Yrsa Daley-Ward: ‘All the pretty women were all white’
The poet talks about racist beauty standards, the joy and shame of religion, and the creative process
Yrsa Daley-Ward: “I don’t know if I should be admitting this, but nothing I write is particularly crafted.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
I am the tall dark stranger
those warnings prepared you for.
The “intro” verse to Yrsa Daley-Ward’s debut book of poetry, Bone, was a thunderclap that heralded a talent ready for the global stage. Daley-Ward is a New York-dwelling British poet and writer with a Jamaican mother and Nigerian father and who was raised in part by strict Seventh Day Adventist grandparents. She has now written The Terrible, a memoir that, like so many contemporary female memoirs, questions not just what happens to us but the form of memoir itself.
Daley-Ward was raised in the Lancashire town of Chorley and went to London to pursue a career of modelling and acting. She was occasionally brought under by depression, before she moved to Cape Town and honed her craft on the stage of spoken-word nights. Bone was self-published in 2014 and then an updated version by Penguin arrived in 2017, by which time Daley-Ward’s Instagram presence had provided her with a platform that accentuated the brevity, profundity and broad dissemination of her words.
Her poetry is personal, candid and beautiful. Mental Health, one of her most celebrated pieces, captures what Eileen Myles assesses of poems as “lists”.
“If you’re walking down an aisle with a / dim, fluorescent hue / by the tinned fish and canned beans / strip lighting above, cracked tiles / beneath / with the realisation that most things / are futile / and get the sudden urge to end it all / don’t stop. Call a friend.”
It’s one of the most pathological ways to make people feel less important: take them out of the mainstream
Simplicity is hard. Minimalism is a talent, yet sitting in Dublin on the day of the Eighth Amendment referendum, Daley-Ward almost brushes aside the assumption that such achievements in writing are won by painstakingly chiselling away at a hunk of stone to find the sculpture. “To be honest, I don’t know if I should be admitting this, but nothing I write is particularly crafted. Not at the moment. I think that’s going to change, but I think the way these things have to come out – this is all autobiographical. Even in Bone, I feel it was a race against time to get that out. I think they were just there already. When you’re ready to put it on paper, it arrives.”
As a child, as a black girl, she was “the other”. Now, she can’t remember the last time she lived in a place that was all white. “That’s fiction to me now. When I look back and I think about it, growing up as the only person of colour in a place that is not of colour is for your sense of self-esteem, physical self-esteem, it’s incredibly difficult. At that time – it’s not like now when you turn on Netflix and you’ve got your black shows and white shows or shows where people are mates – everybody you aspired to look like, all the pretty women – film, Hollywood – all white. That affects kids who don’t look like that. It really does. You can’t see yourself. It’s one of the most pathological ways to make people feel less important: take them out of the mainstream, which is what was happening all around me.”
The Terrible came about when Daley-Ward was pursuing an agent she “really, really wanted”. The agent asked her if she had anything else following Bone. She didn’t, but quickly wrote 30 pages of something she thought would be a novel about children and magic realism. Upon realising she had written, “30 pages of truth … I thought, oh, this looks like it’s going to be that dreaded M-word. So I carried on because it was in me to continue. I think you sometimes have to get your story out of the way before you settle.”
The Terrible is a lyrical piece of writing that oscillates between prose and poetry. In it, family, depression, drinking, relationships and finding one’s place in the world unfolds almost like a fever dream. Occasionally the writing ascends like a Chinese lantern, gazing down at process and ideas. Towards the end of the book, Daley-Ward writes that “it takes six moments to write a thing… 1 you dream / 2 you wake up / 3 you sit down / 4 you settle on the chair/bed/floor / 5 you think what is / happening? is this the day / when nothing’ll come? is / this the end of it? / 6 then you grip / your heart, involuntarily / and you soul comes up. You / soul comes up, I’m telling you. / No such thing as a block, not really. / You soul arises and you let it; or you don’t.”
