Home > Interviews > Everything is Something Else: In Conversation with Billy-Ray Belcourt
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Billy-Ray Belcourt is from the Driftpile Cree Nation and is a PhD student in the Department of English & Film Studies at the University of Alberta. His work has been widely published in magazines across Canada, and he has been named by Tracey Lindberg as one of six Indigenous writers to watch. In Billy-Ray Belcourt’s debut poetry collection with Frontenac House, This Wound is a World, love answers heartbreak, “history lays itself bare” (42) and a world glimmering with decolonial love and queer, Indigenous possibilities is split open. This is poetry at its brightest. It is electric, profound, necessary work. Belcourt bends genre, challenging the cage of colonialism through a poetics of intimacy. It is a collection unafraid to ask questions, exploring grief, desire, queer sexuality and Indigeneity with tender honesty. Belcourt asks us to consider the ways Indigenous bodies can be simultaneously unbound and “rendered again,” (40) how worlds can be made and unmade. These are poems to be returned to again and again with reverence. PRISM editors, Jessica Johns and Selina Boan were thrilled to be able to sit down with Billy-Ray during his Vancouver book launch and chat about Indian Time, queer Indigenous futures, and the armpit as heaven’s wormhole.

Johns: Before we get to your amazing, newly released poetry collection, This Wound is a World, I wanted to talk a little bit about your article, “The Optics of the Language: How Joi T. Arcand Looks With Words.” Your article centred around her Here on Future Earth series where she remakes signage with Cree syllabics. One of the photographs in this series was the cover photograph for our Spring 55:3 issue. I had considered her use of language and place before, but I hadn’t thought about its relation to time. You say in your article that “modified signs exploit our ability to look, that we see them and conceptualize them as out of place or untimely, we transport ourselves to a different time and a place governed by Indian time,” which I love because usually Indian time is something we make fun of ourselves for.

Belcourt: That’s why I love it too, because it’s an inside joke we all share.

Johns: It’s an inside joke, but you’re using it for a different purpose here.

Belcourt: Because it’s theoretical too.

Johns: It’s theoretical as well! Which I never thought about! At first I thought you were making a joke in a very intense article, but then I realized there was more to it. You say “the bright signs prop up affective structures for a time and place where our relations to Cree are not always-already bound up in performances of grief.” So it’s a performance of grief for the past, but then this consideration about our possibility of a new world-making future. It’s this mystical sort of limbo period, which is beautiful and something I see echoed in This Wound is a World in the form of bodies. I mean, they’re everywhere. The un-bodying that you talk about feels a little bit like this “relics of futures past”–there’s elements of grief but an unbodying that is positive and affirming for the future.

Belcourt: I would say I have an analytic arsenal. So, I have a set of keywords that I’m almost obsessed with that I keep trying to enflesh and widen their semantic boundaries. Un-body is one of them, Indian Time is another. It’s a part of this larger project of mine to not shy away from negativity and bad affects: feelings like sadness, upset, guilt, etc. I think that as a student of Indigenous studies, I see this blinding emphasis on sovereignty, self-determination, governance, and these other words and terms, which require us to disavow the bad, to try to story one another via positive affects. And I think that creates a whole visual terrain that can’t be seen via those optics, so that’s what I’m against.

I think it’s especially important to ask who the tenants of the terrain of bad affect are. I would say that those are primarily Indigenous women, queer, trans, Indigenous two-spirit peoples, and we are the ones who are theorizing these things. I see this sort of intellectual project too in Gwen Benaway’s poetry, Joshua Whitehead’s, Samantha Nock’s, Leanne Simpson’s. Leanne is one of the key progenitors of that project and we inherit that from her in her wake. Sovereignty, for example, requires us to think of the body as a closed system, as if we’re post something like… leakage. I don’t know what else to call it. But I’m saying no, there are these instances where it feels like our bodies are falling apart, being undone, redone, and that’s what happens in the domain of everyday life. That is what we have to pay attention to, because that is where worlds can be both made and shattered. It’s a site of profound feeling and that’s why I’m bent on examining it.

Johns: So does that, then, necessitate that a body has to be broken and has to be shattered before it can be remade? Before this sort of resurgence can happen?

Belcourt: I guess I’m trying to say that we don’t have to temporalize the body in that way. That these things happen coterminously, that they happen at once, and they happen in an arrangement that isn’t circular or linear–

Johns: –Indian Time!

Belcourt: Yeah! It is all over the place and belated. It feels as if it is happening in some other sort of dimension.

Johns: So it’s unbroken and being remade, and all happening at the same time. One doesn’t necessitate the other.

