Viewed from His Workroom Floor:
A Personal Perspective on Bob Cobbing
(1920 - 2002)

by Paul Dutton
The following essay first appeared in Open Letter,
Eleventh Series, No. 7, Spring, 2003.  

England, early summer, 2002. I'm in London to perform with CCMC, the free improvising trio with which I oralize (some call it singing, some call it sound poetry; I call it oralizing—or soundsinging). The festival we're playing in couldn't afford hotel rooms for the week-long period needed to secure an airfare price the festival could afford, so we're on our own for accommodations, and I'm staying at Bob Cobbing's. Fact is, I'd probably be staying at Bob's anyway, because ... well, that's where I stay when I'm in London, especially since my reason for going there usually has to do with Bob: a reading he's arranged for me, or simply a visit with him.

It's not quite five-star accommodation at Bob's. I contend for space with a photocopier (Bob's principal working tool for both his artistic output and literary publishing); with sundry cartons and boxes; with a chest of wide, shallow drawers, the top of which bears a paper-cutter surrounded by a proliferation of papers; and with various boards and vinyl-covered hardware of uncertain character and indeterminate function (each, though, I'm sure, with their proper place and role in Bob's work universe); all hemmed in by shelving units along the walls and down half the middle of the room, every unit crammed with boxes and paper stock; with publications and / or material for publications of Writers Forum, the imprint Bob used for what poet Lawrence Upton has pegged at "almost 1400 titles, about one title a fortnight for half a century." (Some of those titles might consist of only four or eight pages, but still ... Somewhere down behind one of those metal shelving units is a daunting conglomeration of boxes and knick-knacks, of small percussion instruments and various unidentifiables, none of which I've investigated or asked about, and most of which appear virtually undisturbed from visit to visit over some fifteen years, during which the room's basic geography has remained the same, with shifting topographic details, and the occasional tectonic plate adjustment.

Amidst all this mass and clutter, I have a modicum of space. "I managed to dig out a hole for you," Bob commented on one occasion, with a characteristic kind of wry cheerfulness, as he ushered me into my quarters. The hole he has on several occasions dug out for me is sufficient for a narrow foam mattress on the heavy-felt-tiled concrete floor (somewhere along the line, I chose to abandon the regularly proffered folding aluminum-frame cot in favour of solider back support), and also for a little low stool at the foot of the mattress and bedding, which stool bears my suitcase, out of which I will live for the duration. My time, of course, will be spent primarily in other parts of the house, and in London at large. Not that either of those are any less cluttered or seemingly chaotic than Bob's workroom—although the city does have some relatively open spaces.

Bob's house on Petherton Avenue in northwest London is just a little ways off from a street called Poet's Road, down which he and I used sometimes to walk, years ago, to the Nobody Inn, neither of us commenting on the multiple ironies inherent in the occasion. Bob and his second wife Jennifer Pike (they married sometime in the '60s, their forties) moved into their two-floor garden apartment on Petherton Road in 1984, which was around the time I got to know Bob (we'd met initially, and briefly, in Toronto in 1978 at the Eleventh International Sound Poetry Festival). His workroom occupies the front of the just-below-grade lower level of the building. The rest of that level contains Jennifer's workroom, plus the bathroom. Upstairs, at the back, is the kitchen, and in the front is Bob and Jennifer's bed-sitting room. Both of these rooms and the downstairs corridor are crowded with shelves of books and piles of papers; with Bob's and Jennifer's artworks on the walls (paintings by both from the early stages of their arts careers, and some of Bob's photocopy visual poems—that's photocopy, not photocopied, which distinction will become clear a bit further on here); with memorabilia of assorted nature, including a shelf in the kitchen devoted to Jennifer's pool trophies (she became an enthusiastic amateur contender when she took up the game in her seventies); while all available surface space is consumed by books, correspondence, flyers, magazines, writing implements, stationery items and supplies (tapes, scissors, padded envelopes, etc.), and other necessities. A minor mountain of like materials encroaches on the eating area of the kitchen table, and over against one wall is a long table bearing more of all the foregoing, plus some kind of antique electronic writing machine, and a recently acquired desk-top colour photocopier, whose transformative effect on Bob's visual work I'll get around to recounting later.

