Yrsa Daley-Ward is a writer and poet of mixed West Indian and West African heritage. Born to a Jamaican mother and a Nigerian father, Yrsa was raised by her devout Seventh Day Adventist grandparents in the small town of Chorley in the North of England. She splits her time between London and Los Angeles.
This interview was conducted via phone call by Lead Interview Editor Renee Rule. Of the process she said, “Yrsa Daley-Ward’s memoir The Terrible cuts right to the heart of life with its no-holds-barred poetic account of Daley-Ward’s own upbringing and experiences thus far. It is a beautiful read made up of both sage aphorisms and personal narratives, relatable despite the nature of how personal it is. I absolutely loved getting the chance to speak with Yrsa about her work and her process as a writer.” In this interview Yrsa Daley-Ward talks about finding the freeing power of sharing your truth, letting go of perfectionism, and mindfulness.
Superstition Review: The terrible is what you call the darkness in life—depression, shame, disease, disorders. What do you call the counterpart to the negative force you call the terrible—does it have a name?
Yrsa Daley-Ward: I think that the terrible also gives the bigger picture. I think the terrible also involves the shades of light that we have. And I think that there are some things that are directly opposite or maybe some things that counteract the terrible, such as art, speaking out, community, being of service—all of the things that one can do to turn oneself outward. Because the thing about the terrible is it’s very interior and I think sometimes that can be the thing that keeps us down. The terrible encompasses a lot of different things that are not always terrible. When I called the book that, it was kind of a tongue-in-cheek thing as well.
SR: The Terrible is your second major published work. How did the writing, publishing, and promotion process compare to the process for your previous book, bone?
YDW: Well, bone was initially self-published and then Penguin re-published it, so it was already done. I added a few more poems to extend the collection, but it was already done. The Terrible I’d written a lot of before, but it is different and I think it’s different with every work because it’s just such a different piece—it’s narrative, it’s poetic—there’s a lot of it that looks like prose, but it’s not a collection of poetry. So there’s a difference in the way it’s presented, the way you tour the work, what kinds of things you talk about, how you embody the characters when you read them in a room or a hall full of people. Bone is very, very autobiographical, but The Terrible is completely. So, there’s a different part of you being shared. It’s the same and it’s not the same. The Terrible is that degree more.
SR: Did the different styles and the different ways you put yourself into the two works affect how you felt putting the books out or receiving readers’ responses to them?
YDW: Yeah absolutely, because all of a sudden, with The Terrible I was talking about stuff that I’d never spoken about before, whereas in bone, there were things, like familial things, that I had touched on, but like I said, The Terrible was like a step further. There were different subjects, it was grittier, I was speaking chronologically about things that have happened, some of which I’d never shared before in a public sphere, or even one-to-one with people. So that changes everything. It frees you up. And it’s a leak—it’s something that is very, very new all the time.
SR: It’s interesting to learn what your experience is with how The Terrible was received because of how personal it is to you and because of how it’s the first place where you told some of your deepest secrets, things you hadn’t even told other people. And most people in the world don’t have an equivalent to that—some sort of forum where they’ve bared their soul. So that’s quite a unique thing.
YDW: The experience is so beautiful though, because, really, you start to get into this mindset—and I’ve noticed it coming out in other areas of my life—it was really wonderful because once you go and do something like that and you deal with the response, you really feel freed up. There’s a fearlessness that starts to spark inside you, there’s an honesty that starts to spark inside you that is definitely different to what it was like before it was published and before it was out. I feel more honest even in my personal relationships and my one-to-one’s with people, it has done something that has changed me, definitely.
SR: Like it’s kind of dissolved shame around some of your experiences?
YDW: Yeah, and the need to front and the need for perfection and the need to always look like you’re doing ok. That’s why I love to speak online, and when I do events, about mental health quite a lot because we’re very adept at looking like we get off perfect and everything is going swimmingly when, of course, inside everything’s stormy. So it did a lot to kind of remove those layers that I have and my own perceptions of myself and how I need to be in public.
SR: So it's changed how you interact with people. Has it changed how you might perceive how people are putting themselves out there? Can you sense more easily when people are not telling their whole story or are kind of hiding?
YDW: I just presumed that this is what we do. Everybody does it. I do it. Everybody does it. We don't come with our whole story. You can't sometimes because you're just meeting somebody for the first time. We all have deep wells and if someone says "How are you?" you're not going to say, "Well actually, when I was three..." But yes, of course we give carefully-curated (and social media is great for this) projections of ourselves, because of lots of things. Because of professionalism, because of fear, because of responsibility, but it actually can be quite damaging.
