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The Point About Criticism Is That It Is Frequently Wrong
Bob Cobbing Interviewed By W. Mark Sutherland

Thursday, April 19, 2001, London, England

Bob Cobbing in UbuWeb Sound
Bob Cobbing -- Statements on Sound Poetry
Bob Cobbing's Radio Program on UbuWeb's Radio Radio
Konkrete Kanticle on UbuWeb's Radio Radio

WMS : In this interview, I would like you to elaborate on the pivotal points of departure that have informed your creative and cultural practice over the course of your illustrious career. To begin, what were some of your early influences in the respective disciplines of poetry, visual art and music?

BOB: My father was a great inspiration to me. He was a very fine musician; piano and violin. Also, he was a fine painter, he painted in water colours, beautiful water colours. I acquired that influence very early on. Then, when I was at school in the sixth form at Enfield Grammar School, there was a master - Dr. Marshall, who was an expert in Elizabethan poetry and read some lovely Elizabethan poetry to us. He was also, very keen on modern poetry and among other things, he read us Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo" - "Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room, barrel house kings, with feet unstable... sagged and reeled and pounded on the table... Boom, Boom, BOOM!" That is where my interest in sound poetry came from. Music, my father was interested in music, he played the romantic sort, very beautiful but a bit decadent. He had read about Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring and thought it might be interesting to get hold of a recording of that piece. He was disgusted with it, and gave it to me! It had the Rite Of Spring on one side and part of Mussorgsky's Night on Bare Mountain on the other side. We had one of those big cavernous gramophones with doors on them. I played that record incessantly and I put my head in between the cabinet and the doors. That way, I'd get the full volume of it and that's where my musical influence comes from.

WMS: Could you explain the impetus for the initiation and development of Writers Forum in 1952?

BOB: I'd been teaching in Swindon in Wiltshire and there were some very lively people in Swindon. Swindon had the first "arts centre" in this country, we had music, poetry events and exhibitions. It was a very, very lively place and then I moved to Hendon and got a job teaching at a school there. I found nothing whatsoever of interest going on. It was a dead area. The local groups were pretty fuddy-duddy. So I thought I've got to do something about this and I met up with a guy in the next road. His name was Lewis Cook and he was a member of the local dramatic society and a local painting group. He was quite dissatisfied with what they were doing, so he and I got together to start events in Hendon. We started an art group, we started a poetry group, various music groups (jazz and folk songs) and puppetry. You name it, we had something going on every night of the week and eventually Writers Forum was one of these activities. That began in 1952, every fortnight, and its always been every fortnight since then.

WMS: Can you give me some examples of how the workshop has evolved over the past 49 years?

BOB: It's definitely changed over the years. In the early days several of the members fancied themselves as critics. They would pull the poets to pieces, telling them how things should be done. That didn't appeal to me very much at all because everything I did was thoroughly criticized. I really didn't regard myself as a writer in those days. I was a painter, yes, I wasn't a writer. But we had to come up with something every fortnight or so for the sheet. We'd have a sheet of work that we would discuss at the workshop and all my work was thoroughly pulled to pieces. I was told that I wasn't a writer at all. However, over the years the workshop has developed and now we have no criticism whatsoever. The point about criticism is that it is frequently wrong. I think one can dispense with it and learn through example. Today, people read their work out loud and they learn by performing it whether it's any good or not. They can respect the attitude of the other people around them and can more or less tell whether the work is any good that way. But the days when we were criticizing each others work, I don't think that was a very good idea at all. I'm dead set against that now. I can remember going along to a group at the Poetry Society and Robert Sheppard was reading a poem which I thought was pretty good, and the people, there, slammed into him as hard as they could and tore him to pieces. I stood up for him by saying "you're criticizing him from completely the wrong angle." I think that's what quite often happens, people criticize from their own point of view without any regard for where the poems are coming from. That approach is changing, we at Writers Forum just enjoy reading the work, you can tell whether its going over well or if it falls down and then improve it for the next meeting.

WMS: Writers Forum has also maintained a surprisingly consistent publishing program since 1963. Tell me about the history of this small press?

