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Sunday, May 31, 2015

EUOIA: Anamaria Crowe Serrano and Robert Sheppard's Jaroslav Biały now on The Bogman's Cannon

Poland’s Jaroslav Biały (1962-) 'Museum of Polish Military Defeat'
is at The Bogman’s Cannon, at

as created by Anamaría Crowe Serrano and Robert Sheppard

Read Anamaria’s introduction and some of the collaboration.

Thanks to her for the generosity of her gesture and the intensity of the collaboration. Read more about the EUOIA here. And here.

Jaroslav Biały, perhaps best known as an artist, archivist and maker of installations (in particular his ‘Museum’ series), has been, under the influence of his wife, Jadzia Biała, increasingly committing his ideas to paper (or screen), though he has yet to publish a dedicated full length volume of this work. He is known world-wide as the principal authority on Leon Chwistek, Zonism and the demise of post-Zonism. Chwistek’s influence on Biały can be seen in his early nonad compositions, which appeared as home-made pamphlets, where Biały challenges principles of formal logic, asserting the existence of nine levels of reality from which we interpret the world, including the abstract categories of invisireversibility and the incognifarious. Wisława Szymborska’s seminal essay, “The nomadic-nonadic of Jaroslav Biały” (Literatura na Świecie, nr 07-08, 1987, p. 416-421) was instrumental in bringing Biały’s poetry to the attention of the literary world. To this day, Biały leads a nomadic life. In an interview with Jocelyn Goos broadcast on Polskie Radio Program II (also known as Dwójka) on November 13th 2003, he famously justified his lifestyle by saying, “Walls are unnecessary.”

More of his work is available in Tears in the Fence 63. See their blog here, with a post by mysrlf on the progress of the EUOIA project.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

EUOIA: Robert Sheppard's Lucia Cianglini in Poetry Wales

Cianglini is a fictional poet I am writing on my own (unlike the others, such as Cristofol Subira or the Polish one whose name I've forgotten). That’s because she is one of the 5 fictional poets who actually appear in ATranslated Man. That’s also why she has a page here on the EUOIA website.

Thanks for Nia Davies for this one. Read Cianglini’s Poem Five of & in the latest edition of Poetry Wales (which was on sale at the Bangor gig mentioned in the last post). 

(The ampersand is on the wall over from the Cork Coffee Shop and is still there; I saw it a month ago.)

Here’s poem six – incomplete (and because it is 'incomplete', albeit fictionally, I doubt whether it could stand separate publication, unlike her Poem Five, which is powerfully present, structurally):

& a pale human body crosses the busy street its
            [           ] pockets bursting with potentials
& the poem rolls out like a scroll as I cut it

& the Downs Syndrome kid sets up in Oliver Plunkett Street
            scrapes the scribbles off the strings of his violin [del.] ‘fiddle’
& a man laughs in tears pointing in fathomless cruelty

& the beggar approaches us with a coffee cup of green twists
            says ‘You seem like a nice lady!’ & I hold you closer
& a Korean slurps his way through porridge and Baileys [?]

 & like the buried babies left by the vanished nuns [del.] …

 back home [del.] the diary next to the phone collects obligations
            to make a poem that refuses to collect on unity
& it’s time to be out of time’s [                 ] for a while

 & the book of poems tosses emotions around the room
with Tesco bags scattered across its floor
& a tangle of new bras twists in its own labels

 & my sister spouts anti [del.]-capitalist slogans so I sprout wings
she smiles that smug little academic one
& she jerks [?] in front of me until absorbed into the flow ‘of history’ [del.{?}]

& everything bleeps as though it is morning again
            there’s a joke here that only a [               ] could collect
& the revolving door is always ajar laughing all the way from the bank

& the rift that opens leaks human juices & [                {?}]
            my freshly tattooed arm is wrapped in polythene like the Sistine Chapel [del.]

(Cork 2010)

(Robert Sheppard and René Van Valckenborch)

 Lucia Ciancaglini was at work on the epic poem & when she died in 2010. She lived in Cork and Pisa (‘both towns with leaning towers’, as she mysteriously put it), and previously had published three books of poems including Pisa in Motion and a documentary poem Cork Gaol, and an autobiography Better a Death in the Family than a Pisan on your Doorstep. At one time, she worked on the Channel Six soap opera Vita et Mori.

She's not to be confused with Sophie Poppmeier, another of the EUOIA poets I am writing myself (on my own, for the same reason that she appeared in A Translated Man). Read about her here  and here and here. And about the project's progress here.

I am pleased to announce that Shearsman Books will be publishing the EUOIA anthology.  It will be called Twitters for a Lark and will appear in June or July 2017, in time for the EUOIA evening at The Other Room, Manchester.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry goes Open Access!

The Open Library of Humanities is extremely pleased to announce that the journal that I started with Scott Thurston, the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry, will be the first subscription journal to move to the completely open-access model offered by the OLH. The journal, previously published by Gylphi, centres on the poetic writings that have appeared in Britain and Ireland since the late 1950s under various categorizations, for example: avant-garde, underground, linguistically innovative, second-wave Modernist, non-mainstream, the British Poetry Revival, the parallel tradition, formally innovative, neo-modernist and experimental, while also including the Cambridge School, the London School, concrete poetry, and performance writing.

More here.

The eagle-eyed will notice that I have stepped down as one of the editors of the journal. Perhaps I should explain that (I should explain that: in case anybody thinks it is disagreement or pique that made me jump); I had always decided to leave, before I’d even set it up! I see (or saw) my role as setting up provisional institutions and then moving on to set up new ones. Also there is a clear younger generation of scholars capable of furthering the journal’s aims! (I’m still on the board, so I'm still on-board, so to speak.)

See the Bill Griffiths special edition here. The last print edition...