SR: Speaking of social media, your Instagram in particular is a really beautiful profile visually as well as with the poems and little snippets of quotes and things—it's definitely a more artistic profile than the average profile. Could you talk about how you filter through your writing and choose which of it's going into your next book or collection versus what is for social media, what's for Instagram?
YDW: Contrary to what a lot of people would expect, nothing has been curated for Instagram. If I put lines there, they're usually a line from a poem or a section of a poem. But I don't just write like, three lines thinking, "This is for my Instagram"—it's always part of something larger. The only time I would—sometimes I write things on Twitter and I'll just write a line about how I'm feeling or something—but that’s not a poem, that's just a line about how I'm feeling. I mean, some people read them as poems, but it's not. If it's two lines, it's probably not a poem. But I guess it's not up to me to tell people what it is. As long as they enjoy it and it means something to them, then that's cool, but I definitely don't put that much thought into what I'm doing. Sometimes it's just like, "Oh, I was thinking this today" and then it goes up there.
SR: As far as the things you end up posting, on Instagram, for example, or things that you write in general, what is your process for choosing what you like that you wrote versus what you decide isn’t your best work? How does that process look for you?
YDW: Well, I actually put most things in my book because for me, it doesn't have to be my best work for it to go in the book. The reason why I don't think it necessarily has to be the best work all the time is I avoid perfection when it comes to making pieces of work. It's more important for me to make a piece of work as a snapshot of where I am now, today. Hopefully, I'm going to write more books. You could always be better, right? But then that can go into the next book—if I write a poem and it's like, "Ok, this is cool," then I'll probably put it in the book. I don't like perfectionism because I find that for me—and this is just for me personally—it creates inertia, and then I just won't write anything because I'll be like, "Oh, this isn't quite good enough." I've got that element to my personality. Sometimes I post things on there and people really connect with it and I think "I don't—I mean, ok." Conversely, you can post something that means a lot to you, but when it meets the air there's nothing you can do about it. That's why I like to just take what I've written in that period of time and then just include that in a collection, which I think is what I'm about to do now, but I'm not sure. We'll see.
SR: So maybe we’ve got something coming?
YDW: I always think so. But you just never know because I have things come and I decide to go in a completely different direction so we will see!
SR: Your stance on trying to get rid of that perfectionism seems like it would be so freeing. It's very interesting and I think it's something that a lot of people—including myself—could really benefit from. So as far as The Terrible being like a memoir and going off of your life from the beginning until when it was published, is all of that content in there based on memory or is any of it based on maybe some sort of diary or something?
YDW: No, it's based on memory, but also I did have some diaries.. But nothing in The Terrible is verbatim. It's important that The Terrible was a piece of work that you told now, at this point. The last part of The Terrible happened like, a year ago. I knew kind of how I was feeling. I wrote a tiny little book when I was about eight or something so I knew how I was feeling but everything is my memory, which is actually very good. My memory is actually really good for something that happened a long time ago; it's just terrible for what happened an hour ago. But yeah, it's really what I remember.
SR: Did you have to fill in the blanks or call up your brother and ask him, or was it really kind of all there for you?
YDW: A lot of it was there. Some of it wasn't there when I did the first draft but then I remembered, "Oh god, this happened!" And then sometimes when I wanted to fact check it, I might ask my brother. My brother reminded me, for example, about a scene where my mum found a gun of my brother's and I totally had blanked it out or forgotten and my brother was like, "Do you remember this?" and I was like, "Oh, of course!" So yeah, there were a couple of things like that. Because, you know, memory is not 20/20.
SR: In light of the current political and social climate, how can we protect our children—our girls—better than telling them, for example, to wear big T-shirts over their nightgowns, like you were told when you were young?
YDW: That sounds like what we might think is a cure for something that should be prevented in the first place. The first place is rape culture, which is what we can do to teach boys and what men can be teaching boys. A lot of that falls to them, but they need to be taking responsibility for that. There's nothing that we can tell them at the end of the day. You say, "How are we going to protect our girls?" We can't. The whole culture has to be different. Men have to know that that's unacceptable and that there will be consequences for that. And it is very sad especially very currently, what any types of survivors of sexual assault, grooming, rape, are told—that those things are not going to be heard or they won't be believed. That's the thing that has to change, not anything we can tell younger people to do.
SR: So much has happened so far in your life, as recounted in The Terrible. Do you have any regrets? I know that that's a bit of a cliché, or at least a common question, but I think that some of the most interesting people have some of the most interesting responses to that question.
