Cris Cheek...Peter Finch...Bill Griffiths...David Hopkins...Geoff Soar...Lawrence Upton...
and poetry/visuals from: Allen Fisher...Ira Lightman...mIEKAL aND... Maggie O'Sullivan
other photos and links
Note: Jennifer Cobbing asked us to be sure to convey her thanks all those who contributed their messages and memorials.
I first met Bob in 1975, after a Hedben Bridge Arvon sojourn with Mottram and Nuttall (the former advising me to write on unruled paper, the latter blowing his cornet out of the Arvon farmhouse windows, there were drop in visits from Ulli Freer then McCarthy, Paul Buck, maybe Glenda George),
I took a bus towards London with Bill Griffiths who invited me to check out the weekly experimental poetry workshops (that's what they were billed in the published programme as) at the Poetry Society in Earls Court Square. It was there, for good measure over the next couple of weeks that I first met Allen Fisher, Sean O'Huigin, Bob Cobbing, Lawrence Upton, Clive (PC) Fencott, Jeremy Adler and many others.
It was a welcoming gathering and the noises that were made there were issued without undue judgement. That is, although conversation after sessions was robust and broadly discursive, these poets were basically positive and encouraging. There was a wide range of experience and references and license to tap into. My overall apprehension was one of generosity being put to the use of creating of space for others to be creative in, and that has made a lasting impression. But I digress.
One of the aspects of dominant poetry that was being openly tested at these workshops was the unitary voice of epiphanic glibness. The lyric 'I' was countered by, or mobilised through, polyphonic compositions or at the very least multi-tasking attentions. Writing was read by more than voice, frequently two or three voices (or more), reading in close interaction, with syncopation, with overlapping stresses, with partial erasure, foreground and background scripting, staccato narrative assemblages and dialogistic interjection. Texts were arraigned across the floor or cascading from the ceiling or fluttering loose in the hand. Listening was at a premium. Spatial placement of sound became an area of investigation and spatiality of paginated notations were consequent. Interruption was delicious, rather than screened out; I referred to 'exquisite interference'. A dynamic interchange between improvisation and composition often presented itself. Poems were thereby explored through their out loud readings as being subjects for revision, a direct result of having been 'aired'. A poem was a moment between. Between the body of giver and the body of receiver, belonging to neither one nor the other, a signal, even secretion, of mobilised liminal exchange.
Bob was 55 and i was a young punk turning 20. One day an offset litho was delivered to Earls Court Square and Bob, together with others of the regular staff there were stood around it in the wide corridors. "Lovely machine", or some such he said, very excited, then turning sort of in the direction of anyone who'd listen followed with something along the lines of "pity nobody knows how to use it". "I do" i said, blagging with brashness. Bob took a long look at me and smiled a little. The result was that i spent the upcoming weekend downstairs with manuals trying to get ink to stay on a page. Bill Griffiths was certainly in on this act and together with Bob we set about producing an issue of Poetry Review. We were very much learning as we went. The issue has its own charm. We got better at it and had a lot of practice as that open printshop was launching about 40 books each month at its height of activity in 1976-77. Poets and publishers would arrive and decide on the means of production they wanted to explore. Between us all (Lawrence was in and out, also running the bookshop) we got a lot of presses up and running. Working alongside Sinclair Beiles, Neil Oram, Alaric Sumner, Richard Tabor all spring to mind for various reasons. But an unbelievable number of poets visited and admired the facilities there. Bob was a motivating energy through all this activity. After all the core of the start-up equipment had been his. We laughed a lot. He'd overprint a page to test placement of a text and then immediately spot its potential for further treatments into a poem. So the means of production and the means for processing further production were glued into a creative, symbiotic, organic roll.
Between 1975-78 we probably saw each other more days in each week than not. Things changed in the wake of Arts Council coup. Maybe it was more of a putsch - that being a push of imitative origin. Whatever, the contacts became more occasional. Mostly Bob sustained continuity through his extraordinary energy as publisher and organiser of the open workshop. When I was still in London i'd go as often as i could - although the Saturday afternoons often clashed with other events and organisations. But going to the workshop always felt bizarrely like seeing old friends and needing no introduction. The workshop was a school of Bob's encouragement, of pretty well all and sundry and more often than not the occurrence of exceptional poetic enquiry.
The biggest thing about Bob Cobbing is his generosity. You see i still can't type 'was'. He was prolific in publishing others and in celebrating others. When bp nicol died he and I and Bill got together for a full public evening celebrating bp's work. There was no question of not responding immediately and doing so through the poetry. He was most noticeable by his absence at readings by other poets. He was nearly always just there, listening - to whatever anybody was up to with poetry. He cared passionately about creativity and the human spirit.
I'll miss his ebullience, even in the face of a body that could no longer contain the impacts of a lifetime's energies.
A couple of years ago I saw him for the first time in a few months and asked how he was. "Not so bad", he said "except my eyes have been playing up. I was going up the stairs out of the basement [he kept his photocopier down there] and all the lights went out." "What did you do?" i asked. "Well, i wasn't sure if there was a power cut or if I'd just gone blind", he answered with a chuckle. "So, what did you do?" i repeated. "Well, I thought maybe i should stay still there for a bit. I didn't know whether to go on up or to go back down. So I stood there in the dark. All i could think was damn, if my eyes have finally gone I won't be able to finish that book i was just working on."
nobody else at all like him
Coming up Randolph Avenue I can feel my arms pulling from their sockets. It's hot. There is sweat on my forehead. The Avenue seems so enormously long. I'm taking my second aeon pages, printed in Cardiff, carried on the 125 to Paddington, hauled through the Underground and now lugged from the Maida Vale Tube to number 210, up the steps, through the door, along the hall and then down into Bob's vast basement. 1500 sheets on yellow paper. My pages for ALP's annual catalogue, Bob's co-operative answer to the unsolvable small press distribution problem. It's the early seventies. He makes me sweet tea to aid recovery. We sit amid the paper stacks, floor to ceiling packages, boxes of Gestetner smears, unbound editions of Lee Harwood, Allen Ginsberg, Allen Fisher, Micheline Wandor, Jiri Valloch, Neil Mills, Criton Tomazos, off-prints, boxes of staples, cartons of ink, a z-bed, a broken tray, half a tea maker, a crushed yin-yang cube. The phone goes and it's some contributor to And, Bob's legendary magazine. At this time I've never seen And, published as loose sheets in a plastic bag and distributed among those who happen to be near when it actually appears. "Ah, yes", says Bob, using that deep resonating voice of his, before treating the caller to a fluid rejection of whatever has been sent. Bob blames time, mail, quantity, printing difficulties, and his co-editor John Rowan for not liking the stuff before swiftly hanging up. Ever interested in the ways of publishers and editors I ask, "Does John see all this material?" But Bob's gone upstairs again to make another hot drink.
