Meet Yrsa Daley-Ward, the Bard of Instagram

Posted June 7, 2018 5:34 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — On a rainy Wednesday in April, a crowd of 70 people squeezed into the Strand Bookstore at the Club Monaco on Fifth Avenue for a poetry reading by Yrsa Daley-Ward, the British model and writer. Attendees leaned against the well-curated bookshelves or sat cross legged on the floor as waiters maneuvered through the room, offering them a choice of red or white wine.

Minutes before the program began, Daley-Ward sauntered into the room and plopped herself onto a slate gray love seat at the front. She wore an all white ensemble — a blouse, loosefitting shorts and a vest she casually threw to the side.

“I think you need to hear a poem about mental health,” she said before launching into “mental health,” one of the most popular poems from her 2014 collection, “Bone.” When she finished, the room exploded in applause for Daley-Ward, who has comforted hundreds of thousands of fans with her cleareyed poetry on Instagram for the last five years.

Daley-Ward, whose memoir, “The Terrible,” was published this week by Penguin Books, is part of a new generation of writers using social media to share their work, build their brand and find an audience. According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, 72 percent of teenagers in the United States report using Instagram, making it the second most popular online platform, after YouTube.

The millennials who post short, visually pleasing prose online are commonly referred to as “Instagram poets” and their recent popularity has been met with equal parts enthusiasm and skepticism. They use the platform in multiple ways: adding images to their poems, taking photos of printed text or, in the case of Daley-Ward, filming their laptop screens as they write.

Unlike some of her more famous and controversial peers, such as Rupi Kaur and Cleo Wade, Daley-Ward has also found critical success.

“I think in the context of Instagram poetry she is one of the more interesting poets,” said Chris McCabe, a librarian at the National Poetry Library in London’s Southbank Centre. “She is much more textured and subtle.”

Kiese Laymon, a writer and professor at the University of Mississippi who wrote the foreword for “Bone,” was introduced to Daley-Ward’s poems by his students, who showed him her poem “emergency warning.”

“I couldn’t believe I was reading what I was reading on the internet,” he said. “And I’m not someone who diminishes the internet at all, but there was a particular kind of emotional register that I just didn’t think the internet could really hold.”

On a Saturday, several days after the Club Monaco event, I met Daley-Ward for brunch at a Mediterranean-Italian restaurant in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. She has just moved to the neighborhood from Los Angeles after a New York City literary agent, who was impressed by “Bone,” asked her if she had other material to share.

“I know with these things you kind of have to strike,” Daley-Ward said. “So I was like yeah of course! Complete lies, I had nothing.”

She quickly wrote three chapters of what she imagined would become a novel about children and magical realism. The book morphed into a memoir after she realized how much she mined her personal experiences for material.

“I’m going to unsettle people,” she said. “I mean nobody knows my story.”

“The Terrible” is a devastating and lyrical account that begins with Daley-Ward’s childhood in Chorley, a small town in northern England where she was shuffled between her single mother and her religious grandparents. Early chapters focus on her tense relationship with her mother (“I am angry with Mum a lot these days because we love her so much and we never see her”), struggling with her sexuality (“She is a petite girl and my T-shirt totally drowns her. My insides ache with longing”) and being raised as a Seventh-day Adventist (“We sing lots of hymns with words like, ‘Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow'”).

Most of the book focuses on her life after she turned 12, the age which marked the beginning of “the terrible” and “going under.” These are euphemisms for “depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, addiction,” Daley-Ward said.

She recounts struggling with her rapidly developing body (“feel fat”), dealing with advances from older men including a friend’s father (“Make an excuse the next time he wants to drive you home”) and how her first sexual experience at 14 worsened her depression (“You smell / different. There’s a weird scent / about you / some male odor. The man left his smell behind / all over you”). She writes about becoming a model and how parts of the lifestyle drove her into a cycle of partying, drinking, sex and drugs.

“I was running from the cloak of depression,” Daley-Ward said. “I was living in London and I was like, well let me just fly somewhere new and work it out.”

She moved to South Africa and spent three years there modeling and waitressing. About a year and a half into her stay, she stumbled upon a poetry reading at Tagore’s, a popular jazz venue in Cape Town. “The Terrible” closes with this moment, which inspired her to pursue a writing career.

“There is a magic about Cape Town, the mountains and the fog on the mountain and the blue sky,” Daley-Ward said, “something about it is very calming, it is very easy for me to write there.”

She eventually published a collection, “On Snakes and Other Stories,” in 2013 with a small British press. The next year she repurposed many of those poems and self-published her second collection, “Bone,” which sold more than 20,000 copies.

Daley-Ward’s fans on Instagram and Twitter see her poems as a tool for healing. Most of them are drawn to her willingness to broach difficult subject matter with authority and clarity. “I found a physicality and an honesty in Yrsa’s work that really captured me,” wrote Florence Welch of the band Florence + The Machine in an email. “Many of her poems have that feeling, a sudden gasp of truth.”

McCabe thinks more attention should be paid and credit given to the power that Instagram poetry has on young people as a catalyst for change. “It’s not just break-up poems,” he said. “It shows that a whole generation are interested in politics and in trying to change the world through art.” At the end of the Club Monaco event, members of the audience lined up for autographs.

“She feels like a sister to me,” said Mimi Chiahemen, an editor and reiki practitioner. She found Daley-Ward’s poetry on Instagram through Nayyirah Waheed, another poet, and was immediately impressed by her ability to convey such emotional depth in few words.

“I actually think it’s very challenging to write evocative poetry with so much brevity,” she said, comparing Daley-Ward to poets like Mary Oliver and E.E. Cummings.

When I asked Daley-Ward if she had any feelings about being labeled an Instagram poet, she smiled.

“We are doing the poetry world a service,” she said. “I think it is a wonderful thing that poets are now sharing their work online because work gets into the hands of people of different identities and they feel like they have a voice.”