Florence Welch of the band Florence & the Machine, a friend and fan, posted that passage on Instagram with the caption, “That you Yrsa, you speak to me like no other.”
Daley-Ward says she doesn’t know what she was thinking when she wrote that. “I woke up one morning and it started coming out to me. I have no idea. That speaks to when I’m fresh out of a dream and everything feels very close to the cosmic, this other realm that none of us know what it is. Everything is possible. You start, you can write things you couldn’t even conceive halfway through the day. That’s what I’m speaking to. You wake up and you settle down. There’s always a moment where you think, Do I still have this ability? Then of course you get out of your way and you do it. That’s what I mean, when your soul comes up. I don’t remember the physical act of writing. I know it’s something else in me.”
Her description of the creative process speaks to flow and release. It’s also a comfort to those for whom words sometimes just don’t come, “It’s just us being in our way,” Daley-Ward says, “We can’t help it sometimes. Things like dealing with bills, real things that are right here. They get in the way, then you get in your way because you doubt yourself. But the stories are there. It’s just you’re in your way … Writing is your wild time, your time to be, to enjoy yourself, not think: I have to do it. I think you have to be really careful, because when you make those kinds of associations in your brain, it’s hard to rewire that. If it’s a hot and sunny day, and I really want to go out, I’m not going to sit at home writing. We don’t know how long we’ve got. This need, this tenacity to live that drives you, gives you stories anyway. You can’t shut it down to go and write about something you should be experiencing. That’s crazy.”
Shame and guilt are the heaviest things in life to deal with as a human being. It’s kind of against life, shame
As a child, she identified with James and the Giant Peach. Her religious upbringing slips in when she’s cleaning, when she finds herself singing hymns. Her mother used to say “pain for beauty” when her hair was being “sizzled straight”. Unpacking her childhood environment, where she knew the Bible like the back of her hand, is a process. “I think an element of religion is gorgeous – there’s the fellowship, the love, loyalty, faith in an entity. When you think about mediation and spirituality and how they help, some elements of religion are just the same; you have something to believe in, you take time, you have gratitude, all of those things. Gratitude is paramount to feeling good in the world. But then the shame, the guilt, the corruption. Shame and guilt are the heaviest things in life to deal with as a human being. It’s kind of against life, shame. When you feel deep-rooted shame, it stops you from growing into something else because we’re not good to ourselves when we feel like that.”
Today she is somewhat nomadic. A few months ago, she moved from Los Angeles to Fort Greene in Brooklyn. “I’m just excited by new places, and it keeps me ticking creatively as well. Every new person you meet, every culture, everything is teaching you something. I’ve just got off a plane from Berlin, now I’m in Dublin, that movement, the way people look and talk, it’s everything for a writer. You’re just absorbing so much all the time. And you can never run out of things if you’re always moving, because humanity is so dense. I just think it’s exciting. I’m sure I won’t do it for ever, but at the moment it’s exciting.”
I’m always looking for new experiences. Turn over the soil
When it comes to writing, she favours being away, alone, with silence and dull lighting. “For me it’s golden. I only do the things that I do because of peace and quiet. I’m a loner, so I like space. I live on my own. I create mostly alone. I have my best ideas when I come out of a state of meditation or dreaming, which you do alone. I travel a lot. I move where I live every two years … In my practice I do a lot of trying to empty my brain completely and feeling my heartbeat and my breath. When I exit, that’s when I get really inspired. You have to get out of the way. You can’t sit in things. I don’t know about the health of all of that. There’s time for therapy, there’s time to process things that have happened, but you can’t live in that. I’m not married to anything that has happened. I’m always looking for new experiences. Turn over the soil.”
Daley-Ward’s lines land like dandelion spores, these weightless things that are somehow simultaneously profound. Ennui and optimism are intertwined, a state so recognised by her peers, who repost her short poems on social media. “When you talk about yourself,” she posted recently, “watch your language.”