We're at Cwm Ystwyth on the back road through the Elan Valley heading for a reading at Aberaeron. I'm driving a Hillman Avenger which is supposed to be a hot hatch but actually overheats at the first opportunity and usually breaks down if you drive it at over 40. Bob's never been to this part of Wales before. The green desert. We stop at an abandoned lead mine where a vast slurry of spoil sprawls down the hillside. The village is deserted, none of the cottages have roofs and the machine used for pulling the ore from the soil is either wrecked or gone. The wreckage is weathered. Vegetation is beginning to grow back. I take a b&w out of focus photo on my tiny instamatic, find a bolt from some ancient tram sleeper, and a rock with a mark on it that could be a word. We clamber over the sliding piles. Bob roars juka kuru roku juka kuru roku joku kuro roko joko kuru roko, his Kerouac tribute, which echoes back at us off the sky. Cymru. Poetry. Land of Bards. Jack Kerouac. French Canadian. Breton. Almost Welsh. Of course.
In the back room at my house Bob sits before my BBC-B computer. It's the early 80s and he's in Cardiff for a reading at the Oriel Bookshop. I've programmed this weak-brained but so-simple machine to assemble words from a common wordpool and make them into random sentences. The poem streams up the screen like a demented Jackson Mac Low. There's no printer attached, no storage device for the computer's output. It creates into electronic space and then disappears into the void. Bob is fascinated. "It plays little poetry films, doesn't it? Can we get this to rearrange the letters that make up the name Edwin Morgan?" We can. It's simple enough, written in BBC Basic the new program takes about fifteen minutes. Bob is working on a poem to celebrate the great Scots concretist. I save it onto cassette and then load. The BBC-B begins to rearrange the letters of Edwin Morgan's name at high speed: WNIDE GARNOM NAGNIRWDE OM DWRG ENIMONA. Bob sits seemingly stunned and then begins to catch lines he likes and to scratch them onto a pad he's pulled for his jacket pocket. The screen is a blur of white. The endless permutational stream rolls towards infinity. The poem is in Bob's collected works, somewhere. Edwin Morgan approved.
On the train back from Sunderland Bob has bought a whole crate of Newcastle Amber Ale and sits with it between his legs. He's sockless in sandals. I've never seen him any other way. We've been on the Cobbing/Finch/Rain-in-the-Face northern tour playing in dark rooms above pubs and poorly attended halls in Newcastle and in Whitley Bay. These are the places where you worry if your jacket falls to the floor because it will be too filthy to put on again when you pick it up. Rain In The Face, a duo made up of Paul Burwell and David Toop, use guitars with errant tunings and dementedly random percussion. Burwell is a master of new and re-discovered musical instruments including the amazing wasp phone with its insect driven membrane. The band use things you bang and things you hit. Bob has flailed and roared through the set pulling the disparate elements around him into one forward flowing drone. The evenings have been brilliant creative successes even if the audiences have been small. The train ride is long. I try to talk Rain In The Face into using a piece of traditional rock and roll, unexpectedly, right in the middle of their set. "Imagine the faces of the seriousos if you suddenly broke into Whole Lot of Shakin." They smile and say they'll think about it, but they don't, (although David Toop was heard later performing a sort of slow falsetto rock song among his otherwise progressively random set). Bob tells us that he once tried to use Chuck Berry lyrics in one of his performances but they came out sounding like standard Cobbing. Of course.
In Oxford in the nineties Bob and I are reading to the usual audience mix of fans of the avant garde, small press publishers, literateurs, fakes, academics and random passers-by. Bob's set uses no text whatsoever. I've not seen him read for a few years and am amazed by the transformation. There was a time when everything Bob did was connected with text of some sort. Writers Forum publishing and his own performances were indivisible. Now here was the great man, teeth less in number but stature undiminished, rolling through an hour-long reading of standard Cobbing greatest hits without a single piece of paper visible anywhere. The poems – Are Your Children safe In the Sea¸ Tan Tandinanan, Alphabet of Fishes, Soma Haoma, Kurrirrurriri mostly come from the early period. They are as they were but they are changed. They are extended, bent, turned, increased. Cobbing is now Bob Dylan, using the old songs but changing the tunes. Retreading, remaking. The past recycled but with all the power still in place. The audience, some of whom have never encountered Cobbing before, love it. There is cheering. People hang onto every roar. Towards the end, as if for a moment lost for inspiration or forgetting the next item on the set list, Bob turns towards a cheap print of the local landscape. It's framed on the wall behind him. His eyes brighten. Back to his audience he stares straight at it, his head no more than a foot away. "raar rop rill room rut up up rut roop roop roop" His voice soars. The landscape becomes poem. Cobbing's voice booms up to fill completely the excited room. He's in his seventies and has been on his feet for at least sixty minutes. He can't see to read properly, in this light, with these glasses. Why slavishly follow the texts he's been using for decades? Who needs them. Great applause breaks out around me. Bob's finished. Best I've heard him in thirty years.
I guess the most important thing that Bob taught me was that the voice could learn from the machine. Once you've heard voice treated on tape, he explained, then you can make that sound yourself. He'd play me a tape of voice slowed and then make the same deep rolling sounds. Then we'd try it with a tape speeded up and with, maybe, the middle section cut out and spliced back in upside down. The taped sound would flicker and zip. Do it, he'd say. And we would. We don't need machines to make work. They can show us new ways but once those have been experienced then we are on our own.
Bob was the great centre for the left hand for the forty years between 1960 and 2000. Mention avant garde, alternative, innovative, concrete, sound, textural, sonic, visual, experimental and Bob would have a part in it. Official recognition didn't matter. He relished the bad reviews he'd got and used them as part of his own self-promotion. What was important was that the door be open and that the work carry on. His creativity in both sound and vision was intimately linked with small publishing. Big stuff, hard covers, fine print were all well and good but most of the time just not flexible enough or fast enough for his needs. Bob would make a piece in a morning – a smear from the back of a Gestetner stencil cut-up and rearranged – and in the afternoon he'd publish it. Writers Forum, his curiously old-fashioned sounding imprint, brought out more than a 1000 items during his lifetime. The editions were small. But they were significant.
We're sitting the White House, the hotel bar next to the Poetry Society in Earl's Court Square. Criton Tomazos is standing on the mantle piece ripping bits out of a book and chanting. Bob has drunk almost half a bottle of whiskey and is still standing, or leaning. Jennifer arrives in her small car to take us home. The vehicle is full of boxes, papers and bits of equipment. We push Bob into the front seat but there's no room for me in the back. I climb onto the roof rack. We drive. Somehow we get back.
Are you a concrete poet or a sound poet, I once asked Bob. By concrete I guess I meant visual. Bob's answer was immediate. There's no difference. He showed me. Anything can be read he insisted. He took a set of visual from the book we were working on, Songsignals, and began to roar them out. Impassioned, accurate, active, elemental, real. They are the same thing, sound and vision. They are.
Bob Cobbing 1920 – 2002. Such a life.
