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Black Women Making History

Yrsa Daley-Ward's Intimate Poems Have Become an Instagram Sensation

The Nigerian-Jamaican writer has a new memoir called 'The Terrible' hitting shelves in June.
Photo by Jamal Ademola. Courtesy of Yrsa Daley-Ward

In 2015, I was scrolling through Tumblr and came across “You’re a lost thing,” a quote that I quickly reblogged, screenshot, and made my phone backdrop. The words were a reminder that my life would be a journey of constant searching, not because of failure, but because we are all adrift in a world that offers more questions than answers. Eventually, I traced the insightfully simple line back to Bone, a collection of poetry released in 2014 by Yrsa Daley-Ward. The English born Nigerian-Jamaican writer penned the book while living in South Africa and working as a model. It’s an interrogation of self, offering a lyrical autopsy on the manner in which we are harmed by the traumas of those who share our dark skin, female gender, and cultural displacement.


As I explored Daley-Ward’s oeuvre, I realized that she is a master at expressing black pain in a manner that offers a collective catharsis. In On Snakes & Other Stories, the collection of short stories she published a year before Bone, she wrote about the complicated dynamics between families, doomed but exciting love affairs, and personal reawakenings. It was Daley-Ward as the observer, delivering fiction from truths she’d seen in her own life. This June, she’ll release her third book, The Terrible, a memoir of her childhood in the Northwest of England with her loving mother Marcia, the man she once called her father, and her little brother Roo.

With tens of thousands of followers across Instagram and Twitter, she’s built a dedicated and loyal audience who comment on her posts with emojis of heart eyes, wide smiles, roses, and bright gold stars. I think her work resonates because it is devoid of vagueness and calculated universality. Instead, she confidently expresses her specific racial experiences while still appealing to mainstream audiences with her vivid storytelling.

I recently spoke to the author, who Skyped with me from her new apartment in New York City. We talked about poetry, modern art, and condoms. Here’s what the rising star had to say.

VICE: What first drew you to poetry?
Yrsa Daley-Ward: I am not drawn to poetry in particular. I am drawn to all forms of writing: prose, scripts… It just so happens that I released a poetry book. What I like about poetry is how succinct you can be which is is a wonderful way to convey a point. I love the brevity.


It has to be one of the most strict genres of writing because it comes with set rules on form, subject matter, even word length. Did you find that restrictive?
No. I don’t adhere to rules. I don’t pay attention to noise. By "noise," I mean the standard format of writing poetry. I just write how I write.

Does your new book, The Terrible, continue themes from Bone ? Or is it something completely different?
You’ll see similarities because Bone does have autobiographical material in it. When you read The Terrible you’ll see a part and maybe remember that, Oh, She wrote a poem about this. Also, it’s written in poetic prose. So there are similarities.

Most people tend to forget that there is a certain amount of vulnerability and emotional nakedness that comes with sharing your experiences. You write especially about intimate and private subjects. Do you ever find yourself holding back so you still hold onto things that are yours? Or is total transparency the goal?
Writing is incredibly exposing. The Terrible is a memoir. You can’t get anymore exposed than that. It’s very gritty and there are some difficult and uncomfortable things in it, but I think as a writer things should scare you. It’s a vulnerable place to be in. But vulnerability is something I am happy to engage with. My main goal is to feel something. We are empathetic people (most of us!) and so I want people to feel touched.


Who do you want to reach with your work?
It’s for everybody really. If anyone finds it and it resonates then it’s for them. But being who I am, being a black woman, black women will see themselves more clearly in my work. But as I always say, “experiences are universal.” So I want my work to reach everybody.

What artists have inspired the ways you approach your work?
I am constantly inspired. And it’s always changing or else I get bored. But if we were to say top five right now it would be: Jeanette Winterson, that never really changes; TonI Morrison, Lina Viktor, who is this amazing painter who uses gold leaf and royal blue and her work is just so beautiful; Nicola Thomas; and Kara Walker.

