Boooook: The Life and Work of Bob Cobbing is the latest release from London-based publisher, Occasional Papers.
This is the first comprehensive overview of the life and work of the pioneering British concrete and sound poet Bob Cobbing (1920–2002). Boooook addresses all aspects of Cobbing’s rich career, with new essays detailing his key roles in London Film-makers’ Co-op, Better Books, abAna, as well as his involvement in the Destruction in Art Symposium, Fylkingen, and his publishing imprint Writers Forum.
Occasional Papers, with editors William Cobbing and Rosie Cooper, have paid homage to an avant-garde publisher, poet, and verbal artist in a very thorough and attractive way. And we can’t help but admire that book spine as well!
To celebrate this latest release from Occasional Papers, we’re very pleased to share the following chapter from Boooook.
Conversation about Writers Forum
Adrian Clarke and Arnaud Desjardin
Arnaud Desjardin: So when did your involvement with Writers Forum start?
Adrian Clarke: Not ‘til the mid-1980s. I did encounter Bob a few times at the Poetry Society in the 1970s, but I didn’t rediscover him until I was reintroduced via Gilbert Adair, who pointed me in the direction of Bob’s events at the London Musicians Collective. Bob published me in 1988—I had been going to his Writers Forum workshops for a couple of years by then. The first time I read something at the workshop, he said ‘Hmf, have you got a publisher for that? Otherwise I’ll do it.’
I was involved in another magazine—Angel Exhaust1 with Andrew Duncan, who wrote that Bob’s sound poetry was ‘the ugliest noise in the world’. Bob decided I should be keeping better company and said, ‘Why don’t you come in on AND with me?’2 And so I came over and started issuing AND with him, which had been dormant for 21 years.
Desjardin: Do you think Bob was looking at any models for what Writers Forum might be?
Clarke: He was receiving a whole range of publications from quite early on in the 1960s. He had a whole run of Chopin’s OU, and a wide range of other magazines and journals. Whether that influenced him I don’t know. But, I can think of one or two American publications from the 1950s that had similar designs.
Bob was one of the first to publish Allen Ginsberg’s The Change, which he distributed through Better Books. The American influence was strong and it seems in turn that Bob took quite a lead from what was being published there.
Desjardin: Conversely, there would have been things that would have crossed the Atlantic from the UK into America and Canada. Better Books was just one of the subterranean networks where you could get access to the counter-culture. My interest is in more than publishing texts—it’s in artists’ publications, and the circulations around them—famous examples being Printed Matter in New York or Art Metropole in Toronto in the 1970s. But there were other networks that were there in the 1960s.
The centrality of Writers Forum to the UK poetry scene seems to have been very much about Bob himself. He was somebody who was continually creating networks. Was that the way you understood Writers Forum when you came into it at that moment?
Clarke: Oh yes. I think that’s as crucial as the press—Bob’s sound poetry, his visual poetry, his verbal stuff. He was an organiser and inspirer. He did it in an extraordinarily laid-back way and somehow things happened around him. He was central to the scene. Bob and his workshop as well as his publications were so clearly associated. Everyone knew the Writers Forum workshops as Bob’s workshops, although he didn’t impose himself in any way—in fact, quite the opposite. He would come up with his pint of beer and sit down and look around the room, and if no one showed an inclination to read he’d say, ‘Well, who’s going to start then?’ Then that was it, and he probably wouldn’t say anything more until the end when he’d launch the latest Writers Forum publication.
Bob rarely came to a workshop without something new—if only a small pamphlet, or even a card. Sometimes there was more. It was slightly irregular, but I guess it averaged out at about every three weeks—so many of the around 1,100 Writers Forum titles in the end got launched there. It sped up when he got a photocopier.
My experience of these workshops goes back to the 1970s and the Poetry Society. Before Bob came along, these workshops were very dull. Things were passed round and commented on and there were long arguments about botanical details—what sort of flower was it and so on. Bob changed things: what he insisted on was that if you stood up and read a poem in front of your peers you’d know for yourself whether it was any good or not. Otherwise you were a hopeless case. There was a lot of emphasis on performance, but you were welcome to just read. If you wanted to discuss the work, you would do that in the bar downstairs afterwards.
Desjardin: So at the Poetry Society Bob initiated a shift from a more staid way of working to a more informal one.
Clarke: Bob not only opened the bar there but also the print shop. He initially made his Gestetner available to everybody. And then he acquired an offset litho machine and that was the extent of it. I don’t think he got his photocopier until 1984, when he moved to Petherton Road.
Desjardin: Did you think those particular methods of printing were important to Bob?
Clarke: Absolutely. Changing Forms in English Visual Poetry3 lists all of his methods. From the typewriter—both dirty and clean—to calligraphy, handwriting, hand-drawn letters, pressed-on lettering, and other means like mimeo and its misuse, which relates particularly to Destruction in Art.
Desjardin: That sounds like an important document, like a genealogy of printing. I like the idea that Writers Forum could be one continuous way of outputting things from the late 1950s. Having seen Writers Forum evolve over half a century, what’s your perception of that whole body of work: where it came from, where it’s gone, and what the legacy is?
Clarke: Well, Bob is the constant element and he was just so open that it’s very hard to characterise the press—which was intentional. It was a matter of openness, of encouragement, and having fun himself.
Organisation was not a word that was often on Bob’s lips. He was very spontaneous, so our editorial meetings were a little chaotic. There was that big table there in the kitchen, and very often he would clear the table, and we’d just shuffle stuff around to decide the magazine’s order. Sometimes, if there wasn’t space, we’d move onto the floor, which was very much what he would do with his visual work with Jennifer. He would run off a number of variations and then he’d lay them out on the floor and get her to choose the best.
