Category Archives: Critical Writing

Pedagogy and Influence in the Work of Bob Cobbing


On 21 May, 2015, I delivered a paper ‘Poetry is not about death, dying only: The Event as a Mechanism of Survival in the Work of Bob Cobbing’, at Make Perhaps This Out Sense of Can You, an event programmed by William Cobbing and Rosie Cooper, presented by Camberwell, Chelsea & Wimbledon (CCW) Graduate School at the Chelsea College of Arts.

In the paper I showed how the archival remnants of the events Cobbing staged and participated in provide conduits back to the people, organisations, institutions and ideas, that originally connected Cobbing’s poetry to the world. I argued that Cobbing’s milieu, as well as the materials produced by that milieu, provide interpretive frames for Cobbing’s poems, and I re-affirmed the idea that staging new events and performances of Cobbing’s poetry is an exciting and productive way to remember and reimagine his legacy.

However, I also argued that  there is inspiration to be taken from how Cobbing himself used events to release the creative function, and evasive possibilities, of the archive, especially with regards to how we, as scholars, respond to its relatively fixed aspects today.

To explore this idea I looked at the relationship between the Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS) and ‘Destruction in Art’, one of the works Cobbing produced for the event.

DIAS, Cobbing, Steve Willey
Six prints from Destruction In Art

To make this piece Cobbing took the stencil of the invitation to, and program of, DIAS and gradually destroyed these texts on a duplicator, printing at each stage. Over five hundred different printed variations were produced, of which, only six were selected for display in the Better Books.

Cobbing was on the DIAS organising committee, and in taking texts that promoted and helped produce the event, he visually permuted material that documented the labour the organising committee expended in making DIAS happen. As a durational artwork that enacts a shift from text to image (a shift from promotional material to poem) and as an archival document, the mechanism of the duplicator was central in making a work that visualises the blurred lines between the event, poem, organiser and poet. The erasure of legible text via destruction is the precondition for the poem’s appearance.

In the Q&A I was asked about the legacy of Cobbing’s work. With specific reference to the poets Cobbing interacted with via Writers Forum, I argued that one of the results of Cobbing’s dedication to the creative work of others (expressed via the formation of physical performance spaces, organisations, publications, creative collaborations, and spaces for mutual support and exchange) has been – at least in part – to make Cobbing’s work and influence less visible.

I likened Cobbing’s pedagogical practice with Writers Forum to the form of creative erasure active in Destruction In Art, where the transition from one form of expression to another, is bound up with an act of creative generosity that makes Cobbing’s influence increasingly difficult to trace, both in degree and kind.

In Adrian Clarke’s article Time In The School Of Cobbing he shares a conversation had in the 1980s with Bruce Andrews who ‘suggested radical poetic activity in England was developing through the Schools of Cobbing, Mottram and Prynne.’ Clarke argues that Cobbing’s school ‘may be comprised of those who analyse the disturbances his interventions have given rise to in a definable social field for further use.’ I have always found this a provocative definition of a school, and was something I intentionally explored in making the film The Sound of Writers Forum


Cobbing sounded Bonney out, from the inside out.

In making the film I interviewed thirteen poets who had been influenced by Cobbing. One of these was Sean Bonney, who had this to say about his first encounter with Cobbing at Writers Forum:

At the time it was an assault on everything. I remember, I don’t know whether it was some kind of paranoia or something on my part, but I was sitting on the chair here, Bob was directly opposite me kind of over there, and every time I looked up […] his eyes were fixed on me. You know, he is a fairly small but stocky, by that point old man, looking at me with this face of glee whilst making this terrifying sound. I didn’t know what to think, I mean I thought it was great, but certainly I went away from that first workshop I went to… it made me rethink a lot of things. You know what I mean?

Bonney echoes several other poets I spoke to during my doctoral research into Cobbing’s work – including Maggie O’Sullivan, Peter Manson and Scott Thurston – who, despite the diversity of their own poetic practices (from each other and from Cobbing) and their deep understanding of Cobbing’s work, all recalled feeling a similarly powerful but equally vague transformation when encountering Cobbing in performance for the first time.

