YardEdge Talks to Jamaican Poet, Tanya Shirley About Her New Collection

she who sleeps with bones full jacket

YE: Why are you a writer/poet?

Tanya: Primarily because I’ve always loved to read and that inspired my imagination and my love for words. Reading a lot from an early age made me want to create my own stories. I’ve also been inspired by family members who loved to give jokes and recount events. For me it’s just easier to tell stories within the confines of poetry.

YE: When did you first realize that you wanted to become one?

Tanya: I’m not sure. I remember having several diaries in prep school; my favourites were the ones with the lock and key! I always loved to write down my thoughts and then in high school I started experimenting with poetry. I got good feedback from classmates and teachers but I did 6th form in Canada and a teacher there kept telling me that she knew I was going to be an English teacher and a writer. Although at the time I wanted to study law, I think that was when I started to think more about being a writer. On my return to Jamaica for undergraduate studies I attended Jamaica Poetry Society meetings and that’s when I started to think more seriously about my writing and where I wanted to take it.

YE:  How did you get started writing poetry?

Tanya: I started reading more poetry in high school and liked that I could write a poem in between classes or during lunch. I liked the efficiency of poetry. Soon, friends were commissioning me to write poems for their boyfriends and it kind of just took off after that.

YE:  How would you describe your work?

Tanya: Wow, I always thought other people would do this part.

It definitely privileges female experiences. I’d like to think it’s earthy and sensual but also has a spiritual element to it. I’d like to think that it’s the kind of poetry that makes you re-think life experiences. I definitely think it’s diasporic in its scope in that it explores issues of belonging, identity, history, etc. What is perhaps most important to me is that I hope my work is accessible. I don’t want to produce the kind of work that people think is well-crafted but they don’t know what it means and they’re not inclined to read it again.

YE:  Tell us about She Who Sleeps With Bones.

Tanya: Many of the poems deal with the idea of legacies and inheritances; the idea that we are often shaped by idiosyncrasies passed down from one generation to another. There are poems that address the curse/gift of clairvoyance. There is a recurring persona who is haunted by individual and collective memories. However, I’d like to think that the collection also gives voice to different personae who at different points experience the range of human emotions. I’d also like to think that this collection is definitely sexy in parts. I think it’s okay to have sexy poetry. (smile)

YE: How have you developed your skill(s) as a poet?

Tanya: I used to attend Jamaica Poetry Society meetings at Edna Manley. At UWI, I showed my work to Mervyn Morris who offered suggestions. Then, I did an MFA at University of Maryland and that was gruelling but helpful. I didn’t stop there though, over the years, I’ve done workshops in Texas hosted by the Callaloo journal, a Masters workshop facilitated by Calabash Literary Festival and perhaps the most helpful thing was becoming a fellow of the prestigious Cave Canem Retreat which allowed me to workshop with some of the best poets in the US and also encouraged us to become a part of a supportive global writing community. I also continue to read poetry on a daily basis.

YE: What other writers have influenced you and how?

Tanya: This list could be quite extensive so here is just a sampling: Mervyn Morris for his economy within the poem; Dionne Brand for her recurring use of diasporic metaphors; Sharon Olds for her use of the confessional voice; Lorna Goodison for her use of spirituality; Carl Phillips (not to be confused with Caryl Phillips the novelist) for his ability to be tender without being sentimental. I’m also influenced by my friend Kei Miller who is a prolific and talented writer.

YE:  What inspires you?

Tanya: Life; books; water; the impulse to understand my own experiences and emotions; words: I’ll hear a phrase or a quote from a book and I think “I have to put that in a poem!”

YE:  What kind of response/feedback/success have you received in your career so far?

Tanya: I measure success based on how I feel about what I’m doing and what I’ve done. Based on that I’m happy that the Department of Literatures in English at UWI, Mona has allowed me to teach several different literature courses and I feel successful when I think that I’ve encouraged even just one student per semester to live up to his/her potential.

I’m glad that I’ve been published in a few reputable journals and I’m a fellow of Cave Canem but as corny as it sounds, I feel most successful when I’ve edited a poem for the tenth time and I finally feel as if I’ve gotten it right.

YE: What are your greatest challenges in your work?

Tanya: Hmmm. To avoid being too sentimental. To not get so narrative that the poem becomes more of a story and less of a poem. Definitely, to write on a more consistent basis. I’ve become too much of a “summer writer.”

YE: What are your greatest rewards?

Tanya: My greatest reward is when someone says, “I read your work and it touched me.” I don’t want to be one of those “ivory tower” writers; I want to affect people’s lives. I also love when the poem on the page gets to the stage where it finally reflects the vision I have of it in my head.

YE:  How would people who know you describe you?

Tanya: This is hard! My mom often says (with love) that I’m moody. I think most people would agree that I have my moments when I’m an extrovert and then I have my really, really long moments when I just love my own company.