"There's so much junk in this house ... ," Bob complained one time, as he pursued an ultimately fruitless search for the bottle of olive oil I'd requested (Jennifer had already tried and given up; but Bob, who did all the cooking, was sure it was there somewhere), "... that you can't find anything!" I recall on another occasion bringing to Bob's attention the state of a sere and brittle plant hanging by the window. "Aa!" said Bob, without looking up from whatever was occupying him (a plate of food perhaps, or a glass of whisky, or else bits of paper for a collage poem), "It's been dead for years. Can't do any harm that way." It may have been about this point that the cat—named either Puss or Boots, depending on whether it was being addressed by Bob or by Jennifer—came wandering in, looking for food, and went over near the window, past towers of assorted unsorted papers, to poke about among several other harmless plants.

I, at some point, would have wandered out and back down to the workroom, to sleep beside the photocopier, a machine with which I felt a special connection. Not only did we share a room, but it, or more precisely, a predecessor of it, had come into Bob's house about the same time I started being a guest there. The photocopier took on the role previously played by the stencil duplicating machine (a.k.a. mimeograph or mimeo machine) in Bob's creative work and publishing projects. Make that "previous role, plus"—because the photocopier offered Bob greater scope and flexibility in his activities. With it, he could still do smears and blurs and overprintings, although there was a difference of what one might call timbre (to reach over into the lexicon of music for a term to metaphorically apply). Also, he could achieve the equivalent of heavier and lighter ink-flow through darker and lighter copying. And there were, I am sure, other duplicator effects that could be attained or approximated through photocopy techniques. But more importantly, the photocopier offered an expanded range of available effects (such functions as enlargement and reduction, for instance); in addition to which, the textural possibilities multiplied astronomically with the capacity to capture images of anything that could be placed on the platen. And anything would be. I once arrived in London from Amsterdam, where I'd bought a bottle of duty-free liquor, for which the store had provided a protective plastic-mesh sleeve (an item then just newly introduced), and which I'd left with my stuff in the workroom. A few days later, I noticed in the wastepaper basket some discarded sheets bearing the mesh's image: Bob had satisfied his curiosity, but the photocopied mesh hadn't satisfied him.

For Bob, the photocopier was (yes, the past tense now) paintbrush and palette, processor and printing press. He knew its every capacity and quirk, the way a musician knows his instrument. And he played it like an instrument, drawing from it—and with it, to appropriately mix my metaphors—virtuoso results. He had a virtuoso's dedication and painstaking persistence, working till he got it right, labouring over a detail meticulously, scrupulously, testing and rejecting, deliberating and musing, getting temporal distance from things, and going back later to declare it done or amend it further—like a poet striving to get the words just right. Whoops! Where'd that image come from?

I had a ringside seat for one striking instance of Bob's fastidious approach to his photocopy art. In 1994 he published a book of mine, Partial Additives, a collection of minimalist poems consisting of a title and two related words, the second of which was formed by the parenthetical insertion of a single letter into the first, as in the following example.



