“Nearly Everything In my Poems Has Actually Happened,” an Interview with Sarah Galvin

Poet, essayist, performer and wonderful human oddity, Sarah Galvin gives her readers an electrifying glimpse into her life through her surreal and often humorous poetry. Sarah sits down with Lonely Arts Club and discusses themes in her work, the artist’s dilemma, and her most influential moments in the Seattle arts community.

Hi Sarah, welcome to the Lonely Arts Club! When people describe your poetry, what kinds of words do you find them coming back to? Is it accurate?

People frequently say they “hated” poetry until they read mine, which is flattering but also worrisome as far as general misconceptions about poetry are concerned. I think many people believe poetry is like an antibiotic—terrible to ingest, but it does them good somehow. No, poetry should be a full meal, it should do for you what pop music does plus some element that makes you think about yourself and what the poem does later. It should leave you with enticing questions. It is unlike a Disney movie as entertainment in that you don’t get any cute little bow wrapped around “the end” of the poem (you’re a fucking adult with a fully matured brain, of course, kids movies don’t thrill you.) Questions make up most of life—it’s best when we are excited about them (a general excitement that can be sparked or refreshed by art.)

image from Kelly O

Also, people often ask me how I became a surrealist not knowing that nearly everything in my poems has actually happened. But I love absurdism, and life is absurd! I certainly tend to include surreal details of life in my poems.

HOW DO THEY KNOW YOUR PROFESSION

If you love running into the woods never to be seen again, but have to return to work in the morning to remain employed, the best thing to do is run into the woods, take off all your clothes, and piss on them, especially if you then pass out on a toilet. Someone might call you unprofessional, but if they do, they don’t know how rare it is for someone unprofessional to bring their own toilet to a party.

 

Why do you find poetry to be one of the best forms of communicating what your brain is trying to say?

Because it keeps up with my brain! A professor friend trying to sell poetry on college football kids told them it is the fastest, hardest form language can take. Completely true. A great deal of it is figuring out how to convey a thought with the fewest/best possible words. I love writing poetry and essays, but I would say writing an essay is like flying a plane, whereas writing a poem is like flying a spaceship.

Do you find yourself continuously going back to any particular theme in your work, or do you tend to dive into uncharted territory?

Image from Mary Anne Carter

Both. Some recurring themes are sex, food, clothing, and death—at least two of which are recurring themes for every poet. For me, clothing is especially important because I am masculine-identified and basically publicly manifest my identity with clothing. Every time you compose an outfit, whether you know or care, you are writing a poem. You are manipulating a language of associations, as you do in any art form. Saying you don’t care doesn’t exempt you from the conversation, it just makes you look inarticulate in that language. As far as uncharted territory is concerned, most of my poems are inspired by the conversation, so I tend to have a flurry of new themes when I make a new friend.

The Wringer

A lot of women put me through the wringer before I met you. The wringer was a fat suit from a theater company surplus sale with chopsticks glued all over it. I think it was supposed to be a pine cone costume. Two or three women would show up on my doorstep and wrestle me into this tube of foam and chopsticks and just pass me back and forth through it until they were bored. But not you, you asked me to marry you.

 

When do you find yourself creating your best work? What physical, mental, or emotional state is best for your work ethic?

First of all, I think the idea of hardship facilitating creativity is absolute shit. Creative people are just people who happen to make art rather than writing code for apps or working for a giant corporation or whatever. Any profession is a craft. Artists need food, housing, and money as much as anyone else, and what we have to offer is as crucial as medicine or accounting.  

The thing is most people don’t understand that the pop music and Netflix shows they consume are art and that there is (or should be) some attention to design in the buildings where we live and all of the other objects we use. We spend money on so many things that are too ugly, overpriced and poorly made to warrant a moment of our attention, let alone a moment bought with unpleasant labor. If no one could make the objects we interact with daily pleasant in some way we would probably all kill ourselves because there would be no reason to exist, and nothing to sustain the complex parts of us that separate us from animals.

