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Before the Title, Past
A Nonfiction Column

by Yrsa Daley-Ward

credit: Kirill Kozlov

In 2014, you self-published bone—a stunning and affecting collection of autobiographical poems that to-date has sold over 20,000 copies. This fall, Penguin is re-releasing an expanded edition with 40 new pages of previously unpublished work. Most books don’t sell nearly that many copies, let alone self-published ones—can you describe your poetry and why you think it resonates with so many readers?

Yrsa Daley-Ward: Firstly, thank you! I like to write about the inner workings of human emotional life, things that are both everyday and primal. I think that whenever we discuss universal themes, and life experiences that we all have to encounter; when we bring to mind the full range of human emotion; love, fear, sadness, hope… any piece of art that evokes these feelings is a way of bringing us all together. In todays world with all of its divides, all of its prejudices, we need bridges. The creative arts can sometimes act as a respite from all of the difference. A common ground. Feelings are as old as the planet.


Writing about both racial and sexual identity, many of the poems in bone are autobiographical. It almost feels as if you’ve laid yourself bare for inspection, which offers a truly intimate reading experience. What subjects were the hardest to write about?

Yrsa: The poems in bone are stark and revealing, but so is all of my work. Wait until the next book! I don’t find it so very difficult to write about any of these topics, because storytelling and the written word are my chosen mediums; they are how I best connect to the world and others around me. It’s actually cathartic, as opposed to difficult.


Similar to Rupi Kaur, Nayyirah Waheed, and others, you use Instagram and other social media sites to share your poetry, reaching hundreds of thousands of followers with a single click of the button. Why do you and other poets use this medium to share your poems?

Yrsa: Exactly that! The reach! it reaches hundreds of thousands of people – people who aren’t necessarily ‘poetry people’! God, I’m not even a poetry person. Not really. I just happen to write poetry sometimes.

Social media was a no-brainer when I independently co released my book with ‘nejma’ by the incredible writer Nayyirah Waheed and the stunning ‘Zimbabwe’ by Tapiwa Mugabe. It is extremely important that literature is made accessible.

“Just because you do it doesn’t
mean you always will.”

-- Yrsa Daley-Ward, bone


You have a background in acting and modelling. Can you tell us how you got your start in those art forms and how you eventually found your way into poetry?

Yrsa: Writing has always, always been first. Books are my first love. I was a writer before I was anything else and I’ll be a writer after, I should think. I love storytelling and music the theatre and acting came naturally. And by the time I was thirteen I was five foot eight and still growing and the only black person in my entire year school and skinny legged with very low self esteem so modeling felt like a forgone conclusion. And in a small, complicated way it helped me.


How has acting and modelling influenced or informed your poetry?

Yrsa: Perhaps they have influenced my writing. I’m not sure how though. More than anything my life has influenced what I write. It has been hard and soft and long and a little too short at the same time. It has been rocky and I’ve been plenty wild. I’ve lived within varying extremes, fully and quietly. That’s what influences the poetry. Not any job I’ve had. The jobs are garnishes, never the meat.


Born of Nigerian and Jamaican heritage, you were raised both by your grandparents in the north of England, and with your mother, a single-parent. In many ways bone is a collection in which you grapple with your journey growing up as a first-generation black British woman. Can you talk briefly about your upbringing and why you felt compelled to write about it?

Yrsa: I began writing about what I know. Don’t we all have a story? Don’t our stories, separate and unique, bind us together? These are mine. I don’t have any other first-hand stories to tell but my own. I grew up in a strict religious household belonging to my Jamaican grandparents, was the daughter of a single to a working class mother (I never met my father, he was Nigerian and met my mother briefly, in England and they had an affair and made me.)

That’s my life.

Only joking, it’s a little more than that.

“It's never too late to be wise. Find someone who makes your feel like you're coming home.”

-- Yrsa Daley-Ward


What does intersectionality mean to you and does it affect your writing?

Yrsa: Oh how could I not be intersectional. I’m a one person ‘diversity’ checklist. All of the ‘minorities’, which of course – are not minorities at all. But lets not get into that.

I belong to SO many groups. So many, and none at all. Boxes are boring.


What do you hope readers will take away from reading bone?

Yrsa: Poetry can make you feel understood. Give you hope. Poetry is extremely sexy. Poetry can explode in your heart.


Yrsa Daley-Ward on twitter wants to thank Yrsa Daley-Ward and Penguin Paperback for the interview.

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