Sabrina Benaim, I LOVE YOU, CALL ME BACK

Sabrina Benaim, I LOVE YOU, CALL ME BACK

Poet Sabrina Benaim joins Zibby to talk about her second collection I Love You, Call Me Back, which is out today. Sabrina shares that while she had the bones of these poems pre-Covid, the pandemic helped shape the stories they ultimately told. The two also talk about the way health scares have impacted Sabrina’s family’s lives, from her mother’s aneurysm diagnosis last year to the tumor that first prompted Sabrina to share her writing with the world.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sabrina. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss I Love You, Call Me Back.

Sabrina Benaim: Thank you for having me. It’s such a pleasure. I love this concept, by the way, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” It just tickles me.

Zibby: I actually just got pitched a book called Tickled. Isn’t that funny? Anyway, your poetry is beautiful. I feel like I’ve just relived the pandemic in this book. I also want to call my mom, who I just saw. Thank you for sharing your experience. Maybe I should let you summarize it. Sabrina, what is your book of poems about?

Sabrina: I will apologize off the bat because my dog is — Mabel, who appears lots of times in the book —

Zibby: — I also used to have a dog named Mabel.

Sabrina: I love that.

Zibby: A bulldog. What kind is your dog?

Sabrina: So cute. I have a long-haired dachshund, a little miniature.

Zibby: Aw. My dog Nya is around here somewhere. She’s on the couch, but you can’t even see her because she’s camouflaged.

Sabrina: That’s perfect. Mine is dying to be on my lap. Anyway, the book, it’s kind of a semi-fictional account. In some ways, it’s very — what is the word I’m looking for? In a lot of ways, it was birthed during the pandemic. A lot of the poems did exist before. That’s where my bones came from. Then during the pandemic, my mom was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm. That put us all in a little bit of a headspin. Just having so much time to think about it is where the birth of a lot of these poems came from. I was really trying to navigate that while also navigating the pandemic and the loneliness of that. Then the semi-fictional stuff is the relationship that happens throughout. That is a combination of many relationships that have played out in my lifetime. That’s the element of alternate reality throughout all of it. I think I do that to cope a little bit in writing. To cope with what I’m going through, I have to write some kind of fiction into my poems, not feel too vulnerable giving too much away, if that makes sense.

Zibby: Got it, yes.

Sabrina: This book does give a lot away, I feel.

Zibby: The rest of the poems?

Sabrina: Yes.

Zibby: It’s great. It’s very open. To be honest, I thought when I first started reading it that it would be mostly about your mother. You don’t immediately show the timeframe. I kept reading. I was like, banana bread and TikTok, this must have been last year. Not to make light of last year and all of the horror and everything. Then as the poems go on, it becomes clearer and clearer that they’re coping with the craziness that was the lockdown and then obviously everything on top of it.

Sabrina: Prior to this, I was living alone for a period of time. It all mashed in together, those feelings.

Zibby: This is the poem when I realized. Can I read a couple of the excerpts? Is that okay?

Sabrina: Mm-hmm.

Zibby: “The Good News. The good news is spring came. Came anyway. Hyacinths and strawberry begonias bloomed. Myrtle spilled over concrete corners. Those little lime-green plants, the ones that look like Shrek ears, sprouted into high-rise bushes. The robins built nests, their perfect blue eggs nuzzled in Desiree’s mailbox. I checked on their well-being via Instagram. I open the windows to be part of the world outside. The world is outside. It is unfathomable. I stay inside repotting plants, baking banana bread, learning unnecessarily complicated TikTok dances.” That’s when I knew. Then you have this other page I just wanted to show when you have the panic attack poem. Oh, my gosh, as someone who has tremendous anxiety and panic attacks myself, I was like, that’s perfect. The page itself seems so chaotic, the way you see all the letters repeating over and over. It captures that kind of , like you can’t catch your breath thing. Then of course, you go into it. Tell me a little bit about writing and how you have chosen poetry and form versus content and how you made the decisions. You have all different shapes and sizes of poems throughout here. Some are even more paragraphs. Tell me about that because I’m not a poet. I don’t know. Tell me.

