Prepare to get emosh.
There’s something really wonderful about reading poetry that buries itself underneath your skin and forces you to look at the world in a different light. This is the power of Yrsa’s work—it stirs up all your emotions and lingers in your mind long after you’ve read it. Her poetry digs deep into the core of her inner self and reveals what it means to be human in raw, touching language.
Her debut book bone is a collection of poems that are an autobiographic account of the British poet’s life, from depicting her discovery of love, her observations growing up as a first-generation British woman of color, and her battle with depression, among other honest reflections of her life thus far. Intrigued to hear more, I picked Yrsa’s brain about facing the fear of writing about her personal life, being a “new age poet”, and pushing the boundaries.
What did you read growing up? What books have impacted your writing?
Things like James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, when I was growing up. The Color Purple by Alice Walker. I also like books that talk about female sexuality and sensuality in ways that I’ve never read before. The Light of my Father’s Smile by Alice Walker is a really good one because it opened me up to sexuality and the different ways that it plays out.
Is there a creative process? Or do you just sit down and let it all out?
There is. It hasn’t happened at present because I’ve been touring since September. I’ve been traveling a great deal—but usually, it would be about getting up in the morning and getting into it right away, putting the time in there. There’s no real technique. You’ve just got to sit there and make yourself do it, to be honest. I know that if I wake up and it’s late for example I know that I’m probably not going to work, so that’s why I wake up early in the morning to do it. I also think that’s a really good time for your brain as well.
With over 123,000 followers on Instagram, how do you feel about being a “new-age poet” in being part of the social media phenomenon of making poetry “cool” again, and having your work become a viral hit?
I think it’s cool. I like that, because if you have a medium of art, each time there’s a new renaissance or a new cannon, there’s got to be something new about it, and the thing with poetry, because it’s been taught in school in a specific way, well it has been up until recently, you know it’s been quite boring and a lot of people felt like it was inaccessible. So it’s really lovely. It’s got a lot of younger people reading poetry, which is really important for the next generation.
As a woman of color, you’ve said before that you feel invisible in the literary world. Do you think that Instagram is helping break down the barriers in poetry by being more accessible and diverse?
Well, let me just say—I don’t feel invisible. I think that the work prior to now wasn’t as visible as it is today, but I don’t want to say it’s invisible because it inspired me to do what I’m doing. But of course, it’s brilliant because you see so much on Instagram, it’s a platform for everybody—nobody is really shut out of it. It’s a beautifully varied space.
Your poem Mental Health is such a powerful piece. It’s so uplifting and just amazing. I love it. I read somewhere that you felt prompted to write it because it’s important to speak about the things that drag you down, so as to not feel isolated. Could you speak more about this and the writing process behind it?
Thank you. One of the most beautiful things about writing that moves anybody is that you might feel either a call to action or soothed. To be honest, mental health is a spectrum for most of us at some point, when we might feel less than healthy. Because of the stresses of the world or anything else that happens on top, or that it might be a disposition for whatever reason, it’s just such a common predicament to be in, so of course, I want to speak to that. We’re all kind of going through the same things in this world, you know?
Your poetry feels so fearless. Yet, one of your poems goes, “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”. Do you find it difficult to be so personal in your poetry, or do you find it helpful to unload your innermost feelings as a healing process?
You know, with bone, people said to me, “Don’t you feel scared to say this?” But I don’t. I found it helpful having a connection with other people through my poetry. I don’t think bone is as revealing as people think. As I said before, we’re all having the same things going on. It’s such a commonality between that and all of our shared experiences that I feel quite empowered to be able to talk about it. It’s like when you watch a film and you’re like, shit, I know what that feels like.
Which poem was the most challenging to write in bone?
There’s a different space in me that I go into when I’m writing. I’m not processing it like “OMG”. I do it, it comes out, and then I’m like…wow. A few people will be like, “is that about me?” and I’m like “no.” Sometimes it is about people that are really important to me or love that I’ve been involved in or people that I still love. Some of that can be a bit like, oh God. But you know, it’s beautiful as well. I feel lucky to have a platform and a voice to be able to do this. There isn’t really a challenging aspect.
I’ve seen snippets of you on tour reading out your poetry. You’re incredible and really charismatic with your audience. It must be rewarding to have that direct dialogue with your readers. Do you have any memorable moments from touring?
Absolutely. The Strand bookstore in New York was cool. I did an amazing one at the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle, and then there was a great one in Berkeley. It was packed, there was so much energy. I like my audience. We just talk, people shout things out, and it’s just fun. We talk about love and sit there and drink whiskey—it’s brilliant. I really enjoy meeting everybody, because the support is what keeps everything going and I am so grateful for that.
Do you have a poem that gets the most response?
“Mental Health” gets a lot of response from a lot of people. And the other one—those words, “If you’re afraid to write it, that’s a good sign”. People really respond to that because I think it makes people think, “Oh, maybe I can say this.” You know? Maybe the fear is worse than what will happen if I actually write it. There are some things coming up that I’m writing that there was a bit of a fear about. My next book was an interesting one to write. It’s really gritty, quite dark but also quite light. It’s got a lot of stuff in it. There were moments where I was like, “oh God, maybe I shouldn’t”. But I’ll always do it because you’ve got to.
Is this book your memoir, The Terrible?
Yes! It comes out in June. It’s so revealing. I had an interesting life up North, you know. A lot of stuff was happening. It’s a coming-of-age memoir. It talks about quite dark subjects but it’s also funny, and light and ridiculous. There’s so much in it. But yes it is a memoir, and because it’s a true story of course there’s stuff that comes along with that where I was like, I can’t believe I’m really going to talk about that. But, I’ve done it!
Sounds interesting! What else can we expect from you in the future?
There are so many different things. Sometimes I sit there and I’m like, I need to do this and this and this. There’s another poetry book that I’m working on. I work on some things for TV as well. I need a big long writing schedule because I’m writing at least 8 hours a day for all of this. I want to shake things up and push boundaries because, I mean, television is brilliant, film is brilliant, but there are always more ways you can go further to make women more multi-layered, to make people of different races more multi-layered, to have people owning their sexuality, to really change the way we’re looking at things in the world because the world is changing so it needs to be reflected in our media. I want to write about all of it.
First photo by Nicole Nodland.