Arts & Culture

Seattle-based Sarah Galvin combines poetry, humor

‘Writers on Writing’ guest’s poetry features eccentric language, audience participation

Contributing Writer
Monday, April 16, 2018

Critically acclaimed writer Sarah +Galvin turned her Thursday evening performance at McCormack Family Theater into a half-poetry reading, half-stand-up comedy show, pausing between every few pieces to ask a volunteer from the audience to share a joke. As part of the Literary Arts Department’s Writers on Writing Reading Series, Galvin read from both a collection that she is currently compiling and from her 2017 book “Ugly Time.” Throughout the reading and the question-and-answer, she emphasized the similarities between jokes and poems and added that they differ only in their endings: While jokes end with a “reductive gesture,” poems end with an “expansive gesture.”

The humor of Galvin’s poetry demonstrates this parallel. Galvin read poems with titles like “Pastaphilia” and “My Grandpa Mailed Me a Piece of Pie Flattened Between Two Pieces of Wax Paper.” But the hilarity of Galvin’s poems does not detract from their potential to touch on serious issues in a powerful way. Xochi Cartland ’21 chose to introduce Galvin at the reading for LITR 1200: “Writers on Writing” because she loves Galvin’s unexpected turns from facetiousness to earnestness, she said. “There are some moments that are kind of after the absurdity that just say so much,” Cartland added. In her introduction, Cartland commented that “Galvin’s poems are both disturbing and delightful; there are very few people who can turn a doctor’s advice to flatten a line of ants with your ass into a poem about our mutual humanity.”

Assistant Professor of Literary Arts Sawako Nakayasu, who taught a section of the “Writers on Writing” class and invited Galvin to Brown, said she also appreciates Galvin’s unconventionality. Nakayasu met Galvin at a poetry reading where they both shared their work.

“I just sat there in the audience and enjoyed her reading so much, enjoyed her person, and everything about it was very sparkly and exciting,” Nakayasu said. “So when I had this opportunity to invite a poet, she was one of the people that came to mind.”

Although Galvin’s work may be eccentric, she claims she is not a surrealist because “I’m just writing stuff that happened to me,” she said. Galvin draws much of her inspiration from conversations and dreams, but also finds ideas in more unorthodox places, such as poorly translated menus. Once Galvin has decided on the subject of a poem, she reads other writers’ work to find tools to help contextualize her thoughts, she said. She carries around five books, including “Letters to Wendy’s” by Joe Wenderoth and “The Difficult Farm” by Heather Christle, which she turns to for guidance when stuck. According to Galvin, these books have taught her that surrealism is not nonsense; it must abide by its own conventions.

“What’s most important to me is creating an internal logic in a poem,” Galvin said. “The logic has to remain consistent and it has to have a purpose. … Nothing can be wasted.”

Galvin has also learned about poetry through music, she said. The artist who served as “the real origin of (her) style” was Sexually Active Corpse, a one-man band who rapped nursery rhyme-like poems over beats made only with children’s instruments. “They were so surreal and dirty and weird, and I could just tell that he was only doing it for himself,” she said. “So that was what made me really want to write poetry.”

Galvin herself started out in a band, writing lyrics and playing guitar throughout high school. After her guitar was stolen, she realized she could replace music with other tools. “The first big lesson I learned about poetry was that it’s composed of layers of meaning in the same way that a song is composed of different instruments,” Galvin said. “And if you’re just using words, you have to add something else to create that momentum; you don’t have a base, you don’t have a beat, … so the words have to do all that work.”

Galvin has experimented with various ways of creating this type of momentum including structural and tonal manipulation of her writing so her poetry can move like music.

The content of Galvin’s poetry works with this rhythmic flow to shock and stir the reader. “The way I think a poem should make somebody feel is (like) when they’re a really little kid and they encounter an idea for the first time that’s crucial to being an adult, but they don’t know what it is,” Galvin said. She believes that everyday life becomes redundant and makes the world seem boring, but a childlike perspective can bring back the excitement, she added.

“I think that the purpose of poetry and art in general is to restore people to that state where they can experience things with new highs,” Galvin said. “The human brain craves novelty, and I think art puts your everyday experience in a context where you can experience it anew again.”

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