Sabrina: Poetry just feels like a language that I can speak more fluently, if that makes sense. It feels like I don’t have to say everything, but I can say some things and allude. It feels like a comfortable language for me. That’s why poetry. Something about it just works for me. I feel like there’s poems everywhere. You’re always trying to catch them. It is my language. Then in terms of content versus form, I think it’s a lot of fun to play with form. Form really excites me as a writer. I find myself wanting to push myself more and more into form as I keep writing. This book was such a fun exercise. Okay, if we set it over a month, how does the form get to play out inside of this already month form? That was really fun for me. When you look through it as a narrative throughout the month, you need those little breaks. You need those little thought bubbles. I think that played into the shorter poems really well when writing them. They were fun to write, reflections. Sometimes it would be like — there’s a little one about Diana Ross.

Zibby: Yes, I was going to read that one. Then I was like, is she going to want to go there? I actually dogeared that page. Wait, I have to find that. That was funny.

Sabrina: That one started as a tweet. They kind of work their way in from whatever form.

Zibby: I have it here. “I haven’t groomed my ‘you know’ since March, and even though I was born in 1987, I think I understand the seventies. I put on ‘The Boss’ by Diana Ross and twirl about.” I love that. You have it all the way down here on the bottom. That was also very clever.

Sabrina: Down low, exactly. That started as a tweet, and then was just like, you know what, I’m going to work that in. It’s what’s going on.

Zibby: You had another thing where you talk about how you were trying to send clever tweets so much.

Sabrina: Yes, my melodramatic tweet lyrics. Absolutely, I’m a sucker for that. Any kind of subtext lyric post, I’m into it.

Zibby: Wait, how is your mom?

Sabrina: My mom is good. Actually, just last week, we found out that she is surgery-free for another year.

Zibby: What a relief, oh, my gosh.

Sabrina: We are relieved. It is very nice. We’re doing good. We’re rounding into the holiday season. My mom is a Christmas fanatic, so she’s very happy about that. Things are good. She got to read the book, which was a pleasure because with Depression & Other Magic Tricks — actually, the funny story about the depression poem is that it happened before my mom ever heard it. When it went online, it was the first time she really heard the poem. She had heard drafts, but it was the first time she saw it and heard it. This time around, getting the pleasure of giving her the book before it’s out and letting her read it, just because it’s so much about her, was so nice. She loved it. That was really lovely. Now it’s circulating in my family. Everyone’s reading it, which is lovely.

Zibby: I loved, also, the poem where you have your phone conversation with each of your words sort of on the other side and how you’re really not addressing — you’re trying to talk about it. She’s totally avoiding it. It’s such a relatable conversation when you’re like — I can’t even remember what she brought. It was someone’s anniversary. Oh, maybe that was something else, the anniversary. Anyway, just the deflection. She doesn’t want you to worry. You can tell so much that she’s trying to deal with her own stuff. She’s like, stop worrying. Is she still like that? Is that her MO?

Sabrina: Very much, yes. I will tell you, she’s more worried about — my aunt read the book. She was like, “You know, you’re going to have change where you hide all the money from that bathrobe. Everyone who reads the book is going to know.” She’s more worried about that than she is about anything. She just wants everybody to relax and enjoy life as much as we can in the time we have. I think that’s the best way to go about it right now anyway.

Zibby: To be honest, as a mother — I just happen to have been to a funeral this morning for a family friend who’s old. Not that it’s okay. He was older and had been sick for a while. It’s not a tragic early loss or whatever, but it’s a loss, nonetheless. Why am I even talking about this? I had some point. We were talking about loss and life. My brain is just not working with me. Why was I bringing that up? It had something to do with your book. Oh, I know. I was sitting there thinking, as I do, as most people with anxiety/depression/whatever/just anyone these days, okay, so now I’m going to picture my own funeral. What would my kids be doing? How could I make it easier for them? What would I want? Then I was thinking, I would probably be acting just like your mom. When I talk to my kids, I would want to be like, it’s all good. We’re not going to talk about me. Let’s just move on. I don’t want to waste my time talking about the stuff I worry about on my own. I don’t know, maybe there’s some of that on her side. Anyway, sorry, that was so rambling.