BOB: The first publication was actually 1954, but there were very few publications before 1963. We did a magazine called "AND " which began in 1954. It's still going, although we've only had 11 issues since 1954. It's the most erratic magazine ever. Anyway, there were a few issues of the magazine prior to 1963 and then we did a very tiny, little anthology. Jeff Nuttall said "why don't we all start publishing regularly?" and I said,""why not?" He and Keith Musgrove came up with a little book which we published and then John Rowan said "why don't we do one?", so I collaborated with John on a book and that's where it started. The fifth publication was with Allen Ginsberg! Anselm Hollo was a member of the group in those days and he was in touch with Ginsberg and Ginsberg said to him,""I've got this poem which I want out in a hurry, do you know anyone who would publish it?" Anselm replied, "Bob Cobbing, you can let him have it tomorrow and he'll have it out the next day." And that's how we did "The Change" by Allen Ginsberg and moved into the international market very quickly. A book by Ernst Jandl was also quite an early publication along with one by bp Nichol.

WMS: What's the sum total of Writers Forum publications to date?

BOB: There are 1,027 publications at the moment. My tendency is to publish something and let the reader decide whether it's any good or not. I think it's best to get stuff out and that way it can be discussed and evaluated, rather than judging it before hand.

WMS: That's certainly a radical approach to publishing!

BOB: Well, I don't publish anything I don't like, but I have fairly wide tastes and I don't want to rule out anything that's really exciting.

WMS: The publication of the ABC in Sound originally entitled Sound Poems (1964) was a seminal work for you. With this publication you explored graphic forms of the poem/text while simultaneously liberating the text from the page in public performance (in the 1965 BBC Radiophonic Workshop). Will you elaborate further on the process and discoveries initiated in this work?

BOB: ABC in Sound was the first important poem I ever did, but there were plenty of poems before that. The Worm poem, for instance, which I think visually quite exciting, that was done in 1954 and reached its final form in 1964. Likewise, I'd worked quite a lot in the early 1960's with Anna Lockwood from New Zealand and we did a number of collaborations on tape and in public performance. The ABC was not the first sound work I did, but it was the first of any importance. The ABC in Sound came about through Writers Forum workshops. I did three poems for three successive meetings and it suddenly occurred to me that one began with the letter A, one began with the letter B and one began with the letter C. I thought I should simply carry on and do the rest of the alphabet. Then in December, 1964, I had a bad attack of the flu. That was the last time I've had flu or even a cold ever since, probably got it all out of my system. I had a very high temperature and all sorts of strange sounds were buzzing in my head, I was definitely hearing sounds and in that state I finished off the ABC in Sound. I'm sure the completion of that work had something to do with the bout of influenza. I did the first performance of the ABC in Sound in 1965 at Better Books. On December 31, 1964, I decided I'd done enough teaching, I had taught for 25 years. I wrote my resignation on the spot not having the vaguest idea about what I would do. On the 1st of January, 1965, Bill Butler, who was managing Better Books paperback department at that time, called me up and said, "All my staff has walked out on me, can you come and give me a hand?" I said, "OK, I'm free" and I came in and became a book-shop assistant. Bill Butler left after a couple of months, a guy called Miles took over and then he left in another couple of months and by July, 1965, I was the manager of Better Books paperback and poetry department in Charing Cross Road. We had many exhibitions and events going on there, things like I'd been doing in Hendon more or less moved to Better Books. We had film shows, exhibitions, poetry readings, the lot, and I first read the ABC in Sound in Better Books. Bill Butler and Jeff Nuttall had a series of readings at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) and they invited me along to read the ABC in Sound at one of their poetry readings. Anthony Thwaite was in the audience and, although he is not noted for being very progressive in his taste in poetry, he did find the reading exciting. He was, I think, connected with the literature department at the BBC and he suggested to George Macbeth, who was running poetry programs at the BBC, that I do a program of the ABC in Sound . At that time, George was running a series of programs where poets were reading with the aid of the Radiophonic Workshop. They produced works by Jandl, Brion Gysin, and various others. So I did this program with the Radiophonic Workshop, but I think it was not entirely successful. The big problem was that I had my ideas about the poem, George Macbeth had his ideas about the poem and the Radiophonic Workshop people had their own ideas about the poem. The project really didn't jell.

WMS: How has this piece changed over the years?

BOB: I perform items from the ABC in Sound incessantly, it's what you might call my signature piece. But it's freed up quite a bit, earlier versions were fairly rigid. In fact, it now looks rather rigid on the page to me, it's all very sparse on the page. I think the earlier performances reflect that. However, even a few words on the page can be developed into a wealth of sound and the ABC in Sound has certainly developed over the years.

WMS: And what of the relationship between textual notation and the sonics of public performance?

