Yrsa Daley-Ward: On Divorcing Analysis from Process and Voicing the Unspoken
Author: Thomas March
April 11, 2018
I recently spoke with the writer Yrsa Daley-Ward, about her first book, bone, a bold and expansive collection of poems that confront trauma, longing, self-empowerment, and survival with clarity, soundness, and remarkable wit. bone was first published by Daley-Ward herself, a poet-actress-model-songwriter, but soon enough caught the attention of Penguin, which has now issued the collection in the U.S.
In the conversation that follows, we discuss the genesis and evolution of the book, Daley-Ward’s approach to composition, and the many challenges of the writing life.
Bone is such an expansive book in both breadth and depth—in the time it covers and in the range of style you employ. You first published it yourself in 2014, and now it’s been published by Penguin/Random House—how long was this book in the making for you?
It wasn’t really “in the making.” I hate to oversimplify it, but actually I felt like I wanted to do something. I was quite creatively stifled and doing all of these 9-5 temp jobs and was talking to a friend about my plight of being penniless and a working actor in London, and she said, “Why don’t you put your poems together in a book. You’ve got enough.” …So I did. And there were some older ones, some a couple of years old and some I’d written the week before. I put them together, and so this book was born. And it’s really that simple. So it was just a collection of everything that was kind of on my heart.
I’m in favor of the simple cover, and bone certainly has that. And I’m very in favor of the one-word title.
Me too, me too.
Just be suggestive, and the work will do the work.
I don’t believe in being prescriptive or spoon-feeding things. I’m a person of few words, anyway. No one can believe it, from my readings, but I am.
Well, writers—and I know you’re an actor and model as well—do tend to be introverts. There’s a misconception people often have that performers are extroverts, but it really isn’t true.
Oh. absolutely not, no. Because so much of all that relies on seeing and observing—quiet observation and introspection. You wouldn’t have the energy, I don’t think, to be doing all of that.
No—an hour in a room doing anything socially engaged is exhausting.
Well, I’m in the thick if it, and I’m quite exhausted. I’m doing all my best crying at airports.
Oh you’re the one—the other one. But to get back to the book, now that I know more about how it came together—even as you were bringing the poems together, some of them a few years old, some of them brand new, did you begin to perceive a particular emotional or thematic scope for the book? It’s something I definitely see as a reader, but I’m just wondering how deliberately you were trying to craft that, whether there were poems you set aside because they didn’t fit, or how that worked for you.
No, not at all. I just put everything in. That was the thinking at the time. There was nothing that I left out—no poem that didn’t make it in. I mean, there probably should have been, but there are no poems that didn’t make it in. And no, it’s not a conscious thing, because I really divorce all that kind of conscious analysis of what I’m doing from the actual process. I just kind of get on with it, you know, because I trust my gut, and it seems to be telling a story that is quite clear.
Why not trust your gut if that’s where the work is coming from in the first place?
Right, right—of course, yes!
I want to ask about [your approach to] the subject matter. The words I kept writing down as I was reading the book were “stark,” “calm,” and “clarity”—and I guess I could string those all together in one phrase to say there’s a stark, calm, clarity in a lot of these poems even as they document or comment on traumas of abandonment and betrayal. Is the writing—and I guess this is more of a philosophical question—is the writing something that brings you to that point, or is that a capacity that you think you have to reach in order for the poem to exist?
I think that it’s both. I think the two things are true. Because there’s an element of having to reach it… And I hate to say it like this, but there’s almost a peace you have to get to with anything that has come to pass… Because you’re writing about it calmly and not in the thick of the emotion. You know, I don’t identify with trauma or with difficulty—it’s just not my way. I can say, “Oh, this has happened,” but in order to continue to be joyful and be excited by life each day I can’t live in things that have happened. But that’s not to say that they haven’t happened.
So it’s something that you have some connection to, but you’re just not sitting in.
You actually answered my next question, which was going to be about our relationship with the past; what we need that relationship to be, and how we cultivate it by writing. But just to respond to something you just said, it’s not the way I think everyone deals with the past, whether by choice or by design or by inclination. Nothing that has happened will one day not have happened, right? I mean, that seems a very clear, logical, simple thing to say, and yet a very difficult thing to live.