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

EUOIA: Gelynion (Bangor Reading): Alys Conran, Robert Sheppard and others (set list) including Cristofol Subira

Alys Conran and I took part in the Bangor leg of the Enemies Project/Gelynion last night. See more details here.

Bangor: May Tues 26th at the Blue Sky Cafe: details of the venue and its great food and drink here.  
We created the works of the EUOIA Catalan poet

Cristòfol Subira (1957-)
Other pairings were:

Nia Davies and SJ Fowler
Zoë Skoulding and Eurig Salisbury
Joe Dunthorne and Rhys Trimble
Sophie McKeand and Fiona Cameron
Karen Owen and Sian Northey
Ifor Ap Glyn and Ghazal Mosadeq

The reading also featured a performance by Welsh folk musician Elan Mererid Rhys, who also accompanied SJ and Nia.
I began: Robert: The last time I read in this room I was a Belgian. I was billed as the creature who features in my book A Translated Man, Rene Van Valckenborch. It was all Zoe Skoulding’s fault. It was slightly embarrassing – I remember Rhys Trimble compering and he said, staring straight and ironically at me, ‘After the break we’re going to have a fake Belgian,’ – but it suited me fine: I was reading Van Valckenborch’s supposed poems anyway, the ones he wrote in Walloon and the quite different ones he wrote in Flemish.

Before he starts to disappear at the end of the book he invents his own poets, 27 of them for each member state of the EU; the EUOIA, the European Union of Imaginary Authors. I wrote a few of these for the book, but Zoe again made me re-visit the complete list when we were asked to compose a collaborative poem for the Manchester Camarade by Steven Fowler. Thus Gurkan Arnavut was born.

That tipped me over into the madness of doing the lot as a curated and co-created anthology, and I am pleased that Alys Conran has agreed to join me in co-creating the Catalan poet Cristòfol Subira. We’re going to read one poem each, one from his Spanish side, and one from his Catalan side (he is a weird mirror of Van Valckenborch in that sense only), and it’s appropriate to read them first in bilingual Wales. But we want to emphasise that we both wrote both poems.

And now Alys is going to tell you about our creature, the little we (or the world) know of him.    

Alys: Cristòfol Subira was born in 1957 in Barcelona. He worked for many years as a street performer and living statue in the tourist districts of the city. Between 1980 and 2007, Subira produced four collections of poetry, alternately in Catalan and Spanish, but since then, his poetry has not appeared in print except for several unattributed poems inscribed on the paving of cul-de-sacs in the city, recently acknowledged as his work. There was one doubtful sighting in Brussels in the summer of 2010.

Robert: Freeze Block Station (from the Spanish)

Alys: Performance Between Two Points (from the Catalan)



I want to thank Alys for playing along with the EUOIA project and for bringing her linguistically and rhythmical tightness to the project. I think we both felt we'd made Subira happen. The other readers were wonderful; here’s one to give you the feel for the evening, and to demonstrate inter-lingual imagining of a different kind by Ifor Ap Glyn and Ghazal Mosadeq.


 All the performances may be accessed here.

 Sophie McKeand and Fiona Cameron
Karen Owen and Sian Northey
Ifor Ap Glyn and Ghazal Mosadeq
Robert Sheppard and
 Alys Conran
Nia Davies, SJ Fowler and Elan Mererid Rhys
Zoë Skoulding and Eurig Salisbury
Joe Dunthorne and Rhys Trimble
Elan Mererid Rhys (solo)

Subira was last heard of in my Shearsman book A Translated Man in Annemie Dupuis' dubious diary, which finishes off the book, and Van Valckenborch, and her. Which is why the 'sighting' is 'doubtful'.

Thursday 12 August 2010

I’m sitting in the dock, moist hand clinging to grimy rail. The courtroom of some Eastern European capital. Standing beside myself I know this is a dream.
         I’m accused of people-trafficking, but I don’t know why.
        Questioned through an interpreter, it strikes me. I have made up a fictional national poet– his name at least – by combining the forename and surname with the most diacritics in the language, the least vowels. But it’s also the name of a villain. The unshaven giant with the scar down his face whispering curses to a solicitor in a bursting shiny suit. The police must have found my notes, tangles of names.
          I realise the improbability of my alibi, the impossibility of communicating this. The interpreter squints at me, lost.
          I hear my name mispronounced by the judge in his frayed crimson gown. I am nudged to my feet. He looks through me.
Sophie Poppmeier of Austria, Erik Canderlinck of Belgium (Wallonia), Paul Coppens of Belgium (Flanders), Gurkan Arnavut of Cyprus, Jitka Průchová of the Czech Republic, Lucia Ciancaglini of Italy, Jurgita Zujūtė of Lithuania, Hubert Zuba of Malta, Maarten De Zoete of Holland, Trine Kragelund of Denmark, Cristòfol Subira of Spain (Catalunya). Yes, yes, stop there, at that one.
I wake in a spray of sweat.

Friday 13 August 2010

I laugh in a spray of sweat, swallowed by pillows, buoyed by the churned mattress.
Post-coital, soft and confessional, Cristòfol murmurs that he writes poems in Spanish as well as Catalan. Quite different ones, as it happens. I take a quick shower. I must avoid this again, affect indifference, even cruelty. I return rubbing my hair. When he presses into me, I bite his tongue. There’s blood.
It works.
Within hours I’m moved out. The stone dog on the corner of rue des Chartreux cocks its leg higher as I dip into the dark interior of a white car.

See here for more on the EUOIA.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Bob Cobbing's ABC in SOUND: a new edition from Veer with an introduction by me

'This 8th edition of Bob Cobbing’s 1965 ground-breaking polylingual sonic abecedary unites Jennifer Pike Cobbing’s cover design for its original publication as Sound Poems with the typeset text of later printings and a new introduction by Robert Sheppard which investigates its character, pre-history and subsequent realisations in performance.' (Adrian Clarke)

Veer Publication 067 [ISBN: 978-1-907088-76-6]
A5 size. 72 pages. March 2015. £6.00

Buy it here.

