SABRINA BENAIM is one of the most viewed performance poets of all time whose poem Explaining My Depression to My Mother has become a cultural phenomenon with over 70,000,000 views. And for the first ever she will be touring Australia this May! The debut book for SABRINA BENAIM is titled Depression & Other Magic Tricks which explores themes of mental health, love, and family. It is a documentation of struggle and triumph, a celebration of daily life and of living. Sabrina loves talking about breaking down stigma, women who help women and will also accept any invitation to dance…oh and she was recently nominated for Goodreads Best Poetry 2017 Choice Awards. Sabrina’s Australian tour starts this week and I spoke to her about her first tour here.
Did you ever think in your wildest dreams that your poetry would be bringing you down to this neck of the woods?
No, I truly did not. I think even my wildest dreams wouldn’t have been as good as this.
What can fans expect on this tour? Recently we had Neil Hilborn here on tour not that long ago and live poetry is something that’s really starting to take off.
I think people can expect a good amount of poetry regarding mental illness and a good amount of speaking on the stigma and all that, but also I think an equal amount of levity and light and just talking about how we all experience the same things, some funny stories about making light of the struggle that we go through. I think it’s quite a fun night.
Do you get overwhelmed and a little bit chuffed that when you see the response to what you do on stage?
At first I did get quite overwhelmed. The beginning of it all was not something that I had imagined happening and I don’t think I could have prepared myself for, but now I’m a lot more equipped for it, so it’s something that I really embrace and think is really important to bring that personal connection to such a topic.
Do you think we’re getting any better as a society in terms of how we support people with mental illness, and the struggles that they go through on a daily basis, or is there still quite a way to go?
I think a little bit of both. I think the fact that I am able to travel around and do this poetry is a testament to the fact that we as a society are willing to listen to what people have to say and try to understand. But I do think from a larger standpoint in terms of education and medical support, I think we still do have quite a way to go.
So how did you find poetry, or did poetry find you? Is it something that you discovered at university, or it was just an outlet for you with whatever you were going through at the time?
Yeah, I think I always wrote poetry in a journal. Privately, to just figure out what I was going through and help myself navigate and understand what was happening in my head versus the world around me. But it wasn’t until I was twenty three and I found out I had a tumour in my thyroid, in my throat, that was the size of a squash ball that my best friend kind of joked to me, “Oh, it’s because you swallow all of your feelings and everything you ever want to say, and you’re always writing but you’re never speaking about the important stuff,” and that’s when kind of it became a more purposeful thing that I shared and brought out into the world.
How was that first show that when you decided to take the plunge and put yourself out there?
Well, I had originally only just taken a workshop, a spoken word workshop, just to ease my way in, and the facilitator, Andrea Thompson, she was so wonderful. She’s a pretty big deal in Toronto, in Canada. She had really encouraged that we get up on stage and share in open mic settings, and then once I did that, I got such a great response from the audience that I decided to go see what the poetry slam was all about. See how that was different. Once I finally went to that by myself and did one poem, is when things just started rolling from there. It felt really relieving to get up on stage and speak to a room of strangers, because it’s less scary sometimes to speak to strangers, I think versus telling your personal friends and family what you’re going through.
Is the live experience like an adrenaline rush, or is it totally nerve wracking until you get into it and feel a little bit warmed up, so to speak?
Yeah, it’s a little bit like both, I would say it’s really similar to going on a roller coaster for the first time, where you want to go on the roller coaster because it kind of scares you but it also sounds fun. The moment you get on it and for the first going up the top of it you’re just like regretting your decision. “Why did I decide to do this? This is terrifying, I want to get off.” But you can’t get off, of course. Once you step on stage you’re on it and then you’re just in for the ride, and when you get off, it’s kind of this feeling of like, “Whew! That wasn’t as bad as I thought. I kind of want to do that again.”
It must be the best feeling when people come up to you after the show and they say that, “Your words are so powerful and they really resonate with me and they’ve helped me through my own personal struggles.” That must be the real satisfying part of it as well?
Right, that makes it feel really important too, it does for me, I can’t say that having not had the response I had I would have continued to do poetry, I don’t particularly like competition, but I found that the response I got from my work, of people saying, “You know I really needed to hear that, ” or “That video helped me tell my parents that I’m going through that” made it feel very important and made the impact of the work feel more important than just what I got out of it. It felt like something that a lot of people were getting something out of it, and it also gave me a lot of connections with people. I think when we talk about mental illness especially, having a community where even if you don’t know people personally, you feel like they understand you, you don’t feel as alone. That’s a really invaluable experience. I think for me as well, for a lot of people saying, “Your work made me feel less alone.” It in turn has also made me personally less alone to have all of this support for my work.
Absolutely. Explaining my Depression to My Mother is really, really powerful. Did your mum end up getting it after hearing that?
Yeah my mum and I have a really great relationship and that poem, as much as it was the first time for her hearing it, we did do that poem quite intensely so I think it wasn’t as shocking to her, but it was definitely a bigger shock to other members of my family, who didn’t have any idea about what I was going through. It then opened up that whole dialogue of, “Why didn’t you tell us sooner?” Or “How can we help now?” So it’s been really nice to be open about it since that poem did explode the way it did.
Are you happy with where your career is taking you and what might be next on the horizon?
Yeah, I am, and I think it’s really progressing to be able to have a career that feels in a way bigger than just my own personal success, like the success of breaking down stigmas that extend beyond my own lived experience. It goes out into the world and ripples through. At first, it was very overwhelming to be the spokesperson of depression or be this girl who was like “the depression girl”. But I’ve really tried to embrace that and if that’s what I need to do in order to move through the world and help that barrier come down a little bit, then I’m grateful for that experience. That’s important.
What’s next for Sabrina?
Ideally, there would be several more books. I would really like to do a children’s book, where we can start talking about mental illness from a much earlier age in a way that gives them an outlet for children to talk about what they’re going through earlier, because I think it is something that is important to get to the root of it as soon as you can.
Interview by Rob Lyon
Catch Sabrina Benaim on the following dates…