THE BABY RE-IMAGINED (POETS EDITION)

Samia Saliba & Summer Farah assign a poem to each track of Samia’s The Baby (2020)

A collage of the poets featured with Samia in the middle peak. From left to right: Jess Rizkallah, Zein Sa’dedin, Rita Dove, Jessica Abughattas, Diana Khoi Nguyen, Melissa Lozada-Oliva, Umang Kalra, Safia Elhillo, Hala Alyan, Suheir Hammad, Aracelis Girmay.

INTRO

Through how many voices can we imagine our favorite songs? Samia’s debut The Baby was a perfect sad-girl blend of coming-of-age yearning mixed with a cheekiness at what dictates that act of growing up, heartbreak and familial love. The Baby Reimagined presents these tracks in a new way, so soon after their initial release; there is something so special about hearing contemporaries in conversation with each other, throwing these themes back and forth and remixing what, at its core, The Baby is doing. As Arab American poet sad girls, we realized Samia’s lyrical resonance came through in our favorite works, too — the music we’re drawn to, the poetry we’re drawn to? They are intertwined, guiding both our inclinations and how we construct our own work. Here are some poems we think reimagine The Baby on the page.

TRACK 1: Pool

La Boda del Mar y Arena by Aracelis Girmay

In a voice that sends chills everywhere, every time, Samia asks: “How long do you think we can sit here / before we have to mooooooooove?” in apostrophe for growing up. The song anxiously builds, question on question, asking more abstractly, how long? Aracelis Girmay’s gorgeous poem provides a generous balm of an answer: “If we, for long enough, look, / with the clean eyes of children / at what this big house is saying, / we will start to understand / the language of our parents.” Pool opening with the loving Arabic hummed by Samia’s grandmother and the title in Spanish to name Girmay’s makes these two works feel even more intertwined. Poem excerpted from Kingdom Animalia by Aracelis Girmay, BOA Editions 2011.

TRACK 2: Fit N Full

in which the goatfish moon does not feel sorry for me by Jess Rizkallah

“Fit N Full” is a satirical look at diet culture and behavioral expectations of young women; Samia cheekily sings, “All I want’s to give you what I had / I’m generous and vacant”, twinning so well with Jess Rizkallah’s “in which the goatfish moon does not feel sorry for me”; Rizkallah expertly balances tone, the dead-pan honesty of “because i wanted to be a Chill Girl. i am not chill, i am afraid” building up to the painful resonance of the mundane in that last line — “i just want to wake up one day / and stare into a bowl of oatmeal my cheeks already warm”. Both write their wants filtered through their fears — — Samia turning to the playful, Rizkallah the loose-vulnerable. There is a playfulness to both in how they grapple with overwhelming or serious harms, but neither diminish: a hope forward, instead.

Page from “dinner party dreaming” by Umang Kalra

TRACK 3: Big Wheel

Dinner Party Dreaming by Umang Kalra

Big Wheel is, to me, the most relatable song on the album. It catalogues old relationships in oblique terms while conveying a lot of difficult emotions, namely resentment that you weren’t treated as well as you think you should be. For this song, Umang Kalra’s “Dinner Party Dreaming” is a perfect match. Samia’s song opens with a pleasant list of people and things in her life, building to the emotional core of the song when she sings “God I’m really gonna blow with all this empathetic shit/ I understand the thing you did and every reason you did it/ But I’m so mad dude and I wanna cry.” Conversely, Kalra starts off with an intense show of big feelings, but then softens: “I’m sorry this an angry poem. I’m not/ an angry girl. I am sugar-soft compliant, how else/ will anyone ever love me ?” Both tell us so plainly how it feels to find yourself being too nice and forgiving because that’s how you think you hold on to love. Both speakers are realizing the anger that comes with this. But Kalra offers a reminder that is at once reassuring and unsettling: “Everything/ can be fixed, you can love me better if you like.” The people we love can love us even in all our big angry feelings, but they have to choose to do so. The question is whether we’re willing to let them choose. Poem from dinner party dreaming by Umang Kalra

TRACK 4: Limbo Bitch

There is So Much Pressure in a White Dress by Melissa Lozada-Oliva

Samia tells us in an interview with FLOOD Magazine that this song is about pretending to be confident for the sake of attracting others. Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s poem provides a tangible representation of this fake-it-till-you-make-it hot girl attitude with the white dress, which one must be deeply confident to wear, or as she puts it, “You have to pretend to be dead/ or wear it for a good reason.” The song and poem share a playfulness and both describe a series of actions taken in this idealistic, ecstatic state. At the end, though, Lozada-Oliva writes “And it still got colder. And the leaves still/ changed color. And you still couldn’t see me,” reflecting how relationships can’t really be sustained if you’re always play-acting a different version of yourself. Maybe that’s also what Samia means when she repeats “Dance before you quit.” Poem excerpted from The Adroit Journal, Issue 26.