My introduction begins:

Bob Cobbing’s ABC in Sound is the nearest thing we have in English to Kurt Schwitters’ Ur-Sonate (1923) which it resembles in being an extended, structured text, designed for sound poetry performance, although the mode of structuring is not musical, like Schwitters’ ‘sonata’, but fundamentally lexical, in being based upon the alphabet. As such it resembles various non-concrete alphabet poems (see, for example, Peter Mayer’s anthology Alphabetical and Letter Poems), but the alphabet is more often, though not exclusively, a cause of alliteration and consonance, less an occasion for semantic or logical ordering. Cris cheek calls it ‘a plurilingual abecedarian tour de force’.

My footnotes contain some web links which, of course, work better on this platform. They are
The present location of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop version of the ABC, and state is: ‘In the BBC Sound Archive on tape TRW 6373: “ABC in Sound: Alphabet Poetry (o o-Montage). 3 reels: 1: Makeup; 2: Premaster: 3: Sono-Montage. Completed programme inserts (master).”, although it exists in several archives of electro-acoustic music. (from (accessed 5th October 2014)

Cobbing's extended performance called ‘Variations on a Theme of Tan’ (and other works) may be heard at (accessed 5th October 2014)

A group reading of the ABC at The Other Room, Manchester in 2012 may be accessed at
Four individual performances of the ABC by Jennifer Cobbing made in 2013 may be seen at these sites:;;; (all accessed 5th October 2014)

I write about the Third ABC in Sound here:

and more generally about Bob Cobbing's work here:

Friday, May 22, 2015

Robert Sheppard: Bobliography: Make Perhaps This Out Sense of Can You: symposium on Bob Cobbing (set list)

Chelsea College of Arts: Thursday 21 May 2015

Bob Cobbing (1920-2002) was a sound, concrete and visual poet, best known
for his performed works in which language was anarchically stretched through
shouts and hisses, interspersed between more recognisable tracts of spoken
word. He was also a prolific organiser and collaborator: one of the founders of
the London Filmmakers Co-op in the 1960s, manager of Better Books from
1965-7, and his imprint Writers Forum was amongst the first in the UK to
publish works by John Cage and Allen Ginsberg.

Make Perhaps This Out Sense of Can You contextualised Cobbing’s work as
a concrete poet as well as looking at his legacy as an organiser. What was surprising was the number of people there (130), mostly young and mostly none who knew or saw Cobbing. Although there was an emphasis upon Bob as a maker of images and maker of performances, there was less a sense of him as the maker of books (that the work wasn't art or music, but was literary). Paula Claire called Bob's texts 'triggers' rather than 'scores' and this distinction, made the night before, was referrred back to by a number of speakers. But the interest was encouraging. One fellow ex-Writers Forumite commented, 'Who would have thought this would happen?' (I like to think I would have.) It was good to meet academics like Fiona Becket who is coming back to this material, as is the wonderful Stephen Willey, and Rozemin Keshvani (the 'historian' of Better Books; see here), as well as muscians Hugh Metcalfe, whom I have not seen for years, and David Toop, who I met at Phil Davenport's pioneering Cobbing exhibition in Bury in 2005 (see a little-read post on that here), as well as Rosie Cooper and William Cobbing. Tim Fletcher who recorded late Bob; a man called Mark who has interesting plans, and the young man who liked my homage poems to Cobbing and who came to Bob's work through a secondhand LP! 

Robert Sheppard (set list)

I orginally called my piece (which I conceived and delivered as a performance):
We are both: a collage of writings about and for Bob Cobbing: autrebiography,
unwritings, poems, critical articles, stuff.

Then I called it 'Bits and Bobs'. Finally I entitled it BOBLIOGRAPHY.

I read pages, complete, from top to bottom of the prose, but the poems complete:

A: The Poetry of Saying p. 228
B: Far Language p. 61(includes my account of meeting Bob; reprinted here. Here's another account of my first encounter.)
C: poem: 'Codes and Diodes are both Odes':

Invent icicles dripping interference
and discover structural lift
in emergent interchange
opening like a clam – multiply coherent
shoals of desire. Flashes classic Hollywood shot
in erotic slippage exhaustion,
scorched doors for release. Desire
dances in the polyphonic
sentence, means a world, slips through
the signified, refunctioned
in our critical hold: jigsaw
scales, particle syntax admitting
intertexts and music of rhizomatic
diodes. Overlay of systems,
enough revealed delight to design
us all, while
magnetic words twin the
reader swiftly across echo’s edge.

D; from the Introduction to the Veer edition of ABC in Sound (newly published: buy here) p. 1 (a small fragment of it and more information and links here).
E: poem: The Magnetic Letter
F: ABC p. 2
G: Time Out for Words Out of Time Outtake for Bob Cobbing: (from my new book Words Out of Time):
I don’t remember writing to Bob Cobbing. I don’t remember that Bob Cobbing still wore knitted ties. I don’t remember Jeff Nuttall saying, ‘This place is death!’ as we cabbed it through Norwich. I don’t remember that William Empson had wind. Who is the American expert who predicts peace at least until 1985? Can he have guessed that Phil Minton would one day work with Bob Cobbing? Groundhogs ticket in his pocket: Cobbing plays him ‘e’. Exchange employment between time, shadowgraph, black holes. Lol Coxhill watches them perform, back against wall, bald head shining, Hawaiian shirt loose over white trousers, bottle in hand. Looking over the shoulder of the Angel of History.