I mailed over to Bob fifty or more of these, ganged five or so to a page, in straightforward, unadorned typewritten text, with which Bob was to do as he saw fit for production as a Writers Forum publication, which results I would see when I got to London for the book launch. Immediately upon my arrival there some months later, Bob handed me a copy of what he had done, specifying that it was not a finished copy. "Still a few bits to clean up," he announced. I couldn't imagine what. The several newly published books of mine that I'd been handed in the past usually got an initial cursory flip-through, and then a closer, but peripatetic, examination. With this one, I found myself sitting there in that pub (my evening arrival meant nobody was in at Petherton Road, so I had to go from the airport to the pub they'd gone to, one determined by Jennifer's pool-tourney itinerary) going slowly through the book, page by page, staring in rapt amazement at each new revelation. The 56-page, 8 1/4 by 5 1/4, saddle-stitched book not only had an individual photocopy treatment of each typewritten poem on each page, along with an individual textural (and textual, Bob would insist) setting—in other words, graphic design; but in addition to that, each two-page spread was visually balanced with mutually compatible and complementary treatments. At the level of esthetic achievement, it is, quite simply, stunning. But as a feat of production, it's mind-boggling. Remember, this is being done on a photocopy machine, two-sided copies, two poems each side. So pages 24 and 33 are beside each other on the photocopy sheet, but their individual graphic settings match up with the graphic settings on pages 25 and 32, respectively, which are beside each other on another photocopy sheet; and then, what's on the other sides of those sheets has to match with what's ... God! No wonder there was no housework getting done. Okay, you're doing the same kind of thing all the time, you get it down to a routine, but Writers Forum books are not formula publications, and they vary widely in format and extent, each one pretty much a custom job. Anyway, when I got the final copy a day or so later, some dedicated searching brought to light two small changes on two different pages that perfectly completed the previously imperfect complementary balance in the respective spreads. Whew!

I want to return to the mixed metaphors in the second-last paragraph. They were not so much considered as they were spontaneous, but they are absolutely appropriate, thoroughly accurate. The Cobbing photocopy works (which, once created, would then be photocopied in quantity) are poems, are scores, are pictures. (Same for the duplicator works, in point of fact.) Bob resolutely called them texts and as resolutely declared that he read them, making definite distinctions between texts that he read and purely improvisational pieces. By the same token, he readily referred to his photocopy works as scores, and said that he performed them—though never that he sang them, as equally valid a designation as that would have been (and not that it was a necessary one for the outcome to qualify as music). I can't cite him as authority for the photocopy works being pictures, but then I don't need to. They are. You only have to look at them to tell that (or read it).

When it came to this kind of blurring of borders between the arts, Bob could be as practical as he was principled. In the early '90s I phoned him to inquire, in context of an essay I was writing about vocal sound art and its practice in literary and musical contexts, whether he called his soundworks literature or music. His unhesitating reply: "Depends on what they're paying for."

Whatever they were paying for, it was never very much, of course, not when the poetry was uncompromisingly sonic, with what few words were in it being employed so unconventionally, so subversively; and not when the music was identical with the poetry—though usually performed with the addition of a couple of instrumentalists, such as those he performed with in the group Birdyak: jazz and free-improv sax legend Lol Coxhill, or performance artist-musician extraordinaire Hugh Metcalfe; which trio was often enough supplemented by the movement art of Jennifer Pike. Bob was as much a presence on the free improvisational music scene in London and England as he was on the city's and the country's sound and visual (so-called "experimental"; god, how I hate that term) poetry scenes. His influence and impact, virtually immeasurable, were enough recognized by the establishment to lead to obituaries in three major British newspapers, The Guardian, The London Times, and The Independent, as well as to half a page in the British new-music journal of note, The Wire. Save for the latter, none of them paid him any heed when he was alive, but there's nothing new(s) in that.

Whatever Bob managed to earn with his art and publishing was buttressed, from sometime in the '70s on, by a Civil List Pension. I believe it was his presence on that list that led, sometime in the early '90s, to an invitation to Buckingham Palace for a garden party with the Queen. Bob's decision to attend meant foregoing a trademark aspect of his personal attire: you could not be admitted to a royal garden party, with its hordes of guests and the Queen present (even if away from everybody inside the palace behind a glass partition), if you were sockless in sandals, which Bob was twelve months of the year. He bought a pair of shoes. Which likely would have exceeded his clothes budget for the year. As was reported to me by somebody (was it Lawrence Upton?) Bob once remarked that "I might spend three pounds a year on clothes. But I do like to have a little whisky in the house."