I met Bob Cobbing first in the early 1970s – and immediately realised here was someone with the energy and talent to get things moving in the poetry world. An added attraction, I admit, was his up-to-the-moment printing set-up: a Gestetner duplicator and scanner (a matter of sparks and rotating barrels) – I believe they cost in the region of £1000 each! The duplicator afforded colour printing (if you changed the colour of the ink) and the scanner produced tolerable visual stencils for printing on the duplicator. In Bob's hands, not only could pages be printed, they could be overprinted; blank pages used to interleave the rather oily and offset-prone images could be reused until they in turn became interesting enough to serve as originals for further stencils…
The house in Randolph Avenue, Maida Vale, London, was a virtual heaven: books came before living space, printing before spare rooms. Nor was I the only one to benefit from Bob's generous approach to publication: a quick list of Writers Forum poets would include Bill Bissett, Bill Butler, Cris Cheek, Thomas A. Clarke, Adrian Clarke, Ulli Freer, Allen Ginsberg, Lee Harwood, Dom Sylvester Houedard, Tony Jackson, Ernst Jandl, Barry MacSweeney, Geraldine Monk, Eric Mottram, Jeff Nuttall, Maggie O'Sullivan, Colin Simms… In those days he was delighted to reach WF100 – he made WF1000 a year or two back!
Bob also ran a weekly 'concrete poetry' workshop at The Poetry Society in the 1970s: visual poetry, sound poetry, almost any poetry that was willing to experiment with performance. It was an active not a discussive session and brought me into contact with many new approaches to writing and performance – not least the multi-voice techniques Sean O Huigin brought over from Canada. (The workshops continued later elswhere - I last met Bob at one in the summer of 2002.)
Bob himself experimented with many types of composition, regarding them all as 'poetry', a blithe approach to cross-discipline inclusiveness that has gained a lot of support since (but for Bob, visual could translate into sound, letters into images, and so on). His roots lay in painting and indeed all the visual arts and crafts, informed by the appeal of prehistoric culture and enacted through a dark playfulness with the technical potential of duplicator, silkscreen and a borrowing of natural and accidental forms. After the drab reticence of mid 20th century England, Bob was determined that poetry should wake up and play a new role. His sense of action and experiment owed something to the emergent Freudianism that underpinned the revolution of the '60s – the work of his early associates (Jeff Nuttall, Keith Musgrove, John Rowan) may help illustrate this aspect of his art. A performance from Bob could be a challenging psychological experience for an audience!
He also put a great deal of his time into ALP (the Association of Little Presses), Writers Forum being a founder member in the 1960s. The aim was partly to advance the claim of little presses for grant awards from the Arts Council of Great Britain, and in some measure it worked. With backing of a parallel group, Poets Conference, by the 1970s, little presses were eligible for practical grant backing and poets could hope for subsidy for readings. ALP carried on usefully for nearly 3 decades, publishing occasional catalogues, more frequent newsletters, and holding exhibitions and bookfairs when anyone offered a venue. It campaigned against censorship and the use of the grant mechanism to censor and control, and was, I am glad to say, a total thorn in the sides of those who sought to appropriate national funding for an elite of tedious wastrels.
In fact, the Cobbing arts initiative was so successful, the Arts Council finally took action against his kind, and demanded their removal from the Council of The Poetry Society as a condition of continuing its grant. 1977 was a bleak year for tolerance and democracy in the literary world. But the ones who thought they had triumphed then are now gone and not much regretted; whereas 'the British poetry renaissance' has not flackered: its essential energy continued, at a lower public profile perhaps, but gradually winning recognition in the anthologies that have marked later 20th century poetry publishing.
About the same time, Bob made or was obliged to make several momentous decisions: he and Jennifer were moved to a new flat in Petherton Road, Islington; and he rented a Canon photocopier. The rich tone and intense black of Gestetner ink on absorbent paper was gone; the publications of strange sizes tended to regularize to A4 and B5; the accidentalism of misfeeds and overprints became less a feature; but the gain in accuracy, detail, and speed of production was arguably worth it. Also objects, hand-drawn images and handwriting became much easier to reproduce. Soon the Petherton Road rooms were crowded with books, and the spare room overflowing with printing, much as before. He even experimented with 'perfect' binding…
The joy of Bob's publishing art was his understanding of the texts he was handling – not only his own but that of each poet he published. The design of a booklet was a continuation of the creative process: its size, lay-out, cover, binding, all were settled on to reflect the poet's work, either by collaborating with the poet in the production process or by appreciation of the needs of a particular work. The early publications of Writers Forum are now rare items, but included a myriad of possible booklet types: centre-stapled, side-stapled, centre-sewn, side-sewn (with the page-folds at the edge, Chinese-style), in folders, in boxes, as posters, and economical 'chap-books' (a single page of A4 folded into 4). The only techniques he seldom adopted were the use of offset litho and the computer, for reasons of cost and age, respectively.
His own work was produced as visual cards or posters, as booklets and books, as records and audio tapes. They fitted the world of exhibition, aware bookshop (or better, bookfair) and performance, admirably. The lists of Writers Forum publications I composed for various ALP catalogues over the years make a fascinating record of writing – not only from UK poets – over the second half of the 20th century. Alive, he often got a raw deal. That cannot be changed. But the many poets he helped into print and encouarged to print will not lose sight of him.
Bob Cobbing was utterly unique. I came to him primarily as a performer. In the early 1980s I had worked with a performance group called Zip Dinner - we were very into the Beats, Dada, Black Mountain etc. We were based, improbably, in Cheltenham. We did a series of gigs in London and elsewhere, published a few issues of a punkish poetry mag but felt a bit uninspired by what little seemed to be happening and eventually folded. By Late 1984 I had moved to London. I went to see Bob at the Sussex pub - he did a 'Nostalgia Performance' of the ABC of Sound' and other stuff. Suddenly I realised that something definitely was going on, and that the guy had been doing it for years. He was a veteran. It was a total inspiration. Early the next year I asked him, out of the blue, to accompany me and Chris Cardale ( formerly involved with Apples and Snakes ) at a gig at the Fountain pub in Camden. I couldnt believe it when he turned up. He didnt bother asking questions, didnt ask who I knew ( after all, I hardly knew anyone on the London 'poetry scene'), we just chanted Dada stuff together (I was just beginning to do my own reinterpretations of Ball etc) and had a totally stimulating time.
After that we did several other things. There was a reading at Apples and Snakes ( when it was in Farringdon ) when we just growled and snarled and roared from one of his visual scripts ( the words were 'Ground Rock Salt' ) for what seemed like an hour. Afterwards we 'performed' a beer mat. Once I invited him to do something with me at a ( post - ) punk club in darkest Romford. I was performing fairly regularly there with a group of local musicians as 'The Dave Hopkins Orchestra'. Bob turned up with his wife Jennifer. He was wearing an amazingly bright shirt, a very wide-lapelled jacket and the famous sandles. When he went on stage infront of seventy-or-so assorted punks gothsetc I was beginning to think it was all a big mistake. Here was this ageing, greyhaird Hobbit-like man infront of a seething mass of spiky-haired 18-20 year olds. What's more they had started to boo and chant things at him in a very threatening way. Gradually I realised that he was actively encouraging the noise, in fact getting off on it. Slowly, he started to orchestrate the crowd, getting one section to bellow louder than the other, or improvising sounds around theirs. By the time he was finished, he had won them over completely. It was an object-lesson in improvisation.
