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Robert Sheppard

Bob Cobbing : Sightings and Soundings

in honour of his 75th birthday



1     Two Lessons

I visited Bob Cobbing, and thus met my first poet, on November 3 1973. I was still at school, keen to put on an exhibition of concrete poetry. I recognised this as the wilder edge of the new British poetry I had discovered through Horovitz' anthology Children of Albion and Bill Butler's Brighton bookshop. In the school library there was, unaccountably, Emmett Williams' An Anthology of Concrete Poetry. Bob was in it.

When I arrived at Randolph Avenue to collect some hansjörg mayer posters, Bob was already talking to a student who was writing a thesis on language in visual art. I listened as they talked and sounded some of the Shakespeare Kaku. I remained mute, uncertain. Bob played a tape of himself and Peter Finch performing e colony from the Five Vowels, a then incomplete project. He showed us the work in progress. I stayed for six hours literally learning the life of a poet.

Two lessons, one immediate, the other lasting:

  1.   There was a world of poetry which did not hypostacise the Poem as a closed structure. (I left burdened with booklets and off-prints from Cobbing's own work and excerpts from Lee Harwood.)

  2.   The importance of radical consistency for an artist: to refuse to mark out an aesthetic territory which is then colonised, but to move confidently on, to create structures, large and small, for continued experiment.


2     Selected Sightings and Jottings 1978-1994

Bob Cobbing, Bill Griffiths and Paul Burwell, May 10 1978: Public House Bookshop, Brighton. 'Two poets concerned with the discontinuity of language. Yet even more concerned with the building up of the discontinuous, into new structures . . . the simplicity of Cobbing's Alphabet of Fishes . . . it is what Cobbing does visually (typographically and otherwise) and vocally that gives a poem its complexity, its 'art' . . . bellowing like a walrus.'

King's College, November 26 1981: 'with Griffiths and Fencott. He swigged from his own 'secret supply' and launched into an hour of completely new material' to put a wedge into the bibliographic mentality that cannot distinguish between the 'latest' and the 'last'.

Saturday, July 13 1985 (the rest of the world watching Live Aid):  Bob beneath a tree in Clerkenwell churchyard. 'SILLIWHIG' he yelled, from the Alphabet of Fishes, at an alarmed passerby.

A SubVoicive for Bob's 65th birthday: July 30 1985. Somewhere he performed the silent dance poem. Certainly the dazzling A Processual Nonny-Nonny. The evident strains within Bird Yak (Bob plus Clive Fencott and Hugh Metcalfe), matching an ambivalence within the audience. 'Tell me,' asked Clive afterwards, 'Is Bird Yak one of the most significant artistic achievements of today?'  'No!'  Patricia Farrell and I replied simultaneously. 'Thank God for that!'.

Many Saturday afternoons in the mid-80s at the Cobbing-inspired New River Project, notably The Spring Festival of the Alphabet, March 1986: Bob's brilliant revival of the 1960s ABC in Sound and the 1970s Five Vowels. A reading with John Rowan of Kerouac's Old Angel Midnight - and do I only imagine a performance of Schwitters' Ursonate?

August 6 1990: 'Packed ICA for the Cobbing celebration', including retrospective performances by various groups he'd led: the new musicish Abana, with Toop and Burwell; the electro-acoustic Oral Complex, with John Whiting and Fencott; the incantatory Konkrete Canticle, with Paula Claire and Griffiths; the anarchic performance art-like Bird Yak, now with Metcalfe, Lol Coxhill, Jennifer Pike ('... also 70, dancing under ghoulish Ernst-like mask ...' - also holding her own with Sally Silvers as Bob and Bruce Andrews performed their collaboration Voodoo for Anti-Communist Tourists in March 1991).

December 3 1994: Bob and Lawrence, their first performance since the 1970s rounds off The Smallest Poetry Festival in the World, and launches a series of collaborations, Domestic Ambient Noise. Suddenly in this vibrant soundscape, the clear anti-dedication: 'This is for Andrew Duncan' (who was present!), Bob's public rejoinder to Andrew's negative review of Verbi Visi Voco. So often Bob's work thrives upon opposition, as a counter-claim to the assertion that what he does isn't poetry.

