Ev­ery­thing close to the cos­mic

Poet Yrsa Da­ley- Ward talks about racist beauty stan­dards, the joy and shame of re­li­gion, and the cre­ative process, writes Una Mul­lally

The Irish Times Magazine - - INTERVIEW -

I am the tall dark stranger those warn­ings pre­pared you for.

The“in­tro” verse to Yrsa Dale y-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.”

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, 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 “real-

ly, 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 your soul comes up. Your / soul comes up, I’m telling you. / No such thing as a block, not re­ally. / Your 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.”

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 ex­cit- ed 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.”

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.”

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