Skip to Content

Art Gallery of Ontario

Keyword Site Search

Art Matters Blog

Q & A with Billy-Ray

September 9th, 2019

Billy-Ray Belcourt. Image by Tenille Campbell

Billy-Ray Belcourt is a name to know in the world of poetry. He made history as the youngest-ever winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize for his debut poetry collection, This Wound is a World. We spoke with Belcourt before his September 10 conversation at the AGO with Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, and learned about his genre-bending work, NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field.

AGO: You’re an academic and a writer. Why did you turn to poetry?

Belcourt: I’m reminded of something Dionne Brand said, which was something to the effect of: you don’t make a living writing poetry, you make a life. Poetry is a process of listening for what can’t be heard (à la Judith Butler), which is perhaps what Ben Lerner means when he says poetry is the ongoing failure to produce the planetary music we ascribe to it in its purest form. So, why poetry? Because I refuse the world as it is, because I hold out hope for another arrangement of life/body/feeling that isn’t tied to suffering and premature death, because I know myself and my kin differently. 

AGO: What makes a well-written poem?

Belcourt: An immeasurable and magical mixture of poetic instinct, longing, surprise, ambition and fearlessness. Some poems that I revisit often with awe include Ocean Vuong’s Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong, Richard Scott’s love version of, Danez Smith’s summer, somewhere, Liz Howard’s Bigger Than, and Nicole Sealey’s Cento for the Night I Said, “I Love You”. There are also many delightful and intellectually exciting prose poems in Yanyi’s The Year of Blue Water

AGO: Could you explain the origin of the term NDN for those unfamiliar with it?

Belcourt: As far as I know, it emerged during this most recent decade as Internet shorthand for Indigenous peoples to refer to themselves. I’ve also seen it used as an acronym to mean Not Dead Native, which is likely a refutation of stereotypical renderings of Indigenous peoples as dead or dying; for a long time that was one of the primary modes in which we were allowed to ‘appear’ in public life, especially in the media.

AGO: What can readers look forward to in your new book NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field?

Belcourt: Unpredictability. It’s a shape-shifting and restless book: in terms of genre, thematics and methodology. I hope this challenges readers and rouses their curiosities!

Learn more about Belcourt and his newly released book, NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field, on September 10 at 7 pm in Baillie Court. For last-minute tickets, click here or join the Rush Line.

Admission to the AGO Collection and all special exhibitions is always free for AGO Members, AGO Annual Pass holders and visitors 25 and under. For more information, please visit the website.

Are you an AGOinsider yet? If not, sign up to have stories like these delivered straight to your inbox every week.

Comments are closed.