3     The Theory

From speech to writing to reading (in 2 possible senses):



Reading with the eye

Reading out loud


from semantics

from semantics


to calligraphy

to phonetics


Hieroglyphic silence

Oral complexities


fixed in space

existing only in time


From shape ---------------------

to sound


Shape as a new script for a fresh phonetics, momently discoverable.

A text, a book, usually, not an image for a frame.

The voice not music, a sound that articulates, seldom sings.


(Then the overlaps. Paintings of the 1950s refunctioned as photocopy texts in the 1990s. Musical instruments punctuating the voice.)

4     Bob Cobbing in the 1990s (One Sighting 1995)

'Shape as a new script for a fresh phonetics, momently discoverable' seems accurate, turning the pages of Bob Cobbing's recent works. Looking at print, ink on a page in a book. An experience still related to reading. The knowledge that they are used as text surely, psychologically at least, influences silent reception. The ghost of sound haunts the gaze. Shape, yes, but also texture, depth (clouds), size (microscopic or cosmic forms?). Falling into maps of consciousness, molecular charts, and recently, in these pieces of the last five years, a vectoral trace, a swift movement traversing the stillness of a page.

Action printing - moving material on the copyboard as the print is made. Followed by arrangement, cutting, collage, enlargement, reduction, re-printing with changed contrast settings. The title Congruence of Speed and Stall (1990) is just right. Its cascades of light, its black holes, but mainly its circular blurring. And still the whole bejewelled where the ink breaks on the first copy.

Movement, as vibrations of sound are. The first photocopy texts of the 80s now appear static by comparison.

In Graffiti, 1991, the surface is pitted with letter shapes distorted by movement (see also Voodoo for Anti-Communist Tourists, 1991, for the extention of the technique on fairly discernible text). Kilroy was here - 'scraps of paper picked up in the street' - but his message is no longer clear. I sense the letters I can read as primarily shape in this context, the grainy print noisier than the letters that should evoke sound.

The name Gilbert Adair crosses the 5 pages of A Farewell for Gilbert Adair (1992), floats the surface, like the title of a book across a busy design, and is similarly silenced by the waves, rushes and collisions of the text's originating material in its fivefold versioning. Pages of crackle.

Noise is, of course, a metaphor in communication theory, for interference to a message; in Flicker (1993), Cobbing makes noise visible as roughly strict white lines where traversing patterns fight for recognition. A classic 60s TV screen on a 90s computer!

Semantic texts in the 90s include an incomplete sequence Life the Universe and Everything, a hilarious found text/treated text taken from various popular science sources (I suppose), which perfectly preserves the dead-pan absurdity of the originals:

Predicting the weather
is one thing
predicting it correctly
is another ...
elephants   fleas
have a natural length-scale
coastlines don't
Another favourite of mine is his contribution to Kelvin Corcoran's 1994 satirical anthology attacking the 90s poetic orthodoxy, Short Attention Span. Cobbing takes Liz Lochhead's already absurd simile (praised by Elle magazine), 'A good fuck makes me feel like custard', to its permutational limits: 'a quick shag makes me feel like jelly/ . . . rock 'n roll makes me feel like rolypoly'.

Pitchblend (1994). Pitch-black negotiated by vectoral material and magnified sections, more overlapping than blending, the corners of torn fragments visible. Pitches in performance, of course.

Triptych 10 (1995) was triply written, published and first performed, as a memorial for Eric Mottram, on March 3 1995, with electronic treatment by John Whiting. Cobbing's eyes moving steadily, a low working across the pages (each of the three sheets resembling the less mobile leopard-spotted pages of Congruence), as Whiting re-worked the voice. Dip and rise: exploring his carefully arranged pools of inklessness. As Eric himself wrote, in the introduction to Cobbing's 13th volume of Collected Poems, Voice Prints (from which many of my 90s examples are drawn): 'The issue of what images instigate what sounds, and the lengths and tones and volumes of the performance are left to the combined sense of a particular occasion.'

