The first ever book dedicated to the life and work of Bob Cobbing, one of the most protean figures of the UK postwar underground, has been published by Occasional Papers. boooook is a collection of new essays edited by grandson William Cobbing and Rosie Cooper that spans his various activities as poet, performer and organiser, with contributions from Hugh Metcalfe, David Toop, Andrew Wilson, Will Holder and more, alongside a host of archival material.
“We wanted to highlight his position as a key player in some of the most important moments and movements of the British avant garde, for example the Destruction In Art Symposium in 1966 and the Anti-University, which was founded in 1968,” write Cooper and Cobbing. “This collection connects Bob to these movements in new ways – for instance, a significant amount of material provides a clear link from his approach as an organiser of film societies in North London in the 1950s to the formation of the London Filmmakers Co-op. Such a large part of Bob's work was about facilitating other people, setting things in motion rather than promoting himself.”
Cobbing, who died in 2002 at the age of 82, was an important figure in the 1960s London scene through his position as manager of countercultural bookshop Better Books. More than a mere book seller, it was a key node on the international art and poetry network – it hosted a reading by Allen Ginsberg in 1965 that led to the International Poetry Incantation later the same year, although Cobbing’s place on a planned tour with the Beats was blocked by Gregory Corso, who objected to the UK poet’s work. “Andrew Wilson annotates an advertisement for Better Books in Poetmeat,” write the editors. “Wilson's annotations give an amazing sense of how important Better Books was for the production and distribution of material, and its international links.”
The book is a culmination of a year of events dedicated to Cobbing titled Bob Jubilé. Although his work as a sound poet remains influential – Cobbing’s recordings form part of Julian Cowley’s sound poetry Primer in The Wire 339 – it is, by its very nature, ephemeral. Bob Jubilé was an attempt to understand his work in the present day: “We’ve commissioned and presented exhibitions, performances and new works by Hugh Metcalfe, Benedict Drew, Holly Antrum and Rhodri Davies among others, as well as organising a symposium, and conversation with Kenneth Goldsmith. All of these projects started with conversations and time spent in the family collection with many different people: helping us to understand how we might channel Bob's energy, as well as the archive, into the book.”
boooook explores the international context of Cobbing’s sound poetry – Sanne Krogh Groth sheds light on his collaborations with French colleagues including Henri Chopin, as well as his “text sound composition” recordings for the Stockholm label Fylkingen, with fellow poet Åke Hodel. But the editors argue that Cobbing’s work remains just as relevant in the here and now. “Bob is a very good example of someone whose primary motivation as an organiser is to respond to what is necessary and interesting within a given situation – using brilliant organisational skills to bring people together to produce amazing things. We can still learn a lot from that.
“Bob was an autodidact,” they conclude. ”He was formally trained as an accountant, but he had also been a teacher, signwriter and farm labourer before being internationally recognised on the avant garde scene in his forties. In an increasingly professionalised world, it's hard to imagine a career like that happening now – which is a great shame.”
boooook is published by Occasional Papers