In my thesis I argued that one of the unique aspects of Cobbing’s performances came from making the external business of arts organisation a creative element in the internal form. In Bonney’s recollection the ‘external’ is only fleetingly registered: ‘and every time I looked up […] his eyes were fixed on me’. Here, Cobbing’s fixed gaze (felt as temporally extended by Bonney, but without any physical trace) induced, dramatized and integrated Bonney’s external act of observation and made it an active and internal part of the performance.

The integration of Bonney into Cobbing’s sound art is reflected in Bonney’s own subsequent self-reflection: ‘it made me rethink a lot of things’. Just as Cobbing sounded out Better Books (in the 1960s), the Poetry Society (in the 1970s), and a variety of pubs (in the 1980s with Bird Yak)  for their potential as sites for poetry, he did the same to Bonney and a range of other poets he worked closely with.

I believe Bonney’s encounter with Cobbing is emblematic of Cobbing’s wider pedagogy, and that this provides one explanation for the wide variety of poetry that is written by poets that claim Cobbing and Writers Forum influenced their poetry: as every poet makes a different sound the poetry practiced by the ‘school of Cobbing’ is various in its forms and approaches, and quite often, Cobbing is nowhere to be seen.


Transmissions: Bristol (Part 2)


Transmissions is a series in which I offer notes on the creative work of small press publishers of poetry. I’ve decided to start in Bristol, with the editors of Hesterglock Press, Paul Hawkins and Sarer Scotthorne. In this post, I offer some thoughts on Scotthorne’s, The Blood House (Bristol: Hesterglock Press, 2015). Notes on Hawkin’s collection, Contumacy, can be found here.


Bodies to Live in: Notes on Sarer Scotthorne’s Blood House
Task 1. Picture a collection of poems as a house; each page a different room. Picture a collection of poems as a body; each page a separate organ.

the house screams
(from ‘David’s Game’)

Task 2. Place your memories inside larger histories of nature and war. The picture of the body is pressed into the picture of the house. The light leaks in, colours merge, and a single picture meets your eye.

The blackness
of his heart
sickened me
(from ‘Poison: Scene 2. Hunger’)

Task 3. Inside this picture read the poems of The Blood House, their visceral correspondences of architecture, bones, circulation, memory, and the death cackle of a fade.

I have been breached
by the living,
who become the dead.
(from ‘Any Persons Arms’)

In opening this way I hope to capture something of the viscerality of Scotthorne’s lyric structures, where the most confessional of poems exceed what could willingly be disclosed, and where the confessions seem aware of what they can’t express. Indeed, across the collection’s opening the speaker points to either the lack or the limits of speech:

‘I wanted to scream and shout/…I remained silent’ (from ‘The Way Seagulls Fly’)

‘There are no words’ (from ‘Any Persons Arms’)

‘What could I say?’ (from ‘Daddy’s Dance’).

Rather than words, what comes out of the mouth is liquid: ‘it sprays from my mouth’ (in ‘Any Persons Arms’), ‘I kneeled and kissed his temple/…Blood sprayed out,/ covering/ his yellow bed/ of flowers’ (in ‘Poison: Scene 1. Alone’).

Blood is a sign of disturbance of the interior and exterior limits of the body. Like all liquids it assumes the form of the container into which it is poured. While the poem as a container for language is an established metaphor, rather than investigating form’s capacity to shape and contain, these poems are like life giving wounds. The poems are open channels for unvoiced feelings — grief, anger, love — to seep into language, its rhythms, words and laws.

If feelings are experienced as somehow prior to language, then it’s significant that it’s not until the end of ‘Repeating Patterns’, the ninth poem of a twenty-six poem collection, that the ‘I’ records its own speech. When it does the words are directed inwards, ‘I say to myself’, the speaker remarks, uttering the sounds ‘chk chk chk’ from an ambiguous subject position: the body first becomes the wallpaper and then it fights against this transformation, ‘I try to come down from the wall’ the speaker says, attempting to escape the fate of the protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper, vestigially present in the line ‘he traces the lines with his yellow fingers’.

