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Yrsa Daley-Ward and Serpentwithfeet
Yrsa Daley-Ward and SerpentwithfeetPhoto by Mike Kobal; Photo by Michael Avedon for Dazed, spring 2016

Poet Yrsa Daley-Ward in conversation with musician serpentwithfeet

Two innovative, form-stretching artists convene to talk about the language of emotions, being an independent artist, representation, and self-care

Throughout the astonishing pages of her new memoir The Terrible, English poet Yrsa Daley-Ward explores the connection between raw emotion and the mechanics of language with more wildness and tenacity than ever. While she retains the riveting passion and intimate simplicity of her 2014 poetry collection bone, The Terrible pushes further into Daley-Ward’s exploration of her own mind, requiring an incredible bravery to share her innermost thoughts. This striking work compounds beauty, fear, softness, pain, rapture – not unlike the new music from New York-based experimental singer-songwriter serpentwithfeet.

“The more you understand the world around you, maybe the less isolated you feel”, Wise says, speaking to Dazed and Daley-Ward over Skype on a summery afternoon in late May. As he’s worked on his stunning debut studio album, soil, Wise has at once refined the grand array of influences that have buttressed his haunting voice – ethereal R&B, ornate choirs, rhythmic electronic music, airy gospel – while also drilling deeper into the depths of his own emotional world. Both Daley-Ward’s words and Wise’s music use innovative structures to get to the heart of explosive emotions; both interrogate everyday oppressions, and sing or speak directly to the sharp, real feelings those oppressions evoke.

In a wide-ranging conversation for Dazed, the pair spoke about the changing narrative around the black, queer experience, the need to change school literature curriculums, and the importance of independence for artists. 

Josiah, what does Yrsa’s work mean to you?

serpentwithfeet: There were two books that I was reading while recording this album: bone and Toni Morrison’s Jazz. Yrsa, your work was such a guide for me, and I was sharing it with a lot of friends, because I think what's been so important for me is developing or wrangling language to talk about the way that you feel. I think most anguish comes from when you can't articulate what you're feeling. 

I'm from Baltimore and people always say, “Oh, it’s like The Wire,” and they fetishise black poverty. Obviously people need proper healthcare, and they need money, and they need to not live in food deserts, but people also need to feel safe enough and secure enough to explore with language. For years, even into college, I remember being in really deep slumps, and I would only be able to tell my friends, “I’m feeling some kind of way.” For years, that was my response. I didn't know what it meant to be anxious, to feel like I had no wingspan, to feel isolated. I just didn’t have those different words when I was 22 or 24. bone and Toni Morrison gave me more language.

With The Terrible and soil, each of you will release a singular statement of self, an announcement of who you are. Was the creative process natural, or were there points of resistance?

Yrsa Daley-Ward: I try not to engage my brain too much while I’m writing, which probably sounds really odd because it’s sort of cerebral. I have to get out of the way, so I don’t think about form, I don't think about whether something is going to sound good. I try and free write, and get this stuff from the heart by surrounding myself with things that move me. I saw Josiah last night onstage, and things like that – being moved by music, by film – it's everything. The act of writing something, then, feels very natural. If I think about it too much, I probably won't write it. Some of the content is super gritty, and it’s a memoir, which means it’s all true, which is terrible to think about. I tried to let myself be kind of guided by something that is very organic.

“I used to tutor in the Bronx and Brooklyn, and I would have them not read the books they were assigned. I'd be like, ‘I'm going to get some urban magazine and we're going to read that’” – serpentwithfeet

Each of you writes about moving forward while in the process of looking back. Did you feel your roots catching up to you, that you needed to unpack the past in order to move on?

Yrsa Daley-Ward: Yes – as Josiah said, everyone feels; there are no new feelings. We’re all connected when you think about it, and there is a need to be observant in some way in the world, and art and writing does that. These creations are bridges, and they help people to feel less isolated. It brings people closer.

serpentwithfeet: I love what you're saying about connectivity. For years, people would ask my friends and I, “Do you have a TV?” And we would be like, “Oh, we don’t watch TV.” There's almost like this glamour in being not ‘in the know’. And somewhere along the line, that dissolved. Now I want to know what's going on. I just want high stakes drama all the time. What I realised was, I was also able to see myself, see my own shortcomings, see the things that I was good at. It's almost like doing role-reversal in therapy, where I get to see somebody being me and be like, ‘Oh my God, that person is so petty. Oh my Lord, is this me on the screen?’ For years, I was ‘fake smart’. In the past couple of years, I've been able to reflect on anything from Get Out to Sesame Street.

