She is the half-Nigerian, half-Jamaican, United Kingdom-born poetic model who will occasionally fly down to our South African shores to grace her audience with powerfully charged poems narrated by the events that form part of her eclectic life story.
The Summer heat is bold and unapologetic today, much like the luminous lady seated before me. Yrsa Daley-Ward is in Johannesburg yet again though this time she has come especially to perform at the 2012 Word N Sound Festival. Her flight having landed this morning, we converse about her relationship with South Africa, the purpose of art, her poetry that is ablaze with mental health awareness (a cause dear to her electric heart) as well as her personal experiences such as the death of her parents and the love that had her terrified. By: Kabelo Khanye.
Kabelo: How are you finding South Africa so far?
Yrsa Daley-Ward: I love it! I was living in Cape Town so I’ve never lived in Jo’burg-
K: Is this your first time in Johannesburg?
Y: I’ve come through for meetings but really quick and then I’ve flown back so this is the first proper experience. I’m so excited.
K: What attracts you to South Africa?
Y: I love the diversity of its people, I like how richly involved everybody is because there are so many young artists who are emerging, they are original and they have this energy, this African energy and it has this western influence and I love it. So many of you here are so young and talented and passionate, some are involved in copy writing or brand strategy or music and I think that is really inspiring, this infectious energy.
K: And it’s from your travels that you get a lot of your inspiration?
Y: Yeah … next year I will be travelling to Nigeria to trace my family roots because I’m half Nigerian.
K: And half Jamaican.
Y: And half Jamaican [laughs].
K: [Laughs]. “Stop trying to die. Serve your time here, do your time.” [Up Home] What do these words mean for you?
Y: I find that issues of mental health are ignored in the black community, we don’t talk about it. I think feeling suicidal, being depressed, having bipolar disorder … more often than not, in today’s society where there’s drugs, there’s pressure, there’s money worries and everybody is trying to keep up with everyone, it’s stressful and people do have those thoughts. You do get up every morning and pretend to be this other thing and I wanted to talk in that [poem] about coming into yourself.
K: Yeah, can you share with our Inspired4Writers readers what is the purpose of art according to you?
Y: I think the purpose of art is to draw attention to things that normally would be brushed over. It’s to make things accessible and it’s to give people a language in which to speak. If you can’t articulate it in words, there are other things you can do, not just poetry.
K: To communicating their truths.
Y: Yeah and that’s what we need to do.
K: And what’s your specific purpose?
Y: I have a few but definitely to speak about things that are uncomfortable and sometimes it’s like ‘why is she saying that?’ and at times it is at the risk of revealing too much about myself but I would rather do that than the silence and ‘I’m feeling this but I can’t express it.’
K: And what is behind that eagerness to express yourself? What drives you?
Y: Mental issues in the family, in the black community that we are not addressing. People that feel like they are on their own and people that are underrepresented. I have experienced many or all of the things that I write about and to say to those people that we are all going through this.
K: You’ve also written, “it’s the one time in twenty-something years/ that I don’t instinctively feel the need to make him feel better about himself or lament the plight of mixed up boys from broken homes or consider the flawed system/it’s the one time in twenty-something years that he’s more than the culprit, much less the victim” [Free-write: On Hearing He hit His Girlfriend]. Do you believe it is the responsibility of the artist to be a social activist?
Y: In a way, you are whether you like it or not. If you are coming out in your truth and your honesty, you are by making statements and talking about it. Activism is a funny one because what is an activist? Is it someone that says this is wrong and goes and does something about it?
Y: It’s a huge umbrella and people use the term very likely these days. I may complain a lot, am I now an activist? [Laughs].
K: [Laughs] so maybe a social commentator?
Y: Absolutely and that is what art should be.
K: Your parents died when you were a fairly young age-
K: What were the challenges and complexities you experienced growing up, due to that?
Y: I feel quite empowered because I do have experience in all that I talk about. Experience in a broken home, a broken family, experiences of parents dying, experiences of abandonment. We had to live with my grandparents and then we lived somewhere else and somewhere else so those complexities were faced and all these things have an impact. I try to use it not only as a social commentator but it’s cathartic for myself as well-
Y: You know if I worried about that I wouldn’t write. There’s a poem called “True Story” and when certain members of the family, who are involved, hear it, they are not going to be happy. As writers, what else can we do? That’s what’s there and that’s what I’m going to do. I don’t always blow the lid off but once I start writing and that’s what comes out, I’m not going to censor myself, I’m not going to do it.
K: Yeah, alright. Let’s talk about love-
Y: Yeah let’s [laughs]
K: [Laughs] you wrote “you laughed in your sleep and I cried in mine/ and this afternoon we might be tired because the sun is fierce today/ and too much has happened between midnight and now/ but Bhabha you are terrifying and brilliant so” [Sthandwa Sami]. What personal experience informs this?
Y: Oh wow, I remember writing this the day after all of that had taken place. Even when I think about that now, it is so clear to me what was happening there. Just being so close to this person in the morning when I woke up and just the way I felt and the fear because when you’re in love you also fear, at least I do. That poem is just about being terrified, you love but is it real and do they see you what you see in them-
K: So it’s insecurity?
Y: It’s insecurity and does it ever leave? [laughs].
K: Who are your mentors or people that influence your work?
Y: Joshua [Bennett] and it’s so strange because he’s someone I always tell my friends about and all of a sudden I’m in Jo’burg with him and life just works like that. You just have to put things out there and they’ll come into being.
Y: And I must really do it more and encourage others to do it more because it works. So him and Anis Mojgani, he wrote “Come Closer”, I love that poem … people like Roger McGough, Carol Ann Duffy, Spike Mulligan, old, old-time. People who write prose, people like Jeannette Winterson who write fiction about beautiful dark subjects that are …
K: Hard-hitting and confrontational.
Y: Yeah, things that people don’t often talk about.
K: I believe you are at the beginning of your legacy. What would you like to have achieved at the end of it all?
Y: I want to have touched a lot of people in terms of having people pick up a pen, bring poetry and make it accessible to everyone: people that are in prison or people whose literary skills act as a barrier … everyone. Not just this high brow thing that people think is boring and makes you want to fall asleep because there’s loads of poetry I don’t enjoy; I’m not going to lie.
K: What is your message to aspiring professional artists?
Y: And this is what I had to learn as well because it didn’t come naturally to me, I was writing in my room in a hooded dressing gown and thinking it would somehow get out there but you have to have self belief. You do have to force it out and then you do have to market yourself … we live in the age of Twitter and Facebook so you have to get out there and things like go out to open mic sessions. I had terrible times with open mic because of fear-
K: And one of my favorite quotes is “everything we deserve is on the other side of fear” [Farrah Gray]-
Y: That’s right.
K: Do you find this true for yourself?
Y: yes and the moment I stopped stopping myself, that’s when things started to happen.
Y: This is because of my parents, things are very fleeting. You have to hold onto things because there are a million and one questions I wanted to ask my mom but I didn’t, so treasure people and treasure memories, get in there. If you want to say something to somebody, if you love somebody, talk about it. It’s hard because we don’t want to be rejected but do it.