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.
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.