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Reconciling Academia and Creative Writing: An Interview with 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 Dept. of English & Film Studies at the University of Alberta. THIS WOUND IS A WORLD (Frontenac 2017) is his first book, for which he won the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize. NDN COPING MECHANISMS is his next and it is due out in the fall of 2019 with House of Anansi Press.

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How did you come to poetry as your creative outlet?

The first reason I came to poetry, I think, was because I was frustrated with the limits of conventional academic writing. As an undergraduate student, I was going through this process of politicization that I think a lot of students of colour go through… [it] brings about a kind of fury [laughs], and pain and sadness that many of us want to put to use. And poetry was where I did that because it allowed me to write and to theorize from experience.

I was listening to your Brick podcast, and you said that you weren’t engaging with CanLit at all when you wrote your first collection. Do you think that not engaging with the underpinnings of CanLit and its history etc. gave you the tools and framework to write the kind of poetry that you did?

What I meant by that is… I was writing from a more underground location… And, as a queer Indigenous person who was also young, there weren’t many doors open to me anyway. It was folks like Tracey Lindberg and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson who took it on themselves to begin to mentor and to direct attention to writers like myself. But I think that I will always have this kind of… perhaps anti-authoritarian or subversive quality to my writing that definitely began with my interest in literature and poetry – not as an institutional project, but as a deeply political one.

In an interview I did with Gwen Benaway for The Rusty Toque, she spoke of situating  herself outside of CanLit because Canadian literature is more than just a practical reality; it’s an ideological space. In other words, even though her work was being published in Canadian literary spaces, and championed by Canadian publishers and critics, she didn’t think her work was part of Canadian literature as an ideological space. Going from off of that, I am interested to know how you see yourself in relation to Canada and CanLit.

So, the next book – NDN COPING MECHANISMS – is amongst other things, a critique of Canada and the structures of complicity that many are mired by. It speaks to the ways in which the suffering of Native people is very much entangled in the daily lives of Canadian citizens,  and there needs to be a remapping of terrains of social violence to get at the ways in which many contribute to the normalization of settler colonialism. And, I think that that kind of intellectual undertaking is in itself running counter to CanLit… I think what we are facing – ‘we’ as in marginalized writers like queer, Indigenous, people of colour – is an older version of CanLit, that had to do with a national myth of Canadian life. It reminds me of this [Antonio] Gramsci quote that Dionne Brand cited in a talk once: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” I think we can see these symptoms everywhere in the literary world. And perhaps, this generation of writers – that includes myself – have the unfortunate task of weathering these symptoms as well as championing and bringing forth the new. We don’t entirely have the option of opting out of the old – that’s where a lot of resources and capital flow through –, but that does not mean that we should give up on the construction of alternative literary communities that are first and foremost about freedom, and flourishing for those who continue to be oppressed.

This resonates with what you have said about your doctoral project, which is the collection of essays, The Conspiracy of NDN Joy. You said that you are centering yourself and your personal experience to talk about issues of colonization, state violence etc., and you shelved your former project on Indigenous paranormal because it dealt too much with state violence. And I am wondering — because you are in academia in one of the biggest universities in Canada –, do you think that the framework of academia doesn’t allow you to pursue certain questions or avenues of Indigeneity; questions that can only be pursued through creative writing?

I think a lot of my objection to academic writing has to do with my desire for emotive writing that is speculative, and not so much about argumentation, but about emotionality and world building. I think that poetry in particular, and creative writing more generally, allows me to write in the direction not of finality but of incompleteness. I am reminded of a moment in a conversation between Fred Moten and Stefano Harney – who are two American theorists – who say that they write together so that they can incomplete one another. It’s a take on the cliché, “you complete me.” What should be taken from that very moving assertion is that perhaps when we write, it’s not about a reification of individuality or a self-possessiveness, but being in concert with others who are desirous of shared objects. For me, that ‘shared objects’ is a world to come, one where queer Indigenous freedom is the reality.

In a conversation with Lindsay Nixon in Canadian Art titled, “What do We Mean by Queer Indigenous Ethics?”, you mentioned about looking into Indigenous artifacts to create Indigenous joy. You also mention that Indigenous futurism theory wasn’t something you were aware of within Native Indian Studies, and it was only through conferences that you were able to come in contact with Indigenous futurism theory. Apart from your doctoral work, is this the direction you see your creative work going in?