The whisky he kept in the house, at least in the last ten or more years of his life, was of connoisseur quality, rare and exquisite cask-strength single malt scotch, purchased through membership in The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, which sold only to members, mailing each pricey bottle in an individual little wooden crate. I think he was not a member the first couple of times I visited, when we'd share the bottle of Laphroaig I'd bring as a house gift. But somewhere along the way there started emerging these high-octane items, stuff so potent (anywhere from 50% alcohol by volume to 60% or more—and the normal retail standard is only 40%) that it was necessary to add water to prevent the taste buds from being numbed, and to bring out the liquor's spectrum of flavours.

"Fancy a little whisky?" was the typical late-night invitation upon return from the evening's separate or shared activities. A snack and conversation invariably ensued, until tiredness took over and we headed for our beds. These wee-hour sessions occasioned some fondly remembered Cobbing quotes, sampled here from over the years, dealing with matters mundane and profound.

    Bob: They say every glass of whisky you drink destroys a thousand brain cells.
    Me: Thank God. With any luck you can get to stop thinking and just be. "Cogito ergo sum"—what a load of shit. Facto ergo sum. Or better still: Ipso facto ergo sum.
    Bob: Yes. I reckon I've just about obliterated my education. [Pause.] Well, as long as I can drink enough whisky to keep my memory under control.

    Me: Does Hugh [who had some years earlier established a reputation for mooning.] still drop his pants in public?
    Bob: Not very often. No.

    Me: I remember reading an interview with Borges where he talked about going blind, and said it was like experiencing a very long, very slow twilight.
    Bob: Who wants to see, anyway? As compared with the inner soul. Yeah.

    Me: How's the family-tree research going? [Bob had taken an interest in Cobbing family history in the '90s, writing, editing, and publishing a newsletter distributed to descendants from both parental families.]
    Bob: All right. I've discovered that Cobbing and Chopin are names deriving from the same source. [Bob and his French contemporary and colleague, Henri Chopin, weren't on speaking terms.] So we're likely brothers. Probably explains why we hate each other so much.

    Me: "Rammel Stimpink." That's German, isn't it?
    Bob: No. Scandinavian.
    Me: What's it mean?
    Bob: I don't know. I don't worry about what things mean. Just what they sound like.

Cobbing got into both sound and poetry through painting. His father had been an amateur painter, and painting was something Bob had always done since about the age of eleven. In the '50s, as a schoolteacher in Hendon, just north of London, he exhibited in group shows as a member of the Hendon Experimental Art Group; worked seriously at his painting, though he took no formal training (tried once, but found it boring); and generally thought of himself as a painter. As such, one of his ongoing interests was the visual rendering of sound. In 1954 he started using words in his paintings, and began thinking of his work as poetry and himself as a poet. It was in 1954 that he wrote "Worm," which he referred to once, in a conversation we had, as "my first verbal poem of any consequence," going on to say, "There were lots of things before that, but they're all bloody awful, and I hope I've lost them forever." Simultaneously with his painting activities, for which his principal medium was gouache on board, he continued with the duplicator creations that he had been doing since the '40s. He didn't start performing his duplicator works, however, until sometime in the '50s. Once he started performing those pieces, he kept them in use for decades, and in 1997, when Bob was on tour in Alberta with W. Mark Sutherland and me after the Eye Rhymes Conference in Edmonton, he performed a duplicator poem from 1942.

Cobbing kept up his painting into the '60s, and some works from that period were used to decorate the walls at the Petherton Road residence. One of these was included in an exhibit at a library in Finchley Park, London, in 1965, where it outraged the local councillor, who, upon seeing it, told the attending librarian, "Take that picture down. It's obscene and blasphemous." When asked why that was so, the councillor—one Margaret Thatcher—replied, "It's all sperm!"