Even though the speaker often refrains from recording their own speech, Scotthorne’s poems have things to say about bodies. The bodies of The Blood House move to their own laws or are violently lawless. There are the crazy, loose bodied bones of a seagull that ‘flee their centre, distorting themselves’ in the opening poem, and then there are a series of poems which constitute the collection’s heart that explore the relationship between a daughter and her dead father, some of which make use of the third person: ‘she should never have eaten his rotten heart./ She should never have killed him’ (lines from ‘Blood Head’).

This idea that one body consumes or becomes another in violence is developed in ‘Soldier’s Dinner’ where the half-day rations of a US soldier in Afghanistan (2013) provide source text for a poem which exchanges the haunting but real power of a father for that of the military:

I moulded my sweat to your national eye,
a fifty-calibre song
spitting your dark trench radar
(lines 11-14)

Rations are the minimal amount of food necessary to sustain a soldier’s body in their work of killing that is often performed in the name of securing a national body. In this poem it is the lubrication of ‘sweat’, rather than blood, that reveals and implicates the flesh in a set of mutually dependent relations: rations sustain the soldier, the soldier sustains the nation, and both sustain the speaker. In this national, militaristic and consuming body the lyric becomes ‘a fifty-calibre song’, singing the violence of its living desires and of its own desire to live.

I particularly value the many other poems in The Blood House that also test out the possibilities and politics of mutual dependency. Here is the last stanza from the poem ‘Sunday Morning Words’:

Inhaled by you, I no longer exist,
my empty nightshirt lies on the bed
and as you absorb me, you become
thinner and thinner.

The ‘you’ in this poem is not a kind host. In the preceding stanza it manipulates, controls and fixes the speaker: ‘And then your cold machinery presses into me,/ you move my arms into position and clamp me tight.’ The ‘you’ here is an enemy, you are the enemy, and the body in its presence does not seep with liquid but is inhaled as gas. After inhalation, the ‘I’ now as a gas inside the ‘you’, reduces the shared body to thinness.

I’m  excited and perplexed by the power relations this poetry creates, as well as the agency it locates. The poems are doing important work. I also feel that even the most painful of poems in The Blood House are acts of generosity. They create new and difficult bodies that we are invited to live in. Whether we can or not is another matter entirely.


Subscribe to the newsletter

Subscribe to the newsletter to receive monthly updates from, reviews of poetry books, and links to what’s exciting me in the world of poetry.

Email Format 


Transmissions: Bristol (Part 1)  


Transmissions is a new series in which I offer notes on the creative work of small press publishers of poetry. I’ve decided to start in Bristol, with the editors of Hesterglock Press, Paul Hawkins and Sarer Scotthorne. In this post, I offer some thoughts on Hawkins’, Contumacy (Liverpool: Erbacce Press, 2014). A review of Sarer’s collection, The Blood House, follows next week.


Listen Up: Notes on Hawkins’ Contumacy
For a collection of poems whose title is Contumacy — meaning the stubborn refusal to obey authority — the poems are unabashed about issuing their own instructions. These instructions are not, however, as straightforward as they might seem:


envisage an isa
a fluffed-up pension

Though this short poem ends the collection, the patterns it makes are circular: the acronym ‘isa’, which concludes the first line is rhymed with the last line ‘nicer’. This patterning also occurs in the first line, where ‘isa’ is concealed in the middle of the first word ‘envisage’. The poem, which specifically instructs us not to ‘envisage’, to speculate, or perhaps even to read on (we are, after all, at the end of the collection) enacts this prohibition through a form that twice bends back upon itself.

The poem critiques the desire to translate the accumulation of money via financial schemes and products into the imagined security of a pleasant future, a desire it figures pornographically. The phrase ‘fluffed-up’, recalls the work of the fluffer (the person whose job it is to give male porn stars blowjobs in order to get them hard enough to perform). In the poem the ‘pension’ — which insufficiently serves as cover for the phrase ‘penis on’ — stimulates our desire while our bodies are used in the service of capital, metaphorically fucked into old age. There is no happy ending, no matter what we might want to envisage.

By instructing us ‘not’ to enter into such a dynamic of speculation the poem perhaps naively (or is it my reading that is naive?) sees the possibility of avoiding this fate as a question of activating an autonomous ‘will’. This word is conspicuously absent from the fourth line of the poem where one might expect to find it. However, the title of the collection and the workings of the poem’s form make me distrust the authority of the voice that offers such an appealing and superficially easy solution to the social and economic malaise that it maps. This feeling of insufficiency has much to do with how form is working across the collection as a whole.