Bob’s workroom was initially quite spacious: by the end there was just a narrow passage from the door round to the photocopier. Piles and piles of publications, submissions—which were always read—and loose sheets. He worked in what was, at the end, a tiny space.
Desjardin: There seemed to be a political project around transmission, communication and being with people, rather than Bob making a name for himself, for example. For me, it is part of a moment in history when political positions were a very determining factor in one’s activity. But those positions are ultimately very difficult to read through Writers Forum publications alone. It’s not officially or visually Marxist stuff, but it’s quite radical all the same. As a project, Writers Forum is interested in change and pushing an agenda.
In every respect, Bob loved to collaborate, and the collaboration was always genuine. If the edges were undefined in terms of whose copyright it was, Bob was not concerned. His ethos went back at least to the 1960s. In their joint publications in the 1970s, he and Bill Griffiths were very much in accord. Bill’s pirate press carried an anti-copyright statement. Did they ever get into trouble about copyright?
Clarke: Oh yes, particularly over Bob’s pirated ‘Gobble Poem’, where I think he had a visit from the police. Not the only visit he had…
The poem—really doggerel—is by W.H. Auden, recounting an occasion where he picked up a student in New York and took him back to his place for a bit of oral sex. Bob somehow got hold of it and published it, and I think he was hoping that he’d surreptitiously shift quite a few copies. But the police got wind of it, and after the visit he just assigned them to a cupboard.4
Desjardin: Would the police have been involved over copyright, or obscenity?
Clarke: I imagine it was probably obscenity because I don’t think Auden would have known about it—but Bob had a bit of a reputation as a pirate. He later pirated Kerouac’s Old Angel Midnight, which was not available other than in the Evergreen Review. With Writers Forum and its propensity to re-print and re-issue, it’s quite difficult to know what is a first edition, particularly if Bob started reprinting things on the same equipment.
Desjardin: The idea of a first edition for these kind of things is fetishising a form of publication that was totally invested in ideas of immediacy and directness. You do it because it’s now, it’s now, it’s now… It’s not really interested in its legacy, or in its historicisation.
It’s only when it’s over, which is where we’re at now, that there is that possibility to reappraise the production, to corral the publications into a body of work that can then be declared the identity of the press. It’s hard to go about defining that with Writers Forum. Maybe one way of mapping out something could be to think about ‘means to immediacy’—the Gestetners, and then the photocopying machine, and so on.
Clarke: That’s fair, but I wouldn’t want to put a full-stop on it. I think that Writers Forum functioned for so long and in so many different contexts, with the inputs from so many different people, that I still see its identity as provisional.
Desjardin: If you start to formalise something too much then you start to lose that form of immediacy, which is a form of direct transmission. For instance, discussions of language, typesetting and composition of the text as a visual object reached quite extreme levels, by Henri Chopin through OU, and Hansjörg Mayer through his publication Futura. They really upped the game in terms of quality of production and visuals. But now we’re talking about 1965, and by then those international networks were already quite formalised.
Bob’s production at this time is resistant to this formalisation, to this idea of making something that is going to be a bit more polished, more finished. It’s about directness and openness and this has always undermined the notion of a press’ identity.
Clarke: One thing I was going to mention, going back to immediacy, are publications I have that Bob and Clive Fencott did when they were touring the States, including CLYDE DUNKOB IN VANCOUVER.5 What they would do was create what they were going to perform in the evening in the course of the day, and take it to a print shop somewhere and produce it. I think that there are four of these that they brought back with them and they’re quite extraordinary.
Desjardin: Almost like a travelogue. This seems to reflect the whole ethos of Writers Forum—that it was somewhat on the hoof.
Clarke: Immediacy, yes. The whole thing relates to the political in the widest sense. Bob was very much concerned that the activities he was involved with should be accessible to everyone—that his publications should be affordable by just about anyone. There was a memorable occasion which kind of shows his position. Every year he used to take a table at the Artists’ Book Fair when it was at the Barbican, where much of the work had high production values, and some of it was quite ambitiously priced. time goes as bought by Lawrence Upton and Bob Cobbing was produced for the 1999 Artists’ Book Fair—it takes a page from an obscure novel, and does some startling things with it. He sold it at the Fair for a pound. And every hour, on the hour, he, and very often Lawrence, would stomp up and down between the tables performing what they had for sale—to the chagrin, bemusement or resignation of other participants!
Desjardin: But they carried on anyway.
1. ‘Angel Exhaust’ was the name of a automotive spares company on the Holloway Road in North London, not far from Bob’s home.
2. AND magazine was started by Bob Cobbing in Hendon, in 1954.
3. London: Writers Forum, 31 December 1988.
4. There are a considerable number of these publications in the Cobbing family archive, in a large box marked ‘Gobble Poem and Fuck Books’.
5. Writers Forum / El Uel Uel U, 21/22 March 1982.
This conversation, between Adrian Clarke and Arnaud Desjardin, took place at the Cobbing family collection in March 2015. First published in Boooook: The Life and Work of Bob Cobbing, edited by William Cobbing and Rosie Cooper, published by Occasional Papers, 2015, ISBN 978-0-9929039-5-4.
Boooook is available for purchase at occasionalpapers.org.
Occasional Papers—founded by Sara De Bondt and Antony Hudek—is a non-profit publisher of affordable books devoted to the histories of architecture, art, design, film and literature.
Boooook is the culmination of Bob Jubilé, a three-year long programme of exhibitions and events around the Bob Cobbing family collection, organised by William Cobbing and Rosie Cooper (bobjubile.org). Supported by Arts Council England, The Henry Moore Foundation, The Estate of Barry Flanagan and The Estate of Bob Cobbing.