TRACK 5: Stellate

Still Life as Unreliable Narrator by Safia Elhillo

Samia describes Stellate as a note to herself trying to make sense of old traumas, a reflection on past relationships where she felt unable to confront her partner. Safia Elhillo’s “Still Life as Unreliable Narrator” is a classic post-breakup fantasy rich with ambiguity in much the same way as Stellate. Each piece weaves between mundane and troubling imagery: Elhillo writes “our blue couch an invention” and then a few lines later describes a “color known best to butchers”; Samia moves from “I wanna play you records I like/ I wanna hold your hand” to “Show me where you are stellate/ I’ll stick the needle through” in a matter of seconds. Both pieces draw you in with their meditative, unsettling repetition: Elhillo’s “an invention…. an invention” reminds you of the speaker’s unreliability and Samia’s “You know it/ But I can say it for you” keeps you at arm’s length from some untold truth. While “Stellate” rocks you in and out of sweetness, it leaves you with a deep feeling of unease. “Still Life” ends with: “i sent you away & installed/ a wound in your place invented/ some blood for the story.” Here it’s harder to determine the true nature of the relationship, but both pieces seem to leave the reader with a sense of mistrust. The true beauty of these pieces is that, even in the murkiness, they are stunningly relatable. Poem excerpted from BOAAT, March/April 2017 Issue.

TRACK 6: Triptych

Triptych by Diana Khoi Nguyen

The sentiments of Triptych are best captured by a poem with the same name; Diana Khoi Nguyen’s “Triptych” is, like the art that inspired Samia’s song, a triptych portrait of grief. But more than that, it shares patterns and language with the song, such as the meditative repetition of phrases (“I’m the moving mouth, moving mouth with my eyes closed/ Breathing an excuse, breathing loose through my new nose” in Samia’s and “it was hard to think of you cold it was hard to think you think it was hard to/ think of you it was h/ ard to think” in Nguyen’s) and the focus on sleep throughout (“Keeping you awake, keeping you awake on purpose” in Samia’s and “with e/ yes close/ d he waits/ for his bo/ dy to do/ the sam/ e” in Nguyen’s). Ultimately this poem and song share a language for grief and many ghosts. Poem excerpted from Ghost Of by Diana Khoi Nguyen, Omnidawn Publishing 2018.

A video of Diana Khoi Nguyen reading “Triptych”

TRACK 7: Does Not Heal

September, a week in by Hala Alyan

In “September, a week in,” Hala Alyan captures all the self-destructive nostalgia feelings of Samia’s “Does Not Heal,” but in reverse; “Does Not Heal” describes being so attached to a memory that you feel dangerously nostalgic for it even as it’s happening, whereas Alyan writes of how easy it is to fall back into the past and take everything down with you. Alyan’s poem could be written about the “older me” Samia is standing in for here. Even the smallest references mirror each other: Samia writes of someone “Whipping your head/ Tryna hide behind hair that has not grown yet” and Alyan says “They’re all the same man at this point and we’re no closer to God./ They get married, have daughters, lose their hair.” But the strongest point of tension and reflection between these pieces is how Samia’s “But I hope I do not heal/ I hope I do not heal” pairs with Alyan’s “It’s been seven years:/ molecularly we have regenerated. I love what I love, but I’m/ still shedding leaves from my hair…” Alyan’s line suggests that the body’s memory outlives the cells of our scars, and though this may sooth Samia’s anxieties, this memory too can be dangerous. Poem excerpted from Thrush Poetry Journal, January 2020 Edition.

TRACK 8: Waverly

before i let you in on frank o’hara by Zein Sa’dedin

The shyness of Waverly manifests so sweetly in that simple line, “Hey I live across the street and / wanted to know if you’d be my friend”; in this song, the awe felt towards Waverly is wrapped up in something somber, something hesitant; by contrast, Sa’dedin leans into that giddiness of possibility, of connecting with someone you love and long for — “ya leena ya leena never mind / geography”. The way Waverly and “before I let you in on frank o’hara” mirror each other is so lovely, with one set of possibility dictated by proximity and the other set dictated by commonality — Sa’dedin writes, “i don’t think we should worry about them or even language just yet because i invented a new one last night” — what are all of the possibilities in love, in friendship? What can be built together, what can we achieve when we’re nearby? For Samia, gaining an emotional or personal proximity to “Waverly” is akin to solving a mystery; for Sa’dedin, physical proximity to her friend is generative, inventive, fulfilling. Poem excerpted from ZARF #15.

