Friday, January 24, 2020

Robert Sheppard: Thoughts on Collaboration 2

(Thoughts on Collaboration 1 may be read here:

This post will also operate as the hubpost for this strand as it grows)

Collaborating with someone (when it is not a matter of setting in music or illustration in image) is truly experimental, and can feel more so when one does not possess the language of that other medium. (That might be code for: one does not know what one is doing.)

The language I (think) I understand most is music. I have occasionally added my own music to performances. You can still view my 2008 re-enactment of a late 1990s version of my ‘mythology of the blues’, ‘Smokestack Lightning’ here.

And here is a photograph of me not publicly eating a hamburger but playing the harmonica and singing one of my ‘Petrarch 3’ variations (one not in print, incidentally, since I see it as a performance piece only, a ‘song’ actually).

But working with musicians is rare. I’ve read part of the text with The Blind Lemons too, but that was an impromptu (though Tony Parsons did used to read the passage himself at some gigs.) (See here.)

 But that wasn’t quite what I mean and isn’t listed on the ‘Collaborations’ page of my website, which is the best guide to what I have achieved collaboratively. See here:

As you will see from that page the only straight music was work with Peter F. Stacey and our Ship’s Orchestra group, circa 1980. He and Stevie Wishart did set some poems to music, and we had a piece by Christopher Fox written for us. (He was not then a well-known composer.) We had a go at a piece Bob Cobbing had given me: ‘Mind Axe-Ting’ I think it’s called. But it’s all a bit vague now, and nothing was recorded. I wanted to cassette record us but Peter kept saying we’d get into the UEA studio one day – but we never did. (I also sang briefly in a folk band with them!)

Working with musicians is something I’d like to attempt again. (I mean apart from being in a band as a singer, something I’ve kept quite distinct from this kind of collaboration. And no, I don’t write generally write songs.)

Bob Cobbing and I did perform Blatant Blather/Virulent Whoops – and I believe that was filmed. There are flights of sound poetry in it, using the visual score that I introduced. (Bob wanted the text to be purely lexical (The text may be read here..) Patricia Farrell and I have revived the piece a number of times in homage to Bob. I’ll come back to the text of that exchange in a later post.

(See video here:

 By contrast, my ‘Collaborations’ page details (at least in gig terms) the works I wrote for (and with) Jo Blowers. ‘Shutters’, was ‘with’ because she identified passages in a draft of the poem that she liked and I developed only those. In general terms, I don’t think I ever understood the language of movement in performance, although I think I wrote great pieces for her and other dancers to use (in many different ways, it should be said). We are both living locally and occasionally works are revived. See Here and here.

My longest collaborations have been with Patricia Farrell. That was amply demonstrated at the Edge Hill Ship of Fools exhibition that accompanied the Robert Sheppard Symposium in 2017. Collaboration methods varied from – occasionally – illustration of a pre-existing text (our New Year’s cards are usually a rushed version of this). Even some of the best might be thought of as ‘illustrations’, Mesopotamia, Fucking Time, for instance, but the default collaboration method seems to be for us both to look at the same thing and to produce two semi-autonomous sets of works which we then present together. ‘Looking North’: we took photographs together of North London in 1987 and then produced the works and combined them. ‘The Blickensderfer Punch’: ditto with the typewriters in the Ship and Mitre around 2001. Fandango Loops: ditto with images of Copenhagen (although I did use the shapes of Patricia’s abstract images to determine the shape of the unconventional quennets that were produced): 2012ish. On my part it is to be classed as ekphrasis (but only in the twisted way I approach it, which I explain here. Open Eye.) Writing this account gets me thinking we should do another collaboration soon! To do so I suspect we would identify a focus and then photograph it or work from images of it. (Patricia has also taken part as a collaborator in performance with me, not just as in the Cobbing piece, but as a second voice in various contexts. She often provides covers for my books, but again they aren’t quite collaborations, although they come from a collaborative life, as it were.)

