Here's what made the reading so great:
* The room in Fenn Tower was comfortable and quiet, with just the right lighting. Parking was easy, so even out of town folks could attend without having to circle the block for a spot.
* Aside from a few students whispering and rifling through notebooks, the crowd was tuned in and attentive, and involved.
* The readers were spectacular, and spectacular in different ways.
Even before he started reading, Siken commanded our attention and got us emotionally involved as an audience. We got a sense of his honesty as a poet right away, and as listeners we trusted him. He read long poems: two from his book, and one new poem. He read the space in the poems, not just the words on the page. He definitely succeeded in "honoring the work," as he put it, rather than doing a slick, shticky performance.
Hall's selections seemed to open a dialogue with Siken's in such a compelling way. Though his reading style is a bit more light-hearted, Hall maintained the intensity that Siken stoked in the audience. When he neared the end of the set, Hall asked if we would "permit" him "one more" poem. I've never witnessed such humbleness, and graciousness, from a poet before. Of course we begged for more. The sequence of poems in the set had a natural arc to it, and though we didn't want him to stop reading, we felt a sense of closure with Hall's final poem.
Both poets have a gift for commanding our attention, and for providing just the right amount of preface and banter. CSU Poetry Center Director Michael Dumanis delivered bios for both poets before the reading, but they read back-to-back without interruption (other than applause). To me, this allowed the poems to reverberate against each other in a way that wouldn't have happened otherwise.
* The Q&A was as good as the reading. People responded directly to the poems, without the usual fumbling and mindless questions. I was especially impressed by the fact that young people were asking compelling questions about things like emotional vulnerability in writing. Somebody even pointed out the fact that both authors' books have a photograph of a hand on the cover. I know this sounds ridiculous, but this reading gave me more faith in the future of poetry, and maybe the future of humanity, too.
If you ever have the chance to see either--or both--of these poets read, drop everything and go. In the meantime, buy their books (James Allen Hall's Now You're the Enemy and Richard Siken's Crush) and see what I'm talking about. You can find more information on the Cleveland State University Poetry Center and its readings here.
Have you ever experienced a reading like this? What made it so powerful? Did all future readings pale in comparison?