BOB: Well, I painted until 1964 with "Group "H". It began as The Hendon Group of Painters and Sculptors, but Hendon rejected us. So we left the Hendon out and called it "Group "H". Lewis Cook, again, was really interested in portraying sound visually. For example, he painted a picture that was the sound of a trumpet, not actually a painting of a trumpet, but the sound the trumpet makes. We spent quite a bit of time working out notation for sound, all different kinds. My wife, at that time, would take little strips of coloured paper and make linear notations of sound. Lewis Cook would create a great blaze of colour on the canvas. I was doing these scruffy, little black and white images to start with, which turned eventually into colour images. That was where I got the connection between the visual and sound. I had been working along those lines even before that. In 1942, I created my first visual poem. I'm not sure I would have regarded it as a visual poem in those days as I didn't know what a visual poem was and the concept didn't exist then. But to my mind, it was an image which had a sound associated with it. From 1942 right the way through the 40's and 50's, I did these occasional visual things which I regard as connected with sound.

WMS: Were you unfamiliar with the work of the 20th century avant-garde, Italian and Russian Futurist and Dada sound poets?

BOB: I knew nothing about all that and it was to my advantage in a way, starting completely on my own. It wasn't until years later that I came across what other people were doing. I remember going to the ICA once and they had a performance by Bernard Heidsieck. I remember Heidsieck and Chopin but that was at the time I was working with Anna Lockwood. I certainly learned a great deal from what Heidsieck, Chopin and especially, Francois Dufrene, were doing and of course through my own reading. I was reading things like Jack Kerouac's Old Angel Midnight, Beckett, Joyce and Gertrude Stein. A lot of inspiration came from that sort of reading and stimulated my interest in sound. WMS: By the 1970's you began using non-linguistic marks as sonic signifiers in an open system of performative notation embracing both indeterminacy and improvisation in performance. How did you arrive at this point of departure?

BOB: It was something that gradually developed from 1942 through the 50's and 60's and accelerated after the 1960's. When I did the ABC in Sound it took off, George Macbeth took the recording from the BBC to a conference of radio producers in Holland and played it there. Immediately, I received invitations to Sweden and Holland. I was very lucky in a way, it just happened that the work was done, it just happened George Macbeth was interested, it just happened that he took it to Holland and it just happened that a guy from Swedish radio was attending the conference. So I went to Stockholm and worked in their radio studio. I was really lucky and though my personal process has continued, the interest in sound poetry that began in the early 60's was more or less dead by the middle of the 1970's. When I did a program for the BBC on sound poetry they didn't let me mention anything that happened after the 1960's. The program was recorded and anything after the 60's was edited out of it when it was broadcast. In fact, Nicholas Zurbrugg actually produced an issue of Stereo Headphones in 1972 called the death of concrete. Officially sound poetry was finished at the end of the 1960's, at least in this country, but that was when it really began. It was generally considered one of these aberrations and thank God it's over!

WMS: But in the early 70's you formed Konkrete Canticle, a sound poetry trio with Paula Claire, Michael Chant and later Bill Griffiths. Please elaborate on the activities of Koncrete Canticle and its unique approach to sound poetry in performance.

BOB: Konkrete Canticle was a group that came together to record items for the only record that the Arts Council ever put out, Paula Claire and myself on voice and Michael Chant on organ. Our first live event was a processional performance using all three floors of the Oxford Museum of Modern Art. We later performed my 15 Shakespeare - Kaku at a Shakespeare celebration at Southwark Cathedral in 1972. Michael Chant at the organ concluded the performance with the "International" for the benefit of Prime Minister Edward Heath, present in the audience. The Press comment was,""Only Bob Cobbing, performing his sound poems as part of Konkrete Canticle, reflected the boisterous hilarity that is surely no less a part of Shakespeare than black Jacobean melancholy". Konkrete Canticle has done hundreds of performances since then. Bill Griffiths eventually replaced Michael Chant and at that point, we all tended to use simple percussion and wind instruments, poetry, sound, movement, the essence of Konkrete Canticle.

WMS: With the acquisition of a photo-copier in 1984 you were able to push the envelope of visual poetry using the inherent mechanics of the machine (magnification, blurring, overprinting). Can you tell us more about your use of the photo copier and its relation to the production of your visual poems and scores with special attention given to the Processual Series?