with Patricia Farrell cover
You can get a sense of all this from the grainy photos of the Ship of Fools exhibition. Here
are lots of photographs of that accessible through another loaded hub post


I shall later return to deal with the two literary collaborations we have produced. (You can also see what Patricia is up to solo via her website:

This is her own page on ‘Collaborations’ too:

Reading at the exhibition (Pete's works behind)

For a far shorter period I have been collaborating with the painter and print-maker Pete Clarke. He has had along practice of using text in images as a kind of secondary signifier. Patricia, by contrast, would not combine the two languages, although she both paints and writes. (She has also written a perceptive piece on the collaborations with Pete in The Robert Sheppard Companion. See here:

.) Our first batch of collaborations was exhibited in full at the 2013 Edge Hill exhibition (see here:

). The most recent have thus far only been seen as the cover of last year’s Micro Event Space which contains the ‘Arena Area’ text written after our walk around the docks of Liverpool. He has dozens of small canvases with (parts of) my minimal text upon it. Take the first poem:

parked in the park forever

a darkness that darkens the lungs
concentrated pitch

See how that appears on the cover of the book:

 Cover Micro Event Space:

Here are some links. Read more about the book (including links to its micro-launches, other reviews and how to purchase it) HERE! 

More here: Pages: Pete Clarke's new catalogue and our on-going collaborations (

Working with Pete is a slow burner but there will be future opportunities, I’m sure, simply to show some of the work and possibly to read some of it.

Thomas Ingmire is an American calligrapher and we have ‘collaborated’ on a couple of pieces, I think. I put collaborated in inverted commas because he doesn’t think that that is what we have been doing. ‘Interactive’ would be the word. The first piece he worked on was a calligraphic version of a poem from Warrant Error called ‘Afghanistan’ (the poem itself was produced from photos). I don’t recall the process. But I write about it here.


The most recent piece, ‘Synovial Joints’, was for Thomas’ 2018-19 exhibition at the Jewett Gallery in San Francisco, ‘Visual Poetry: A Lyrical Twist’. (See here for more information, images and a video:

). He sent me images and I had to choose which ones I liked. I think: which ones reflected either the music I was interested in, or the poem. My poem was an outtake of the ‘overdubs’ I produced from the sonnets of Milton. It combined phrases from Milton’s sonnet for musician Henry Lawes and an interview with Steve Coleman, the jazz sax player, whose album provided the title. At some point I was also responding to a recording of solo sax by a friend of Thomas, Clifford Burke. I think it was an interpretation of his calligraphy for the first poem. Anyway, whatever the case, the process involved interactive decisions on my part that fed into, possibly determined, parts of the final work. Unlike Patricia and Pete, the artist and his studio are not near at hand, so this is how it has to be. I dearly want to write a poem for him, perhaps interacting with his calligraphy. Certainly the theme of music has been flagged up for future use.