Bob was totally open. He had little to gain from these collaborations - there was little money involved and they were hardly in the public spotlight - but he gave everything to them. I remember him coming all the way over to Essex University to chant and dance infront of a rather uninspired poetry group that I was trying to energise. The last gig we did was at Morden Tower around 1992. Our rapport by then was quite instinctive. We performed Ball simultaneously, chanted my stuff, chanted his, scrambled my stuff, scrambled his, ended up with the entire audience chanting/singing gloriously. It was affirmative, uninhibited, unshackled, unselfconscious, celebratory. And I have experienced nothing like it since.
Up in Edinburgh later in the 90s, when I had started teaching up there, I asked him once to come up for an alternative student-run arts festival that was taking place. Unfortunately there was a bus strike. At the last minute he had to pull out. 'Its up to you now...' was the last thing he said to me on the phone.
And of course it is up to a great many of us now. Poetry is a lonely enough occupation, and even if you do it for an audience regularly you ask yourself whywhywhy all the time - but Bob made you feel like you were part of a universe of sensibility. Forget aesthetics and who-influenced-who. His secret, like the Dadas, was that he knew how to live.
I first met Bob Cobbing early in 1965, soon after the Little Magazines collection in the Library at UCL was founded, and when Bob was the manager of Better Books in Charing Cross Road. He made a series of visits to the Library, bringing with him batches of little magazines and small-press titles, and I found these publications, in their variety and energy and liveliness, their difference from other recent things I had seen, very exciting, and a great revelation. They would have included such magazines as "My Own Mag" and "Tzarad", and. of course, Writers Forum titles like Jandl's "mai hart lieb zapfen eibe hold". For me, the visual element in so much of the work and in Bob's own approach was very important. I was less quick to respond to the possibilities for sound in these texts, but an evening at the ICA in Dover Street about 1966, when Bob ( who performed "Are your children safe in the sea ?") and Ernst Jandl, took part, was illuminating. At our first meeting, we quickly realised that we had both been at Enfield Grammar School and - although ten and more years apart - had both benefited from the teaching of the same inspiring English master, Doc (Kit) Marshall. Bob said that it was Doc Marshall's reading of Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo", and other poems that alerted him to the possibilities of writing and performance that would become central to his work. As the years have passed, I've become steadily more aware of the extraordinary nature of his many-sided activity - in producing and performing his own works, publishing other people's, in Writers Forum books and elsewhere, in running workshops, helping, encouraging, and oragnizing. He was a central figure in a collaborative effort which made always for experiment, for openess to new possibilities, to awareness of what was being done, both at home and abroad. And, all this in often far from propitious circumstances. In still more recent times, encouraged by Valerie (and see her tribute to Bob which really speaks for both of us), I've become a much more regular attender at readings, especially Sub-Voicive Poetry evenings, and I grew to know Bob better as a result. It was in the bar downstairs at the Churchill pub in Clarkenwell, after one such reading that (as I know I have recounted before) we were talking about Enfield, and I asked him if he remembered the Birkbeck Hygienic Laundry's tall chimney, with the clear lettering of the name running down it - a distinctive local landmark. Bob said he did indeed remember it - his father (a sign writer) had done the lettering ! I was very struck by this: - personally, by the realisation that I had known a work by a Cobbing, at least, nearly all my life; and, more significantly, by the clear connection, the continuity, between his father's visual work and Bob's. The leaflet this summer announcing the "last two Writers Forum Workshops before September" also mentioned Bob's "exhibition of 60 years of visual poetry (1942 - 2002)" which was on until the end of August, in the Sussex, in Culford Street, Islington, which had become a fairly regular venue for events that Bob was taking part in. I went to see it a few days before it closed, on a pleasant, sunny afternoon. Some film-makers were in the room where the show was, discussing the next day's project, and for a moment it looked as if I wouldn't be allowed in, but they were, in fact, happy for me to be there. The room was very dark, but spot lights lit the exhibits on the walls. In some cases, they had to be seen through the legs of chairs stacked upturned on tables against the walls. I spent a fairly long time there, finding how the works seemed to enrich each other the more I went back and forth between them. Eventually the film-people left, but I stayed on a while longer in the now quiet room, before setting out into the late August afternoon. I walked back along the Ball's Pond Road and St. Paul's Road, thinking of how I would tell Bob how much I enjoyed his exhibition, the next time I saw him, past the New River Walk on the left and a road on the right leading to Petherton Road (where the houses once lined each side of a stretch of the New River, now culverted - another stretch of the New River meanders around parts of Enfield) and on, via the Alwyne Castle, to Highbury Corner and home. I like to think that if Bob had been in that room in the Sussex at a similar time, he might have found those chair-legs a welcome challenge to fresh performances of the work, and perhaps enrolled the film-makers in the event. I was glad to hear that, in those last days in hospital he said he had had 82 good years. I think many other people will feel they have benefited from those years.
[Written on request during Summer 02 for a project which seems not to be happening. An earlier version of the paragraphs on the WF Workshop come from a posting by the author to the discussion list Wryting on 25 May 2002]
I've known Bob Cobbing for over three decades... I was one of those he encouraged to join The Poetry Society and stand for election to the council, so that we could change its policy - there was a time when Cobbing was Treasurer, Jeff Nuttall was Chair and I was Deputy Chair; and that's a conceptual work of art in itself.
We've made poems together and co-edited. We've performed together. For some years, we didn't speak to each other.
He's all right. A bit contrary sometimes. Frequently casually brilliant. Has a very good taste in whiskey. Sometimes slightly curmudgeonly. Always generous. Full of energy, physical and mental. Immensely creative.
Our first collaborations left little record. If you listen to my text-sound composition The Last man's Song then you'll hear traces of Cobbing's voice mixed in with mine and heavily treated. Similarly, if you listen to Cobbing's Round Dance from the same period, you'll hear my percussion, again heavily treated. We'd known each other for five or six years by then; and I had learned a great deal from him, though not exclusively of course.
Those tape pieces were made at Fylkingen in Stockholm, which I learned about through Cobbing. He'd organised an evening of tape work, much of it made at Fylkingen, at The Poetry Society early in the 70s, where I first heard the work of Chopin, Dufrêne, Lars-Gunnar Bodin, Bengt-Emil Johnson, Åke Hodell and others.
Cobbing is quite a teacher. He teaches by example. There's no plan. He's doing his own thing, but he takes you along, if you let him. He lets you know what he regards as important by the seriousness with which he treats it. So it was, in part, that I attended that seminar on text-sound composition...
