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Q&A: Griffin Poetry Prize winner Billy-Ray Belcourt

(l-r) Griffin Poetry Prize winner Billy-Ray Belcourt, prize founder Scott Griffin, and international winner Susan Howe

On June 7, 23-year-old Billy-Ray Belcourt became the youngest recipient to take home the $65,000 Griffin Poetry Prize. His debut collection, This Wound is a World (Frontenac House), was praised by the award jury, which stated in their citation: “Blending the resources of love song and elegy, prayer and manifesto, Billy-Ray Belcourt’s This Wound is a World shows us poetry at its most intimate and politically necessary.”

Q&Q spoke to Belcourt the morning after his big win.

Have you had any time to reflect on the evening?
When I got home late last night after the event, I was going through all the tweets and messages from everybody. I think the closest I can get to rendering how I feel is to say impossibly happy, which means it’s hard to articulate.

In your acceptance speech you said, “This book was written not to be a book. It was written to allow me to figure out how to be in a world that I did not want, a world that many of us who are Indigenous did not want. It was written also to try to bring about the world that we do want collectively.” Does winning the Griffin move you closer to that goal, or does it even factor into the process?
The prize is incredible and I’m incredibly thankful for having won, but I was doing this work, and was going to do this, regardless. But this win cements that it’s work that others see as important and work that I can now continue to pursue for as long as I’m in a body.

How do you describe This Wound is a World to someone who isn’t familiar with your work?
When I was doing media in the fall, I said that the book is at once a study of grief and of world-making. I think that best encapsulates, in as few words as possible, what I wanted to do with the book. To try to write in a way that both proliferated sadness and joy, and to not let one supersede the other, as an attempt to lay bare one of the conditions of Indigenous life in the modern world.

Does your intention take on a different meaning once your work is out in the world?
Absolutely. I think everyone has their own version of This Wound is a World. Sometimes that means it’s called This World is a Wound. I think the social loci from which someone enters into the text absolutely bears in how they interpret it and what lingers after the act of reading.

In the acknowledgements in your collection, you thank Tracey Lindberg for “roping you in.” Can you elaborate?
When she was getting all the press for her debut novel, Birdie, she would often mention other emerging Indigenous writers, like myself. She was steadfast in trying to use her platform to uplift the work of others, which is incredibly brave and generous. I often attribute my budding career and profile to her.

Do you feel responsibility to do the same?
Absolutely and I’ve been trying to do that every time I’m asked what I’m reading or what I’m excited about. I will definitely talk about writers like Arielle Twist and others who are doing incredibly unique things with their writing from the standpoint of being Indigenous or from other categories of difference.

Can you speak at all about your new book coming out with House of Anansi Press next year?
It’s a quirky – at times unruly – book that uses poetry, prose, and visual art, all in the mode of the poetic, to document some of the more everyday facets of Indigenous life. It is in everyday life, I argue, that we can spot the kernels of possibility.

This interview has been edited and condensed.