Mark Burnhope’s puff on the book’s cover promises that Contumacy exhibits just ‘the right amount of formal diversity’. But it appears that rather than being deployed in the service of diversity, Hawkins uses form to search for a way out of the social deprivations that his poems so acutely, and often earnestly, observe. As no method of formal experimentation — collage, cut-up, détournement, the recording of overheard speech or the enactment of oulipian procedures — is fully up to that task, a variety of approaches are necessarily employed. In other words, the feeling of insufficiency that I register in ‘DO NOT’ is not a failure that belongs to this poem alone. Instead, rather than being a failure at all, the struggle and failure to find ways to live ethically both with and in the world is something that Hawkins’ poems intentionally and consciously explore.

Of all the formal techniques on display in Contumacy, particularly expressive of the relationship between struggle and failure is ‘Tip #235’ which, like ‘DO NOT’, explores the relationship between accumulation and instruction:

Tip #235

1. search the house or flat you live in and collect all
items of clothing including footwear

2. select one set of clothes for the climate you live in

3. dress yourself in these clothes

4. bag-up remaining clothes and leave in a dry
communal area in your local neighbourhood

5. continue with your life

The pun of the title, the rubbish dump and the recycling centre, situates the poem as a mediator between the individual and the community. The actions of shedding clothes, of seeing clothes as commodities, and of establishing an alternative method of exchange which is both considerate of other people and the environment — the clothes should be left in a ‘dry communal area’ — are juxtaposed by the temporary nature of the act, which the poem also admits to in its final instruction: ’continue with your life’.

The relation between a stubborn and permanent existence and a fleeting, temporary presence in a community is the central concern of the poem ‘Contumacy’ from which the collection takes its title. The notes to this poem explain it is an ‘Oulipo constrained interpretation of the old school squatters Legal Warning Section 6 from the Advisory Service for Squatters’. Using aleatoric procedures on this material produces lines that both demonstrate and explore the relationship between property, language and sound:

THAT we live in this householder, it is our homonym
and we intend to stay here

THAT at all timpani there is at least one persuasion in this homynym.

THAT any epic into this homynym with our…
prerequisite is a criss-cross offspring

This poem moves words on in an arbitrary and unrelenting procedure, and with every noun that is exchanged the sense of the text as a legal document legible in official settings is reduced. The ‘timpani’ and homonyms of this poem have their counterpoint in the change of law (in 2012) that made squatting in residential property a criminal matter. At the most basic level these law changes have made it easier for police to move squatters on, gentrifying and privatising communities with recourse to an arbitrary, legal and procedural violence. Hawkins’ poems are at their strongest when the experimental strategies of modernism, which are surfed throughout the collection, intersect with the documents and language of real political struggle.

In conclusion, I’d like to say a few things about the collection as a whole. Firstly, the recording of sound and rhythm is a recurrent concern: through an open window in the poem ‘Awake in Southall’, the city ‘comes alive’ in ‘a whale-cry’, while in ‘The Secret’, a character called Troy, whose hips ‘grind to the beat’, gets amusingly and desperately aroused as he really starts to dig the groove of a ‘Stepsom 913 – OA’ photocopier (‘the Big Boy of photocopying’). Secondly, there’s a food motif running throughout the collection. There are ‘screaming chickpeas’ in the poem ‘Fruit Bowl’, there is the ‘taste of anchovy’ in the cut-up poem ‘More Metro News’, there are ‘tamarind gas tiles’ in the poem ‘Under Colonel Rule’, while ‘Press Release’ begins with the lines,  ‘Cameron’s shopping trolley/ horse skin Cameron’. This interest in sound and in the consumption of food come together in the poem ‘Memory Grill’, which begins, ‘The noise I hear when bacon fries/ is the hard pop and scratch of vinyl’.

If sound is one of the ways in which the world seeps into these poems, then food is the commodity that most repeatedly enters the body, and the poems in Contumacy want to explore the body under capitalism. If these notes have said more about the world than the poems themselves, this speaks to what I like most about Hawkins’ work: the poems consistently point away from themselves and take you back to the world; they let you listen in, then they make you listen out, then they tell you listen up.