Boan: I’ve been thinking about that a lot too in my own work, and just moving through the world. I was walking down the street the other day and I had this realization that you can be shattered and really sad, and also have these profound moments of joy at the same time. It’s interesting, because you refer to spillage and spilling so much and there’s an unbinding that is present in the book and also in the world.

Johns: I think that goes back, again, to the bodies. There’s disappearing bodies–

Boan: –Bodies disappearing into other bodies!

Johns: –and then bodies coming out of that. Other bodily forms, like bodies of water and bodies of land. But there’s also a trickiness to it. Even the “here” is a trick of the light. So these notions of bodies and place, are they real?

Belcourt: I think they’re always up for interpretation. Armpits occur a lot, both in This Wound is a World and the book I’m writing now. I can’t stop thinking about them. I’m not entirely sure why. The way I interpret them is sort of like a wormhole, like heaven’s wormhole. In some newer work I talk about an ex-partner of mine’s armpit in a way that is worshipful. I think this points to the semantic flexibility or promiscuity of the body, and how it’s not useful to containerize meaning. We have to keep chasing after new meaning.

Johns: Well, calling the armpit heaven’s wormhole, that is 100% new meaning. I haven’t heard that before. This might be going back to the notion of tradition. Tradition doesn’t just speak to old things in the past that we still do, traditions are always being remade, re-done, and recreated.

Belcourt: There’s an ongoing project that tries to make tradition into some sort of ahistorical, amorphous, timeless concept. As if it were an object that we always already knew, and that we have to desire. I have called this a form of cruel nostalgia. Following Lauren Berlant’s “cruel optimism,” I say that these forms of nostalgia are actually detrimental to us, that this relation to time and temporality atrophies Indigenous social worlds inso far as it forecloses queer, trans possibility. We can’t romanticize and invest so much in the past when the horizon of possibility ahead is always widening.

Johns: You talk about gender a lot [in This Wound is a World]. In “The Cree Word for a Body like Mine is Weesageechak,” there’s the shape-shifting bodies, gender being a magic trick, and that “haunting is a gender, gender is another word for horror story.” It’s a collection where everything can be something else, and everything is something else constantly.

Belcourt: I love that interpretation.

Johns: I appreciate that you brought up Gwen Benaway before. I was just reading “Holy Wild,” the text adapted from her keynote address at Queer Canada, and she talks about queerness as a site of struggle and how Indigenous subjects remain displaced by queerness. She says that queerness, if it claims her, claims her as a symbol or a theoretical construct. Indigeneity, on the other hand, claims her as a whole being. Do you think that Indigeneity accepts queerness in a way that queerness doesn’t accept Indigeneity? Or what is problematized in that intersection?

Belcourt: Yeah, it is a thorny question. In my essay, “A Poltergeist Manifesto,” I say that Indigeneity is ante-ontelogical, which means that it is, to me, prior to ontology. [Ontology] is the way in which we conceptualize being, this metaphysical substance. So I say it’s prior to that. Colonialism was, in part, a metaphysical project that tried to offer up these configurations of Indigeneity that would semantically landlock us, but I would say that Indigeneity eschews all of that.

Johns: Can you unpack that a bit for me?

Belcourt: If we think about the question as “what is it to be Indigenous,” then that’s actually a metaphysical question, because “to be” is linked “to being” in the Heideggerian sense. In the realm of being, there’s all these claims to be made about the substance of Indigeneity. So at the time of contact, when settlers came and mobilized a set of optics by which they would interpret who we were, what they saw was, of course, not stuck in the domain of the physical or corporeal. There were ontological claims, and there were philosophical ways to see, and then to interpret what they saw, and then to configure that within an already existing system of meaning and logic, within an already existing metaphysics. So we see all these claims about, for example, the backwardness of Indigenous peoples, as peoples without law and without government structures. These, of course, are not just symbolic, these are not merely products of a form of power that is symbolic, but also one that is metaphysical too.

I say that Indigeneity is anti-ontelogical and that queerness is anti-subjectivity. The latter is an inheritance from queer theorists within the strain of queer theory that is about anti-sociality–theorists like Leo Bersani and Lee Edelman. Queerness is something that troubles subjectivity precisely because it is so flexible and it can be shapeshifting and it can morph. It’s always sliding, slipping through our fingertips, we can’t always know it once and for all, and that’s a problem for Western paradigms of the subject. So when these two things come together, it almost makes no sense, it’s not common-sensical. It requires us to abandon a whole host of ways of thinking and ways of knowing because for so long Indigeneity could only be configured as one locus of experience: that the Indian was X, Y, Z. And that almost always was a heteronormative and cisnormative rendering, so now when we see people making claim to queerness, to transness, to two-spiritness who are also Indigenous it troubles epistemology as such. It troubles thought.