Throughout the time that I have known Bob Cobbing, he has created space for other people to work and learn.
He has been chairing workshops for half a century. They've changed somewhat in various ways over the years; and the membership is always shifting; but, as far as any I know can remember, one thing is constant: the way that Cobbing chairs so gently and sensitively.
The workshops are open and he treats all comers with respect.
Where someone clearly needs to make a bit of a noise one day, he lets them. As a result, all participants tend to be more inclined to self-control!
The emphasis is on people taking their turn to show or perform their work, though there is no agreed running order and sometimes nothing happens for minutes on end.
After a workshop performance, and everything done at the workshop is a performance, if someone else is moved to comment on what they have witnessed, they do so. The ethos inculcated by Cobbing is to comment positively, if there is any comment.
You don't say something is badly done; you say how it could be done better.
This too creates a self-critical atmosphere in which the poet her- or himself will tend to identify problems for themselves, under the pressure of performance to peers, rather than under the pressure of others' opinions; and they may well seek advice in the interval or afterwards, over a beer; so that, except when a newcomer blunders in and comments before picking up the regulars' habits, the inexperienced or insecure are rarely exposed to harsh criticism until and if they are both ready for it and in need of it. The emphasis is on the individual's creativity, not on training it to match the creative behaviour of others.
The workshops are avowedly experimental, yet Bob does not exclude anyone. Sometimes people continue coming back even when their work is quite at variance with the approaches of the others; and their own practice usually expands as a result.
I don't quite know what I'd do without the workshops. I had to stay away for several meetings in a row during the early part of 2002 and I felt the lack. It's an emotionally safe place to try things out. You can screw up and it doesn't matter in social terms.
And yet it creates a desire to do the best one can; I often rehearse at home before going to the workshop, although usually what I do at the workshop diverges from what has been rehearsed.
Many who have come to the workshop have been offered publication by Writers Forum, Cobbing's own small press. He is the most sympathetic of publishers who, though he will take risks, never publishes work that he does not believe in. Through his editing and publishing, he has repeatedly brought out some of the best in others, which other others may not have seen.
Writers Forum alone would be a considerable achievement. At the time of writing, June 2002, it has published about 1100 items over at least 40 years, or roughly one every two weeks; and it is still active despite Cobbing's age and growing infirmity. There is still a need for it.
I've spoken here of collaboration. Bob Cobbing is an inveterate collaborator.
On one level, one can see collaboration as a way of completing projects - e.g. you need a particular kind of voice so you go out and get it... But there's more to it than that in Cobbing's practice. Whether on tape or on the page or in performance, he tends to produce work which is person-specific so that not only does Cobbing get new Cobbing art, by working with others, but enables others to make what they would not otherwise have made, might not have thought of making.
Bob Cobbing was hardly a young man when George MacBeth brought his work to a wider audience via radio; and he seems to have hit that ground running. In the 10 years or so following publication of ABC in Sound took his own writing and, conceptually, Poetry in general (for those who wished to follow) through an astonishing series of developments and leaps. Much of his work at that time remains exemplary.
It was during that time that I met him. And it wasn't long after that the balance of power began to shift at The Poetry Society.
In the scale of things, it wasn't a tremendous or long-lasting change; but, combined with Eric Mottram's editorship of Poetry Review, it did suggest what might be possible.
For those who could get to the Society then, the changes were enormous, as the Poetry Review changes were, both to those who were genuinely interested in contemporary poetry and for those who looked to poetry for behavioural reassurance.
Some of us lost the sense of dismal mediocre continuity with our accession; and others who saw an opportunity for a fight did become quite vitriolic; and much of the linguistic vitriol was thrown at Eric Mottram, who was grievously hurt and upset, and Bob Cobbing, who seemed sometimes to thrive on the abuse.
It has been suggested that the changes to The Poetry Society's policies, changes which were interrupted before they were completed, narrowed the range of what was promoted. It was suggested that only "experimental poetry", whatever that is, was allowed; and that Bob Cobbing was in some way responsible for banning and excluding other poetries.
This is an important point because without Cobbing's belief that the changes could be made the attempt would not have got off the ground.
A lot of the angst arose from Mottram's daring to publish Americans... and a great deal of the other nonsense was an attempt to camouflage that risible xenophobia. Originating in the sort of mentalities which look to see what the rest of the pack are doing before acting themselves, the conspiracy theories did not allow the possibility that the Society was being changed by more than a dozen people who acted independently but happened broadly to agree.
In fact, Cobbing demonstrated his usual small c catholicity of taste from Vachel Lindsey to dsh and Mac Low to Kipling to Charlotte Mew etc, the same excitement at all kinds of poetry making which seems to have motivated him before, during and after les evenements.
The reception of An ABC in Sound may have released an immense amount of innovative creativity for, I have suggested, 10 years or so; but I wouldn't want to suggest that was the end of it.
I have no doubt that many of us spent far too much time on the always lost cause of The Poetry Society and Bob, spending more time there than anyone, misspent more time than anyone.
At times, especially as whoever they were fought back succesfully, he seemed to be trying to be The Poetry Society single-handedly, which was neither good for his health nor sound diplomatically. And I think it may have taken him a little while longer than it might have to recover equilibrium when we all walked out in the second half of the 70s.
But he did recover it and he went on producing work at a high rate, much of it of exceptional quality.
However, I think it may be harder to express just how aesthetically remarkable the "later" work is because one lacks a shared vocabulary.
But the Coach House anthology of 1976, bill jubobe, and the later bob jubile speak for themselves. (The more recent kob bok is a little disappointing.) Just take either of those books and use it slowly as a flip book and you will see not just the astonishing range of forms which the poet has invented but also the equally astonishing range of relationships between form and content.
This line of inquiry might be continued by a consideration of the range of sources and chosen circumstances, the techniques employed, the media involved.
Yet those books are a selection from a larger oeuvre and were made some time ago.
His tape work deserves attention too; and his solo and collaborative improvisation. Again, the range alone is striking.
Bob and I largely lost contact during the 80s, but we have collaborated hugely in the 1990s. On how good or bad that writing is, I shall express no opinion beyond saying that I think it is of some importance, which is not the same thing. I would point, however, to the quantity of it, (one collaboration, Domestic Ambient Noise, is 300 pamphlets of 6+ pages each) and the range of approaches (including form, technique and materials), both within DAN and between all the sequences, including DAN. And I would point out that, as DAN was getting under way, Bob was turning 75.
Robert Sheppard has made astute observations on Cobbing's transition from the ink duplicator to the photocopier both as printing machine and as means of image production and modification; and on the energy, dexterity and imagination of his processual series. Whether solo or in collaboration, Cobbing remains mentally dynamic and animated.
One other thing. Bob Cobbing is married to a remarkable woman. Her name is Jennifer Pike. If you would know Bob Cobbing then you must take account of the importance of Jennifer's benign influence, companionship and support through the decades.