I always resist the word “closure,” because it implies that the dynamic of a thing is over. And it will never be true that that thing that happened didn’t happen. But, what we learn to do, and maybe the healthier way, if that’s the word, to look at it is that what we learn to do is to accommodate the past.
We learn to recognize it, acknowledge it, touch it when we have to. But if we don’t realize it’s there, if we ignore that it’s there, it’s not only a disservice to maybe others, and to what’s happened, but we aren’t allowing ourselves to become fully in touch with our actual, full humanity.
That’s so true, yeah. There are just so many ways to look at a thing. Things have so many edges, so much nuance, and that’s why poetry’s so beautiful, because you can relate to something that was really quite disturbing or dark, and approach it almost in a tongue and cheek manner.
It seems to me that a good poem, or a fine poem even, does more than merely express something. I was going to ask what generates a poem for you because of the versatility and style present in this book but also because of the broad scope of what you use a poem to do. There are poems that are very tautly aphoristic and on the other hand, at the very other end of the continuum, poems that are very narrative and expansive. I guess the larger question in addition to that specific one about style is, what at its core does a poem need to do for you?
Need to do—well I feel different constantly you know. And the way that we relate to different people, different friends, different relationships, we’re not the same. We’re never the same from one moment to the next. And in that same vein I think that poetry can be speaking to lots of different things. You can be making a wry comment through a poem; you could be lamenting; you could think something’s funny. You could be remembering something with a kind of a warmth and a joyful remembrance or it can be a remembrance that’s just slightly more distressing, in that you want to pay homage to something or you want to honor something or someone. I just allow the thing to come out, and it comes out in lots of different ways. Just like when you are singing a song. I used to be a song writer. Well, not “used to be”—let me own it; I probably still am.
What is revision like for you—how do you go about it? How do you know a poem is finished? I think you sort of answered it, unless there’s anything you want to add.
Yeah. I don’t know it’s finished, that’s the thing.
That’s a great answer.
I just get to a point—I also don’t have a super long attention span. So I won’t be working on a poem for a very long time. They’re snapshots of time, maybe, and they can be imperfect. I don’t write perfect poems. The whole thing is I write, and it’s finished. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s not….
Right. I mean, I’ve had poems that I was just so sick of, but when somebody responded in a different way to them, I was able to appreciate them anew as a reader. And there is a way in which our work doesn’t belong to us anymore at some point.
And that is sort of the point of putting it out there.
And I still can do that and have this wonderful relationship with them as well because, you love them, and they mean something to you.
I think that if there is that comfort with the past that we were talking about before, at least comfort with willingness to look, willingness just to be present with it. If you’re not afraid of what might come up then it will come up. And you’re free to use that energy in a much more creative way than in a defensive way.
Yeah, in a much more positive way.
If you are open to the fact that something more painful might come and that you can just identify that as a painful thing and then examine it, appreciate it for that—then you’re a lot less likely to become a victim of your own pain.
Yeah—exactly. At the end of the day when you learn something about something that’s happened, the thing has happened already…. Recalling it can have its difficult moments. But you’re home free—you’re learning about it. What a privilege. What luck! What magic!
We are drawing a breath and writing or drawing breath and having our cup of tea. Whatever it is. And that’s the blessing.
A cup of herbal tea, or actually a cup of wine. —[but] I never drink and write. It’s really strange. I never drink alcohol because I think, alcohol impairs me in a way— it makes me a lot more sociable, but in terms of my own ideas the clearer the better. I kind of write first thing in the morning when everything’s fresh and you’ve just been dreaming…. All those dreadful things that happen to you during the day haven’t happened yet.
It’s sort of like what Thoreau said about never being as wise as we were when we were born. I think there’s a daytime corollary to that too.
Oh yes. It’s so true… because you are new born every morning, right?
We’re never quite as open as we are when we’re first waking up. We’re unimpeded.
That’s so true. When you’ve been in that beautiful dream space.
Yes—we haven’t been drawn into anyone else’s emotional territory. No one’s inflicted themselves on us in any way and we can just… [work out] whatever we inherited from the dream life.
And even the nightmares make some statement. You can get beautiful language from a bad nightmare.
You were raised in a very strict Christian Fundamentalist environment for some of your childhood?