5     Who wants to Start?
          (With Sightings and Jottings 1993-1995)

I bought Triptych 10 at the Writers Forum Workshop - 'Bob's workshop' everybody calls it - on March 4 1995. I'd been a regular attender for the previous two years, and I wonder why it took me 20 years to become so.

The atmosphere of the Victoria pub, Mornington Terrace, London, on these occasions is unique, as well as convivial: unlike a reading (though books are launched regularly) and a million miles away from the stylistic fascism of so many 'creative writing' 'workshops'. You can read, perform, show anything you wish. You can be an absolute beginner or a seasoned old hand. The lack of critical response you'll receive (other than 'Read it again, slower' from Bob) is, I believe, intentional. Bob facilitates, offers yet another structure for experiment, but allows the participant to learn from his or her own experience, to develop personal (or non-standard) criteria, essential in the alternative poetries. If it's rubbish you'll learn to hear that it is.

I always take something new and it nearly always feels like I'm giving my first public reading again. On the edge, where I believe Bob wants us to be. 'A morning mucking around with prose passages to read at Bob's workshop, which I did and realised that my texts were rubbish.'  Aaron Williamson panting after his volcanic roaring . . . Miles Champion, a whispering patter, his first reading in public . . . Scott Thurston's second book launched, earnest and assertive . . . An African woman with children's stories . . . Adrian Clarke's latest rapid section from the latest sequence, the black spring back binder . . . Harry Gilonis saves a beer glass from the pool table as George Villeneau dances around his flute .... Hugh Metcalfe throws a banana which hits unperturbed 15 year old Aimée-shirin Daruwala, reading in public for the first time . . . 'It's fucking Charles Dickens up there.' . . . The whole workshop on February 19 1994 performing a sound text . . . 'Trying out my three voice piece with Adrian and Lawrence, not a success' . . . Patrick Fetherston rises to his feet to declaim one of his gnomic, improvised fables . . . Bill Griffiths gracefully re-launches Cycles from 1970 . . . Stephen Farrell Sheppard's first phonetic poem, snatched by Harry Gilonis for publication . . . Lawrence Upton improvising a marvellous, irrecoverable text from that day's newspaper photos; a sly smile of success as he sits down: June 19 1994 . . . Bob and Adrian being Maggie O'Sullivan and Bruce Andrews for the launch of Excla . . . Connie Sirr reeling from the whisky, as she eulogises the latest blend . . . The austerity of Johan DeWit's serial Statements . . . Canadian Lisa Robertson's XEclogue: passing through London . . . 'The risk of such an enterprise is astonishing' . . . Jennifer Pike, dressed in her own computer graphic, holding a large sheet of magnifying perspex before her, distorts the text individually for each member of the audience . . . 'it makes me tremble' . . . Bob and Hugh turn Betty Radin's postmodern adverts into soundtracks for their own unlikely broadcast . . . 'Nervous it's so raw' . . . Cris Cheek makes us all read his text, the effect too dense; he laughs, and we stop . . . Patricia Farrell, at Bob's request, performs her prints as visual poems, continues each session . . . Rantin' Ritchie's outrage at the liberties of soundtext performance . . . Eamer O'Keefe, busily revising a wordprocessed script up to the moment she reads . . . Gilbert Adair's annual Jizz Rim Singapore return reading . . . Paul Dutton, from Toronto, hands clasped before him, a barrel of sounds . . . Gabi Tyrell performing - often improvising - with gestures: mid-poem, she almost strangles me . . . AW Kindness . . . Pierre Garnier, a name from the Emmett Williams ('the 'orizontal is t'female, the fertical is the male'); ditto Lora-Totino, climbing an invisible tower of words, poesia athletica . . . Nicholas Johnson's fascinating Loup, leaving out the line 'fuck off you' as he reads, in deference to Stephen . . . Ulli Freer's occasional sample from the developing TM . . . Mottram's Motley launch: 'Very crowded. Very friendly, and bridges built (I think)', December 17 1994 . . . John McRae's Poetry of (alphabetic) sequence, humour invading, week by week, the formal austerity of its system . . . Stan Trevor's sexual exploits, 1948 . . . 'Bob denting the chair with his Flexitone' . . . Keith Musgrove, from the pages of Nuttall's Bomb Culture, re-appears: his dream of Eric's wooden leg . . . Peter ('it's good to have no words in your first book') Manson, with a text structured on the 12 vowels of his Glaswegian ideolect . . . Thelonious too shy to read . . . Dimitri Prigov, Russian yell-poet, with the story of what to do with a maquette of Stalin, April 15 1995.