Subscribe to the newsletter

Subscribe to the newsletter to receive monthly updates from, reviews of poetry books, and links to what’s exciting me in the world of poetry.

Email Format 


On Performing Sean Bonney’s Poetry

When you meet a Tory on the street, cut his throat
It will bring out the best in you.
It is as simple as music or drunken speech.
There will be flashes of obsolete light.
You will notice the weather only when it starts to die.

Sean Bonney, Happiness, Poems After Rimbaud (London: Unkant Publishing), 2011, p. 37

I read these lines to an audience that had gathered at the Flapper in Birmingham to see the bands 40 Watt Sun, Rumour Cubes and Sun Wolf. I had been invited on tour with Rumour Cubes as my poetry features on some of their songs: 1871, Letters to Palestine (rewritten on the tour) Research and Destroy (poetry written just before the tour) and The Gove Curve.

It was our first gig and I was due on stage for the second song of the set. As I came onto the stage ready to introduce and perform The Gove Curve, Adam Stark (guitarist) said he needed more time to restring his guitar. Shortly after restringing he dropped his guitar, broke another string and needed more time. During all this there was silence.

I was closest to the mic so I decided to fill that silence with Bonney’s poem.  As I finished the first line I heard a sharp collective gasp. I continued to read. At its end there was no applause, no sound. Terry Murphy (viola) asked me nervously if I had memorised another verse. I hadn’t. After another 30 seconds Annie Rew Shaw (guest pianist for Rumour Cubes and solo artist) started playing a melody and we performed a version of Letters To Palestine.

I was  shaken by the whole experience. I remember asking Joe (bassist) for a hug. Having heard Sean read this poem many times, having performed the poem myself when introducing the post-punk band Left Leg, and after being really fired up for the whole performance I just wasn’t ready for their silence. At the end of other songs I performed with Rumour Cubes that night I felt that applause was muted, and that there was a palpable sense of hate, or at least disapproval, emanating from the crowd. These feelings were compounded by my concerns that I had ruined Rumour Cubes’ first gig of the tour. I’m writing about this now because I think this performance taught me a few things about Bonney’s poem.

Five lessons from Birmingham:

  1. No Tories in the street were harmed in the making of the poem. Any Tories in the audience were also left unharmed. Whatever judgement there is to be made about the rhetorics of violence used in the poem, the person performing it to a hostile crowd is the one left in a vulnerable position.
  2. The poem is as much about measurement as violence. The degree of hostility expressed by the audience towards the poem and its speaker is the distance between the audience and the possibility of their revolution.
  3. In the performance ‘the weather’ is the room and the people in it. As the final word of the poem dies away, you are left in a room with the people you’ve spoken to. You know something about them that you didn’t before. The violence in the poem is in them. Note the ambiguity of the word ‘it’ in the last line. It’s uncertain whether ‘it’ refers to the ‘weather’, the ‘light’ or the ‘Tory’.
  4. When I performed the poem I accidentally exchanged the first word of the poem ‘when’ for the word ‘if’, thereby softening the poem by making its violent imperatives conditional on crossing paths with a Tory. Beginning with the word ‘when’,  the poem is saying its violence is inevitable: its just a matter of time. What possible discerning feature would allow you to identify the Tory on the street so that you can cut their throat anyway? Reading Bonney’s poem then judging their reaction might be a good place to start.
  5. The word ‘throat’ is important to the meaning of the poem. Cutting the throat is an attack on language as much as it is an attack on the body. By identifying the throat as the site to be attacked  the interrelationship between the body, its politics and its language is also identified. When the audience gasped and fell into silence at the first line of the poem they physically acknowledged this to be true.

The poem singles out ‘a Tory’ for throat cutting, but this isolated violence  has to been seen in the context of the violence committed by the state. People taking their own life after being informed of cuts to their benefits (BBC), while the Government issues ‘more than 3,000 export licences for military and intelligence equipment worth a total of £12.3bn to countries which  are on its own official list for human rights abuses’ (The Independent), are just two examples. How can this be tolerated when a poem which simply invokes violence cannot? I’ve always taken the poem to be highly moral even in its deviation from conventional definitions of morality.