Yrsa Daley-Ward is an award-winning British writer and poet of Jamaican and Nigerian heritage. She is the author of Bone, The Terrible and her new book The How. She recently wrote and performed a new poem for the opening ceremony of COP26 in Glasgow. Melanie Sykes, a long-time fan, finds out what shapes her writing.
Hello Yrsa. How are you and where are you today?
Yrsa Daley-Ward: Hello, Melanie! I’m so well thank you. Today finds me in my flat in Brooklyn, trying to slow down to prepare for an end of year break. That said, I’m ready and excited for the new year. Bring it on!
You opened up Cop26. That must have been incredible! When did you get the call?
Yrsa Daley-Ward: I didn’t get the call very long at all before the event, maybe a week and a half! I don’t mind that kind of turnaround though – it forces me to get on with it and get out of my own way!
Can you tell us about that experience – what did it mean to be asked and to be part of it? How did it feel to be on that stage with millions watching you?
Yrsa Daley-Ward: It meant so much to be asked. I was overjoyed to be learning along with everyone else and witnessing the incredible speeches and the staggering facts and figures. As for the millions watching, I tried not to think about that part and focus on the people in the room. It meant the world to be in that room on that day with the world leaders – the very people that need to be moved to action, moved to make something happen. Now is all that we have, and it is critical. The urgency of this message carried me through the delivery and the very fast writing of the poem.
You’re passionate about the environment. Do you consider yourself an activist?
Yrsa Daley-Ward: I consider myself someone who is learning (a little every year, hopefully) how to become more and more in tune with my environment and with others, trying to become more mindful of my actions on this planet. If I can share that, I do.
As you know I absolutely love your writing. It is so powerful, raw and honest. It obviously resonates with so many people. When did you discover you had this wonderful writing gift?
Yrsa Daley-Ward: I have written for as long as I can remember because I have been an avid reader for as long as I can remember. My mother taught me how to read confidently at an incredibly young age, and this meant that words became my first love! It kind of followed that I would be a writer. In a sense, I have been writing since the age of five. It’s my first comfort, the place where I discover what is in my heart!
I’ve been in the audience at Letters Live where you appeared. I was literally like ‘who the hell is that?’ Your voice, your energy, your powerful presence. When and how did you first start sharing your writing with an audience? How did you find your voice?
Yrsa Daley-Ward: I love those events. For me, performance has always gone along with writing. I almost do not separate the two. It’s all storytelling and I love to tell stories through different mediums. I even thought I was going to be a singer once!
My voice developed when I realised that writing was where I could comfortably speak my truth. I was a shy child (and can be a shy adult at times, depending on the day) so the writing/performing space is a great tool. It’s where I feel the most connected.
Your writing speaks to the human experience of growing, learning, suffering, loving. It’s also very personal and heartfelt. How does it feel for you to share such intimate writing? Was that scary at first?
Yrsa Daley-Ward: I think that when the work meets the air or the page, you realise it’s no longer about you. It’s about the reader, and I love that. It’s a kind of magic trick. It’s easier for me to write and let the truth out because we are all more alike than we think.
You talk about your childhood in your powerful memoir The Terrible, which I’m reading. Like me, you grew up in the Northwest of England. Do you feel there is such a thing as being ‘Northern’ in attitude?
Yrsa Daley-Ward: YES! I’m completely Northern in attitude and I don’t even know how you quantify that. I just know that I am! Definitely in terms of jokes and banter!
You’ve received acclaim for your first two books, your poetry collection bone and your memoir The Terrible. Can you tell us about your forthcoming book, The How?
Yrsa Daley-Ward: The How is a book I wrote in the pandemic. It is an exploration of how we can meet our truest selves. It is a genre-less book – between prose, essay and poetry.
It is an invitation to the reader. Through questions and prompts, it asks them about their deepest feelings, thoughts and patterns.
What is your writing process? Do you write at a certain time of day, for example? What inspires you and keeps you going?
Yrsa Daley-Ward: Oh, I love to write from the morning, fresh from dreaming when everything feels possible! I’m deeply inspired by dreams and how we operate as humans…what we say and do not say, what we wish we could say and do, but do not say and do. I love to explore the distance between our private motivations, anything we do not speak about, really.
Other than through your writing, how do you stay connected to your soul? What does your downtime look like?
Yrsa Daley-Ward: Ooooh… long walks, mediation, trips away, quiet time with loved ones, disappearing off into nature. For me, this whole list is essential.
Learn more about Yrsa here.
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