In my judgement, she is equally outstanding in her different artistic achievements. And she performs with Cobbing, interpreting his work in movement - she too is an octogenarian but you wouldn't know it - and providing bodily calligraphy for Bob to interpret in improvised sound.
The more "theatrical" performances of Birdyak (Cobbing, Pike, Coxhill, Metcalfe) and Domestic Ambient Buoys / Ghoyles (Cobbing, Pike, Upton) are generally the products of her plans and prop-making.
I do not for a moment mean to detract at all from Cobbing's achievement. On the contrary!
Both Bob and Jennifer, separately and collaboratively, devote each of their days to producing new and often arresting work. When one sees the totality of that shared commitment in practice, I think the quantity of Bob's output seems less inhuman than it might! And one is free to consider what one human can achieve with determination and a degree of opportunity.
on-site photo of Cris Cheek, Bob Cobbing, B.G., Jeremy Adler, ca. 1977, by Steven Smith (for details of publication it appears in, go to www.underwhich.com)
photos and additional information on Tom Raworth's website
photos on Clive Fencott's website
article by Peter Manson
article by Robert Sheppard
thanks to all who sent in tributes back in November 2002; a shortened version seems appropriate in 2004 with no reduction intended in affection and admiration
When a post-War Arts Council burst on the scenes, its justification may be seen not in the classical ballet and opera promoted by Keynes, as in the premiere of Britten's Peter Grimes, a work sufficiently important to justify the return and rehabilitation of the composer who was set otherwise to sit the war out in America.
Peter Grimes arguably set the key-note for the direction the Arts Council was to take in this country – a theme of unambiguous 'Englishness' – an Englishness set in the past, and permitted to challenge it, provided it came up with a consoling and largely conservative vision for the future. Such a vision would inevitably limit creativity in all spheres – not everyone is grateful for Eliot's C-of-E filtered domination of Poetry Faber thereafter. The experimental and the global was to be downplayed: a new nation with a new identity was to be built, but an identity that was to be contiguous with the past, and preserve notions of monarchy and state unchanged.
If Mottram and Poetry Review are to be charged with upsetting this neat picture, the shades of Mottram-as-editor would surely be delighted. The 'nobodies' he featured included Basil Bunting, Hugh MacDiarmid, dom sylvester houèdard, and so on, as well as a diversity of American writers: Ginsberg, McClure, Ashbery, Oppen, Rukeyser, Mac Low and Duncan. The special relationship Mottram had was with new American writing, and that was the key he used to unlock the Arts-Council-built prison into which poetry had been ushered. As Mottram said to me, poetry cannot be judged on the basis of its workmanship; and again, spoken word had sufficient rhythm in itself without needing any adding to.
As to the idea of a 'clique', it should be remembered that over 200 separate poets featured in a scant seven years of Mottram's editorship. As to them not being heard of since, I am glad to report (re this country) that Adrian Clarke, Allen Fisher, Tom Leonard, Tom Pickard, Tom Raworth, Iain Sinclair and many others are still going strong. This list becomes the wider if we recall the work of the printshop at that time: cris cheek, Geraldine Monk, Colin Simms, Paula Claire come to mind from Writers Forum's list, plus literally dozens of small items from writers like Alaric Sumner, who were able to use the facilities free of charge. As to being exclusive, my memory is that Cobbing actively welcomed new active contacts, and Mottram was delighted to encouarge new talent; even the perspicacious Andrew Duncan ended up writing to him of his grattitude for a reading at King's, which seemingly helped him him through a low point in his life.
The weak point in the operation was undoubtedly the printing of Poetry Review. As I undertook the printing of two issues, I feel culpable in unwittingly undermining the success of this journal. The situation was, we had a strictly limited budget, and while I favoured a good litho machine and sending the finishing out, Bob Cobbing insisted on a complete set-up, including collator, binder and power guillotine. Accordingly only a poor offset litho could be afforded, which hampered the whole operation. On reflection, Bob's purpose was to ensure that a working printshop was set up that could cope with anyone's publications, from concept to finished book, and the printshop was thus a workable base for a wide range of small presses who did much good work. Given the budget, we could not achieve high quality and democratic service to many, so I understand the basic instinct of Bob to go for the little press ideal. My attempt to resolve the situation was to resign The Poetry Society, which at least ensured a proper litho had to be purchased, as no on else could manage the semi-broken-down machine I was was coaxing through its afterlife. However, the poor standard of Poetry Review productiion undoubtedly gave ammunition to the oponents of Mottram's editorship, which I will always regret. (Incidentally I received no pay during this time, but claimed minimal expenses to cover my travel from Whitechapel to Earls Court by underground each time I put in a full day's work.)
The pressure on the new council members was extreme at this time. Constant criticism, personal abuse and obstruction was offered in place of co-operation by those who saw themselves as the protectors of Englishness In Poetry; for as the jingle has it, Christians must win, and Pagans must perish. The Arts Council, whose brief was to assist not interfere in the internal affairs of its 'clients', felt entitled to demand changes in the elected Council of The Poetry Society in return for the continuation of its grant. It was with some nobility the 'proscribed' Council members resigned en bloc rather than risk the future of the organisation they had put so much work into.
It would be untrue to say this process of ejection did not seriously affect those who suffered it. But to suppose it was a victory that deprived the victims of their poetry, as though by some act of magic, is ridiculous. Friendships reformed, and to their credit, none of those involved have ever wasted time indulging in recriminating each other; rather the dedication to writing and publishing was continued, at a less publicly exposed level, but with all the more determination. Cobbing received more international readings than ever; Mottram was promoted to Professor of English and American Literature; Nuttall entered film; I began a PhD in Old English; and so on.
With hindsight, the episode reveals a doomed optimism: we should have realised that the forces of Keynes and Britten would never give up their claim to direct and define English culture. We should have seen that the idea of an Arts Council content to use grants to assist rather than control was a mirage. Nonetheless is optimism and the will to open up writing to new ideas and new practitioners such a bad thing?
(2001; questions formulated by Bill Griffiths)
Q. I think you came to writing by way of living theatre? Can you tell us something of this early experience of active literature?
I came to performance art (before it became codified) through reading poetry. For performances in 1970 and after I was using tape recordings of voices overlapping wih live voices. I was writing poetry before that. In '65 I was writing long shout to kernewek and in 1967 Before Ideas, Ideas but these were before live performance. In the early '70s I did work with Fluxushoe (part of the Fluxus network) working out of Beau Geste Press and friends near Exeter in Devon, David Mayor, Felipe Ehrenberg, Martha Hellion, and so on, a travelling exhibition and show and 100 artists and others, but never more than 20 at once and usually less than 10, various galleries, shop windows, streets. I had attended a lot of the 1960's poetry and jazz open air concerts and at Ronnie Scott's on Sundays, but didn't then perform.
over to you,
Q. Did you create your own opportunities to publish, or was co-operation with / dependence on other publishers a major factor? Has printing/publishing affected the way you write or the way your writing has developed?
