The art gallery/event space TMRW Party skulks belowground like a refugee hiding from the shiny new Capitol Hill rising above. Its charm lies in its distinct lack of charm; it's a subterranean chamber with some junky furniture and a gleaming white corner for performances. Unlike, say, the polished pizzazz of the nearby Sole Repair, this is an event space that puts people first, forces artists to turn it into something special. Local poet (and frequent Stranger contributor) Sarah Galvin rose to this challenge last Friday night with the release party for her first poetry collection, The Three Einsteins. It was less a poetry reading and more a DIY punk show, with pizza and beer and a piñata and balloons and an infestation of cheap plastic kazoos.
Galvin asked five great local talents to share the bill with her. APRIL Festival cofounder Willie Fitzgerald read short fiction about a couple fighting in a grocery store. (Sample dialogue: "Sometimes I feel like, fuck this.") Stranger Genius of literature Maged Zaher read a few poems about khakis and socialism. After first publicly expressing concern about not being literary enough to perform at a "cool art party," Lindy West shared a heartbreaking piece from her as-yet-mostly-unwritten book about feminism and internet culture. Drag queen Jackie Hell sang "Private Dancer" in a quavering vibrato that left sweat on the audience's eardrums, like they'd just received a gnarly lap dance from a clammy clown.
Local band Childbirth closed the night by inspiring a round of herky-jerky dancing to a succession of quick-and-dirty punk songs with titles like "Sister Wives" and "I Only Fucked You as a Joke." But the main event was obviously Galvin. Your first Sarah Galvin reading always comes paired with a surprise: Not even one poem into the night, you'll realize that you've never heard an audience laugh so hard at a poetry reading. You've probably attended stand-up comedy nights with fewer laughs than a Sarah Galvin poetry reading.
The humor in Galvin's poetry comes from the electricity of not knowing what the next word to tumble out of her mouth will be. It's the surprise of discovery when you find you can't predict where the next poem will begin, or end. The air is so alive with possibility that wild laughter becomes a reflexive response, the way you laugh when you narrowly avoid a vicious car accident. You're on bonus time.
One poem begins: "The poster instructed me to go ass-crazy, which I imagine means something between stealing a VCR and getting married." Another: "I don't want to be anyone's new handbag, left on a glass table in a nightclub where all the songs have Auto-Tune." The lines clobber you, a fist upside the head at an unexpected moment, and you don't even mind the impact because now you can just take a moment to appreciate the beautiful songs that all these pretty birdies are whistling as they fly around your eyes.
Let's follow that second poem, "Handbag," a little further. "I am not some mindless object, to be appreciated only for its physical beauty," Galvin writes, and then that handbag metaphor makes sense. But then there's this: "I just want to be allowed to decompose naturally." The maudlin sentiment of wanting to be more than a pretty face (or more than a neoclassical COACH) turns darker and more interesting: She doesn't want to be recognized for her brain or for her personality, but appreciated for her mortality, for the stink of her skin and the brevity of her life. It's a beautiful sentiment in its own way, but then Galvin deploys a glorious non sequitur: "I also want a gift certificate for a hot air balloon ride." I won't spoil the rest of the poem for you—and yes, Galvin's poems are worthy of spoiler warnings—but these three imaginative lines combine into something beautifully specific and absurd that rings, like all good autobiography, of the familiar.
Galvin's poems, aloud or on the page, are Robitussin fever dreams, horny tweaks of convention, and balloon rides into the supernatural. When people howl-laugh at her poems, as these dozens of people crammed into the un-pretty belly of Capitol Hill are, they're not laughing at Galvin. And though Galvin frequently laughs at her own poetry onstage, they're not laughing with her, either. They're laughing because the poetry is making them feel happy to be alive.