“Oxford was a place that I could not anticipate in advance.” —Billy-Ray Belcourt, the first First Nations Oxford Rhodes scholar
By Brittney Pastion of CFWE-FM
The Griffin Poetry Prize is one of the highest honors to be bestowed in Canadian poetry. Each year three poets are shortlisted for the prize—this year to be awarded June 6. One winner will take home $65,000, and the two others will receive $10,000.
Billy-Ray Belcourt from Driftpile Cree Nation is among the short-listed poets chosen for his work This Wound is a World. He found out his book of poetry was in the running for the prize on April 10. He had slept in that day and a flood of notifications were waiting for him when he awoke and checked his phone.
“It was shocking,” he said when he was finally able to check the Griffin Award website.
“It wasn't even on my radar this year given that my book was my debut,” he said of the top tier award of Canadian poetry.
Belcourt uses his own life experiences as material for thinking and theorizing on such things as suffering, protesting and freedom. He tackles issues from coming out as gay to the world, and the impact of his first relationship on him during his time studying in England as the first First Nations Oxford Rhodes scholar.
He recalls the feeling of urgency to write poetry after being at Oxford for only a couple of weeks.
“Oxford was a place that I could not anticipate in advance,” he said. It was an experience of disorientation that he had to respond to, being able to find few people around him who were like him, an Indigenous person from Turtle Island.
When he first started writing at 19 years old, he said he began to share his work online on a blog, and the work seemed to resonate with people and they came to appreciate it.
Belcourt remembers having acquaintances who were poets.
“I thought they were the coolest and I wanted to be a part of their crew,” he said with a laugh. His mentors, Tracey Lindberg and Breanne Simpson, helped him along the way, providing support that made a difference, Belcourt explained.
This Wound is a World is meant to be in the hands of Indigenous youth who are queer, trans or gender non-conforming , he said. There are very few texts about that demographic circulating in communities and which are accessible.
“I wanted this book to travel, to be gifted by a supportive auntie, for example, or organization to those who might be sort of struggling with their identity in rural communities, on reserves,” Belcourt explained. “I think that it has done that; perhaps not on the scale that I wanted it to.”
The 23-year-old poet is humbled by the thought of the Griffin prize. He said he is still “ambivalent about my odds” and if the opportunity did present itself he said he would do something “boring” with the prize money, like paying off his car loan and celebrating with his family.
Currently, the Ph.D. student is wasting no time working on his third book and editing his second book that will be out the fall of 2019.
An excerpt of This Wound is a World can be read online at http://griffinpoetryprize.com
Belcourt would like for aspiring Indigenous writers to put their work out there and take risks with their writing and suggests to make an effort to read other people’s work.
Getting into writing can be a frightening or foreign process, so he advises young writers to get a mentor who can provide guidance.