Yrsa Daley-Ward is the poet making your heart melt and your brain jump with empathy. A former model and current Instagram star, the British poet manages to write about the darkest, most vulnerable and most glorious corners of the human experience with beautiful, arresting language.
Her brand new collection, bone, compiles many of the poems that have done the rounds on Daley-Ward's and thousands of other Instagrams for a while – like the epic, heart-wrenching, comforting – with mostly autobiographical observations about being a queer African-British woman in the world today; it also includes two longer pieces of fictions.
Many of Daley-Ward's poems are short capsules of emotion – gut-wrenching, laugh-out-loud funny and tear-inducing. 'Truth is a beauty, whether pretty or not,' she writes in a poem called Things it can take twenty years and a bad liver to work out. And that certainly applies to her raw writing. Whether she is describing family relationships, depression, anxiety or abuse, or self-care, love, sex or late-night, wine-soaked talks with friends, her words are intensely magnetic.
Her poems happen to not just be powerful streams of feeling but also perfect for the re-posting age. If you're on Instagram, you probably have seen some of her verses posted by someone else, in inspiration or awe, framed by a symmetric white square.
None of this was exactly part of the plan, she tells me over tea during a brief visit to Manchester where she used to live. A year ago she moved to LA to pursue acting and, before that, she was singing in jazz bands and travelling the world thanks to her modelling career.
Now, she counts more than 120,000 followers on Instagram. She's okay with being pigeonholed as part of the relatively new phenomenon of social media dissemination of poetry. This 'modern sharing,' as she calls it, excites her because it's taking it into the hands of people who might feel intimidated or bored at the idea of a poetry book. 'Poetry hasn't been this popular for years! And I feel blessed to be part of it.'
'Instagram poet is such a weird term,' though, she says. 'It's funny that people have even coined a phrase. We're just poets who have found a community there.' And they've found each other, too – through social media she met two other poets that the internet loves, the American and the Zimbabwean , now her friends. She cites them as influences as part of an heterogeneous list including Charles Bukowski, Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni. 'They all write really beautifully about the state of hearts and souls and the human condition.'
Warning: bone is likely to hit you like a blow in the head. Upon reading it, I found myself going from weeping to printing and posting poems as daily inspiration. Here is the rest of LouisvuittonShop's conversation with Yrsa, condensed.
What did you read growing up? How did you discover writing and poetry?
I lived with my grandparents, they raised me. I was very lucky because my mum was all about us learning to read at a really young age, and just opened this world of possibility and excitement and books; it was the best thing in the world. To this day I'm obsessed with it. We had everything in our house from medical journals to the Bible to the Kamasutra, and actually I got my hands on all of it pretty young – so I was reading books meant for children and books not meant for them. And just gained this wonderful insight into human behaviour.
Some poems in bone explore what it's like to be made to feel like an 'other', growing up. What was it like to be raised by your grandparents in the North of England?
I grew up in what we could call a market town. It was very interesting, being one of a few black faces in a very white, quite working class town. Of course for me it was very normal, but that's not actually a normal experience. It came with its pitfalls, because I didn't see anybody that looked like me unless they were part of my family. It was in stark contrast to the life I live now, where I'm travelling all the time and I just see so many types of persons all the time.
The world of modelling is now rife with feminism and diversity discussions, but it wasn't so a few years go. What was it like for you back then?
Modelling is so much more difficult than people think it is. And it's hard on you. This whole perception that models are vacuous … these are people that travel the world, and a lot of them are always reading, by the way!
You learn to grow a thick skin, in front of the kind of blatant criticism that you might get. I remember going to this bikini casting in Cape Town, and I was the fullest girl there, and they were just so horrible. Even if I'm slim, I'm relatively curvier than other girls, and the casting team were giggling overtly. And it just didn't hit me the way it might have if I didn't have that background. I just didn't care.
I've been blessed with the understanding that that wasn't the be-all-and-end-all. But it took a long time to get there. I wasn't like that growing up – I desperately wanted to look like everybody else.
You talk about that a lot in bone – the expectation to be pretty, and in an almost submissive way; and the feeling like you're never pretty enough.
Especially as young women, we're expected to be pretty, and to be agreeable, and quiet, and satisfied with whatever we get. And I'm from a religious household as well, so that adds to it. Such are the things you have to unlearn.
How did you go about that unlearning?
Every single situation that I have found difficult or experienced in my early womanhood, or my girlhood, has been linked to my own feelings about myself or my self-esteem, or these stories that I would have been repeating about myself. And I think, had I had certain levels of self-possession, that may have prevented a lot of things that happened.
It takes a long time, it takes guts, really dismantling your key belief system of yourself, and what you think you deserve and what you think you're worth. And really looking and saying: 'woah, why don't I think I'm worth this?' and 'why am I letting this situation happen again and again?'
What would be your advice for LouisvuittonShop readers who might be struggling with those internalised pressures?
So this sounds cliché, and I really don't mean it to be, but it is about a love of self – and I'd tell them that that is something that everybody's got to develop, and people don't have it overnight. But it's difficult, because the way we view ourselves is so skewed. I work hard everyday to maintain that. And that's what you have to do, it's not an overnight thing and it's not easy.
I would also tell them that chances are that the way that they feel, millions of other people do, too. You are not isolated in your sadness, or your loneliness, or your depression, or your fear.
What's your life like as a writer? What tends to be your creative process?
I really would like it to be better. One thing that I do love is my dreams – they are really important to me and I get a lot of information when I sleep, and so I write when I'm fresh out of dreaming, first thing in the morning. Usually, I know if I wake up around 5 or 6am I'm going to get a beautiful few hours of writing. I can't write at night – too much of the day has happened already that I have things weighing on me. In the morning I'm just light and fresh, and this stuff that's probably from different realms is like still flowing through me.
What are you reading right now?
I'm obsessed with Jeanette Winterson, and I'm reading at the moment. And I've just startedby Hanya Yanagihara. It's a huge book and I've got a terrible attention span, so let's see how that goes.
'bone' is out now, published by Particular Books.