I’d like to think that those who know me would say that I’m always striving for perfection. However, at the end of the day, what matters most to me is that people describe me as someone who is honest, generous, witty; someone with a big heart.

YE: If you could be doing anything you wanted, what would that be?

Tanya: This is an easy one! Lots of nothing! Seriously though, I’d be doing lots of charity work, sleeping late, travelling to visit friends and family overseas and I’m happy to say I’d like to be doing all the things I’m doing now.

YE: What advice would you give to other young writers/poets?

Tanya: Read, read, read! You can’t be a good writer if you don’t know what good writing looks like! Show your work to people who will give constructive criticism. Enroll in workshops. Drink an ounce of humility everyday; you can’t get better at your work if you already think you’re the bomb. Paradoxically, you also need to have confidence in yourself.

YE:  Plans for the future?

Tanya: Making time to get my Ph.D. in Literature done sometime in this century, working on a second poetry collection and in the long run, starting a non-profit, charitable organization in memory of my grandmother.

YE: What gets you up in the morning?

Tanya: My alarm clock! Definitely not a morning person.

YE: Favourite book? Why?

Tanya: No. It’s weird but I don’t have one. I read a lot and I constantly read books that I love but they are always being replaced by new favourites so it’s hard to pin-point any one book. I like Edwidge Danticat’s work and I love everything written by the poet Sharon Olds.

YE: Any regrets?

Tanya: Ask me this again in a few years but right now, I’m good. I try not to make the same mistake too many times. Eventually, I get the lesson and I move on. Simple. That’s life.

YE:  Final thoughts?

Tanya: I am grateful for all the support She Who Sleeps With Bones has received. A huge thank you to everyone who has not only bought a copy but who has taken the time to read the poems. Nuff, nuff love!

You can contact Tanya at


Tanya will be reading from her new collection on Tuesday, July 28th at 6:30pm at Bookophilia.

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  3. March 11, 2014 at 4:15 am — Reply

    I truly, truly love your work. I remember doing one of your poems in an Introductory class and I was like wow, deep. I knew then that I had to do a course you taught. I’ve done two so far and I didn’t regret it one bit. I love your spunk and your personality and most of all your ability to translate that in your work. I’m proud to say that you’ve taught me. Good job.

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  6. Omar Brown
    September 16, 2011 at 11:48 am — Reply

    Beyond the shadow of a doubt i can honestly say you are one of my favorite female poets. you’re effervescent, natural and real-and i admire that. I am an undergraduate student of the University of the West Indies reading for a degree in Literatures in English (though that might not be important) and i’m looking forward to an aural presentation (by you) of any of your poems. ps- i’m currently reading “INHERITANCE” its a beautiful poem. Thanks for inspiring me to continue achieve my goals.

  7. Winsome Campbell(Former Student)
    May 26, 2010 at 4:07 am — Reply

    Hi Ms Shirley!!!
    I have been hunting you down to autigraph my copy. I made a promise to buy the books of the people who have inspired me to write. The collection is amazing and thanks for your help in equipping me witht he skills and eye for peotry. Read this interview more than once and I must say that understanding one’s experiences and emotions is very important. Best of luck with the next collection. Lots of blessings*****

  8. December 31, 2009 at 4:41 pm — Reply

    […] 8.  Yardedge Talks to Jamaican Poet, Tanya Shirley About her New Collection […]

  9. October 16, 2009 at 3:30 pm — Reply

    Please check out to order a copy from Amazon.

  10. Margaret Delores Meikle
    August 29, 2009 at 5:04 pm — Reply

    Congratulation Tanya, I did not put the book down until I read it completely.Best wishes. A job well done. Del

  11. Tanike Thwaites
    August 13, 2009 at 3:38 pm — Reply

    Congratulations on your success Tanya, I saw this coming as you know the type of person you were in high school as English was your Forte…All the best on your journey…..God Bless Tanike

  12. Bevenisha Moodie
    August 1, 2009 at 11:52 pm — Reply


    Wow Tanya, I’m so happy I was able to share those special moments with you at your launch and experienced your talent, first hand, of making words come alive. You are truly blessed with a wonderful gift and I pray that God will continue to find favour in you.

  13. July 28, 2009 at 5:54 pm — Reply

    Ray Ms. Shirley!!!

    She write book!!! Not that we were expecting any less- you have done so well and achieved so much, I am proud to say that I received the opportunity to know someone who is not only “a teacher”, but one who builds a wonderful rapport with her students. You know why I said that…(ahem) me, you and Suzanne during your breaks on Tuesdays..LOL!!!!
    Me hear seh yuh launch did sell offfff!!!!!! Sorry that I was unable to attend, but word got around that it was inspiring and brought a few to tears (sighs, only Ms. Shirley could pull that one off). I look forward to reading your book, I read “Negotiations”…LOLOLOLOL!!!! Tameka says she disagrees, it (Big Dick) might not be able to go to the supermarket, but it might buy other things….LOLOL!!!!

