Ottawa Writers Fest: Billy-Ray Belcourt wields a powerful voice

Billy-Ray Belcourt. Photo: Tenille Campbell

Billy-Ray Belcourt‘s dad was a professional cowboy who competed on the rodeo circuit until an injury forced him to retire. That his dad was a cowboy explains Billy-Ray’s name.

That the young Cree man from the Driftpile First Nation on the shores of Lesser Slave Lake in northern Alberta is a Rhodes Scholar and an important poet is all Billy-Ray.

He is the winner of the 2018 Griffin Prize for Poetry for his first collection called The World is a Wound. He has just released a second collection called NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field (House of Anansi). He’ll be at the Ottawa Writers Festival on Oct. 24.

The second collection certainly solidifies his place as a major voice in Canadian literature. It is also different from the first, he said in an interview with ARTSFILE.

“This book did immediately orbit around a number of aesthetic and conceptual concerns and my interest in investigating the afterlife of the anthropological involvement in the lives of contemporary Indigenous people.”

Belcourt said he is “trying to rework the codes of ethnographic study to reveal something condemning but also interesting about how we as Indigenous peoples succumb to colonial violence of all kinds.”

Belcourt said the poem in which this kind of objectification is most visible is called Flesh.

dies hard
the world is not so simple not always realistic.
who lived their whole life in archives
examined and reexamined.
What is now needed is more


For the poem, he was, he said, working with an academic text that came out in the latter half of the 20th century.

“It is a symptom of this outsized and sometimes unethical interest in Indigenous people. The text is called Spirit in the Flesh. It became a kind of key text for thinking about gender and sexuality in Indigenous communities.

“In a way it didn’t capture the nuances and complexities of Indigenous understandings of gender and sexuality.

“I tried to unearth something more politically interesting and more sociologically significant from the text based on my own contemporary understandings of the possibilities of Indigenous understandings of gender and sexuality.”

Belcourt’s interest is personal. He is a gay man. It’s also intellectual.

He attended the University of Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship where he completed a Master’s in Women’s Studies.

“I was originally in a political theory program and i made the switch to women’s studies after two weeks because I was being confronted by a total disavowal in the political science department.

“I had to always occupy the position of the killjoy when I attempted to bring forward what I thought were very urgent matters. Women’s Studies at Oxford had an interesting beginning. A number of female scholars felt disenfranchised because they weren’t taken seriously. They came together in a very renegade way to create the program.”

Women’s studies had another appeal for him.

“It is always interdisciplinary and that allowed me to think about questions of gender, race, sexuality and place.

“Political science doesn’t take account of race, gender, of personal identity. Women’s studies takes lived experience as a kind of epistomological starting point.

Women’s studies begin on the ground, he said, and that’s where he is.

He got his Rhodes Scholarship because he had perfect 4.0 GPA at the University of Alberta, was involved in student activism and he was writing in a more journalistic way. In other words he had profile.

The Rhodes Scholarship was founded by the British businessman and imperialist Cecil Rhodes to educate young intelligent white men.

“I did have to reflect about the irony, the contradiction of accepting the scholarship. I was directly asked to think about that during selection process. It was clear to me at the time. This was one of those ways in which we could actually defy the history. I could be awarded something that I would never have gotten at time of its creation.

“I was interested in allowing it to reach a better ethical condition.”

His poetry is powerful, graphic, blunt even. He makes his point loudly.

“There are a number of points in the book where I very deliberately speak to a particular audience a non-native audience. I think that came about because of what was happening as I was writing the book.

“It is what many many have called the decline and fall of reconciliation as a federal project. It brought into focus that there were still many people who weren’t interested in dramatically re-organizing every day life to accomplish (reconciliation).

“I was thinking ‘How do I need to speak in order to break through the sound barrier of liberal experience?'”

He says this collection is kind of a last ditch effort. There are a few instances “where I am allowing myself to be open, to try to create this conversation within the text.”

He knows that his success as a writer has given him a platform.

“I have people listening now and I need to be very deliberate about what I say.”

And precise. “With this collection I probably read each poem at least a handful of times up to a dozen times during editorial process.”

He says there is a “phenomenon by which Indigenous people were crammed inside particular concepts, so there wasn’t much room for interpretation in a way that was injurious to us. I’m thinking how do I try to pop up the infrastructure for people to be presented with a particular types of understanding.”

For Belcourt the perfect place for engagement is at a poetry reading.

“I have had some interesting responses from non-Indigenous people who are grateful and appreciative of what I am doing. Some are feeling defensive that I am calling their individual integrity into question which is not the point.

“I have had a lot of Indigenous folks who have written to me who have said this is the book they have been waiting to read for years now. It goes to show that what I am seeking to put out into the world has an immediate effective emotional response.”

His poetry is in English.

“For whatever reason, I am very good at wielding the English language. And it’s really the only language with which to speak to one another in this country.”

Language is a tool then?

“You feel as an Indigenous artist responsible to marshal that kind of social critique but on the other hand there is the possibility that that will be exploited, it will be made to be a spokesperson of sorts. I have an essay where I say something to the effect of — Indigenous people use the polyphony of political speech rather than the monotony of Voice.

“In literature we see a lot of discussion about the importance of the Voice of racialized and marginalized people. I think it does have to be set within the frame of the larger question of how language has been used to injure.”

He’ll be bringing his voice to book festivals and events across Canada and in January, he take it to the University of British Columbia where he will be a professor of Indigenous creative writing. Meanwhile a book of essays called A History of my Brief Body on grief, colonial violence, joy, love and queerness will be out next May.

In town: Billy-Ray Belcourt will be part of a poetry cabaret presented by the Ottawa International Writers Festival at 9 p.m. on Oct. 24 at Christ Church Cathedral, 414 Sparks St. For more:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.