TRACK 9: Winnebago

Ars Poetica by Rita Dove

“Winnebago,” is, for all intents and purposes, a frustrated ars poetica; the “you” of the song tells Samia, “You said, ‘It don’t matter how you sing / When you sing, we’ll know the reason why / And your body’s the housing thing / For the song that I’m confounded by’” — there is this construction of purpose placed on her, but what does poetry, or song, really mean to the singer? There is a claim that it is obvious, but is what the audience receives really the intention? Earlier in the song, she sings “I do only ever as I want / And especially when it’s a test,” that beautiful contradiction in stating wants, how it is mulled by your surroundings, mulled by performance. In Rita Dove’s “ars poetica” there is an expanse of space between each line, extending the poem’s life; Dove writes, “What I want is this poem to be small, / a ghost town”. The poem is, however, the opposite — in both articulations of art, or exploring its meaning, both women run into contradictions with their desires and their output; the ars poetica, then, lives in this contradiction. Poem excerpted from the LA Times.

TRACK 10: Minnesota

A two-page spread of “be kafee” as it appears in ZAATARDIVA by Suheir Hammad

be kafee by Suheir Hammad

Minnesota offers some sweetness amidst an album full of sadness and emotional ambiguity, much of which comes from the intimacy referenced in the song, the sense of being drawn physically to the spaces of a lover. Suheir Hammad’s poem also tells us, with such an overwhelming sense of familiarity, about the body of a lover as an intimate space of exploration. Where Samia opens Minnesota by saying “There is a place between your shoulder and chest/ which I would rather not leave,” Hammad writes “there is space/ in you no one has touched… and because you are fun/ to look at fine to touch/ women… often forget/ to reach to search/ for your pain” reminding us that if our lovers are a place we are drawn to, there is always somewhere further to explore. Further shared references to love as sustenance (“Keeping your mouth real dry/ So that my words will not dissolve on your tongue,” “eat this poem/ when you hungry/ know you enough”) as well as parallels of the coy and semi-secret ways lovers watch and notice each other make these pieces a sweet and intimate pair. Poem excerpted from ZaatarDiva by Suheir Hammad, Cypher Books 2005.

TRACK 11: Is There Something in the Movies?

Winona Forever by Jessica Abughattas

The full text of the poem cited Winona Forever by Jessica Abughattas

In an interview with Pitchfork, Samia states “Is There Something in the Movies?” is “about heartbreak and disenchantment with the entertainment industry.” After the mournful peak “And everyone dies but they shouldn’t die young,” elegizing the late Brittany Murphy, the song concludes: “And I only write songs about things that I’m scared of / So here, now you’re deathless in art / You’ve got this and the movies and also my love /You can have it all, baby, I’m giving it up” I find Jess Abughattas’s “Winona Forever” a wonderful foil; both women with connections in LA, approaching the industry from opposite places but still considering death, still considering the immortalizing potential of art. Samia’s memorial concludes her album, signing off to the listener — “You can have it all, baby, I’m giving it up”; Abughattas is, instead, “just getting started.” Poem excerpted from Strip by Jessica Abughattas, University of Arkansas Press 2020.

Authors’ bio

Samia Saliba (she/her) is an Arab-American writer and historian. She edited The Rachel Corrie Foundation’s Shuruq 4.5 Writing Showcase for writers of Arab heritage (2020) and was a RAWI Wet Hot Arab-American Summer fellow (2019). Her work has been published in Sycamore Review, Vagabond City Lit, Kissing Dynamite, Mizna, and elsewhere. Find her on twitter @sa_miathrmoplis or in real life petting a cat.

Summer Farah (she/her) is a Palestinian American poet, editor, and the outreach coordinator for the Radius of Arab American writers. Summer is currently a reviewer at Vagabond City Lit and co-writes the biweekly newsletter Letters to Summer. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from Mizna, LitHub, The Rumpus, and other places. Find her on twitter @summabis.

Summer Farah is a Palestinian American poet and editor. She co-writes the biweekly newsletter Letters to Summer.