To Glimpse the Flurry of Ideas That Hover Above Indigenous Peoples Everywhere:
Catherine Graham In Conversation with Billy-Ray Belcourt, 2018 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize Winner
Winner of the 2018 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize, Billy-Ray Belcourt is from the Driftpile Cree Nation. He is a Ph.D. student at the University of Alberta, and a 2016 Rhodes Scholar who holds a M.St. in Women’s Studies from the University of Oxford. In 2016, he was named one of six Indigenous writers to watch by CBC Books, and was the winner of the 2016 P.K. Page Founder’s Award for Poetry. His work has been published in Assaraus: A Journal of Gay Poetry, Decolonization, Red Rising Magazine, mâmawai-âcimowak, SAD Mag, Yellow Medicine Review, The Malahat Review, PRISM International, and The Next Quarterly.
Catherine Graham: Congratulations on winning the 2018 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize for your first collection This Wound is a World (Frontenac Books). Part manifesto, part memoir, can you talk about the development of this book?
Billy-Ray Belcourt: I would bet that This Wound is a World is like a lot of first books; it brought together some of my earliest poems, many of which were borne out of a desire to get at the historical contingency and political nature of my lived experience. I had been posting some of these poems to my now-inoperative blog nakinisowin.wordpress.com – this is how I began to build a writerly life. The poems, which live in the book now, caught the attention of those at Frontenac House.
CG: The title is a fascinating metaphor and captures the essence of the book. Can you tell us how it came into being and share your thoughts on the use of metaphor in general?
BB: I was walking down Cornmarket St. in Oxford – one of the hubs of social life there – and the title came to me, spontaneously. The book was originally titled We Were Never Meant to Break Like This – hence the poem by the same name. In my mind, it didn’t pack a powerful enough punch, whereas This Wound is a World jumps from the mouth. I have been asked on a number of occasions what “the wound” is, to which I respond: loosely, the wound of history. I sought and seek still to articulate a facet of Indigenous life in the contemporary world that is constituted at once by sadness and joy. The wound is what bubbled up from the terror of settlement. We, Indigenous peoples, sit firmly in it now. But, it does not foreclose the possibility of escape – “follow me out of the backdoor of the world.”
“I eschewed narrative at times to try to glimpse the flurry of ideas that hover above Indigenous peoples everywhere.”
CG: Several poems like “The Back Alley of the World,” “Towards a Theory of Decolonization” and “Love and Other Experiments” work just as well when read forward or backward. Any thoughts on this? Was it intentional?
BB: I was interested in writing in a way that was fragmentary, so that the poem was less a coherent unit and more an assemblage. I eschewed narrative at times to try to glimpse the flurry of ideas that hover above Indigenous peoples everywhere.
CG: This Wound is a World highlights the intersections and thresholds of politics, sex, race, culture and spirituality. What do these junctures mean to you?
BB: It is simply and complicatedly that these are inextricable facets of affective life. Perhaps the poet is tasked with laying bare the knottedness of categories of human existence.
CG: Many of the poems are organized numerically. Can you talk about why you chose this form?
BB: It afforded a sense of freedom that made the act of writing smoother. There is also something aesthetically interesting to how the numbers govern readability. What’s stopping someone from reading out of order other than socialization? Perhaps I wanted to elicit a feeling of rebelliousness in the reader, to tempt them to be out of sync with me.
CG: There’s a circling energy of grief and love in this book:
and I am lonely in a way that doesn’t hurt anymore
how to love and be broken at the same time.
At the apex of pain, one finds wonder and hope. Can you elaborate on this?
“Perhaps I wanted to elicit a feeling of rebelliousness in the reader, to tempt them to be out of sync with me.”
BB: I’ll leave this to Fred Moten [who said, in a 2016 conversation with Saidiya Hartman at Duke University,]: “Anybody who thinks that they can understand how terrible the terror has been, without understanding how beautiful the beauty has been against the grain of the terror, is wrong.”
CG: Could you tell us a bit about your revision process?
BB: The first draft had essays, but my editor and I decided fairly late in the editorial process that this distracted from the poems. So, I wrote a bunch of poems in the spring of 2017, which I think in the end are some of the strongest in the book.
CG: Which poets or poems most inspire you? What are you reading at the moment?
BB: This Wound is a World was deeply inspired by the writing of Ocean Vuong, Leanne Simpson, and Joshua Jennifer Espinoza. Leanne’s Islands of Decolonial Love, for example, opened up so much space in the landscape of Indigenous writing to theorize about and articulate a set of experiences that orbited around sex, sexuality, trauma, and hope.
Right now, I’m reading the reprint of Maggie Nelson’s Something Bright, Then Holes, Ben Lerner’s No Art, and Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things. I’m also re-reading Liz Howard’s Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, which is so musical and polyphonic and unafraid of making knots out of language; it amazes me upon every encounter.
CG: What’s next for Billy-Ray Belcourt?
BB: I’m editing my next book, NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes on the Field, which’ll be out with House of Anansi Press in the fall of 2019. It is a record, if you will, of my experiments with a number of forms of poetic writing – so, I make use of the prose poem, erasure, documentary poetics, graphic design. It also has some of my most campy poems – I think that camp is a powerful vehicle for critique and sociality. I’ve also been dabbling in fiction and non-fiction, so what’s next has still yet to fully materialize!
Catherine Graham is a writer of poetry and fiction. Among her six poetry collections The Celery Forest was shortlisted for the Fred Cogswell Award for Excellence in Poetry, named a CBC Best Book of the Year and appears on their Ultimate Canadian Poetry List. Michael Longley praised it as “a work of great fortitude and invention, full of jewel-like moments and dark gnomic utterance.” Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects was a finalist for the Raymond Souster Award and CAA Award for Poetry and her debut novel Quarry won an Independent Publisher Book Awards gold medal for fiction, “The Very Best!” Book Awards for Best Fiction and was a finalist for the Fred Kerner Book Award. She received an Excellence in Teaching Award at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and was also winner of the Toronto International Festival of Authors Poetry NOW competition. While living in Northern Ireland, Graham completed an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies around the world and she has appeared on CBC Radio One’s The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers. Visit her at www.catherinegraham.com. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @catgrahampoet.