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Voices in the Dark: A Memorisation Diary

This blog collects a series of diary fragments taken over a period while I was preparing to recite from memory a poetry set for this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival. The event – ‘Voices in the Dark’ – sees poets performing to a crowd in a pitch black room, without the usual notebooks and print-outs to aid them.

The common line is that learning to memorise a poem helps you to love and understand poetry. But does it? And what about my own work? Could not memorisation, if forced, be arduous (like schoolchildren made to learn poems they don’t like). Or could too much or involuntary memorisation be a sign of obsessive attachment. How does memorisation of poetry effect the feeling of poetry?


Week One – Before The Stillness, The Sirens

Through the illegible transcript of my last few mornings I have seen the rooftops of too many buildings and felt too much sky press down on my cranium.  Sophie and I wonder around the city in aimless circles like goats chained to stakes, or inmates walking the yard plotting revenge- just waiting for something to happen.  I listen in for the sun to reach a decision, catch a periscope of birds netted in perspective and watch how rock formation takes on otherwise hidden curves in the light – trying on sun-rays and refraction like wedding dresses in a full length mirror.

My next poetry gig requires a fifteen to twenty minute set from memory, I have always read from the page, I am terrified, and the terror rises in waves weeks building up to the event. I throw myself flapping into the deep end and try to recite one of my popular poems, one of the ones I imagine I am most familiar with already, and as my footsteps feel out the rhythms like Byron who wore down floorboards pacing sonnets across his room, I start to notice the algorithms of speech more with body movements. I enjoy this freedom of pace. But like singing a song you can’t get out of your head, the words start to annoy me with its repetitive insistence.  What keeps a song imprinted in your head after one radio play anyway?  If we can memorise things we don’t necessarily like, surely it will be easier to memorise something we are passionate about!?  The annoying song sticks voluntarily, but by forcing memorisation of the poem I begin to tire of my own lines, my own voice, and I doubt whether I like the piece at all any more – and it’s only a few minutes long!

My enthusiasm for reading aloud and performing is neutered by this obsessive attachment of memorisation.  The more I memorise the less I feel, the lines seem to slowly lose their potency the more I recite them, when I was hoping that like a prayer or a mantra the piece would become more powerful on repeat.  I am losing my patience,  my tears as gaudy as the gold of seraphim, the stress of forgetting a couplet causes me to throw myself to the floor growling.

How do pop stars and rock stars keep playing their hits to audiences with the same amount of fervour over the years? Is this where ego needs to over ride? Is it something to do with the ventriloquism of alternate pitch, that solidifies in memory more than text?  After this Book Festival gig I don’t want to see these poems for awhile.  In fact I am eager to write something fresh and unpredictable just to rinse myself from this printing.

I email the events manager Becky Fincham to see how in the dark I will actually be, hoping I can read a few missing, stumbling lines that I will ink on my arm.  I wait for her reply, as self-doubt cursively sinks in.  I tell her that this will be my inaugural performance from memorisation and I ask her not to be alarmed, but days go by and she doesn’t reply, I think she is alarmed, and her alarm has alarmed me, despite my efforts to avoid it.  But she takes time and effort to ease my  concern over an amalgamation of emails leading up to the event.


Week Two

Three nights staying in Sophie’s student flat in Newcastle, the accommodation is built in the middle of All Saints Cemetery, good morning death! Infinity’s classic cult of anonymous cadavers- every window throws up the hindrance of mortality, and a hyperventilating awareness of finality every time you glance outside to check the weather.  This is a perfect place to practice.  The dead and the living here lye side by side like tangled plants, and the town forgets its own name.  Oh the vanity of flesh and blood, where soil becomes a shattered mirror separated by footsteps – I feel guilty dancing in front of them.  I should be memorising poems but my subconscious tricks me into believing that I need more sleep.  I try to centre myself in some meditative stance, trace the lines before me, print them under my skin.

How else can I retain them, swallow them like pills, inhale them into my memory so they can later rise like steam and condensate against the audience’s ear.  These days with the kids on holiday with my mother on the wet west coast I am supposed to be being productive, using these borrowed hours for preparation, instead I am becoming too self-focused and slipping inwards, the healthy narcissist picks up its suit from the dry cleaners and I start loosing my camouflaged exterior along the way, one loose thread unravelling, caught on doorways, this is what happens when my heart focuses in on its own hedonist thrill tailing costume away from sunrises like Neruda’s cloak against some Catalanian coastline. Infatuated attachment to myself.  The ghosts outside our window don’t dare to reach our dreams.  I have to sleep with the blinds open because here the darkness stifles, and as we unstick naked bodies through the night our skin tears.

I imagine the crow-black darkness of the stage, the way my voice will feel for it like a child’s first time in a museum wanting only to touch to believe that it is in fact real.  My existence will only be confirmed by silhouette, perhaps a proscenium arch stage, perhaps the echo of empty seats, but knowing the popularity of the festival, my backdrop will be a clutter of breath in pitch black.  An overwhelming sense of nervousness causes me to immediately forget everything I have learned until now, I consider stealing diazepam from my mother’s purse for the performance.  I am as bitter as the lysol at the back of Charlotte Mew’s throat, all palpitating insomnia and rising fury at my inability to retain simple words, my words, my words, my words- there are no equations in paradise- I am not upset, I am invested.  ‘The madman is a waking dreamer’- said Immanuel Kant, but now ‘the madwoman is a waking memoriser of poems’. The birds now sing with their eyes.


