. And students already know that they may not articulate it that way, but they feel that the students who are Native. And part of how I’ve adjusted my own approach in response to their deep knowledge of that fact is that I show them how English and poetry in particular can be tools of subversion and rebellion, and that there, that we can use the language against itself in that though, you know, though it does have this terrible history that we are not, you know, totally given over to that, but there is room for experimentation and creativity. And another thing I do is I teach a lot of and trans Indigenous writers. And because I know that that is a curricular rarity and try to build a syllabus that reflects the lives of the doubly and the tripply marginalized. I think I learned that from, you know, Black feminists thinking that we should begin there, because those are the people whose, whose worlds are most under siege.

Karmella: Just one question to close on. Like, I, I think it’s, yeah, it’s beautiful that it seems our conversation has focused a lot on futurism and hope and visioning and looking forward and also celebrating the work that it’s taken to get here for you as an individual, but then collectively yeah. And I’m just curious to hear, like, what are you looking forward to, and is there anything that you’re working on currently for yourself, whether it’s writing or anything personal, that’s bringing you joy right now?

Billy-Ray: Well, an ongoing personal project is to generate joy in my life. I am working on a new book. jaye has heard a couple chapters I made actually. It’s called A minor chorus. It’s about Northern Alberta. And the way people are not empowered to see themselves as subjects of both history and politics, though, they very much talk about, they very much are able to theorize about those parts of their lives. I thought the conceit is if people were able or were given space and empowered to testify to the conditions of their, of the arc of their life, what would they say? And so I have like an interview with a kookum and with, you know, people you know, just people who aren’t normally the subjects of Canadian literature. There’s never really been a book about Northern Alberta you know, in, in the realm of fiction. And so I was trying to figure out what would that book look like? I mean, it’ll be, it won’t be exhaustive by any means of the experiences of being in, in, from Northern Alberta, but that’s, that’s the aim for the, for that book.
Karmella: Beautiful. I’m so excited to see that and to hear that you’re prioritizing your joy through the processes of all of that. Because I know it can be, have you worked with, especially when you’re trying to convey a message for so many people, but it sounds like you’re doing it in a good way and you have good intentions and you’re taking care of yourself through it.

jaye: And it’s, you know, it’s cute to have seen the process from from hearing in its beginnings and seeing it grow and, and seeing it like, you know, fill out and I’m so excited for it. Like, I’m God, I cannot wait to have three copies of it in all of its and all of its variations. I’m a Billy-Ray Belcourt Stan, I have two to three copies of every single book that you have big, huge, huge fan [inaudible]. Thank you so much Billy.

Karmella: Thanks for tuning into the Indigenous brilliance podcast. We hope to have you back again next time.

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