YDW: I don't have regrets. I don't have regrets. There are things I wish that I had known. But how could I have known them when I didn't know them? So, no I don't have regrets. There's a reason that all of this has happened the way that it has happened. I mean, there really is. If I didn't have one set of challenges there would be another set of challenges. My own are special and unique to me. I actually find it wonderful that they've shaped me and this is the result. So, no, I don't have regrets. I think it's lovely to have things that I would do differently again, but you can only do that with hindsight anyway. So, it's a bit of a trick.
SR: Right, it's a bit of a loaded question. You can only regret something once you know differently.
YDW: Absolutely. The Terrible opens with, "In love with all that happened so far, even the terrible things" and it's true. That's part of that rich tapestry of what has happened.
SR: In the poem “[ii]”, you discuss the process of writing poetry, the final step being “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.” Does that quote describe your thoughts on writer’s block? Is this something that you believe is universal to all writers, or is it simply a description of your own experience?
YDW: You have to be perfectly honest with yourself about how you really feel about things. How you really feel about people, what you really want. I think when we can - even if you're not sharing it with anybody, but you know it. Even if just you know it, that feels like the first step to me. When you sit down and all is quiet—and this is why I think mindfulness is really important—and you hear a lake outside, you hear the rain, you're just there with your own thoughts. Because there are a lot of things you can do as a writer—even if you're not ready to say, "This is how I feel," you can put it into words within a character, you can change it around. When you're at your clearest, when things are really flowing, when you're at your most creative, I feel like sometimes that's when you're at your most honest, at least with yourself, if not with anyone else. That's what I mean when I say, "Your soul comes up." The you that's right there at the bottom—your thoughts, your fears, your desires.
SR: Yeah. That's something that has always interested me—the the idea of writer's block and how different writers approach it. This might be oversimplifying, but I've observed two camps, one which is more like where you are, where it's just write whatever you have. And then there is a very succinct Charles Bukowski quote that I think exemplifies the other camp which is, "Don't try." Wait wait until something hits you and then write it.
YDW: I like that! Do you remember what that quote is from - which book, which collection? Or is it just something that he said?
SR: Here's the full quote: "Somebody asked me, ‘What do you do? How do you write, create?’ You don't, I told them. You don't try. That's very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It's like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks, you make a pet out of it."
YDW: I really love that. That's a really good way of looking at it. I mean there are definitely a couple of camps—some believe that you make it happen and some believe that you don't. I'm somewhere in the middle. I think that there are days that are magic and it's like it's not even you doing it; you're literally just allowing it to happen to you. And then there are days where it's more difficult. I think that's all to do with what's going on with you as well. You know, it's all about your own mental health and your own state of mind. Obviously, if other things feel blocked then your creativity might as well. Sometimes, if things feel particularly bad, your creativity is better. You just think about what works for you.
SR: One of the things that has always been a question for me about that really extreme side of waiting for something to hit you, where you maybe wait until you know you have something good, is that that could lead to you never writing anything because you're too scared.
YDW: Absolutely! Because the tricky thing is you do always have something good because you're always living. And you're full of things that are good already, it's just that you don't realize that. That's why I'm in the middle because sometimes there's stuff that you're just not letting come up. You've been living for a while. You know. You know that you have stuff. You have as much stuff as anyone else.
SR: The Terrible is a mix of poetry and prose styles, and content-wise it's a memoir. What what led you to choose this type of composition or format for the book? Did you start out knowing that's what you were going to do, or did you free form and then were led into that?
YDW: Yeah, I didn't choose it at all; it totally chose me. I didn't do it on purpose. I was thinking of just doing a straight narrative, but that's not how it came out. And so, I allowed it to come out the way it came out. There's nothing else to do. I didn't want to force it. When I was writing things and they just appeared on the page really far down, with all the space, I was thinking, "How about you use the space for this thing..." and then that's just how it happened. And I knew that I would get in the way of what else came through me, but, you know, you're just a service really.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
YDW: I have a really lovely desk set up in my living room, but at the moment, I'm writing in bed! I'm not even going to the desk. I don't know what's going on, but I'm having a moment where I just want to be in bed writing, so that's what I'm doing. So, it's just a messy unmade bed with lots of pillows. I have a really nice pink globe, a salt lamp, candles.
SR: When you do write at a desk, do you feel any difference as far as the ease with which the words come to you?
YDW: Probably, I think I feel more official at a desk, but I’m just not feeling it right now.