- 24 Jul 18
Back when Instagram poetry first started to take off, it tended to be in the dominion of over-confident men who published Bukowski-inspired poems (in typewriter font, of course) about cigarette smoke, sex, fights with their lovers, sex, whiskey, sex, how difficult it was for them to commit, and - as always - bland, stylistically-rigid sex.
Needless to say, a lot of it was fairly shite.
In recent years something has shifted. A new cohort of voices have been showing us exactly how this medium can work hand-in-hand with the art of poetry. Often from marginal backgrounds, many of the best Instagram poets of today wouldn't be sniffed at by your average broadsheet literary editor, and yet they have 100,000s of followers, sell books by the bucketload, and are having important, illuminating conversations about race, mental health, sexuality, and the self.
Yrsa Daley-Ward is one of these people. Born in north-west England to a Jamaican mother and Nigerian father, Yrsa became a model in her late-teens, before moving to South Africa where she discovered her flair for earnest, revealing spoken word poetry. Literary festivals helped spread the word about her, as did the publication of her best-selling debut collection Bone, but it was through the likes of Instagram and Twitter that Yrsa was able to engage directly with countless people who wanted to read her work.
"The poetry gets into the hands of people who aren't going into bookshops every week or who don't work in publishing," she explains. "The amount of people who use Instagram is more than the amount of people who go into bookshops. So it's an important tool for accessibility. It's also important because there needs to be a diversity of voices, diversity of readers, and a direct contact with your audience. It's led to a really exciting time for literature."
Yrsa is speaking to Hot Press via Skype from New York City. She's adrift in her own early morning reverie, still buzzing from a successful tour across Ireland, the UK, America and Canada.
"It's been crazy," she laughs, waving from her apartment as she comes on camera. "The Dublin visit was at the start of it - nearly two months ago - then it was all the UK, then all the American locations, then finally Canada. It's been tiring, but I've loved it all."
Yrsa was on tour to support her latest release, The Terrible. It's a coming-of-age story unlike anything you're likely to read this year and features potent vignettes of a difficult youth. Growing up without her father, Yrsa's family continually struggled to get by. In her early chapters, she captures vividly how her pre-teen sexual development brought her into conflict with the male gaze of her mother's various boyfriends - her "body is a trap" she explains, aged just 8 years old) - as well as having to face up to a society that hadn't (and hasn't) come to terms with how it should treat women with respect, "Pose naked for a strange man in the next town/who says... you could be the next Naomi", she elaborated, aged 14.3. Meanwhile, her own sexual discovery - experimenting with both men and women - brought her into conflict with her own identity.
How difficult was it for Yrsa to look back on these memories with a clear eye?
"You know, I get lost in the art of telling the story," she admits. "I wanted to find the magic in it. There's so much magic in my life, magic in the grim and gritty moments, magic even through all the shit. And it's redemptive."
As opposed to a prose-narrative, Yrsa's work is told in free verse poetry, incorporating everything from magic realism, stream of consciousness, and even a screenplay style at one point to document a sexual encounter.
While the writing veers and jars and surprises, and the poet tackles each new upheaval, encounter or relapse, the story continually returns to the relationship between Yrsa and her brother, Roo. Given that the content is so personal, did she talk to her friends or family about what she putting to paper?
"No," she replies simply. "There couldn't be, because there couldn't be outside influence. I just had to go in and trust myself. I know the story because it's mine. I had to just go in and write. The only person who I ran some of the final drafts by was my brother, because there was a lot in there that was personal and unique to him. So if he'd said, 'Don't write about that, I might've taken it out.
"But actually, he was all for it! He was like, 'We've got to tell our story.' He was reminding me of moments from the past. Help me. He's a storyteller too, you see, so he was like, 'There is grit in what we've lived, and we need to tell it. We need to commit.' You can't say, 'Oh these parts make me look very good, or make me look very bad.' You have to commit."
Commit she does; from familial deaths and suicide attempts to her own extreme drug use and time as a sex worker, Yrsa's commitment to truth is staggering. She uses the motif of 'the terrible' as a literary device for personifying, and working through, these difficult memories.
"I swear to you, honestly, when I'm tackling things like that, I always worry 'How am I going to do it? How will I write this?' Then it always happens the same way - I wake up in the morning and I'll do a 25 minute stream of consciousness and 'the terrible' will just flow. Because I believe that some things are being written while you're sleeping and you've got to let it all come out. A lot of things are blocked in writing because you over think. It's hard to get to it when you're worried how something will come it. I didn't even edit it. Even with the final book edits, I kept them to a minimum. I just let 'the terrible' in while I wrote. Because you know your own terrible things better than anyone else."
Knowing this is ultimately redemptive. It allows Yrsa to find her voice and the beauty in overcoming, or accepting, or even just explaining, terrible things. But perhaps more pertinently for us, it allows her to be as honest as possible when writing something that she knows will be read by thousands of people.
"This book isn't about me, really, or my own ego," she explains. "Because as soon as this gets into the air, it's about other people. It's about loads of people's experiences. I don't matter, because people who read it don't know me anyway. I wanted to write the book that I would've liked to have read if I were in some of the situations that I found myself in to know that someone else felt that way and got through it."
Trust us, this book will leave a mark on whoever crosses paths with it.
The Terrible by Yrsa Daley-Ward is published by Particular Books.