Some people just can't tell the difference between sperm and text. Bob, of course, would likely contend that there is no difference to tell. He once wrote (in the periodical Stereo Headphones, January, 1974), that "Any mark upon a piece of paper may be interpreted in sound. By extension, any mark on stone or shell or bark, their roughness or smoothness, vicious jagged shape or gentle undulations, may also be interpreted as sound." So surely, by further extension, any blob of sperm may be sonically interpreted as well. Bob certainly read blobs of ink and photocopy toner, along with the many other shapes and texts he conjured with those media.

The character of Bob's readings of these abstract texts was principally associative, as he made clear on one occasion when I asked him to speak about how he used his visual texts in performance. "I am interpreting, or attempting to interpret the textures and tones and rhythms and shapes of the visual as sound. It's a very free interpretation, but it is an interpretation. And I am actually following the shapes and lines and movements on the page." He then added, after a brief pause, "But not always!" following that with a burst of laughter. He then continued: "Well, one must allow a certain freedom of interpretation, and it's certainly not a strict notation. I would see lots of little thin lines up in that corner as a higher pitch, and some strong, thick lines down in this corner as a lower pitch. But again, you know, very roughly." Additional factors would further modify this already loose interpretation of a text. The involvement of other performers would affect his interpretation to some extent, as would the character and qualities of the performance space, with the audience also having its impact on the interpretation.

It was during what could be called Bob's painting career that Writers Forum began, growing out of the Hendon art group. Several of the painters in the group who had taken to writing poetry decided to meet as writers and to publish their work. This evolved into the press that Bob so ardently operated for the rest of his life, and into a workshop that he operated just as ardently and for just as long. The Writers Forum Workshop, which met about every two weeks, possessed a special character, being neither instructional nor hierarchical, and with no registration, no fees, and no admission charge at the door. Here's how it worked.

Bob would arrive at the designated pub sometime before the announced starting time of the workshop, which would take place in the pub's function room. (Brief digression for a note of information: the British-pub function room, above or otherwise contiguous to the main barroom, is typically available for private use by arrangement and without cost, which makes it the first choice for any off-the-beaten-path arts event in London—and all Bob's arts events were off the beaten path. Besides, Bob loved pubs and beer.) Bob would sit in the main bar with his pint, and socialize with the gathering participants, who varied in number (the handful of times that I was in attendance) from five to fifteen or so, consisting of poets at varying stages of development, and ranging from the unpublished to the much published. When Bob deemed it appropriate, he would take his glass and ascend to the function room, everyone else following suit. Once assembled, chatting would cease when Bob would announce the start of the workshop and ask who would like to begin. Who would like, would, reading their verbal or sound text, and then resuming their seat (if they had left it). After a respectful space of time, Bob would request another volunteer, and the same procedure would ensue, being repeated until Bob (who might well have been one of those volunteering to present a piece) would announce a break. After glasses were replenished and other matters attended to, including a bit more socializing, the workshop would resume, proceeding along the same lines as before. There was no analysis, no criticism, no ego-tripping, no bullshit. I once asked Bob if there were ever any discussions about the works read, and was told that it might occur here and there, that there wasn't much point to it really, that you could pretty much tell whether whatever you'd read had gone over well or not. The point, clearly, was just to read and to share. A variation in the format would occur if a guest reader were featured, when the second half would be devoted to that person's reading, an offer I was pleased to have extended to me most times I was in town.

The egalitarian, easy-access character of Bob's Writers Forum Workshop is associated in my mind with the cheap and cheerful, come-and-get-it character of his Writers Forum publications, and his duplicator and photocopy art in general. There is no mystique of the signed original, when the original is a photocopy. On one of my trips, I found myself at a friend's opening at an art gallery somewhere in the south of London, where I wound up in conversation with the gallery owner, who expressed an enthusiasm for text-based art. I happened to have with me one of Bob's books, and took it out to show it, imagining a future opening for Bob at the toney gallery, and maybe some commensurate income. It wasn't quite like throwing a lead balloon up in the air, and the gallery owner's eyes didn't exactly glaze over, but you could almost see the thought balloon over her head, reading "What money can I make off of photocopy multiples?"