BOB: I just transferred from one method to another. I'd been working on a duplicator, what you call a mimeograph. My early work was done on a 1916 Gestetner duplicator, a real museum piece. You'd turn the handle and you had to squeeze the ink in at the top of the machine. You could squeeze all sorts of colours in too. My first visual poem in 1942 was done on a Roneo. I was the steward's clerk at a hospital and my job was to keep track of all the supplies in the hospital. In the store room was a Roneo and I played around on it a bit and that's how my first visual poem occurred. When I moved from the Gestetner to the photo copier it was simply changing one method for another and in a way the duplicator was more versatile than the photo-copier. The duplicator can be much more subtle and I like those great blobs of ink that come out of it. For instance, if you turn the handle very rapidly the ink would blob out on the paper. You can't do that with a photo-copier. Still, the photo-copier can enlarge and reduce and you can move the image on the platen. But with the Gestetner, you could use two stencils and gradually move them in relation to one another and you could take the stencil and crumple it up. Quite often in those days, I'm talking now about the 50's and 60's, I'd take a whole ream of paper and put it on the duplicator and make 500 different prints from one stencil by tearing it and manipulating it.

WMS: And what of the Processual Series?

BOB: The Processual Series was the first work I did on the photo-copier. It was an exploration of the possibilities of the photo-copier. However, I think much of my work goes back to dance. Schklovsky says that, "poetry is a ballet of the speech-organs." A dance of the vocal chords and that dance of the vocal chords is connected to the dance of the body and the movement of the body can affect the voice. Obviously, the dance of the voice and the dance of the body starts in the machine. Basically, when I'm working on the photo-copier I'm dancing round it and what I'm doing on the machine is movement and that movement then gets into the finished work which again is transformed into movement when I perform it. The whole process is really related to dance, I work so fast that I can rarely remember how I do these things. For example, in this work (Recusant Centaurs, Etruscan Books, 1998), I took an old handkerchief and put it into my typewriter and typed on the handkerchief and then manipulated it on the photo-copier over and over again and there it is.

WMS: I believe that the complete Processual Series came in a box?

BOB: Yes, it came in a box with various booklets of different sizes, some little ones, some big ones and a box was the only way of dealing with that work. But libraries get very annoyed when you produce things in different sizes, they don't know how to deal with that. I've taught them that when you've got a lot of books of various sizes, shove them in a box. WMS: In 1994, you entered into a collaboration with Lawrence Upton called Domestic Ambient Noise. Could you elucidate on the collaborative process and practice informing this project?

BOB: This project began when Robert Sheppard invited Lawrence and myself to take part in "The Smallest Poetry Festival in the World" which took place with forty or so people crowded into Robert's kitchen. Lawrence picked up on the notion of domestic, ambient noise that was likely to be present and suggested that we do a couple of pieces on that theme. So I said, "yes, fine its going to be a collaboration, why don't you do an image and I'll do some variations on it, then I'll do an image and you can do some variations on that?" In November 1994, he did an image and sent it to me and I did an image and sent it to him. I did six variations on his image and he did six variations on mine and then, I published two little books of them and we performed them at "The Smallest Poetry Festival in The World". It was a nice idea and I said, "why don't we do some more?" So we thought we'd do eight or ten of them perhaps and we did eight or ten picking up on variations from a previous book. I would send Lawrence variations on his theme and he would use one of these as the beginning for six variations on my theme and it worked like that. Arbitrarily, we decided that we'd finish the project at 300 of them. The last one was completed in Feb. 2000. We've done several things since then, and I received a letter yesterday from Lawrence saying, "remember that big project we were talking about, I've got some time off in May, why don't we get on with it?" But I can't for the life of me remember what the big project was! Anyway, we're going to do something in May. The point about Domestic Ambient Noise I'd like to make is that we tried every darn thing we could think of, it was definitely an exploration and we learned a lot from the collaboration.

WMS: At 81 years old you continue to publish and conduct workshops. What keeps the fires in your creative furnace burning so brightly?

BOB: Habit, I can't think of any other reason. I've been doing it for so long there doesn't seem to be any reason to stop. I still do a performance on average once a week, mainly in London, as I don't travel very well at the moment. My wife Jennifer, also 81, dances with our group Birdyak. Birdyak is myself and Jennifer, Hugh Metcalfe, who plays every instrument under the sun, and Lol Coxhill, who plays the saxophone rather well. We've done hundreds of performances here, there and everywhere. I still perform solo and with Lawrence and with Phil Minton. Phil Minton and I have done three improvisations together recently, they go down very well indeed. I think we're good for one another, although we are very different. I'm also doing a verbal collaboration with Robert Sheppard which will probably become a tape composition. There's always something different to attempt.