Yrsa Daley-Ward: Art is very active, even for the watcher or the listener, the spectator. Art asks something of you. When you're there watching those shows, if you're thinking, ‘Oh God, is this me?’, then it’s done its job. I don't know what to call it, but sometimes when I see something really brilliant, it's like a mild form of greyness. You’re so moved by that topic you just don’t know what to do with yourself. I love that feeling. I got it after Moonlight. I got it after Josiah’s performance last night. It's just a moment where you just sit and it turns aspects of what you have considered before that point on its head, and you start to ask questions of yourself, questions about life. You see possibilities that maybe you haven't seen before. That connectivity is so important, so necessary if you want to make poignant work, or if you want people to be moved.

serpentwithfeet: Not to put you on blast, but that's how I felt when I read your poem “Emergency Warning”. For me it's a few different men, but one man in particular that I think of in that way, who was causing jams in tight places. I realised this feeling wasn’t an anomaly. To read that in less than two pages, I felt so pointedly described. Another thing about your writing is that you do it with gravitas, which is something I had trouble doing. I always thought that my little heart palpitations didn't have any weight or merit, but reading your book, I felt my feelings did have merit. I’m not silly or unnecessarily boy-crazy. I would put the book down and scream, “Yes!”

I wonder if a lot of young black kids had access to bone when they were 11, 12, 13, what their lives would be like – if that was taught rather than 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I used to tutor in the Bronx and Brooklyn, and I would have them not read the books they were assigned. I'd be like, “I'm going to get some urban magazine and we're going to read that, and then we're going to try to find a way to link it to what you're doing.” But what if the next generation of inner city kids in New York and Baltimore were required to read bone?

Do you feel like representation is changing in art?

Yrsa Daley-Ward: Things are definitely shifting. I’m not saying things are where they need to be, but the fact that we could have Moonlight, that we could have a black queer love story without the tropes? Things are changing. Independence is very important. Self-publishing, independent songwriters, and Instagram, these things help lesser-heard voices get into what we call the mainstream. That's really important. And now larger entities and companies are interested in your so-called marginalised artists – I hate that word, marginalised. I’m so tired of hearing it.

serpentwithfeet: Do you feel that social media or Instagram has been a tool for you? What is your relationship with social media and your work?

Yrsa Daley-Ward: I love it, but it’s a double-edged sword. When I’m working, it really distracts me, but as a tool it’s brilliant, because people who wouldn't normally pick up literature are suddenly finding that on these little Instagram squares, you can find a sentence that might change your day, or you could listen to someone who doesn't have a record deal. We can connect with the soul, not the gatekeepers.

“People who wouldn't normally pick up literature are suddenly finding that on these little Instagram squares, you can find a sentence that might change your day” – Yrsa Daley-Ward

serpentwithfeet: What were your favorite books growing up? What stuck with you?

Yrsa Daley-Ward: One book that I read growing up that changed me was The Color Purple by Alice Walker, because it was a book about this black girl who’s going through all this stuff, and Alice Walker was just incredible. I always wanted to write, but her storytelling was beautiful. I also loved people like Roald Dahl, who interspersed poetry and the fantastical. All of the stories really made me understand that I wanted to create worlds that are very similar to our own worlds and worlds that are not. What about you? What were those books for you?

serpentwithfeet: As a kid, I really enjoyed this book by Sharon G. Flake, The Skin I’m In. I read a lot of Louis Sachar and Judy Blume. I always had to read these autobiographies. My mom wanted me to be really proud and black, but I think the first time where I felt galvanised by a book was in 10th grade. I had to read Sula, and it was probably the most exciting experience.

Yrsa Daley-Ward:  I love that book.

serpentwithfeet: I had to do a report on Sula for our Socratic seminar, to talk about it, and I was just so into it. My teacher said, “I think you have something here, because you never wrote like this for anything else.” I had African American Studies in high school, and up until then everything was always very white – of course. And I always barely passed. But we had to read Cornel West's Race Matters, and I got an A in that class. I was leading discussions, and I read the book twice. It’s so interesting how that can literally turn lights on for a kid.

I’d like to finish by touching on self-care. How do you avoid creative and physical burn-out, and make sure that you are taking care of yourself?

serpentwithfeet: I went to go see Ntozake Shange speak years ago, and it was so amazing. She was talking about her writing process, and that she doesn't go to write unless she’s fully dressed. She puts on her bangles, her nails. She dresses up to write, because writing’s such a sacred thing. For me, before I leave the house, I write, even if it's just for 30 minutes. And it's been so centering for me, to be able to have any residue from the night before that I can expel in the morning. For some people, it's yoga or a coffee by the window, but for me it’s writing.

Yrsa Daley-Ward: Since my work has taken me over so many different time zones and places, I make sure that when I'm home, everything is super quiet. I offset all of the madness with a lot of solitude, green space, and silence. I love silence. I’m completely silent most of the time, just looking after myself in that way by sweet solitude, which is definitely very grounding for me.

Yrsa Daley-Ward's The Terrible is published today, June 5th, by Penguin

serpentwithfeet's soil will be released June 8th by Secretly Canadian/Tri Angle Records