Bob kept everything in print, and if he'd run out of stock and an order came in, he'd run off some more. He charged, with due consideration for his own costs, what people like him would be able to afford, not what he figured was the most he could get.

Near the start of this essay I mentioned Bob's acquisition of a colour photocopier and referred to its transformative effect on his visual work. The machine that he got sometime in the last four years of his life triggered a departure from his exclusively black-and-white published work, launching him into the creation of coloured pieces. But the departure was simultaneously a return, for he had worked with colour before, and not just in his paintings. One of the effects he had worked in the '50s was the application of duplicator ink directly to paper, i.e., without the agency of the duplicator itself (he also used the ink for some of his works on board). In creating these works he used coloured inks. Some of the works were published in his Voice Prints, one of the books in his multi-volume Collected Poems. With the colour copier, of course, he worked very differently. He basically made colour collages, using pieces of printed paper snipped from glossy magazines. He had a whole pile of these cuttings sitting on the kitchen table, along with a spectrum of coloured felt pens stuck in a coffee mug, with a couple of glue sticks close by, and a pair of small scissors. He would select colours and tear or cut out shapes, assembling and gluing the chosen pieces to a backing sheet about 3 x 5 inches in size. The felt pens came into play if a tear resulted in the exposure of plies whose whiteness interfered with the developing image, when the appropriate colour of pen would be selected to correct the situation. Once he got it to his satisfaction, he'd centre it on the photocopier platen and run it through, enlarged to fit on an A4 sheet (British letter-size, 8 3/16 x 11 5/8).

When I was in London in '98, Bob's pace had slowed a fair bit. The guy who used to lead the charge to catch the last bus after an evening in a pub for a concert or a reading, now needed me to walk more slowly so he could keep up. He did not, however, slacken the pace of his artistic output and arts organizing, of publishing and performance. Over the ensuing months, though, when I'd phone to say hello, the opening "How are you?" did not elicit the usual cheery report of good health. Arthritis was setting into his back and hips. Then I got reports from others in or visiting London of increasing fragility, of a minor stroke that caused vision problems (happily reversed). A more cheering report was news about his 80th birthday celebration in 2000, which was held in a pub (natch), and featured performances by a raft of London poets and musicians, many having Bob share the stage with them, the whole thing going on for a full five hours. In the fall of that year I was able to take advantage of a festival engagement in France to get over to London for a visit, during which Bob and I did a duo performance in Hugh Metcalfe's free improv music series at The Klinker in north London. Bob needed two canes to get around, and shuffled more than he walked, but his performance lacked nothing. He could only leave the house now to go with Jennifer by car, but he made it down the stairs to that photocopier to make poems, print books, and run off flyers for readings and such. Same again in May of 2002, when the CCMC gig got me over there again. At a Writers Forum Workshop then, Bob performed a collaborative piece with Lawrence Upton on voice and Jennifer doing movement, in which all three were at the top of their form.

Ten days after a solo performance at the Klinker in September, 2002, Bob entered hospital for some fairly routine treatment, and contracted pneumonia. He knew the jig was up, and from his hospital bed issued instructions to Lawrence Upton and Adrian Clarke on production details of the next issue of And, the literary periodical he edited, and worked out with them the terms on which they would carry on the work of Writers Forum, publishing and workshop. The end came peacefully in the early hours of September 29, sometime after he'd slipped into a coma.

I was on the road when it happened, incommunicado, and found out a week after. I'm told that the funeral was attended by some 200 people, about evenly split between musicians and writers. Bob was buried in a woodland portion of a cemetery, in an unmarked grave (his choice), and a beech tree has subsequently been planted there. I mean to visit that tree some day. And when I do, I just might try reading it.

[Author's note. Thanks to Lawrence Upton, Jennifer Pike, and Veryan Weston, who helped with information and encouragement during the writing of this essay.]

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