Sabrina: No, that’s fine. We actually lost my grandmother earlier this year. When you lose somebody, “time is precious” really becomes your outlook for a little while. It becomes that new perspective. On top of what we’re already dealing with, I think it’s just amplifying this. Let’s spend all this time together and do all these wonderful things. Selfishly, I love all of the outings we’re taking as a family and all of that because it’s just beautiful time together.

Zibby: How did you get into this? Back up with your life. How did you end up writing your other book and all of that?

Sabrina: When I was twenty-three, I had a tumor in my thyroid the size of a little squash ball. It was about my pinkie finger in diameter. It stuck out. It was this joke that my friend made to me where he was like, “It’s because everything you always want to say, you swallow. You did that to yourself. All that writing you do, you should share it.” He talked me into signing up to this spoken word workshop, which I went to. It was the first time I had shared my work with anyone. That led to open mics, which led to slam, finding slam poetry and slams in Toronto. I started doing that. Made it onto the Toronto Slam team. This is all within about a year and a half, two years. Somewhere in there, I had my surgery and removed the tumor. Then I just dove into slam and started sharing my work. Then it was, “Explaining My Depression to My Mother” — we were at a slam tournament in Oakland, the nationals there, the National Poetry Slam. We made it to the semi-finals. That was my poem for the semi-finals. It ended up being filmed, ended up being what it was, which was my panic attack. Then it made it onto the internet a couple months later. I remember when they asked me. They were like, “Can we have the permission to do this?” I was like, “I don’t really remember performing it, so if you think it was okay, sure.” That’s how that happened. Then that ended up going viral, which ended up in Depression & Other Magic Tricks, which has brought us to I Love You, Call Me Back, which is just a wild ride.

Zibby: Wow. That’s amazing. Are you still doing the slams and all of that?

Sabrina: I’m not. COVID has made that impossible, in the first place. I also didn’t really enjoy competing. It felt weird for me to put things on display and then get a score. It just wasn’t my vibe. I wasn’t particularly good at slam. My poems were always a little bit softer than what needs to be a ten-out-of-ten poem. I don’t know how to explain that better. Having the opportunity to perform and read and not be judged for it, or be judged but in the regular way, is a little bit more comfortable for me.

Zibby: Not an actual score. Just public opinion. Love it. How does it feel to be a poet in today’s world? It’s harder. People talk about, will poetry collections sell? There are all these barriers to poets and poetry and all of that. How do you get past that? Do you think about it? Are you just like, whatever, it’s my art?

Sabrina: The right answer to this question, for me, it’s kind of silly, but I think we have to thank at the end of the day because she has just really made poetry kind of hot again. Maybe not hot, but you know what I mean, accessible and approachable and easier to get into. I think if it weren’t for that little resurgence that she kind of helmed — not alone, obviously. There’s many poets in this world that we can thank, modern poets, for doing what they’re doing. I think that there’s definitely footsteps that have been made that poetry is now something people are not afraid to listen to. Maybe not afraid, but a little bit more interested than before, a little bit more open to it. I’m grateful for that, to be honest with you. I’m grateful for that resurgence that we’ve had in the last couple years. Also, I think it’s just a matter of being who you are until people figure it out. I think that’s all you can do, is just figure out who you are and then be yourself until people are like, oh, that’s who you are. Cool, or not cool, and they don’t want to read your book. That’s fine too. I think just coming to that level of acceptance, it’s what you have to do as a person. I’ve done that better with my art than I have as a person, if that makes sense.

Zibby: I wonder, though, if — I didn’t used to read that much poetry. For this podcast, I’ve read a whole bunch of poetry. I’m into it. It sort of dovetails with my attention span sometimes. The shorter bits and pieces are great to digest. You can read the whole book in relatively no time and feel like you’ve actually submerged yourself in someone else’s life the way that sometimes an entire memoir might take. It’s like the cliff notes of a memoir, sort of, the express version of ingesting all that feeling. I just wonder with all these young people today having an attention span of seven seconds, if maybe poetry is going to be back and have a major resurgence among a younger generation when they realize that you still get literature, but it’s this quick. I feel like maybe it’s coming back in a big way.

