When I first began watching spoken word, it always seemed incredible to me that poets could memorise entire sets of material and perform them live what seemed like effortlessly (same goes for actors and musicians). I wondered how they held it all in their heads, and how they could still seem like they were telling a story for the first time even though they knew it word for word! Now that I’ve been performing poetry for about two years, I generally perform most of my material off-book. When I first started, it was pretty intimidating (and I still get very angry butterflies in my stomach every time I perform a new piece off-book the first time), but thanks to advice from other performers and techniques I developed in my own practice, it’s gotten much easier to learn and perform new material. So, here I’d like to share some of the memorisation and performance techniques that have helped me along the way, in case they’re useful for other folks. More after the jump!
For me, the process of preparing to perform a poem off-book begins before the poem is even finished. By that I mean that while I’m writing a poem I want to perform live, I’m actively considering how this poem should be performed onstage. This includes several factors. First, I’m more conscious of the aural elements of the poem, such as the rhyme scheme and meter. I’ve learned that poems which are heavier in these structural qualities are much easier for me to memorise than poems which are more loose. I don’t know the exact science here, but lines which link to each other through rhyme or through parallel metrical structures just roll more easily from one to another. It’s like the relative ease of memorising a song: the tune gets caught in your head so it’s easier to remember the words when there’s a soundtrack to set them against. Rhymes serve as anchors you can fix the poem to; like footholds while rock climbing, they can help you to pin down the structure and give you a grip when performing. So, if I know I’m writing a piece I’d like to perform off-book, I’ll be more conscious of its structure during the composition process and (where it makes sense) I try to work with stronger rhythms and more rhymes than I might for a text-based work.
Another thing I’m considering while I’m writing a poem is how I will perform it physically: how my entire body will communicate the poem. Will I stand still at the mic, or will I take the mic from the stand and rove around the stage? Are there any sections of the poem which would benefit from specific body language or physical choreography? Are there any parts in the voice of another character which should be spoken in a different voice, with different body language? For me, having different physical cues for different sections of a poem helps me remember where I’m meant to be in the piece (textually and literally) at any given point: they serve as additional anchors. Physical performance elements usually develop throughout the course of performing the poem more and more as you set habitual movements, but it also helps to set a couple of them from the start, just so the poem has some anchors to physicality to ensure you’re not just standing still at the mic the entire time.
I also tend to choreograph gestures to sections of the poem I’m having a hard time memorising. There’s a section in a piece I finished recently which goes “your oily feast / thieved from other nations / slurped down greedily / feeding only yourself.” In rehearsal I just couldn’t get the order right because so many syllables had the same “ee” sound; I kept jumbling the words. So, I choreographed a short sequence of gestures onto my right hand for that section coordinated with the lines (a scooping motion for ‘thieved,’ a digestion motion for ‘slurped’ and ‘feeding,’ etc). Now I find it much easier to remember that sequence of lines since it’s paired with physical movements.
Once the poem is complete, there are several methods I use to memorise it. Recently I’ve been making a rough audio recording of myself performing the poem and just playing that on repeat over and over again so that the words seep into my head osmosis-style. This is a great way to start memorising a piece that doesn’t involve being stuck to the screen/paper reading it again and again. It’s fairly easy to do and doesn’t need to be high quality: I use either the Voice Memo recording app on my phone or GarageBand on my computer (you could also leave a voicemail for yourself or take a video with a camera). I then just loop play that recording while going about my life: doing dishes, cooking dinner, walking to work. It seems like the ultimate narcissism to be listening to yourself all day (and isn’t fun if you don’t like the sound of your own voice) but it can be a pretty effective technique for getting the words stuck in your head.
The only danger with that technique is that you can get immediately stuck in performing the poem in just the one way: with the exact rhythms of the original recording you made. If you’re using this method, once you’ve memorised the poem I’d encourage you to play around with different ways of reciting it so you can really explore all of the options, rather than just sticking with the original rhythm.
Once you’re well and truly sick of listening to that recording, see if you can try drowning it out. Try performing the poem over the recording. Hopefully what happens at this point is that you realise you want to perform certain bits at a different pace, or maybe even want to switch a section about. At this point, dump the recording and just start working from your head. Occasionally refer back to the text of the poem to make sure you’re not memorising a version with big chunks left out, but try to rely upon the printed text as little as possible.
One tip for this stage: I try to never memorise a poem in chunks (ie memorising the first five stanzas, then the next, then the next). I’ve found that when I do that, I tend to blank at the transitions between stanzas—so it’s better for me just to run the whole poem again and again, rather than breaking it up. That being said, this is just what works for me: for you, breaking it into chunks may be an essential part of your process. Regardless of what you do, I’d suggest really taking time to cement those transitions between stanzas into your memory—maybe repeating the conjoining lines again and again—to get over that fear of blanking and really knit the whole piece together.
