It’s 5 p.m. on a Thursday, and Fong Auditorium is packed. Some attendees sport horn-rimmed glasses, and we spot a Bernie Sanders t-shirt a few rows back. Professors, TFs, and students alike postpone dinner and meetings for what promises to be a worthwhile hour.
Amidst the chatter, two men slip into the auditorium. The Stratis Haviaras Reading, co-sponsored by the English Department and the Woodberry Poetry Room, is about to start. The first reader, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, dons a medium-blue dress shirt, a little too tight, and rolled up past his elbows. The second reader dresses the way one might imagine a thirty-something professor and MacArthur Fellow would: He wears a collared shirt peeking out of a charcoal sweater, with black jeans tucked into boots. Unmistakably arched eyebrows confirm that this is Ben Lerner.
O’Brien reads first, opening with his poem “Quick Trip,” a reflection on the tragedy in Ferguson two years ago. He tells us it’s about “the pain of remote witness.” Social activism and movement are themes throughout the work that O’Brien shares with the audience. O’Brien has a firm presence in front of a crowd: good projection, eye contact, everything your mother taught you about posture. His delivery is measured and consistent—often the pause between two poems is indistinguishable from his pause between stanzas or even lines.
While he reads, we look to the audience. Some listen intently, chins in hands. Some fidget in their seats, and some sleep. One line gets everyone laughing: “Life is horrible, but pleasant to recall.”
Lerner then takes the stage, and after some fiddling with the mic launches into his reading of “Dilation”: “We need to harness the vaguely erotic disappointment that attends the realization you aren’t being followed.”
He reads with a kind of personal intensity, hands anchored to the podium, chest leaning towards his book, forcing him to push his glasses up every few seconds as they slip down his nose. His poems pour out like waterfalls, words strung together to create a ceaseless yet purposeful movement. It’s easy to fall into his poetry, to be absorbed by it.
Lerner himself is engrossed, emerging only to check the clock when people exit noisily, perhaps fleeing for 6 p.m. commitments. “Have I been reading for a really long time?” he asks, “I just started right? I didn’t have a temporal lobe problem?”
After the poets conclude their readings, the room is opened up for a Q and A. Some questions seem like caricatures of a highbrow poetry reading at Harvard—deciphering the question is a serious task itself. Others are more accessible. When asked what he likes to read, Lerner tells us he’s “interested in what the people he loves love to read. Even if I don’t like it, I am interested in why I don’t like it.” We get the chance to ask about the writing process, trying to get a snapshot of a day in the life of a poet.
“It’s pretty ugly,” Lerner jokes. O’Brien agrees, adding, “I don’t write very often. I think poets get upset at how much their labor looks like leisure.”
The last few questions asked have to do with audience: Whom do they imagine reading their work? Lerner describes what he calls an author’s “shifting fantasy of reception.” Some have “imagined displacements of readerships in the future,” but he likes to think he’s writing for some current readers, as well. Lerner also mentions one unique readership: his in-laws.
“It’s distressing. I’m definitely aware of it. It’s a new compositional pressure.”
As to how to handle the audience at a live reading, O’Brien offers the best advice: “Focus on the person who is emphatically nodding.” Both poets agree today’s crowd is ideal. Lerner describes his nightmare audience: “The worst thing you can have is a giant, captive audience, like 2,000 freshman, all [taking videos] on their phones.” Luckily, tonight, there are no phones in sight.