H: ABC p. 3
I: poem: Verse and Perverse are Both Verses
J: ABC p. 4
K: poem: The Micropathology of the Sign. Which was the introduction to Bob's 'Processual'. Read here.
L: The Poetry of Saying p. 227
M: page from 'The British Poetry Revival', ening mid-sentence...

(The poems are from my first collaboration with Cobbing, Codes and Diodes,1991; our second collaboration, Blatent Blather/Virulent Whoops of 2000-2001, may be read here.) And there's a video of its last outing with me playing myself and Patricia Farrell reading the parts of Cobbing: here.

Bio for the occasion:

Robert Sheppard has just published Words out of Time, his autrebiographies
in which Bob Cobbing's knitted ties and his 'E' poem appear, from Knives
Forks and Spoons. A Selected Poems is due later in the year. Sheppard met
Cobbing in 1973 and has written on his work, collaborated with him, and
attended the Writers Forum workshops up until Cobbing's death. He has
recently supplied an introduction to the new Veer edition of ABC in Sound.

Read more about Cobbing here

Other contributors

Holly Antrum
CATALOGUE2014, film, 20 minutes
Moving our attention between the near and the far, seriousness and humor,
Jennifer Pike (93) recites ‘ABC in Sound’ (1964) by her late husband, Bob
Fiona Becket
The Poetics of the Machine: the example of Bob Cobbing
Fiona's paper addressed Bob Cobbing’s commitment to the
‘poetics of the machine’, and the relationship between the limitations and possibilities
of the technology in the formation of the text and its performance. , with plans to take
the exhibition to the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2017.
Karen di Franco
Karen Di Franco is an archivist and a curator, based at CHELSEA space,
Chelsea College of Arts.
Oscar Gaynor
Oscar Gaynor is a writer and artist currently studying Critical Writing in Art &
Design at the Royal College of Art. He reworked a text originally written in response to the Bob Cobbing exhibition staged at Chelsea Space in December 2014, that combines the
experiences and ramifications of working in the archives of the (neo-)avantgarde
with the sound and images pioneered by Cobbing. For the reading, he
was joined by Henrik Heinonen to interpret the text, an artist predominantly
using sound, studying at the Academy of Fine Arts, Helsinki. It was all about worms.
Will Holder
Typographer Will Holder organises writing around cultural objects. Holder is currently developing a protocol and interface for a collectively compiled catalogue of the Bob Cobbing archive. He read conceptual writing drawn from Cobbing's fight with the housing people at the GLC.
Holly Pester
Low Loom Bleep Bleep
A play on sound poetry and poor language expression, in which Holly performatively explored the work of sound poetics in the context of deskwork.
David Toop
David Toop is a musician, author, professor and Chair of Audio Culture and
Improvisation at London College of Communication. He has collaborated with artists ranging from John Latham, Bob Cobbing,Carlyle Reedy and Ivor Cutler to Rie Nakajima, Evan Parker, Max Eastley and Akio Suzuki. He palyed recordings of Abana and Bob.  
Steve Willey
Poetry is not about death, dying only: the Event as a Mechanism of Survival in
the Work of Bob Cobbing. From Six Variations on Typestract One, made for the Destruction in Art
Symposium (1966), to the collaborative version of Chamber Music, produced
for the annual Swedish Text-sound festival in Stockholm (1968), events played an central role in directing and shaping Cobbing's poetic practice.
The symposium was organised by William Cobbing and Rosie Cooper.

William Cobbing
Starting from a sculptural sensibility William Cobbing’s artworks encompass a
diverse range of media, including video, installation and performance. Grandson.
Rosie Cooper
Rosie is Head of Programmes at Liverpool Biennial. She also has an independent curatorial practice, and with William Cobbing, she has co-curated a series of events, displays and publications titled Bob
Jubilé that examines the legacy of Bob Cobbing, through the family archive

The symposium coincided with the Raven Row event Bob Cobbiiiiiiiiing Live, an evening celebrating the work of Bob Cobbing, with highlight performances by Hannah Silva (brilliantly performing along to Bob's HANNAH pages from the ABC) and David Toop (and students) and Paula Claire (the Joyce Grenfell of Experimental Poetry). Hansjorg Mayer spoke, which was incredible. That was the night before. Wednesday 20 May, 6.30pm

Here is an early post on Cobbing's Third ABC and DANS.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Robert Sheppard: The Meaning of Form. A Note and Footnote on Disruption, Interruption and Disjunction

‘The dream of a suitable political work of art,’ Rancière says during an interview, ‘is in fact the dream of disrupting the relationship between the visible, the sayable and thinkable’ – the three essential regimes of his thinking – ‘without having to use the terms of a message as a vehicle’; instead producing ‘meanings in the form of a rupture with the very logic of meaningful situations.’ (Rancière 2004: 63) Dissensual rupture – which I interpret, or at least envisage, as a formal activity – is inherently meaningful. ‘Interruption’ – a word that contains rupture – ‘is one of the fundamental devices of all structuring,’ says Benjamin, a statement that has proved its efficacy in two chapters of this study already, in contexts as different as the multi-systemic theorizing of Lotman and the practical multiform book-making practices of Bill Griffiths and Allen Fisher. (Benjamin 1970: 153) [i]


Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Fontana, 1970.
Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics. London and New York: Continuum, 2004.
Rowe, William (Walton). ‘Violence and Form in Bill Griffiths’s Cycles’, in Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry, forthcoming, 2015. 

 See other parts of The Meaning of Form project here.