And Bob, himself, always has something new, a set of prints on the floor, or a new publication (particularly since November 1994, a new Domestic Ambient Noise, the whole series stretching the pool table). And he always performs, sometimes with new collaborators. Explorations of text and context.

The collective process of the Workshop and the individual processes of its participants, especially Bob, continue.

6     Domestic Ambient Boys

Domestic Ambient Noise by Bob Cobbing and Lawrence Upton threatens to out process Cobbing's major Processual project (1987). Seventeen booklets have been published since October 1994 to date (the end of April 1995). These alternating booklets (one 'theme' by one, and six 'variations' by the other, poet) are regularly launched at the workshops, usually as loud shouting contests but once, at least, as delicate sighs.

It is the overall process, by which their sound texts merge, that fascinates me. The procedures of Cobbing and Upton are well-matched and productive, because dissimilar. Whereas Cobbing's variations are quite precisely versions (like many of his own sequences of the 90s) on the text of Upton's selected, Upton's 'variations' involve the addition of new material, possibly in response to the theme, but possibly to counterpoint Cobbing's procedures. Well-matched, because Cobbing can process anything new that's thrown at him. The dot and squiggly oval of an April 1995 text (isbn 586) can become the knots of Cobbing's over-printed, enlarged variation. And Lawrence may well take one of these to process himself or to use as a springboard for new material, or - as he alarmingly did in April's 587 - to re-introduce Cobbing's processing of his own 'starter' from the first booklet (558). This starter was a strict Peircean icon/index/symbol: a sign from an international freight package (for example, an umbrella icon meaning: 'keep contents dry'). Cobbing's overprinting, distortion and enlargement of these leave an impression of a double umbrella floating through numbers on a scaffolding (January 1995 - 566). And here it is again, that image, torn into strips and juxtaposed with other recycled and new images.

The procedures and processes continue. There is talk of a boxed set. [By October 1997, nearly 150 booklets completed and published, there is talk of 300 booklets.]

7     Two Lessons (Revisited)

Bob Cobbing's work and his many activities (I haven't even mentioned The Association of Little Presses) are extraordinary in their own rights. But they are also, personally speaking, parts of my life in very profound ways. The lessons I learnt in 1973, and the lessons I am still learning in 1995, guide my activities as a writer in an almost ethical way. That may sound a bit pompous, but what I really want to say to Bob is

thank you for everything

when everything is so much.

April 1995                     And 9 July 1995

Afterword, mid-1999:

This article had just been published in Far Language, a collection of Robert Sheppard's shorter reviews, articles and poetics pieces, which is available from Stride Publications, 11 Sylvan Road, Exeter, Devon, EX4 6EW, for 6.95 pounds (sterling);  ISBN 1 900152 51 7.

Domestic Ambient Noise has continued from the very early stages described here into a projected 300 booklet project; about 200 have to date (August 1999) been completed. They are all published by Writers Forum. The press itself continues and has now published well over 800 pamphlets. There is talk of another anthology as number 1000, to place with the 750th publication, Verbi Visi Voco, which collected the work of all Writers Forum writers, and Word Score Utterance Choreography, which was a compendium of world writers who specialise in both linear and visual materials. Writers Forum can be contacted at 89a Petherton Road, London, N5 2QT, UK. The Workshop continues to meet in The Victoria.


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