That’s why in this paper [“A Poltergeist Manifesto”] I’m trying to make the claim that that’s why we experience so much violence both in Indigenous social worlds and outside of them, but that it also points to why there’s so much disagreement about the so-called “LGBTQ2+ Indigenous experience” or whatever you want to call it. It’s because it’s so foreign to philosophy, to thought, that we don’t know where to start. It makes sense to me why Gwen is making the argument that queerness is a site of, again, ontological violence. That it doesn’t interpellate her, and if it does it’s as an object of sorrow or injury. But I also think it’s maybe premature to say that Indigeneity is entirely the opposite of that, because we know that Indigenous communities, because of colonization and its project of Christianization, a lot of our communities are homophobic and transphobic and that there’s a whole bunch of work to do there. Nonetheless, queer Indigeneity is my analytic when I think academically about these things precisely because of its openness, how it’s always widening, how it just flowers possibility. For so long that wasn’t the case for us.

Johns: I think Gwen’s keynote and your work show that it’s a very complex space. You have a line in “OkCupid” that says “to be native and queer is to sometimes forget how to love yourself because no one wants to.” So if it’s a site of possibility, it’s also a site of breakage.

Belcourt: Yeah. What Gwen is getting at too is, of course, the whiteness of queerness, how queer social worlds have been built both metaphorically and literally on the corpses of Indigenous peoples, on stolen land. And there’s a whole set of norms, patterns of thinking, and ways of being in the world that queerness makes possible that have been anti-Indigenous or racist. And that can really, to speak colloquially, fuck you up when you’re an Indigenous person and you’re trying to come into being as someone who belongs to a non-normative gender or sexuality–to just feel this utter invisibility in both the realms of existence of which you are a part. That brings me to one of the first poems I ever wrote, “OkCupid,” when I was nineteen. That was when I was figuring out who I was, very cliche stuff. I had come out earlier that year, and I was on Grindr and it was racist. I was dating white dudes who would say messed up shit all the time, and I came to this conclusion that for the most part queer publics don’t know how to conceptualize Indigeneity.

Johns: I think you point to the difficulty of trying to exist in a queer space that has historically been white, and also an Indigenous space where the colonial definition of queerness has forced stipulations on what you can and cannot be.

Belcourt: I think what I’m also trying to get at is that it’s very easy to talk about Indigenous publics as inheriting the homophobic, cisnormative logics of the colonial world, but there’s also all this love there. Even though my kokum, for example, might not know how to talk about sexuality, or maybe can’t fully wrap her head around it, she still has so much love for me. We still laugh with one another, we feast, we visit one another, sometimes under compromised conditions, but there’s still joy there. I don’t think that’s always the case with queer publics, though. The racism is more persistent, enduring. There aren’t affective openings to be with one another.

Boan: Referencing the Malahat Review interview that you did, you said that “there’s something about Indigeneity and queerness, about queer Indigeneity, that makes words fall flat and that allows us to put meaning to rebellious use.” I love this idea. In your first poem of the book, the speaker has skinny jeans and is wearing make-up, and there’s this kind of fun rebelliousness about making space.

Belcourt: I think it’s a campy take too on Indigenous cosmology. Sort of trying to queer our origin stories.

Johns: In a world where everyone is at least a little bit gay?

Belcourt: That’s our world, not another world!

Johns: Actually I wanted to talk a little bit about the toxic masculinity that’s pointed to in your work. For example, in “Wihtikowak Means (Men Who Can’t Survive Love).”

Belcourt: Wihtikowak is the plural form of wihtikow, which is a figure in the oral history of many Indigenous peoples, including the Cree. The wihtikow is a mongrelized figure, mixed between the human and the animal. There’s archival evidence of the fascination with the wihtikow. I think there are police documents from around Lesser Slave Lake of First Nations people being afraid of the wihtikow. It’s a common story that’s circulating through these communities. I wanted to reclaim the wihtikow as a queer figure, which has to do first and foremost with its hybridity, it’s refusal of singularity. But I also think it was a metaphor to try to get at how Indigenous communities sometimes talk about queer people as these sort of otherworldly, unknowable figures. I think it invites violence, but it is a site of constitution too.

Johns: What also resonated with me in This Wound is a World is the amount of Alberta in there. I think the line “in a small town made up of oil dreams and soured masculinity” was the clincher. That’s every town. That’s the town I grew up in. Also in “Everyone is Lonely,” the line “he’s a little bit country, I’m a little bit barbed wire fence,” and obviously “Ode to Northern Alberta.” I have hearts all around it.

It’s interesting because Edmonton has the second largest Indigenous population and it’s one of the most dangerous places to live as an Indigenous person, and this toxic masculinity is an encompassing and pervasive thing, but there’s still beauty, and it’s still our home. So can you talk a little bit about writing through that?