For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places

Here is some book data:

eBook ISBN
Hardcover ISBN

[i] I use this identification in Chapters 4 and 9 of The Meaning of Form, but the quote from Benjamin is one of the ‘theses’ that opens my book of poets’ prose Unfinish, to be published by Veer. William Rowe, one of the editors at Veer (and much else!) prefers the word ‘disjunction’ to ‘interruption’, explaining: ‘The act of interruption does not bring a new ground to meaning into the frame, but on the contrary allows itself eventually to be subsumed.’ (Rowe forthcoming 2015) I read ‘rupture’ in the term, as my use here emphasizes, not intermission, as a synonym for disjunction.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Robert Sheppard: The Meaning of Form: From the Temporal to the Spatial (and Kamau Brathwaite)

I was writing about

the gradual re-forming of many contemporary forms of poetry from the temporal axis to the spatial axis. The ubiquity and ease of new technologies has made the visual disposition of text simpler to manipulate, to create complex effects, and there is a growth in ‘visual poetry’ that seems to owe little to classic concrete poetry. Attridge says such poems ‘use spatial arrangement to create effects in part by resisting the expectation that poems occur in time,’ which might be a formal shift of some consequence. (Attridge 2004: 72)

And later I find myself writing this analogous passage:

But perhaps the future lies elsewhere, in the example of Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite’s combination of his rooted ‘nation language’ with his deconstructions of page and screen in what he calls his ‘Sycorax Video Style’, which, deliberately ‘anti-elegant in shape’, in the words of Joyelle McSweeney, presents ‘an array of pumped-up lo-fi typefaces’. (MacSweeney 2013: np) Often re-moding his earlier poems, he escapes received pronunciation and the decorum of British ex- and neo-colonialist speech and language, as well as breaking the formal bounds of the equally imperial iambic pentameter, by adopting the visual aspects of word-processing (this being another shift from the temporal to the spatial in contemporary poetics, as noted earlier with reference to visual innovative sonnets).

See the rest of The Meaning of Form project here.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Robert Sheppard: The Meaning of Form: Stefan Themerson on Belief and Knowledge

I was struck, reading my Chapter on Stefan Themerson, that I had included these summaries of his attitudes to 'belief', salutory words in a world in which the word 'faith' is treated with hushed reverence, as though its claims were beyond discussion (or ridicule).

The world of Themerson’s writing, like that of Lewis Carroll, is one in which logic and poetry wrestle, an antagonism that runs from the early French poem ‘Croquis dans les ténèbres’ (written 1941), in which the divergent languages of science and poetry contrast with the pedantic language of those who assume rather than seek truth (they are mere believers in Themerson’s taxonomy and thus dangerous), through to his penultimate novel The Mystery of the Sardine (1986) in which a Catholic priest neatly but pointlessly believes in God but does not believe in his belief. (1)

What appears to be ethical aporia at the end of his 'Semantic Sonata' (1945) is actually the first step towards a stance that will eventually match the summary Bertrand Russell gives of the ethics of Themerson’s novel Professor Mmaa’s Lecture (written 1942-3): ‘The world contains too many people believing too many things, and it may be that the ultimate wisdom is contained in the precept that the less we believe, the less harm we shall do.’ (Russell 1984: ii) This ‘wisdom’ leads to Themerson’s late belief – I use the word to emphasize the delicate irony of his position – that ‘All ideologies, all missions, all corrupt … Because, when all is said and done, decency of means is the aim of aims.’ (Wright 2005: ix.) Ends, historical or not, do not justify the means; only the means may ‘justify’ the means.

See also the website of the Themerson Archives, the British one at and the Polish at See also the site for Gaberbocchus Press at Three surviving films may be viewed at He may be heard on 1983 number 3,1977, a recording which I am proud to note that I co-published. (All accessed 25 March 2010).

See the rest of The Meaning of Form project here.


(1) Other freaks in Themerson’s work include Cardinal Pölätüo (whose very name is a typographical joke), the poet-phobic father of Apollinaire, who successfully engineers his offspring’s death, but who lives – ever slowing in his adjustable modernist chair in his Vatican palace – until he is 200 years old when, in 2022 he manages to teleport himself in duplicate form to several destinations in the US simultaneously. See Cardinal Pölätüo (1961).

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Robert Sheppard: Words Out of Time Published

Although pre-announced here, Knives Forks and Spoons has just published my Words Out of Time:

Words Out of Time deforms and reforms a 'story' of my life as an othering, an ‘autrebiography’, in modes that include what I call ‘unwriting’, in this case working through and transforming diaries and journals. The Given tells it in four different ways, from a litany of what hasn’t been remembered (a reversal of Joe Brainard's 'I Remember'!) to an alphabetical disfigurement of its features. Arrival invents a demonic sibling, generated from the diaries, restlessly inhabiting lyrics, a short story, an essay and footnotes. Audiences have found it spooky; I do too. In When I go coolly conceptual with ‘With’, while ‘Words’ weaves abandoned (found) texts to shake up this history (another 'unwriting'); ‘Work’ distends temporality, reverses standard autobiography’s fascination with origins, slows down time to show how work works its way into a life. I'm pleased with the trext and I'm very pleased with the job Alec Newman has done on the book (particularly the way he uses the cover images as section headings inside).

This is what they said of part one The Given, when it was separately published by KFS (now o/p):

On one level this is one of the most accessible and readable works Sheppard has produced; it’s also one of the strangest in its quiet subversions and playfulness, its self-questioning and self-awareness.

Rupert Loydell

I should have read your book already and I liked everything about it.  There you are characteristically free of flash or reserve and it increases the sum of what can be written about I think.  And it’s funny.

Kelvin Corcoran

In this intricate work, the poet asks: ‘Why does experimental writing demand experimental reading?’ The answer lies partly in the way in which, by bearing witness to another’s reorganisation of self, one might also find oneself reorganised in new and surprising ways.

Scott Thurston

This is a compressed autobiography, but unlike most autobiographies, it doesn’t hide the fact that the life-story it tells is invented by the very language used to tell the story…This is an impressive piece of work, but it’s only one small piece of the output of this prolific and inventive writer, who is always looking for new ways to extend poetic expression, and whom most contemporary poets could learn something from.
Alan Baker

Read a sample (from Arrival) and buy online: £10 here.