Even if there’s a rejection of religious orthodoxy and practice, [there is] a ritualistic aspect of love, and [of] yearning, and in finding, in these poems — finding divinity. . . in moments of intimacy. And is there a way that you think your own spirituality, if you even think of it that way, informs your work or even just what you had to do to get to the work?
Well, I think actually religion [and] spirituality—and I know they’re not the same thing but they can work as a wonderful pairing—I think they go hand in hand in helping you to understand . . . first of all, why there are things bigger than us. There’s a force bigger than us that connects us. There’s a force larger than us all. And secondly [they inform] the need to be of service and to do something beyond ourselves. When I was writing bone and all the other things that I write that are fairly autobiographical a question that I was asked a lot [was] “How do your family feel about you writing this?” or “Do you not get fear of writing something that’s so intimate?” And the answer is just no . . . Strangely, it’s autobiographical, but I don’t think about myself. I think about the need to put a voice to some of the things that were suppressed that we can’t speak about—those very core human emotions like loneliness, isolation, depression and sexuality. Or things that we might be screaming inside about and not have a mouthpiece for. When I think about spirituality, I think, “Okay. Well, it’s not about me, it’s about we the collective.”
I think that’s the generous thing about writing that I think writers understand, and I think a lot of others understand as well. But some people have this idea of this sort of mythical narcissistic writer and, of course, those do exist. But there’s also a reason that we’re putting the work out there. The work is ultimately for the person who needs it, right?
And there’s someone who is feeling less alone because of what one has written, in a very fundamental way. There’s that wonderful thing that James Baldwin says about how reading relieved his sense of being alone in the world, in his suffering. Which isn’t to say that we only read that which makes us see ourselves, but suffering is a universal thing. I think feeling betrayed, love—all of the elations and the agonies we feel as human beings are there in the writing so that other people feel less alone. It’s not just so we feel vindicated in having written. That’s what makes it a calling and not just a practice.
We’re fortunate that . . . that can be our work for our entire lives. We don’t have to retire from writing—until we’re finished talking or until we finish the things we say.
Until it’s the end of the end.
I know that you wear many hats, as they say, in the world as an actor, model, speaker, you’re an influencer. How do you see these different talents or energies. Do they compete with each other or do they inform each other?
The only option is that they inform each other either. I’m just one being.
I’m glad that’s your answer.
I can’t always intellectually figure out how modeling, for example, helps poetry. But I mean endurance… you travel the world, you’re very tired, you have very little sleep, and you have to put your best face forward. I think that there are pros of all these different disciplines, and if you meld them together it could make a wonderful little mixture. I’m still working on that. I’m still working on the alchemy of all these things.
I think it’s a great alchemy.
The title poet is so weird to me because… I just find the labels very difficult anyway. So that’s just another one that’s slightly inaccurate.
There is a whole drama that a poet inherits, you know.
Right. I saw someone walking, and I think of this person looking off in the distance wistfully and tearing up—tearing up at, I don’t know, the formation of a rock. Which actually I do do but that’s not the point.
We’re coming up toward the end but I ask this of people I teach, of my friends, of other writers—what are you in awe of? Whether books, other art, bits of language, images. Keeping these in mind helps to remind us we remind us of who we are. When I teach a class I always say at the second class bring in what I call your “list of awe.”
Oh, I love that.
One year a student who was a math genius brought in a fractal equation that she thought was the most beautiful thing ever and explained it to us… If you really talk about something that you are in awe of… you are sharing something essential about your humanity. Is there something that you just keep coming back to that you feel in awe of?
I am totally going to embarrass myself now by talking about something like the formation of a rock, but actually it’s just that I’m completely in awe now at the intense splendor of trees, just trees and how much I need them around. And how reassured I feel when I come across, what do they call it —an ensemble of trees. It makes me happy.
I think that’s beautiful.
That’s the thing that’s given me the most.When I feel stressed and tired, one thing I really think about is going to the forests. And it just brings me right back.
I was going to end the interview by asking what you’re working on next, but I think you kind of answered it unless there’s anything you want to add.
Yeah—whatever comes—but my next book is coming in a few months. It’s called The Terrible.
Is it poems?
Is it poems? You have to read it to see it. It’s a memoir, but it’s written quite unusually.
Yrsa Daley-Ward’s bone is available in paperback from Penguin Random House. Her memoir, The Terrible, will be available from Penguin in June.
This interview has been edited for clarity, continuity, and length.