Image of poster
part of the calligraphy for 'Synovial Joints' at the top

Talking of music, my most immediate collaboration is concerned with music – and this time the non-literary art is photography. I’ve used photography a lot in my writing and in some of my collaborations (and I talk about that here, along with (rejected) earlier plans for the work I now am describing.) My friend Trev Eales was always keen on rock (and some folk, less jazz) music and we met in October 1974 at a Thin Lizzy concert at UEA, and we’ve been friends since. In later years he took to photographing at rock and world music festivals, eventually working for organisers and online review magazines (I think). I looked at his website (see here: and was astonished by some of the photos (both the rock festival commissions and his landscape work). He lives in Barrow-in-Furness and over the last ten years we’ve been meeting in Lancaster during the day now and then, in all weathers. One sunny day, at a pub by the river, I posited the notion that I might write a few poems to go with a few of his photos – and maybe they could be exhibited. This couldn’t be a simultaneous co-composition. I wasn’t with him at the concerts. It was therefore his job to arrange the images in what we called ‘galleries’, groups often of three images. Some were of bands (The Rolling Stones, Blur), some of music types (reggae artists, senior women), some in relation to their physical stances, some were even based around musical instruments (bass players). Kamasi Washington was all on his lonesome as a jazz saxophone player. In the poem for him I refer to bumping into him in the street with another friend, the poet James Byrne. Otherwise I am absent from the poems as I was absent from the festivals. Halfway through the process, though, we did attend the ill-fated Hope and Glory Festival in Liverpool together (I liked the VIP lanyard!) , and although none of Trev’s photos from that day were used in the final work, it was important for me to see him at work, crushed in the press pit, leaping up during a performance at a decisive moment. However, we did see Badly Drawn Boy (not to be confused with my son, Badly Overdrawn Boy, another collaboration with Patricia!) and I recall the sudden change in acoustic – but mostly the sense of menace I felt about the failure of crowd control. Nobody misbehaved but we were crushed in by crowds in narrow passages, and nobody from Liverpool in that crush could not have not thought of Hillsborough. (Not a day goes by in Liverpool without a thought of Hillsborough.) Here’s the poem:

Badly Drawn Boy

After the belly-rumble bass, the
diaphragm-rattling beat, these
domed thoughts come pure and raw,
acoustic bliss. Framed, projected,
he could dwarf his own performance.

We stand well back and watch
the crowd washing over a wall.

Crushed in a funnel of shuffles,
the pressure at our backs compels.
Lost, we cease to listen. Uncrowded

notes float
into the Victorian Liverpool sky.

Selection was as much its artifice as collaboration. Trev’s selection and combination of images. Then my selection of galleries to write through. My problem was trying to minimize the prevalence of male artists and guitar-players. I think we achieved a balance (more or less: depends how you count: people in the photos, the ‘star’ of the band, the faces in the crowd?)… Of course, photos from the press pit (the photographers are allowed in for the first three numbers only) have a uniform angle, so it was good to see Damon Albarn from above, the Jessie J band face on, Arcade Fire from a long way away. There was a lot of to and fro-ing on email and also one meeting at The Sun in Lancaster with Trev’s laptop. 

Originally the poems were going to be short, and relatively accessible. We were thinking of an exhibition only, but that’s not likely now. In fact, we had a book lined up, but that was unavoidably pulled. As of now (I'm updating this post on 14th July 2020) we are not sure where the project will go, if anywhere. There is a series of poems of course, but not all of them will see the light of day. 

That brings it up to date. There are some future plans. Pete and I will doubtless carry on. Thomas has gestured towards more. Trev has his bucolic side to consider. Patricia and I ought to attempt another work (a text and image work) soon.

The keywords that emerge are: collaboration: interaction: selection: arrangement. The one thing that hasn’t happened is simultaneity, actually writing while music, drawing, painting, printing, calligraphy, or photography is happening. Pete collaborates with the Koln artist Georg Gartz and they literally paint on the same surface at the same time. Must be fun. (My one use of simultaneity is among my literary collaborations, the one with Ian McMillan.) 

Why do it? I’ve just mentioned fun, and that can be there, certainly. If it isn’t fun, as Robert Creeley wrote, don’t do it! Fellowship with another artist is important. With someone you respect and trust. Then you can afford to experiment, to make mistakes as well as takes. There is give and take, which is rare for a writer (unless you write for the theatre). You’re suddenly not alone. Dialogue. Community. But mostly it must be for the challenge of change. It will change you, it will change the work, not just the unprecedented and unpredictable work that is produced from interaction and collaboration, but the practice that lies outside of that. It involves an act-event that abandons poetics in the service of changing poetics. And you hope in some sense it is that for the other party (or parties) too. There is the added strangeness of working across media, in situations one doesn’t completely control or understand, but I think these reasons for participating in collaboration are generally the same for working within the same medium. That’s a surprise.  

And the subject of my next forthcoming post... Part three, is here.

This post above will also serve as the hubpost for all the posts in this strand