    Keep up the good work…Tameka and I will be at the reading to cheer you on!!! Bless.

  14. July 28, 2009 at 5:45 pm — Reply

    Hi Ms Shirley

    I was your student first and even then you were inspirational and always had a story to share (our asides for the day-Porn 101). Now that you are an author (and have managed to convert me from student to fan) you still manage to convey your love for words with this beautiful collection of poetry! I am extremely proud of you and I am glad that I was able to share the moment! A job well done, keep up the wonderfully good work! De interview sell off!!!(nutten nuh lef ah shop, as was expected).

  15. Tanice Gonsalves ( Your sis)
    July 28, 2009 at 2:41 pm — Reply

    Hi Tan,

    I love the book. I am not surprised by the great impact your words have on people, you always have been very talented, bright and beautiful. I’m very proud of you and I know that this is only the start of your happiness. I could not have been more blessed to have a sister like you.
    I love you very much and will always be your greatest fan(Ma you beat me to this statement).

  16. Suzette
    July 28, 2009 at 2:34 pm — Reply

    I am so proud of you. Love love love the book. Congratulations!!!! Suzette

  17. Janet Baquero
    July 28, 2009 at 2:33 pm — Reply

    Hey Tan.!
    I couldn’t put the book down until I’d read the last poem. Thanks for the ‘suss’, ( got the full story about the foreigner who complained about the dogs barking during the night, ) for expressing your love for your family, & for giving us a peek into some of your personal experiences. At last there’s easy to read, enjoyable poetry ( be gone ye boring ones ! )
    Tons of love always,
    Aunt Janet.

  18. Dawn EdwardsTaylor
    July 28, 2009 at 2:21 pm — Reply

    Hi Tanya,As usual ‘me eye full a wata’I have no copy of the book as yet because i am waiting on the audio version.I want to listen to you reading the poems. It was AWSOME,that sunday I am trying to reach the book place to hear u again.Congrats again and keep on keeping on.I am glad i know a poetess Love Auntie Dawn

  19. Rosel Wilson
    July 28, 2009 at 2:21 pm — Reply

    This is a wonderful interview Tanya. For those who are not aware, Tanya was in The Bahamas for a reading last year and she was extraordinary. We hung on her every word; we laughed out loud, cried, sat in total silence……..The Bahamas is awaiting your return Ms. Shirley, come soon! A huge fan, Rosel xoxo

  20. Cousin Kim :)
    July 28, 2009 at 10:43 am — Reply

    Hey beautiful!

    Just wanted to let you know that I’ve already received and read my copy. It was especially moving mainly because I am so familiar with your personal references — even Ms. Lia Lola! :)Thanks for sharing your incredible talent. Much love and plenty hugs, Kim

  21. Velma Pollard
    July 28, 2009 at 10:37 am — Reply

    Dear Tanya

    You know I am a fan but I am particularly pleased to see how young people appreciate you. Keep up being the soulful/heartful efficient teacher you are and of course keep on writing your excellent poetry which I hope to hear again later today

  22. Sherry Shirley-Case
    July 27, 2009 at 5:06 pm — Reply

    Dear Tanya,

    I am so very proud of you. I have read She Who Sleeps With Bones and I am touched. I laughed, I cried, and I felt connected. Thank you for the pictures you so eloquently painted with words.

    All my love,

    Aunt Sherry

  23. Beverley
    July 27, 2009 at 3:12 pm — Reply

    Great interview Tan. I am extremely proud of the fine young lady that you have blossomed into. You are a very special person to me and I wish you all the success, happiness and joy in life. I know that you have it in you to stand supreme.
    My best wishes are always with you.

    Much love…

    Aunt Bev

  24. Betty Wilson
    July 27, 2009 at 2:16 pm — Reply

    Dear Tanya, Congrats again on a wonderful collection that really touches me. I enjoyed the interview. You were a great graduate student and I am sure you’re also a great teacher. Keep writing (the dissertation too!)and encouraging your students to write. Love, Betty Wilson

  25. July 27, 2009 at 1:43 pm — Reply

    Congratulations. Wishing you great success on 7/28/09. Keep up the good work.

  26. Peta-Gay McDonald
    July 27, 2009 at 12:05 pm — Reply

    Hey Tanya,
    How absolutely awesome to be realising a childhood dream, and to be succeeding, not just dabbling!!!
    Truly inspiring Tanya, I wish you much happiness along your journey! (I’m going to try to make it to your reading – this will be my first exposure to poetry!)

  27. Tanya
    July 27, 2009 at 2:57 am — Reply

    Dear Tanya,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this interview, it says so much about the daughter who started reading so so early in life and who from about age three, “taught school with all her bedroom furniture as her students” (LOL). I love you, am proud of you and will continue to be your greatest fan. You are truly blessed and I know God will continue to watch over you.

    Love ya, Mom

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