Read my account of writing The Given here

And read another sample, from When here.Click for pdf.

There are even some outtakes here, stretches of 'When' that didn't make the final edit, here.

Here's a later review of it here.

Also edited from the book was this diagram of the dates that are referred to in this work, the plot rather than the story, as the Russian Formalists would have said. I love the span and the occasional specificity. The earliest date is a bit of a surprise. The October 1977 date is a bit of a tease, a grim red herring (work it out!)

500 BC ↔ 16th Century ↔ 1549 ↔ 1800 ↔ 1899 ↔ 1916 ↔ 1920s ↔ 1930s ↔ 2 August 1931 ↔ 1940s ↔ 1950 ↔ 1955 ↔ 14 August 1956 ↔ 1958 ↔ 1959 ↔ 1960s ↔ 1960 ↔ 1965 ↔ 1967 ↔ 1968 ↔ 1970s ↔ 1971 ↔ 1973 ↔ 4.40 pm, Wednesday, 3 July 1974 ↔ 1974 ↔ 1976 ↔ 18 October 1977 ↔ 1981 ↔ 1985 ↔ 1987 ↔ 1998 ↔ 1999 ↔ 2008 ↔ 1 May 2009 ↔ 2009 ↔ 2010 ↔ 2011 ↔ 1 March 2012 ↔ 4 March 2012 ↔ 2012

↔ 2013

The hero awaiting a rival; if you scroll this image quickly it animates!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Robert Sheppard: The Meaning of Form (a near-deletion: 'The Baby and the Bathwater: A Formalist-Humanism' in Reality Studios 1981)

In writing the book The Meaning of Form (as I still call it, despite the fact it's acquired a tail, in Contemporary Innovative Poetry) I wondered whether I should make a reference to my ‘The Baby and the Bathwater: A Formalist Humanism’ essay that appeared in Reality Studios in 1981. Although I wrote a long footnote saying that it pre-figured many of the themes of the book, however wrong-headed, I deleted it, and prefer that it should be referenced here alone. Given that the whole run of this extraordinary British magazine, edited by Ken Edwards, is now online at Jacket2 here I thought to link with the piece anyway, for the curious. You’ll need to scroll to page 53 (of Vol 3, 1981: start here.) Then read all the good stuff there from Ken's excellent contributors...

Notice the appearance of the work of Yury Lotman and Herbert Marcuse, which has remained with me, as has the demolition of theories of self-expression as the essence of art that I had cadged from Karl Popper, and which re-appeared in The Meaning of Form (and in these posts here, as 'A Note on Self-Expression and Conceptual Writing').

It all comes round, I find. No, it doesn't all come round. Some things did go out with the bathwater, but it's never the baby, even if it sometimes feels like it.

(See the rest of the 'Meaning of Form' project here.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Robert Sheppard: The Meaning of Form and Derek Attridge’s The Work of Literature

The Work of Literature

Wednesday 29th April 2015: A journey to Brighton, desperately reading Derek Attridge’s new The Work of Literature for The Meaning of Form, an odd prelude to my Hi Zero reading… Another post here tells the story of that reading, but these notes will tell another, interior narrative, of my engagement, I hope my ‘hospitality’, to this book, as I read it on trains, in the sunshine in Brighton, where I seemed to be for a moment, appropriately ‘staged’ in the background of a short scene from the TV drama Cuffs. ‘That’s a terrible title,’ I told the girl who held me back while they filmed it again. And reading more in the bar of the Euston Tap, and on the train home to Liverpool.

The title of Derek Attridge’s book is accurate to his concept of the act-event of reading, and to the distinction between the text and work, both of which I think are newly emphasised concepts since his seminal The Singularity of Literature which forms a critical bedrock to my work The Meaning of Form. (See here for the manifold links to this work on this blog.) Indeed, it was an encounter with Attridge at a two-day conference in Salford, perhaps as long ago as 2000, where I was road-testing my Levinasian reading of Tom Raworth, that informed both the chapter on Raworth in The Poetry of Saying and the essay on poetry and ethics in When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry, that introduced me to the thinking in The Singularity. Derek Attridge kindly promised me a copy of his latest essay the next day, and lo! and behold! it (and he) appeared. (All I had at that time to give him was a copy of Far Language.) This sneak-preview prepared me for The Singularity of Literature which – when I discovered the New Formalists, from whom Attridge keeps a respectful distance – merged with their thinking (and with others, like Leighton and DeBolla and even Michael Wood), and laid the ground for the theoretical framework of The Meaning of Form. Therefore a new book on these theoretical groundings is both an excitement and a challenge. Arriving as it has at the point where (apart from the tracking down of typos, the elision of solecisms) I like to think of the book as ‘finished’, it would clearly be difficult to deal with complete changes of direction, but that is not in fact what I have found.

Attridge describes the book as both a ‘supplement’ (11) and a ‘fuller account’ (Attridge 2015: 11) of the argument of the earlier book, and indeed there are changes of emphasis rather than complete changes of direction. At certain points, a judicious quotation from the new book might operate as a supplement or fuller account of my own formalist readings, but I think I need to resist the urge to pepper the typescript with footnotes to it. Indeed, where I reference Attridge’s book on Coetzee, I think I will add a brief account of the new book and indeed declare that it was published in the final draft stages of writing the book. (Indeed, Attridge himself faces this dilemma: Badiou has a walk on part in The Singularity and Dewey is a new encounter in The Work of Literature. He also quotes Ranciere and uses the same quote I do; of course, there is a small and not very open part of myself that wants to claim having found that independently and not through this new book, and have the need to say so. I’ve said it. But on the other hand, this proves that this supplement is supplementary. We’ll get to the one disagreement later.) Attridge’s intervening book, The Forms of Poetry appeared in 2013 and I was able to integrate that work into still evolving critical debates. Here the supplement will be doubly supplementary (which is probably a good way of putting it).