Sabrina: I really love that about reading a poetry book. You can put it down. There’s spots that allow you to put it down and reflect on what you’ve read, or you can just power through it and have an afternoon with it. It’s very easy to dissect in that way. You’re like, okay, I’m going to stop here. I don’t have to finish a chapter before I stop, or anything like that. I really like poetry for that. They do feel like the hot spot of a person, that emotional hot center where you’re like, ooh, I’m diving right into that.

Zibby: It’s this whole, forget the small-talk world that we’re living in. Just get right into it. Let’s just get into it now. Are you working on another collection now? What are you up to?

Sabrina: I am. I am working on a third collection. I’m very excited about it, to be honest. I’m also working on a few other small projects around that. We’ll see what happens. They’re a little bit in that test phase where you’re like, let’s just film some stuff and see what we could do, if it comes out good or not. We’re playing around with that. Mostly, I’m just focusing on writing collection number three.

Zibby: Awesome. That’s exciting. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Sabrina: My favorite advice — I feel like I’ve been saying this a lot lately. It must be something I need because the universe keeps having me repeat it to myself. I keep saying it. You have to want something more than you fear it. It’s just some great advice I’ve been given. I take it into my work so much. If you want to take that risk, you just take that risk. You can’t be afraid to do it. If you want to write about that thing, you have to just write about that thing. There’s no fear that can happen in there, or the fear has to be something that motivates you and not holds you back. I think that’s really what writing is about. It’s untangling all the fear inside you so you can express freely.

Zibby: I love it. Untangled, that’s great. What do you like to read, by the way?

Sabrina: I read a lot of poetry, but I’ve been diving back into fiction lately. I’m into this novel, Ghosts by Dolly Alderton.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I’m reading that.

Sabrina: Get out. Me too. I’m loving it.

Zibby: I’m interviewing her tomorrow, I think. I have it right here. That’s so funny.

Sabrina: That’s so funny. Are you loving it? I’m loving it so far.

Zibby: I’m loving it. She’s so funny. I laughed out loud five times in the first chapter or something. So funny.

Sabrina: So great. It feels really relatable as an early thirtysomething. I’m quite enjoying it.

Zibby: It’s like the new Bridget Jones, I feel like.

Sabrina: A little bit, yeah, exactly. I could totally see that.

Zibby: She’s so funny, just the way she sees the world. It’s great, getting into that. I think everybody who’s British has such a great sense of humor.

Sabrina: Everything set in London, anything set in London, I’m pretty sold on that fact alone. I’ve been really enjoying that as a dive back into fiction.

Zibby: Awesome. Me too. Funny. Sabrina, thank you. This has been so fun. Did I miss anything? Is there anything about your book or experience I didn’t tap into?

Sabrina: I’m trying to think. I don’t think so other than just, my mom is the best. Writing about her is a pleasure. Writing about everything is really a pleasure. I want to thank you for this because poetry, like you said, it can have that little side eye to it at the entry point. I’m so glad that you’re reading and enjoying it and having me on to talk about it. That just makes me so happy inside.

Zibby: Aw, awesome. It’s my pleasure. I really enjoyed reading it. I love the colors.

Sabrina: How beautiful is the book?

Zibby: I love it. I love these colors. It’s just so cool. This is my favorite color, this blue.

Sabrina: I actually think more copies just arrived downstairs because there’s a package for me. I’m so excited.

Zibby: Yay! Awesome. I wish you the best of luck. I hope your mom stays okay. I’ll be following along now with your career. I’m really excited.

Sabrina: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Take care.

Sabrina: Have a wonderful day.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Sabrina Benaim, I LOVE YOU, CALL ME BACK

I LOVE YOU, CALL ME BACK by Sabrina Benaim

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