Credit: The Canadian Press/Jason Franson; Francesca Roh/Xtra
Books
5 min

‘Being Indigenous today is the act of refusing to die’: Billy-Ray Belcourt on his latest poetry collection

The award-winning poet on the themes of his new book, ‘NDN Coping Mechanisms’

While poet wunderkind Billy-Ray Belcourt was writing his new collection of poems, NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field, the trials of Gerald Stanley and Raymond Cormier were moving through the Canadian courts.

Belcourt, who is from the Driftpile Cree Nation, says he couldn’t ignore the politics of Indigenous life in Canada.

The consequences of the trials are just a few of the themes Belcourt addresses in his work. A follow-up to his 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize–winning collection, This Wound is a World, Belcourt’s new book explores themes of utopia, queerness and Indigenous politics with an anthropological and interrogative scope.

Belcourt sat down with Xtra to talk about his new collection.

How did you come up with the title of the book?

The title has been with the book since its conception. From the get-go, I knew I wanted it to have an anthropological tone. There was a fervour of sorts in the mid- to late-20th century when anthropologists flocked to Indigenous communities across North America and elsewhere. For so long we were only able to be understood in public life as objects of inquiry. And the effects of the anthropological drive to study Native people are still being felt today. So I tried in this book to do a counter-anthropological work, to see if I could utilize that modality against itself to do something more subversive.

I wanted to ask what happens when the studied becomes the studier, and vice-versa. So the object of inquiry for the book in a sense is Canada and Canadian history, and the book wrestles with time and our understanding of it as something linear that can be laid to rest. I think that’s what a lot of the reconciliatory discourse took as its philosophical bedrock—a sort of tying of the loose ends of history and moving on. My intervention is to say that that’s actually an impossible project.

When it comes to coping mechanisms, how do you think Indigenous communities reckon with that?

It’s an ongoing endeavour to have to consistently be confronted by history in incredibly routinized way. So the “coping mechanisms” part of the title is both a bit campy and to suggest provocatively that part of the experience of being Indigenous today is the act of refusing to die. And there’s moments in the book where I very explicitly say that.

I’m not trying to talk about suffering and leave it there, which is sometimes the case in art by non-Indigenous people about Indigenous people. I’m trying to show how, despite all the unendingness of the violence and the pain, we know ourselves to be more than victims. And we know ourselves to be utopian and futuristic because we practise joy and care with each other in non-institutionalized ways.

The poem that most clearly showcases that in the book is “The Terrible Beauty of the Reserve,” which is named after [American author and] theorist Saidiya Hartman, who was writing about slums and Black people in the U.S. In my poem I’m trying to show something very sociologically significant is happening on reserves. Because we’ve not been able to succumb to the logic of the reserve, which some refer to as an open air prison, we’ve been able to inject it with vitality. We go there to feast, to laugh, to care for our kin. And we can’t stop thinking about that and reminding ourselves about that in Canada.

This idea of utopia—how attainable is that?

I think the book is trying to show this paradox where we’re both incredibly circumscribed by colonial power but still very free of it. Perhaps the point is to ask: How do we spread the knowledge of our capacity to be free, our desire for freedom? How do we get non-Native people to know us as subjects and as people who have had a long history of improvising freedom?

And I think that this can work in institutional ways: How can Canadian policy shift if we’re not seen as wards of the state and instead as sovereign nations? And in more philosophical ways: How can we use our principles, which vary across the many nations in Canada, as the bedrock of whatever we do in daily life, in our own governance systems? And how do we practise more radical freedom with one another, in our interpersonal relationships, in love?

The book is also very much concerned with the spirit of intimate life—and that’s across a lot of my writing. Even sometimes in love we reproduce the logics of colonization.

There’s a line in the poem “Canadian Horror Story” that references the HIV/AIDS crisis quote: “forget burial―just drop my body on the steps of the FDA” Alongside writing on residential schools, reconciliation and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG), how do politics wrap into what you’re writing here?

There are a few references to the AIDS epidemic across the book because there have been many times when I’ve been affected by the trauma of it. And I think a lot of queer men feel this today—that we are haunted by that history. I couldn’t not write about that.

It’s also because I’ve been reading a lot of texts from that time, which have come to structure how we could think about politics, identity and sexuality at the end of the 20th century. I had to take that on as well, and I’m hoping that people can see with my attention to residential schools, MMIWG and the ongoing violence against Indigenous people, that I’m not trying to sensationalize that violence but reveal the very profound, very intense way that it can govern everyday life.

You mention throughout the book two high-profile cases of injustice: the trial of Gerald Stanley in the shooting death of Colten Boushie and Raymond Cormier in the murder of Tina Fontaine. What was the thinking behind their inclusion? 

These trials were unfolding as I was writing the book, and I knew I had to write about them—to leave a record of what precisely was happening and what we as Native people were experiencing in those moments. I wanted to show that, in the face in that gratuitous violence, Native people went to bed differently, we woke up differently, and it changed everything. To attend to that paradox was important—to show that history was being made and future generations will be talking about it as a nodal point in the impossibility of reconciliation.

The book began revolve around those trials. And the poem “Canadian Horror Story,” in which I talk about both of them, came to be one of the central pieces in the collection.

There was one line that really struck me: “Revenge is better than justice.” Let’s unpack that concept.

[Poet and novelist] Dionne Brand argues that she does not believe in the concept of justice. And that’s because justice as it exists in the legal world presumes that there was a prior state of goodness that needs to be returned to. But the world has never been just, and she goes so far to say that the way places like Canada and the United States have governed themselves is a tyranny—that is racialized and gendered.

I’ve also taken from the work of [scholar, writer and musician] Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who teaches us about the futility of some of the state manufactured avenues for reckoning with the past. Others have argued that in every iteration of state reconciliation that Native people are always the objects of repair rather than the subjects of politics. I’ve taken from that and come up with this line.

The book is very much an intersection of being queer and Indigenous. Was that intentional?

I didn’t set out to initially set out to write a book that would be as quite queer—but that’s what ended up happening! Writing from the position of being queer and Indigenous is still very much a radical undertaking because we have not had the opportunity to hear those voices. So I’m trying to show the intersections of those identities, and that colonial violence is not just about race. It’s being ground up with gender and sexuality. This is a more nuanced view about how exactly colonization manifests itself in Indigenous people’s lives, who are more complex than a shallow version of who they are.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.