23 October 2008

As good as it gets.

I go to a lot of poetry readings. At most of them I'm either coordinating, introducing, or reading, so it's a rare treat when I can just kick back and listen. Of course, that also makes me extraordinarily critical as an observer. We've all been there, staring out the window, checking our watches, fighting off the urge to send a text message, or wishing we'd brought a flask. But last night when Richard Siken and James Allen Hall read at Cleveland State, it reminded me just how good a reading can be. I didn't want to leave that room. I didn't want the reading to stop.

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?


Frank (the Colt) said...

Nice shot of the back of my head. I agree with you about everything, the reading last night was better than great. It felt like revisiting their books in a way that I hadn't the times I'd read them before.

Penultimatina said...

Me too, Frank. I'm glad that you like the picture of the back of your head. If you use it, be sure to credit me. Ha!

Pamela said...

Lynda Hull. Lynda Hull. Lynda Hull.

Keith said...

I can't say I've been to one reading where everyone blew me away (as I'm sure it's rare, especially when you have more than two poets reading -- or maybe I'm perpetually glass-half-empty), though I was very jealous when I read your post. I would've loved to hear both those poets read in one night.

And the last first book interview I stole from Kate is the question about believing that poetry can change the world.

As silly as it may seem, if someone can do justice their work, and captivate me only with their words and the way they read their words, that always conveys to me how powerful poetry can be. I mean the folks that REALLY can captivate an audience. I don't think that'll ever be me, but I admire the hell out of folks who can.

And not to make this too long, but your previous post about the kick in the ass... After almost every good reading, I end up putting something down on the page that I'm happy with. Readings can be the best catalysts to immediately head toward the wine bottle to pour yourself a glass, or to immediately hit the computer or the notebook to get words down.

Kim Grey said...

I saw James Allen Hall read that night, having arrived late after getting lost driving to the campus. I absolutely agree with your sentiments about the beauty of this reading. I wish I would have been there in time to hear Richard Siken's reading.

It was a very inspiring evening. When I got home, I sat down and began writing a new short story.

Collin Kelley said...

Hearing Sharon Olds read a couple of years ago was an amazing experience. She read mostly new work, which is now in her latest collection. It was an inspirational evening. She's one of my poetry idols, so finally getting to hear and meet her was a dream fulfilled.

Amy said...

Am very sorry I missed it. I can't let being tired stop me from these events...

newzoopoet said...

For me it's the poet's actual voice that makes or breaks a reading. It could be a fabulous poem, but if the person reading it has an irritating, nasal voice, fuggitaboutit.

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