Once you can say the entire poem without looking at the paper (this may take a day or three months – don’t fret about how long!), it’s time to work with distractions. At this point I like to start doing the poem constantly. I perform it to my kitchen sink while doing the dishes, mutter it under my breath while walking to and from work, essentially making it a mantra under my everyday routines (yes, muttering under your breath in public will earn you a lot of stares… But hey! You’re an artist!). I find that performing the poem while having some physical distraction (i.e. hanging up laundry or running around Glasgow) helps me to get it into the subconscious part of my brain. My short-term memory and present attention span needs to be free for the physical activity, so I have to get the poem into my long-term memory, where it can be called up fairly easily without me needing to focus all of my attention on it.
This use of physical distractions is a technique many artists use while memorising work. Kate Tempest has discussed the process of memorising her epic poem Brand New Ancients, which in total is a 70-minute long performance. She “would do a thing where I throw a ball up in the air and catch it and count, 1, 2, 3, and say the words out loud, to prove to myself that the words were in a different part of my memory. So you know it’s not your conscious memory, so you can relax” (Tempest interviewed by Don Paterson, audio here). Games like that challenge the memory but can also be highly reassuring to the performer: if you can do the poem while counting and throwing, or jogging and playing I Spy, then you should feel more confident performing it at the mic where your only task is to do the poem.
Another exercise which can help not just with cementing memorisation but also with performance is to try reciting the poem in a variety of ways. Try performing the entire poem as quickly as you can in a monotone like a sped-up robot, or in a Boston accent, or hanging out your window like a love-sick Juliet. Performing the poem in as many modes as possible not only ensures that you have the text down-pat but also challenges you to think beyond your original choices for rhythms and breath pauses: you may discover that something your exaggerated Juliet does actually fits quite nicely into the performance of the piece, so you might work it into your normal performance.
However, there can be a danger to using all of these techniques. Sometimes in the process of memorisation the poem becomes just words: just a script to be delivered. In my practice I’ve found it useful to divorce the text from any emotion while memorising it so I know I have the script really cemented in my head and can perform it in any context with any distractions without needing to tap emotions in my conscious memory in order to recall it (although some folks might disagree and retain that emotional connection all the way through the memorisation process). However, the issue there is that you need to make sure that when you’re actually performing the piece onstage, you’re not just doing it rote, with zero emotional attachment to what you’re saying, like you might while jogging. Just because the poem is memorised doesn’t mean it should be recited. It’s still a story to be told. This has been the most challenging skill for me to develop: taking poems which I wrote with a lot of emotion, then memorising them so that they’re just text, but then recalling that emotion and expressing the poem as though it’s the first time I’m telling that story, naturally. Because to that audience, it’s the first time they’re hearing it, and they don’t need some breakneck recitation of a deeply meaningful poem as though it’s just words to be conveyed. This is something I’m still working on – if you have any pointers, I’d very much appreciate them!
Of course these are only some of the many memorisation techniques out there; I know folks who write the entire poem in their head from the start, or who use more accumulative memorisation patterns, or image-based techniques, etc. There’s a whole host of ways to get your poems stuck in your brain; it’s just a matter of figuring out what works best for you!
What I would emphasise most about memorisation is that the ability to memorise material is a muscle: the more you develop it, the stronger it gets. When I first started performing my poetry off-book, it would take me at least a month to get off-paper per poem, and this was with spending hours each week pacing around my room reciting it to myself. Now, it takes me a couple days to get a new piece down-pat. The more accustomed I become to performing off-book, the better my brain gets at retaining material. It’s the old adage: practice makes perfect, plus with more practice the easier the practice becomes.
Finally, why bother with all of this? For any poet, whether you consider yourself a spoken word artist or not, performing without paper can be incredibly useful. It means you don’t need to print your poems before a show and you can perform anywhere without any preparation. It also means that there’s nothing between you and the audience while you perform, so you can make eye contact, use full hand gestures, and generally have a lot more freedom for your performance. And the process of memorising a poem helps you to understand it on a deeper level; going through it so many times allows new meanings to emerge as you consider the various options for how to perform it. Finally, the practice of memorising work has taught me which poems are easier to memorise; which rhyme schemes and meters I tend to use and which provide more of a challenge. This has led me to be more critical about my writing practice, so I can become more conscious of the structural cliches I tend to fall back on and try to innovate beyond them. I’d encourage any poet, regardless of your normal performance practice, to try memorising your work to see how it affects not just the way you perform and think about your poetry, but how you write as well.
Poets: What memorisation techniques do you use to remember your work onstage? What have you found to be most effective?