He agrees with the ‘against method’ tendencies of the New Formalists, the sense that there isn’t a strong method. As Attridge says: ‘A critical method should be no more powerful than is absolutely necessary for the task it is called to carry out.’ (162) Why? Because: ‘The more powerful the critic’s technique, the less reliable the critical judgements it is used to make.’ (162)

What follows is a series of notes on particular aspects of the new book that add something new, and which might be smuggled into my text or appended as footnotes (where appropriate, and the level of appropriateness might be sensibly gauged as I progress through them). This is not a review or even a summary of the book. (Read it!)

The account of otherness seems strengthened, to remind us that otherness is ‘unencounterable’. (Attridge 2015: 55). It is still, though, ‘a dimension of the literary experience that manifests itself as surprise or unfamiliarity, whether massive or minimal’. (55) It also ‘refers to the work of art’s challenge to existing frameworks of knowledge, feeling, and behaviour’. (219) Singularity is ‘the welcoming of alterity’. (143) It is openness to change. ‘The singular work does not have a bounded and unchanging identity; on the contrary it’s open to change and reinterpretation.’ (56) But it’s also ‘a constellation made possible for both creator and reader by habits of interpreting, thinking and feeling’. (140) (The trio of ‘alterity, invention and singularity’ is emphasised in a way I don’t quite remember from The Singularity, and I think I might say so. Of course it is completely under the signature of these two books to say that the re-experiencing (or re-forming) of the first will be in-formed by the act-event of reading the second (in fact that’s already proved or I wouldn’t feel the imperative of making these notes.) OK: so ‘invention’ the third term, is ‘always the invention of the other’ (220).

These three things depend upon the engagement with the text, of course. I’ve always borrowed from reader-response theory the notion of the active reader. I wrote somewhere that Lee Harwood’s work forces us to engage with it, to become active. In the TLS, Peter Robinson rightly corrected me, and pointed out that Harwood’s work is the least coercive of works (which is way I now write of the ‘gentle art of collage’). Attridge may help here. In The Singularity he insists upon the fact that genuine literary engagement (that is when one is reading non-instrumentally) is both an event that occurs and an action that the reader does, that is both passive and active. ‘The coming-into-being of the work of art is, I’ve been arguing,’ Attridge argues, ‘both an act and an event: it’s something the artist does … and something that happens to the artist’. (220) Creation and reception are similar: ‘I use the term “act-event” in order to capture the strange duality of this process in which active and passive are not clearly separable – whether we’re talking about the work or the person responding to it. In this way, the work is remade each time it is read’. (247) (This definition I might invite into the text, offer it hospitable re-definition.) Reading is a ‘willed passivity’. (2)

Music is dealt with briefly and Attridge makes a remark very close to the way I’d already adapted his thinking to talk about the music-poetry collaborations of Geraldine Monk (which I’d written about at great length on this blog as preparation for the concise but phenomenological ‘reading’ of the resultant ‘text’ (though now I must be coaxed into thinking of it as a ‘work’). He remarks: ‘Our active listening to a musical piece is a kind of performance of the performance we are hearing’. (68) And so I might add are my revised posts. (Here’s one.)

Attridge makes the distinction between a ‘text’ which is simply text (words or whatever) and the ‘work’, which is when it is elevated to being read in a literary way ‘as distinct from other cultural practices’, as he puts it. (98) I agree with this, but I’m not sure it isn’t too late to police every use of the words in my book. This distinction is for later. Or never. Attridge himself has ‘my engagement with the text,’ on one occasion when he is referring to a text that becomes a work. (302) It's a difficult distinction to maintain in ordinary critical discourse (unless one is writing about Barthes, of course, who also, but differently, uses this binary).

Both Adorno and Susan Stewart talk about exclusions in terms of literary creation. It is one of the scenes of guilt Adorno advertises, and Stewart reinforces the notion that any aesthetic choice (‘Mespotamia’ is in prose) presupposes what could have been otherwise (‘Mesopotamia’ as a verse-novel!). (I can’t find quotations to deal with this. As can be seen, it is covered from other angles in my book already.)

Notions of form are vital to Attridge’s argument, although he doesn’t say a lot here. ‘The event of the literary work is a formal event, involving among other things, or rather among other happenings, shifts in register, allusions to other discourses … the patterning of rhythms, the linking of rhymes, the ordering of sections, the movement of syntax, the echoing of sounds: all operating in a temporal medium to surprise, lull, intrigue, satisfy’. (117) ‘What’s traditionally called “form” is one aspect of this moving complex, inseparable from what’s traditionally called “content”.’ (117) This isn’t a surprise after my assimilations of his thinking for The Meaning of Form but underlines eventness as a element of form, so that this quotation might appear somewhere in my lightly revised text. The interinanimation of form and content is well-covered already in my book, but this might be interesting to new readers of this blog. The idea that form stages the encounter with the text is present in the earlier book, and quoted in mine, but this particular formulation seems a powerful way of presenting the point: ‘It’s through formed language that we’re invited to participate in its emotion-arousing capacities; this means we feel the emotions, but always as performances of language’s power.’ (267) Responding to this handling of form makes it literature.

Ethics, when it appears, seems to be related more to the 'ethical turn' of The Poetry of Saying than to the present study, my 'formal turn', as I put it in my introduction. (My first and last footnotes trace this congruence. Here.)  I might also skip over this while acknowledging the extraordinary account of responsible reading on page 147 in the chapter 3, ‘Singularity’. The final chapter on hospitality is a brilliant exposition of a post-Levinasian late-Derridean ethics; indeed, after Derrida, Attridge reminds us that ‘ethics is hospitality’.

