HER SURNAMES are Irish, her parentage is Afro-Carribean, she grew up with Seventh Day Adventists, and she is an LGBT writer; Yrsa Daley-Ward is a one-woman rainbow coalition. This month, Cúirt audiences can savour her exhilaratingly raw and sensual writing when she reads at the Town Hall Theatre.
Born to a Jamaican mother and Nigerian father, Yrsa was raised by her devout Seventh Day Adventist grandparents in the small Lancashire town of Chorley. Her collection of stories On Snakes and Other Stories was published in 2013. Bone, mixing poetry and stories, was published last year. One critic wrote that the book "cleaved my heart in two halves and I let it...Her words burst with pain, with joy, with that thing in yourself you have neglected, with Yes (and also with no ). I feel like I know her intimately. More than that, I feel like she knows me."
Ahead of her Galway visit, Yrsa talked with me about her life and work and I began by asking about those childhood years with her grandparents. “I went to live with them when I was six because my mum was a single parent who worked nights as a nurse so obviously she couldn’t be looking after me and my brother fully while doing that,” she tells me. “There were a lot of rules, their Sabbath goes from sunset on Friday and all day Saturday which they regard as the seventh day and you have to keep it holy. There were so many rules and things that you can’t do. When I got older I found it completely oppressive. Then I went back home to live with my mum and that was the complete opposite. It was like going from one extreme to another. My poem ‘14’ is a perfect example of how it felt and how it was for me:
‘But at least I’m not fourteen/anymore/talking to other people’s husbands/avoiding my stepfather/drinking all of the clear stuff I can find/in my /mother’s cabinet,/washing it down with talcum powder/and orange juice/passing out in parks/or at football games/and getting the dark dark chills in the early hours of the morning./Staying forever far from home/completely, completely at sea/Knowing God has cut me out/jagged, loose, wild.’
If there was wildness in her youth there was also a love of literature. “There was no arts scene in Chorley but what it afforded me was a lot of ‘alone’ time and I liked my own company a lot – I still do,” Yrsa recalls. “I just read loads and apart from living a full life there is no better thing for a writer to do than to read, especially when you’re a kid. It really develops you; it helps you express yourself and helps you understand your feelings more. You realise there are no new feelings; we’ve all experienced the same emotions. I didn’t start performing poetry until way later, when I was an adult.”
Yrsa’s path to poetry came via acting and modelling in London and Capetown. “I was working as an actor in London and like any young jobbing actor the work was slow and I was feeling depressed," she says. "One day I said I can’t keep waking up like this where I didn’t even feel like getting out of bed. I was a model as well and in South Africa there were a lot of African and black models making money so I thought I would go there. When I went there I had just £200 in my pocket but decided to go because, once I had paid for my ticket, it beat continuing whatever was happening in London and I just couldn’t do that anymore. So I left. I was supposed to stay for a couple of months but ended up staying three years.
“During the time I was modelling in Capetown I started going to poetry cafés in the evening,” Yrsa continues. “It was something to do and you could have a drink and socialise. You’d write something and come back with it the following week. I just kept doing it and I loved it and my stuff was really well received. Then I thought perhaps this is what I should be doing again because I used to write when I was little but I had forgotten about that. But it was my medium and I was happy to find it again.”
Yrsa’s work is often nakedly candid. As one of Bone’s poems observes; "If you’re afraid to write it/that’s a good sign./I suppose you know you’re writing the/truth when you’re terrified."
When I ask her about those lines and her work’s candour she replies: “You know what? I may have been cheating a little bit because it actually makes me feel better so I don’t feel like it’s a huge risk. What I write is deeply personal and when I’m doing a reading I sometimes think afterwards ‘Gosh I revealed a lot of myself there’, but it’s actually cathartic. It’s my way of navigating through my world. I like to write about these things that we are all feeling and I enjoy that. I’m actually a quiet person in real life!”
And what about that Daley-Ward surname, are there Irish strands in her DNA? “Knowing the history of Jamaica where there were both Irish and Africans I’m pretty sure there must be some Irish genes in my ancestry,” she replies with a laugh. “I’ve never actually researched my family tree but I should. I would like to do that but mine would be a complicated one because I have several families in Africa and the Caribbean.”
Yrsa will also open the Poems for Patience exhibition at the Arts Corridor of University Hospital Galway on Friday April 28 at 11am. Each year, a poet who is appearing at Cúirt selects poetry suitable for display in waiting areas of UHG and Merlin Park University Hospital. Yrsa chose the 22 poems and they are framed and displayed in the Art Corridor. She will formally introduce the poems at the launch.
In conjunction with Poems for Patience, Galway University Hospitals Arts Trust holds an annual poetry competition. This year, there were joint winning entries; Lorna Shaughnessy’s ‘The Dual Citizen’ and Marie Cadden’s ‘In Praise of Denial.’ Poet, Kevin Higgins will introduce the winners and they will also read their winning poems at the launch.
Yrsa Daley-Ward’s main festival reading will take place at 6.30 pm on Wednesday April 26. She shares the bill with novelist, poet and playwright David Butler and Dublin poet Kerrie O’Brien. For tickets contact the Town Hall (091 - 569777, www.tht.ie ). See www.cuirt.ie