What facilitates my creativity is not worrying about medical, interpersonal or financial hardship. Once that is dealt with, I like to listen to music near a large window where I can sit undisturbed for the three or four hours it takes to get the first lines of a poem on paper. Venom, Big Freedia, and Charged GBH are favorite musical accompaniments to my writing. I like to observe things going on in the street outside because I like to imagine the stories behind those events.

The reason so many of my poems involve sexuality is both because I am driven to include my own fairly unrepresented sexuality in the mythology of our culture, and because rather than a discrete set of activities I see sex as a force that drives and permeates everything and can manifest itself in any way at any time.

You have been quite prolific in the Seattle arts community. What have been some of your highlights so far? Anything you’re particularly proud or fond of?

Once in high school my all “girl” GG Allin cover band, Teenage Twats, played a Halloween show at a house on 13th, and as soon as the cops broke it up we went to see a giant puppet battle at the Hugo House (SO GLAD IT HAS A NEW HOME!) Dozens of costumed people operated two giant puppets, a robot and a dinosaur, which fought until they were completely shredded and their operators scattered to other parties.

Once when I lived at Spruce Haus, this amazing metal band called Tit Pig played a show in the living room. At one point this guy picked me up by the legs and smashed a lamp with my body like a baseball bat. Then we high-fived and continued dancing.

Anything that ever happened at Pony or the APRIL festival. So many great memories it would take a small book to recount the wonderful experiences I had at either.

I had many favorite moments at Café Unamerican, an after-hours club in a warehouse that you couldn’t get into if not dressed to the nines. I have fond memories of watching strip shows in a white suit I cobbled together from Value Village scores. Once I passed out in the seats and woke up to some guy poking me—“Hey, the cops are looking for you!” I jumped up in fear and that guy had a laugh. Walking home from Café Unamerican at four AM when as the first gray light of dawn appeared felt so magical, as if anything could happen.

Really, any moment that made me feel like I was encountering an Important Life Thing for the first time. I think that is one of the primary purposes of art—to make you feel the same way you did when you learned what kissing or broken bones or lucid dreams are, to remove the film of the mundane from daily life, which is actually consistently bizarre to an extent that if we didn’t shut out the majority of sensory data we would be unable to function.

What are some highlights of the Seattle art community fostering talent in general? Is there anything that needs improvement? How do you think we can go about achieving it?

Any arts community is an ecosystem. Paris in the 20s and New York in the 80s were essentially rainforests of the arts. What I would call the “understory” of the arts is something lacking from Seattle at the moment—the cost of living is so high (partly because the city bends over for overseas developers who give zero fucks about Seattle, and partly because some big tech companies don’t pay taxes here) that 60% of the artists I really loved are now living in the only places they can afford, probably very lonely and wondering why they ever invested in the culture of Seattle.

There needs to be a way for artists in the beginnings and middles of their careers to interact with established artists, and with wage inequality and cost of living in Seattle as it is, that is simply not possible. That said, there are some crucial institutions, some new, some that have been kicking ass here forever: Seattle Arts and Lectures, The Factory gallery, Party Hat, Canvas Gallery, the Kucera Gallery, the Frye, and of course the Hugo House, the perennial writers’ cultural hub. Oh, and the Artists’ Trust—if you are broke and need funding for your art, Artists’ Trust offers many grants and prizes you can apply for.

Don’t despair! Rent may have reached a plateau. Seattle is a very good arts city that has been great and can be again if we work together and change development policies.

Being Present

You can practice mindfulness by focusing on things in your immediate vicinity

Like that vacant house across the street that was the first place you saw an enema

Or that hydrangea bush on the corner

that was the second place you saw an enema

And you can dance

You can dance if you want to

You can leave your friends behind

Cause your friends don’t dance and if they don’t dance then they’re

no friends of mine.

Sarah Galvin is the author of Ugly Time, The Three Einsteins and The Best Party of our Lives; contributor to The Guardian, Vice Magazine, The Stranger, and City Arts; and also a human bottle rocket. She has an MFA in poetry from the University of Washington.

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