Yes, I am going to argue that poetry is always already a kind of futuristic project. I think of this poet [Anne Boyer] who was tweeting recently, to paraphrase, ‘All poetry until the revolution comes is just a list of questions’. And there is this other quote [by Walidah Imarisha] that ‘all social justice work is a kind of science fiction, because we are sort of building the world we want, not the one we are in’. And I think that’s very much the case for Indigenous writing also. In radical Indigenous writing in particular, it always has this eco poetics to it; it argues against and demystifies the calculus that the colonial state should be called the world. We know of the horror that colonialism has and unravels and continues to produce on the planet in every sort of possible way… I am interested, of course, in what writing looks like that refutes that calculus.

I think the artwork that you have paid attention to – at least going by the essays on Canadian Art – seem to be focusing on works that also seem to be creating this idea of eco poetry through their artwork. That nicely complements the kind of work you are doing right now. There seems to be a bridge between your academic practice and creative practice.

I think that I write about art and I pay attention to Indigenous artists and queer artists, because I think that art can say things that writing can’t. It’s a different sort of theory of voice that goes into art making.

Since you are a doctoral student, I think that you will agree that academic work requires a different kind of rigour than creative work. And even though both your academic and creative writing seem to have common threads, how do you navigate the two worlds?

I try my best to intertwine the two worlds. I am in a department of English and Film Studies that also houses a creative writing program, so I have been lucky to be able to undertake a doctoral project that is a kind of creative theoretical hybrid. And I am using a framework of auto theory… and when I teach in the future, one of the things I want to do is cultivate a classroom where the students see themselves as artist thinkers. I want to install in them an understanding of writing as one that is performative, that enacts a set of aspirations and desires, or political commitments.

And also, maybe thinking about these kinds of bigger questions that is usually done through academic work, but thinking about that through art, I suppose?

Yeah, the process of writing each book or project bears a thesis of thinking [and] arguments that doesn’t assign rules of comprehension, or that doesn’t resort to a kind of logical structure that can actually stymie creativity. So, I am interested in shock, and surprise, and improvisation, as methods by which to understand political and social life.

I think the great thing about your work is that it’s not conceptual in a way that makes it inaccessible. Your work has that affective quality that a person doesn’t need to be an academic to understand your work… I think that theoretical work is so dense that it isn’t open to everybody, and I love that in that sense, your work is really inclusive.

Truly, I think that one can get away with a lot of pontification if they are also representing themselves as emotional subjects.  And this one thing I am writing, I say that – it’s a poem about Foucault and… I guess, queer life, where I sort of remark that Foucault legendarily rarely wrote autobiographically? But he nonetheless often had an eye to freedom and utopian modes of desiring. I say that this is because no one turns to theory unless there is a dirt road in him. It’s actually a reference to a poem from This Wound is a World.  And I think that many turn to theory for the reasons others turn to poetry. I think sociological poetry like Dionne Brand, Lisa Robertson… are beautiful amalgamations of those two things.

You ended your Hazlitt essay titled, “Fatal Naming Rituals,” with a very powerful missive, “You are not invited into our tent. We are not yet at that point of hospitality. I will not tell you when this time has come.” Can you speak a little more to this missive?

That essay is a record of my attempt to trying to figure out what energizes curiosity about Indigenous writing from those who aren’t Indigenous. I think we have to be cautious and rally against vampiric ways of reading Indigenous writing that are about the consumption of trauma and suffering in a way that it produces white subjectivity. And I am curious about what it means for us as Native people to write about and to one another, and also have the knowledge that there are onlookers – ‘the people outside the tent’. And perhaps it’s that sort of classic feminist project of shifting the geographic coordinates of the center and the periphery. And perhaps, it’s the case now that the universal all-knowing subject of literature isn’t what governs literary sensibility anymore, or that it’s weakening. And of course, there’s going to be anxiety about that.

Final question: Can you speak about your current projects, and other projects going forward?

NDN COPING MECHANISMS will be out in September 2019. The US and French editions of This Wound is a World is also out in 2019. I am also working on my doctoral project which I hope will be a book. And since last summer, I have been dabbling in fiction, and I seem to have a lot of false starts [laughs]. So, we will see if that goes anywhere. I find [fiction] mostly stressful. I find that when I try to write fiction I am confronted with a whole host of aesthetic and theoretic challenges in fiction that can be debilitating. Nonetheless, I am eager to see where my writing ends up in the future.

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This interview was conducted by phone on 6th December 2018.

Photo of Billy-Ray Belcourt: Tenille Campbell.


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