Do you ever find yourself intimidated by the depth of your thoughts?
No. If anything, I find myself wondering if I have gone deep enough. I am an Aquarius, so I usually just skim through things and I also live a very fast paced life. So, I am always trying to go deeper and not just skim through my thoughts.

The simplicity of your work could sometimes be met with skepticism and seen as “insta-poetry” because you're speaking in ways that are accessible to everyone. Was that your intention?
I love that. I love that people would call it “artless.” Tracey Emin had a piece [ My Bed ] that a lot of people called “artless.” She had condoms on it and all kinds of weird stuff and I thought that was very interesting. And it was art. She was even shortlisted for The Turner Prize. We find art in different things and not everyone will like your work. I find art in offerings and vulnerability and these are things are applicable to modern art.


Would you call yourself a modern artist?

In terms of poetry and criticism, do you find that certain critiques are code words to invalidate the depth and impact of your work?
Maybe. I don’t want to come off as vague with this question but the thing is the language could be coded because I am black, because I am a woman, or because of the other many things that I am. It could be any of those, which is why I don’t think about it. It’s not something I concern myself with.

From your work, you seem to be in a place of constant peace with your emotions. Does that ever overwhelm you?
No. Never. In fact, it makes me feel more settled. I am happy to have that insight where I can be OK with my discomfort and the feelings I am having. I like that. I am in love with clarity towards my own feelings and I think confusion is far worse than discomfort.

Photo by Mike Kobal, courtesy of Yrsa Daley-Ward

You're also a model. What's the difference between taking up space with your words and taking it up with your physical presence?
It’s hard to say. I definitely feel a lot more validation using my words, but you’d think it would be the opposite. But wherever both these forms of art can intersect, I am all for it. I am really into mixed media right now and it’s something that I feel strongly because I am not either/or. I am both of these things. You’re everything that you are and not just separate parts of a thing. I am at a point now where I am very happy and comfortable to embrace both of them and use them to take up space because for so long I was a shy model. And for so long I was a silent writer. Now I am comfortable expressing myself loudly with both.

You recently tweeted, "Something about the way black women hold your heart. You can leave them all you like, but you can't stay gone." What did you mean by that?
That came from a personal experience that I had. I’d just recently come out of a relationship and a friendship, but I could still feel this person everywhere. Being with that person, and them being who they were, our relationship just felt right. It felt like home. It was vibrant and joyful and that got me thinking about black women and love in general.

There is a quote I have seen attributed to you, "I'm the tall dark stranger those warnings prepared you for." I am really interested in your use of the word dark because it means black in such an undeniable way. But I have seen songs, poetry, and stories that use the word brown instead of black. To me, that speaks to the need to deny blackness, but still portray some kind of racial difference. As someone who is adept at using a small amount of words to pack a big punch, what does it mean to use dark or black as opposed to brown ?
I am a melanated human being. I am West-African and Jamaican heritage, so for me dark is who I am and how I see myself. For me, dark is complete, it’s fullness, and melanation in the sun. I would never call myself, “The brown stranger,” because that’s not who I am. That’s not me. I’m dark.

Your work stands alongside that of Warsan Shire and Nayyirah Waheed. The three of you write about similar themes and share similar audiences. Success for black female creatives is usually set up to uphold the notion that there is only room for one. Does that ever fuck up with your mental state?
No. Absolutely not. Nayyirah and I have both shared each other’s work and I have also shared Warsan’s, too. I think it’s so important to get rid of this “only one allowed” because we need to raise each other up. We need contemporaries. Number one is lonely, and number two, where is the inspiration? We need to be able to inspire each other because being the only one, that is never a good place to be in.

This story is a part of VICE's ongoing effort to highlight the contributions of black women around the globe who are making a difference. To read more stories about strong black women making history today, go here. Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily. Follow Tari Ngangura on Twitter.