Week Three

I venture up to The Edinburgh International Book Festival and stroll into the Author’s Yurt, making use of the space, free tickets and all the complementaries that comes with a swinging blue pass, lots of ‘hello’s and best stories EVER according to the writers in their soft shoes and coffee clouds. The stains of spilt drinks flash and mimic their body shapes  and there is always someone moe rambunctious than everybody else as Debra from Berlin arrives, the American swings by and admits to judging books by their covers and an agent laughs louder than the oranges in the ceramic bowl. I watch a star struck technician eat a mint with exalted breaths before she asks Owen Sheers for his autograph. I take the chance to talk to him briefly about writing between having babies; a Dylan Thomas documentary, when confession in writing becomes a selfish act and discuss the rough nature of Hampstead Heath. Writers hear their names being called out but don’t know where its coming from.  The shrill of modernised bagpipes somewhere in the background drowns echo, an electric undertow, the park grinds its teeth behind me.

I sit in the corner and write down my set from memory in my journal as I had spoken to Kevin Williamson when I joined the Neu Reekie boys on their last tour ‘Anywhere But The Cities’ the week before – hungover after a reading in a whiskey distillery I decided at the back of the van to ask his advice on memorising poems – I have never seen read from his books at all and thought he must know some tricks- and this was one of them.  And it worked! Saying them aloud I stumbled, but in writing them down; the enjamberment of lines on the page, the flow of the hand- I’m not sure, I overdose on excitement, it worked, it worked! I sit up content, inhaling the smell of pine and sweet pastries and puppetries (as writers tell each other what to refer to) and the sun seeps in through the yurt’s cloth and out charms the fairy-lights – a shedding of light upon new light.


Week Four

On the night of the performance I walked up to The Author’s Yurt with my rehearsed poems lodged into my head, I was terrified of loosing them in the streets, scared they would spill out from my ears, if I let them.  I met the other three poets I was performing with; Catherine Smith spoke of spending the last few months in a laundry cupboard revising her poems to memory, Andrew MacMillian buzzed about his new book and wedged a copy in his back pocket (in case he needed prompting) and Emma Jones was m.i.a just before we entered the theatre as she went off somewhere quiet and alone to run through her work one last time.

Becky (our events manager) was beautiful and all smiles and good energy and natural wit and reassurances and so full of charm she was practically panting it! She herded us together and ushered our collective nerves under tables.  Inside the actual venue it was dark, but not dark enough for me not see the outline of faces (and what I even suspect was a mouse scurry across the floor) which I’m sure would have alarmed half of the audience there!  And at the end of my set when the rain drummed against the roof of the tent and my lines ‘from downpour to spittle, great floods to bleaching drought, what do we really take from these moments of closeness?‘ bellowed out against the backdrop of this uncanny sound effect I felt powerful without paper- my hands free to fill with vibration and ether.

There was nothing to hold my gaze, just delivery and raised limbs and the rhythmic flow of memorised lines out into the darkness.  I remembered them all without falter! It felt like I was singing a cappella, my voice took the lead over the swell of printed words. This effect was well worth the maddening memorisation process- though I wonder now that I have a few poems engrained, will they forever stick, or does the adhesive lose its glue as time expands? I suppose we all forget things, perhaps just a little prompting will do the trick for future readings.  For this, I am grateful for the invitation to be part of The Edinburgh Book festival this year, the chore of committing poetry to memory has been an eye opener, and I might go through the process again with new material.  There is a magic activated through language and memory; spells, incantations, songs, and poetry should be included- a true source of conjuring and power that can be raised with rewarding effect.

(Final email from Becky-)

Hi Janette

A huge thank you for your incredible performance at Voices in the Dark at Edinburgh Book Festival last weekend. You were superb and I loved reading your poems beforehand and then hearing them again on the night – and I really appreciate all the energy, talent & care you put into the performance itself which was seamless– not to mention your dedicated preparation for it.

All four of you were fantastic and I couldn’t have been happier with how it went. With the rain pouring down too, it was pure magic! I hope you enjoyed it & that you & Sophie had a great weekend in Edinburgh. Becky X




  • Catherine Smith

    Janette, this is a fascinating post. It seems lame to say ‘Thanks for sharing’ but your generosity in exploring your own process, with all its vulnerabilities, in preparing for ‘Voices in the Dark’ was so moving. Your performance, at that gig, was so exhilarating and professional, I assumed you always performed from memory…. and were one of those irritating people who can learn their own poems/work ‘standing on your head in a puddle’ – so to discover more about your memorisation journey was a gratifying surprise. You raise some fascinating questions about the role of the ego in all this; much to mull over.
    All your hard work was very much worth it. You were terrific. The relentless, drumming rain could not compete; the audience was spell-bound.

    I still love airing cupboards. The smell of warm towels is so comforting and if the recitation is going badly, no-one can hear you scream….;-)
    Looking forward to more posts.
    Love and admiration, Catherine xx

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