Belcourt: I think that project is to render the counter-publics that pop-up where they aren’t supposed to. Because the conditions are so hostile, we don’t expect there to be love or joy but there is, and I think that that is a cause for celebration. This follows Fred Moten who says that “we ought to celebrate that which cannot be celebrated,” and I think that’s what I tried to do a bit of in this book, but what I’m doing more purposefully in books to come. I think that it’s too easy, especially for settler publics, to trap Indigenous life in one story, which is often the story of suffering and sadness and breakage. Like we are just always only falling apart in a bad way. But we know that that’s not the case. That we laugh at that which cannot be laughed at (laughs)–

Johns: –and sometimes shouldn’t be laughed at.

Belcourt: Yeah. So we know statistically, empirically, and anecdotally about the violence of the prairies. We know that it was one of the last sort of frontiers of settlement, that there was enduring Indigenous resistance there to settlement. We see the afterlives of that today: in the geographic distribution of life in cities like Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, there are Indigenous quarters. We see that too in the prison system, and the over-incarceration of Native people in the prairies. But of course that’s not where the story ends. That’s just one line of inquiry, and maybe this book invites us to investigate these other lines of inquiry.

Johns: Because they seem to be almost heartwarming narratives. Especially because living there, you know the negative narratives so intimately. But your narratives were, I don’t want to say fully positive, because it’s more complex than that, but there were little twinkles of beauty–

Boan: –and tenderness. I was really intrigued by thinking through the idea of vulnerability in the book. Also I was creeping you (laughs), and you wrote an essay on masturbatory ethics that I found interesting.

Belcourt: (laughs) Yeah, it was a weird essay.

Boan: I liked it though, it was fun to read! In it, you referenced Leanne Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love and you pulled a quote: “you know we’re just hinting anyway with vague ideas about dreams and hope and intention, at the same time dragging around blockades full of reminders that vulnerable has never ended well for any of us, not even one single time.” What I was so struck with reading your work was the consideration of vulnerability in this really tender, careful way, and looking at the messiness of love. That for different people, vulnerability looks different. Can you talk about these ideas of vulnerability, and if you were thinking about it as you were working?

Belcourt: It’s not novel to say that we are all beholden to others, and Judith Butler has said that we are all enigmatic traces of others. So the condition of being in the world is that we are in it with others, and this is the site of both constitution and breakage. So I think that what Leanne Simpson is getting at in Islands of Decolonial Love is the ways in which Indigenous peoples have been made to embody an exaggerated form of vulnerability, as if we were always at the whim of the behaviours of settlers. And that has been the case for so long. But, to quote José Esteban Muñoz, there is also a forward-dawning futurity to vulnerability; it is also an affective of commons and we are in it with one another, which enables us to dream up a future in which vulnerability is not about being subject to the actions of racist others, but is about falling apart in a good way.

Johns: I just want to talk about language in writing. Selina you often use Cree words and then bracket the phonetic spelling, and Billy you use them and re-define as you go. When I use Cree words in my work, I’ll translate them in the body of the work. Leanne Simpson has said that she wrote This Accident of Being Lost for an Anishinaabeg community, so she didn’t translate the words in the text. It’s interesting because language is such a tool in so many ways. I wonder about both of your decisions around language.

Boan: Even in the grammar and the way you move through the world, or process something through a different language is different. Your relationship with things around you change. I grew up with my mom whose a settler and so I didn’t grow up around the language. For me in my work, it’s that process of learning while being removed a little bit from community. Which is why I spell the words out. It’s actually for me to read more than it’s for anyone else, but I think it’s interesting to include because I’m just being honest with where I’m at: this is how I’m feeling through my work and identity.

Belcourt: I think that it goes back to the point about everything being nothing, but nothing also being everything. I’m using these words in ways that they weren’t necessarily meant to be used, which is a tricky thing to do and something that only Indigenous peoples can do. I’m trying to say that these words tell us more than what you would find in a Cree dictionary, that there is a social world to these words and that we can also see that there are desires, curiosities, and anxieties installed in these words. I’m trying to draw those out.

Jessica Johns is a writer of Cree ancestry and a member of Sucker Creek First Nation. She was the winner of Saltern’s 2017 Short Forms contest, The Rusty Toque’s 2017 Flash Fiction contest, and was first runner-up for the 2017 Glass Buffalo poetry contest. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in SAD Mag and Third Street Writers anthology.

Selina Boan lives on the traditional, ancestral, unceded territories of the Musqueam, Sḵwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. Her work has appeared in CV2, Room, SAD mag, Poetry Is Dead and The New Quarterly, among others. She won the Gold National Magazine Award for poetry in 2017 and was shortlisted for the 2016 CBC poetry prize. She is currently working on a collection of poems exploring her Cree and European heritage.