Yes, the first publications were Edible Magazine, edible and poisonous. Cochineal on rice paper, cake dyes on shortcakes with poisonous supplements (ink on paper). I relied on the community and network of Better Books, Unicorn Brighton and other places, that promoted small press publications. I tested the ground by publishing in magazines run by others, I still do that. I learnt to use Adana letterpress, mimeograph, thermograph, small offset litho. We got together and used the Arts Lab or other collectives, Beau Geste Press in Devon. I had my own desktop litho, mimeo and thermograph. ALP was underway in the late '60s. Letterpress meant learning about the differences between typewriter setting and varied letter and line spacing. The typewriter facilitated multiple margins, the stencil a table of concentration and energy. Litho taught me about superimposition and the inclusion of visual images. Both media taught me about damage. Mimeograph gave me the feel of production in process and process-showing, the way it is direct, a kind of drawing and with colours and thermography, painting. Early xeroxing gave me a range of enhancing, damaging and recovery processes and results and encouraged documentary aspects of what I'm interested in.
Q. Which leads on to art in a way. Was this always a strong interest, or did it come to predominate in a particular way? In turn, does an academic context modify the creative in any way?
A graphic interface with texts was occurring in the books in the late 1960s and this with overlaps with illustration. In the early 1970s Dick Miller & I did a short series (3) of mainly visual collage books under the imprint of I B Held Books. Fluxus (Fluxshoe) also used art performance (before this was ratified by government grants and a magazine) as part of its nexus. I didn't start painting until 1978 and returned to education in 1983 for a BA in Fine Art with Historical/Critical/Theoretical studies. I have been painting as well as writing ever since. The academic context may have modified the creative, I don't know.
Q. I used 'creative' deliberately. We have parted company with terms like 'genius', 'lyric', 'figures of speech', 'ornament', even 'structure' – but there is a further set of assumptions like 'innovation', 'creative', 'new' that we often take for granted, but which I find almost as puzzling. Poet as 'maker' - a marxist work implication? 'Innovation' - darwinian? 'Creative' - freudian? Do you see yourself or the world inside a progressive framework - perhaps of technological advance? Or what...
I always think I am in a position of innovation, in the sense that I only repeat deliberately and thus often, even usually, do not repeat myself, and am therefore in the proposal that I am not repeating, which I take to mean innovating. This may not mean that it is always a good move. I could, at times, seldom times I hope, be innovating and not succeeding in the facture of a better work. I don't the worry over creative, I simply don't think the term carries value (positive nor negative) when applied to art. I don't see that it gives me information about the art. I'm also not keen on ideas of "progression" or a "progressive framework". I think it is misleading to apply to as a positive or as a negative. It would seem to me that it could be applied either way. I use the term facture instead of making or creating. I consider that I have a job to do and get on with it. I don't assume it has more intrinsic value than, for instance, my father making a cabinet.
Q. Having been doubtful about where we sit in a time-scale, I will nonetheless ask - what projects you hope to present soon - what points past seem worth emphasising - your current thoughts on little presses?
A: There seems to me to be a range of options under the banner "little presses". I continue to recognise the necessity for aspects of autonomy and, for instance, some of the enlivening consequences of making decisions about presentation of texts and aesthetics. I also recognise the occasional joy of other people's activity and feel "little presses" can be understood as part of a collectivity and net of discussions. That's not how it feels with established publishers. It's interface with self-publishing vanity is easily discernible and easy to edit out.
I need about 3 years to complete the sequence I started in early 1980s called Gravity as a consequence of shape;
there are other things:
- a photocopy collage project to present soon which revisits the poem Winging Step (on the Jacket web site);
- a series of visual works underway in response to Clive Bush's new set of poems "scattering..." and a selection of paintings by Nicolas Poussin;
- a short set of notes on decoherence and crowd-out, which may go towards work in Philip Nikolayev's autumn 2000 venture;
- a set of papers on Art, narrative, consciousness & aesthetics which may find a publisher during 2001 or 2;
- reviewing some aspects of my previous work and this may lead onto a second Prosyncel activity. Nate has expressed an interest in that;
- Wild Honey have Sojourns for publication this summer or soon.
It is with tremendous regret that we learnt of the closure of Compendium Bookshop in Camden Town, London, in 2001. "We're sad to close, but as you're probably all too aware, retail book sales have declined everywhere and the advent of Amazon and BOL has not helped," they write to us. After struggling for two or three years with this problem, they've decided to close while the choice is theirs.
Little presses will join us in expressing much sympathy and immense gratitude for the help they have offered new literature and new presses over the recent decades (as well as providing the best import service for American and other literatures) (and a sympathetic venue for many a reading).
Below we excerpt from the booklet The first twenty-five years of Compendium Bookshop 1968-1993, produced and edited by Chris Render and Clifford Harper.
The first Compendium was a small shop at 240 Camden High Street. It was opened in late August 1968 by Nicholas Rochford and Diana Gravill who had met as teenagers at school in Bishops Stortford. Diana had gone on to attend the Royal Academy of Music in London. The shop was opened on a small inheritance and initially occupied the ground floor at 240. It stocked largely fiction and psychology and included second hand books. The owners had been attending the London Anti-University, where they came into contact with a number of radical intellectuals whose work was having an increasing impact on psychiatry, politics and the arts. These included R.D.Laing, David Cooper, Morton Schatzman, Juliet Mitchell and Cornelius Cardew. Diana Gravill recalls that many of these people - who can be cited as the earliest inlfuence on the bookshop - participated in the Dialectics of Liberation Conference held at the Roundhouse in 1967, and their support helped to establish the shop as a centre for alternative publications...
From the start Compendium was committed to providing all the books and pamphlets, small press publications and broadsheets that were charting this [1960s] seismic shift in attitudes and opinions. Previously there had only been Better Books and Miles' Indica Bookshop that catered to the newly emerging readership who wanted books by William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon, Alexander Trocchi and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Both of these shops were to close within two years of Compendium starting out. From the late sixties onwards readers from all over the country travelled to Compendium...
When Nick Kimberley started the poetry department he was very probably the only person in the country to have a thorough knowledge of the American poetry scene. Compendium was the only place where you could obtain the work of Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, Fielding Dawson, Clayton Eshleman - who read at the shop - and other writers asociated with Black Mountain College. Similarly, he stocked the New York poets, writers such as Frank O'Hara, Ted Berrigan, Clark Coolidge, John Ashbery whose influence is only now beginning to be felt in Britain... Although one of the avowed intentions of the shop was always to make American publications available in Britain, Compendium was also instrumental in encouraging British poets and academics, including Allen Fisher, Tom Pickard, Tom Raworth and Eric Mottram. Eventually the poetry section came to stock the most compehensive array of writers of any bookshop, many of whom were introduced to one antoher there.
from an article later in the pamphlet, we excerpt two memories relayed by Nick Kimberley:
I remember the occasional contretemps with the forces of law and order; I remember a raid by HM Customs which was so thoroughly well prepared that they'd neglected to find out where they might uncover what it was they were looking for - imported underground comics. So while the besuited Customs men scoured every inch of the shelves downstairs, we in the comics department - upstairs - had time to conceal the offending items under the carpet. So eagle-eyed were the raiders that, when they finally got upstairs, they quite failed to notice the bulging carpet. Another victory for the forces of corruption.