One of the themes that I picked up from Peter DeBollas’ Art Matters is that – unlike Guinness – art may not be (automatically) good for you. Attridge reminds us of this too (and it is salutary reading for those who want to argue for instrumentalist functions for the arts in terms of wellbeing, including some in my own university). ‘Otherness is otherness: there is no way of knowing in advance whether its advent will be beneficial or disastrous,’ Attridge says. (149) ‘There can be no absolute guarantee that this change will be for the good, but without this risk – minimized, fortunately, by the operations of the norms of conditional hospitality (including ‘a system of norms and conventions’ (p. 149)) – there would be no genuine openness to the other and no possibility of doing justice to the singular work of literature. (305) Maybe worth tempering the De Bolla with that. After all:

we’re at a love poem
that causes you to think
war with just about anyone 
it bristles with
implication as you touch
its forms you form it in acts
of forming not
tricks and triggers upon
the wall of cognition for the forms
know a thing or two and not one
might be good for you as
a voice slaps across the screen

(My poem ‘Trigger Warning’, dedicated to my students and included here.)

The conclusion to the book is worth quoting, because it neatly wraps many themes within it, especially the last two expressed above: ‘The outcome of a hospitable reading … is a change in the reader, perhaps not only in the way he reads other works but more widely too. Without hospitality to what is new, other, outside the borders of my comprehension and comfort, I will put down the poem or the novel, or leave the theatre, just the same as I was before my engagement with the text. There can be no absolute guarantee that this change will be for the good, but without this risk – minimized, fortunately, by the operations of the norms of conditional hospitality – there would be no genuine openness to the other and no possibility of doing justice to the singular work of literature. (305)

(I’ve another passage marked in my journal for what it speaks to poetics, of the art of writing, which is always a sub-stratum of my critical work. Another post here soon!)

This makes it seem (as is largely the case) that I have only found confirmation rather than challenge in his new book. This is not so at all, but I have a particular interest in establishing continuities of theme. The reader (if there is one) may be pleased to find a disagreement with the text, one that comes out of the fact I found my own answer to a question he did not deal with in the earlier book, but which is raised elsewhere in the new formalist canon.

This ‘argument’ (if that’s what it is) haunts The Meaning of Form: form thinks; forms think. The question is raised by Peter de Bolla and Simon Jarvis, as well as by Robert Kaufman to a lesser extent and also by Michael Wood (whose work is now only a footnote, after publisher’s readers’ comments; you can read a post here soon). It’s an interesting, surprising, perhaps counter-intuitive, question, and although Attridge doesn’t answer it in The Singularity of Literature, he does turn to the issue in The Work of Literature.

I came to my own conclusions about this. This was to regard form or literary artefacts as embodying 'extended mind', as in the thinking of Lambros Malafouris. I explained the thinking in outline here and in detail here, but also in the final ‘tight little paragraph’ which (oddly) few people have read, and which might be the best place for a reader to reprise my argument. Here. (Though a longer piece accessible here, expresses my extended thinking on extended mind.) Malafouris says: ‘For active externalism, marks made with a pen on paper are not an ongoing external record of the contents of mental states; they are an extension of those states.’ (Malafouris 2013: 74) It follows that ‘cognition has no location,’ or no fixed location between mind and things. (Malafouris 2013: 85) The same goes for form, I conclude (whilst still acknowledging the conjectural nature of the thinking about form that I examine). Malafouris himself - we exchanged emails - is interested that his thoughts should be useful to the literary scholar. 

Although Attridge opines that ‘When a work seems to be possessed of its own capacity to think, to question, to harbour knowledge, so much so that we call on metaphors that supply it with a brain, a will, a consciousness, it’s a sign of both its otherness and its inventiveness,’ (Attridge 2015: 253) this apprehension (he dubs it ‘anthropomorphism’, or ‘metaphor’ (Attridge 2015: 242)) does not alone account for an artwork’s cognitive aspects (will and consciousness is not an issue here). For Attridge, ‘Works of art don’t “know” or “think” … though they can involve the viewer, reader or auditor in a performance of knowing or thinking.’ (255) This doesn’t deal with the embodiment Malafouris argues of human artefacts. Even though ‘Every work is a knowing work, every work smiles enigmatically, because there is no way we, or it, can satisfy the thirst for knowledge that it generates,’ (257) this does not do justice – to use one of Attridge’s key terms – to the cognitive material engagement that an artwork summons into activity.

As ever, Attridge has gifted to the literary (and, I’d say, the creative) world (see a post here soon), a fine account of how we read a text as a literary work. From my point of view, form is central (nothing can be staged or performed unless it is formed) and this book helps to access that mystery. The final chapter on hospitality, as I’ve said above, brings my two theoretical critical works, The Poetry of Saying and The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry (to give it its full new title) together. My strictly literary critical Odyssey seems rested. It looks like, feels like, Ithaca ahead, but is it? Could it be a mirage, a phantom of some spell-binding enchantress? It could almost be part of my ‘responsibility not to give the reader something that is wholly and immediately intelligible, but to leave a space open for individual interpretation,’ that signals my need to arrive in disguise, and disappear. (304)

Works Cited

Attridge, Derek. The Singularity of Literature. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.
Attridge. Derek. (2015). The Work of Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Malafouris, Lambros. How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement. Cambridge, Mass. and London: The MIT Press, 2013.

A brief summary of the theory of The Meaning of Form project may be read here (and a 200 word version here), but the best place to start is probably the hub page of links to all the working posts towards this book, here. Though there is a later post where a paragraph from The Work of Literature is highlighted for its contribution to writerly poetics, here.