Interview with 2022 Poetry Prize Judge Billy-Ray Belcourt

Indiana Review is accepting submissions for its annual poetry prize until March 31st. Read what this year’s prize judge, Billy-Ray Belcourt, author of the forthcoming A Minor Chorus, has to say about writing across genres, theory in poetry, practicing joy, and more in this interview with IR Poetry Editor, Samandar Ghaus.

And then don’t forget to send us your work!

First off, congratulations on your forthcoming book—your fourth!—A Minor Chorus. You’re truly a cross-genre writer—you’ve written two poetry collections, one book of essays, and now a novel. Can you tell us more about your recent turn to fiction? What’s exciting you about this project? I feel like poetry is such a particular brain and heart and spiritual space—and so I’m especially curious about how you’re finding a poetic register in the novel, which is a form with its own complex and colonized history.

In 2018, I became inexplicably fixated with writing a novel. I read widely and hungrily, and for the most part these novels failed to render the colonial condition or to imagine a world in which we weren’t doomed to colonial subjugation. My aim was to write a novel that not only examined the ways the colonial condition affects literature but also to write about a country—Canada—without anthropological certainty, without assuming its futurity. Because I’m a poet, the novel, like my book of essays, is full of poetic asides and interventions! The title, A Minor Chorus, refers to a communal voice, so I wasn’t interested in reifying the individualist register in which the history of the novel unfolds.

Something I adore about your poetry is that it so freely engages with queer and Indigenous and Black scholarship. The academic or philosophical is often embedded in your poems. This makes me think of something that the late artist and writer Etel Adnan once said in an interview, “Why shouldn’t thinking be poignant? Why shouldn’t thinking be emotional? That is what poetry is!” Does that resonate with you? How does your poetry practice feed your work as a thinker/scholar, and vice versa?

Yes, absolutely—theory is emotional, it is deeply personal. There’s a line in one of my poems: no one runs to theory unless there’s a dirt road in them. Theory and poetry are bound up in one another because they both require we refuse a romance of the present. Absence is one of our great materials as theorists and poets. My poems are often odes to what’s to come. Queer theory in particular allows for an epistemological frame in which our desires are not pathologized but rather understood as claims about the world. Theory, poetry, desire—all of these are about the knowledge that another world is possible.

You write so much of love, and joy—the kinds of deep love and joy that are made possible for and with the grief of surviving genocide, settler colonialism, racial capitalism. These emotions, which are also an intuitive or felt knowledge, are so alive in your writing. And I think something I learned from your work, and from others, is that this felt knowledge makes us alive inside of a deadening system. I feel more alive having read and felt your writing. Do you feel more alive having created it? I guess I’m wondering—does writing, for you, feel like a thing that invites you deeper into your own aliveness?

I love this question! Coincidentally, the protagonist of my novel makes a remark to the effect of: the emotional knowledge I can impart in a novel is what it’s like to be desperate to be alive. I’m also thinking of something Anne Boyer wrote in THE UNDYING: “if you are trying to survive for the purpose of literature, showing and not telling is not reason enough to endure the disabling processes required for staying alive.” I suppose I am surviving for the purpose of literature, which means I have to write against the grain of coloniality, a force that makes staying alive difficult for Indigenous peoples. When I write I feel as inside my body as I think a person can be (or at least that I can be). 

You said in an interview that “to desire freedom is joyful, and joy always makes a demand of freedom.” How are you practicing joy—and, subsequently, freedom—right now? And how are you sharing it with your beloveds?

Teaching feels like an activity that begets freedom. This week my students and I looked at colonial narratives of the prairies just a day after 169 possible unmarked graves were discovered on a former residential school site on the Kapawe’no First Nation in northern Alberta. The class was difficult, but to come together to study not just what’s been done to us but also how conquest is impossible feels vital right now. What matters in my classroom is that Indigenous peoples are indomitable. Also, friendship is a source of decolonial love in my life. My friends are beautiful people, so to be with them is to become beautiful. That feels to me like freedom.

Billy-Ray Belcourt is from the Driftpile Cree Nation. He lives in Vancouver, where he is an Assistant Professor in the School of Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. His books are THIS WOUND IS A WORLD, NDN COPING MECHANISMS, A HISTORY OF MY BRIEF BODY, and the forthcoming A MINOR CHORUS.