I remember William Burroughs, St Louis monotone intact, complaining about the apparently bootlegged - who would have guessed it? - edition of his 'Acadamy' (sic) lectures. It was like being told off by the headmaster...
For those of us who had the experience of books or booklets stocked on Compendium's shelves, the loss of this outlet is indeed a sad and symbolic move...
Grants for the Arts seems a great idea. What little press couldn't do with a bit help to set up,
pay its authors, develop distribution, cope with overheads?
The reality is only too often that grants become a machinery to control policy and mould the literary scene into a monoculture... and the easiest way to do this is to make sure that grants go to the 'right' people.
Text of e-mail to Arts Council, 7 Feb 2002:
I'm putting together some facts about the funding of small press publishingin the UK and came across the Arts Council funding of Carcanet Press. What interests me is that Carcanet's report and accounts for 2000 show you paying £89,482 in 1999 and increasing this to £92,157 in 2000. As you know Carcanet is a wholly owned subsidiary of Folio Holdings Limited, a business owned by Lord Gavron. It seems odd for the Arts Council to be funding a publisher completely owned by Lord Gavron, when so many other small presses in the UK have no such funding or status. Could you help me with a description of the criteria the Arts Council utilised to give £92,157 to Lord Gavron?Lord Gavron contributed some £500,000 to Labour Party funds just before the last election, and was rewarded shortly afterwards with a peerage. One of the richest members of the commercial publishing fraternity, he is himself a source of patronage: The Robert Gavron Charitable Trust, The Robert Gavron Educational Bursary... He is also a Vice President of The Poetry Society.
Text of letter to Northern Arts / New Writing North (25 Jan 2002):
Thank you for the brochure '5', detailing grant opportunities.
As a working poet in the North East, I could (like many another) do with time to write and some financial assistance. However, there seems little point in applying as one of the judges of these awards has recently made a public declaration of his outright opposition to the work of untold poets, which seems to rule out my application before it is made.
I refer to Sean O'Brien's article in Poetry Review, subsequently published on the internet, which he titled 'Bizarro's Bounty', in fact a review of the Anthology of Twentieth Century British and Irish Poetry edited by Keith Tuma for Oxford University Press, New York.
His intemperate and ill-natured reaction is hard to excuse. Though myself one of several poets in the North East who was included in the anthology - O'Brien was not - I can sympathise with the disappointment of being left out. However, his jeering is aimed not only at the editor of the anthology, but at a large range of poets, included in the book or not. In particular, he singles out "Eric Jealous and E.K.Resentment" - widely assumed to mean Eric Mottram and E.K. Brathwaite. It is hard to see what these two had in common other than support of 'interculturative' writing - respectively, by supporting new writing in all cultures, and using Caribbean English as a viable medium for verse.
I think O'Brien is unwise to play this Little-England card; any culture needs new inputs or it stifles. As a figurehead of 'Northern Arts', it is not acceptable that he should appear to be ridiculing many who have helped establish the literary reputation of the area he 'represents'. Mottram in particular was well known in the North East, as a reader at many events (including benefit readings for striking miners), a lecturer (including serving as Mountjoy Fellow at the University of Durham), and as a friend of poets like Basil Bunting, Ric Caddel, Barry MacSweeney, Tom Pickard, Colin Simms, Jonathan Williams.
For my own part, I seem doubly disqualified: as a friend of the late Eric Mottram and one of those 'Norbert Nomarks' who keeps turning up in anthologies O'Brien does not appove of. While I do not consider such disapproval as likely to worry me, it does raise the question of whether Northern Writers' Awards - if O'Brien is among the judges - will be realistically based on the merit of the work and project submitted. How can anyone with very strong personal views against so many poets be a useful assessor? How could it be fair to exclude - as it seems - a whole swathe of North East poets before the process of distributing what are ultimately public funds has even begun?
Of course, O'Brien could wrongfoot me any time by explaining his cryptic remarks and affirming his respect for the memory of Eric Mottram and for Black and other cultures. Or perhaps Northern Arts and New Writing North should do so, and disassociate themselves from what seems to me the very dangerous trend of O'Briens' remarks. I cannot believe we should be content to stand by and take abuse of our vibrant and diverse culture.
O'Brien's Bizarro (named for a U.S. comic?) was published and then put on-line by The Poetry Society to make it clear nobody should doubt the official status of this document - a bizarre attitude indeed.
Most recently, the following appeared in from the 'Books and Bookmen' column of Private Eye July 26, 2002
The small but perfectly formed world of modern British poetry looks even smaller following the announcement of the shortlist for the Forward Prize, Britain's biggest poetry award.
This year's judges include two poets published by Picador (Sean O'Brien and Michael Donaghy), who have shortlisted two other Picador poets (Peter Porter and Paul Farley) for the £10,000 top prize. Last year's judging panel also included two Picador poets--Donaghy (again) and Peter Porter.
Last year Porter gave the main prize to Sean O'Brien. What's the betting O'Brien won't now give it back to his mentor, enabling both friends to pocket ten grand? Or will their protegé Paul Farley be the one to take the loot this time around?
Last year the £5,000 prize for "best first collection" went to another Picador poet, John Stammers (a product of Donaghy's poetry workshops), and the £1,000 "best single poem" prize was given to Ian Duhig for a poem--you guessed it--from his forthcoming Picador collection. The same poem earlier won Duhig the £5,000 top prize in the Poetry Society's national poetry competition, judged by a three-man panel including his mate Don Paterson, the foul-mouthed Scottish bard who also happens to be the poetry editor at, er, Picador.
This year's five-poet Forward shortlist includes two other chums, David Harsent and John Fuller (winner of the Forward prize in 1996, when one of the judges was again Sean O'Brien). And Sean O'Brien was one of three judges of the 1997 T. S. Eliot prize (worth £5,000), which was awarded to. . . his own editor, Don Paterson.
Duhig, Donaghy, O'Brien, Harsent and Paterson all have the same agent, TriplePa, aka Gerry Wardle--who just happens to be Sean O'Brien's partner. And Donaghy, Duhig, Farley, Fuller, Harsent, Paterson and Porter have all received fulsome write-ups from the Sunday Times's main poetry critic, one Sean O'Brien.
Those outside the charmed circle may wonder if there are any poets worth honouring who don't happen to be Picador authors, friends of O'Brien or clients of his missus. (Are there, for example, some meritorious women? Apparently not, to judge by the omission of Alice Oswald, Carol Ann Duffy, Helen Dunmore and Selima Hill from the Forward list.) Until the Forward organizers desist from asking O'Brazen and his cronies to judge their prize, we may never know.