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Reading from memory – the sequel

Lauderdale House - Poetry in the House

Well I did it. Yesterday evening at Lauderdale House in Highgate I recited two of my poems from memory. It was actually the perfect set-up – no microphone (which I usually like having, but in this case I was concerned it would prevent me from moving freely), the chairs set out in a semi circle, so I felt like a real story-teller. More about it in a mo.

First of all, I have to say how grateful I am to Shanta Acharya for giving me the opportunity to read at Poetry in the House, which she has been organising for nearly 20 years, without any outside funding. The evening began with an invitation to join Shanta and the other readers for a bite to eat at a nearby restaurant. A very sociable start to the night and one I particularly appreciated, because I knew I wouldn’t have even a moment to socialise at the end, being at the mercy of the 22.47 from Victoria.

The size of the audience was impressive (a lot more chairs had to be added after I took the above photo), and Shanta’s hosting style is wonderfully relaxed – all the readers’s biogs were on the flyers that people had in their hands, so she dispensed with verbal introductions, other than saying our names, and I liked that. It really seemed to put the poems to the fore, rather than the personalities. And what poems – all the sets were very strong.

Richard Skinner was launching his Smokestack pamphlet ‘Terrace’ (more on that shortly – we have pledged to swap pamphlets but will be doing so this evening at the Vanguard Readings) and treated us to ‘a Nebuchadnezzar joke’ and a beautiful poem written for a friend’s wedding which has yet to take place, amongst others. When Richard and I were talking earlier I was interested to learn that he never attended poetry courses or workshops, despite his impressive track record as a poet and the fact that he is Director of the Fiction Programme at Faber Academy. For my part, I replied that although I do go to workshops, I had to concede that the individual poems I’ve had the most success with hadn’t ever been workshopped. Hmm!

I was intrigued by the poetry of Mona Arshi – sometimes surreal, always surprising – who was ‘pre-launching’ her first collection, Small Hands, which she told me at supper beforehand was one of the first poetry books from Liverpool University Press. Another poet I want to read more of is Philip Hancock. I really enjoyed the mix of unselfconscious invention and gently ironic observation which I got from his poems. I’m not very articulate at explaining why particular poet voices resonate me with, but his did. Geraldine Paine‘s thoughtful and touching poems had both humour and beauty and Alan Murray‘s cheery pessimism and clever word-play certainly got the biggest laughs of the evening, but don’t be fooled by that, there was some heavyweight work in there.

I had the opening spot, which I was pleased about, because it meant I could then sit back and enjoy everyone else’s poems. I’d set myself the task last week of memorising a poem. In the end I did two from memory – the opener being a short and relatively easy to remember ‘list’ piece. I took Peter Kenny’s advice about tying in certain movements or gestures – I think that definitely helped to put the phrases in my mind. Being in the centre of a little ‘arena’ was also a bonus. I actually really enjoyed it, especially the silent pauses – the feeling of power, when you can hear a pin drop and you sense that people are waiting for your next words, or perhaps on edge wondering if you’ve lost it – is indescribably heady!

Halfway through the set I read one more from memory, a poem from my pamphlet, called ‘Closure’, which I’ve read often and which was written over a period of many years, so I really felt I ought to be able to remember it. As it happened, I did fluff a couple of words, but I didn’t let it show on my face and I don’t think anyone noticed. I was just a bit disappointed that I said ‘scar’ instead of ‘zipper’, since it’s one of the key moments in the poem!

So, onwards. I think I’ll do pretty much the same set next week at Pighog in Brighton, another great venue to read in, although I will be behind a mic there so I’ll need to prepared for that. If you’re somewhere within reach of Brighton do come! It’s just me and a performance poet / mulitmedia artist called Andreea Stan who I’m not familiar with, but from her Vimeo channel it looks like it could be an intriguing experience. Take a look at this – The Ocean is Almost Seven Miles Deep.

I can thoroughly recommend trying to memorise a poem or two. I opted not to have the book in my hand, because I think that would have made me less confident. Maybe that sounds odd, but not having anything to ‘fall back on’ does mean you commit to it fully, and I think that’s the key – you have to be entirely committed to delivering it from memory, and so practice as much as you need to do that. That would be my advice, anyway. I also think the audience responds to you better if you have nothing in your hands – I’ve certainly felt that as an audience member – there’s an immediacy, an intimacy that’s compelling.

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  1. Kudos to you for reciting work from memory! I definitely would have trouble with that. The best I’ve done is to recite two stanzas of “The Road Not Taken”, and that was after weeks of intensive study. Good job! I also like the way you describe your experience at readings; very interesting for someone hoping to be doing the same thing in the future.

    • Thank you Brandon, glad it’s useful! I’m sure you could do it. There’s something to be said for finding other ways to memorise other than purely by rote, which I do think is hard. (As per Ted Hughes’ introduction to ‘By Heart’).

  2. Impressed, Robin. What a good explanation of why and how too! But I don’t trust myself!

    • Hi Becky, and thanks… I’m sure you could do it, and it’s a great feeling afterwards!

  3. Really impressed with how immediately you went out and tried this, and pleased it went well for you!

  4. Antony Mair Antony Mair

    Well done – Peter has started a trend. I shall have to give it a go. Last night at our Bonanza one of our number did a couple of long poems from memory, and it was deeply impressive. It’s difficult enough writing something decent – now there’s delivering it properly – help!

    • Ha! I’m not sure I could manage a long poem, unless it’s rhyming, or with a strong narrative maybe. Amazing how some people can do that – I mentioned Cristina Newton, her poems are often very long, but she commits them to memory – she told me she hates being stuck behind a mic. Well done the Hastings Stanza, sounds like you gave a good showing! Thanks for commenting, Antony.

  5. stephen Bone stephen Bone

    Brave Robin !
    I used to recite from heart but then for some reason I stopped.
    I’ll try and pluck up courage again !
    I thought Peter Kenny’s book free performance exemplary.
    And a big well done to you too.

    • Thanks a lot Stephen… I hope it wasn’t beginner’s luck and next time it doesn’t go so well…eek! Peter made it all look very simple and relaxed.

  6. I was in the audience and you did a great job! Also you were the only poet reading that night who addressed both sides of the horseshoe audience, maybe that was helped by being freed up from reading from paper.

  7. charlottegann charlottegann

    This sounds Brilliant, Robin… I’ll be sorry to miss your Pighog night on Thursday. Have a(another) ball 🙂 x

    • Thanks C, and I’ll be sorry to miss you tomoz, but you’ve probably heard all my stuff before anyway 🙂

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Robin Houghton 2021