Saturday, March 20, 2010

Secret Influences 1: Word Association

A few years back Tim Conley and I were talking about influences on our work that are not readily apparent in our writing, but nonetheless play an important part in shaping our aesthetics. We came up with a few examples, mostly drawn from films, music, or visual works that we enjoyed as adolescents and that now seemed rather juvenile in retrospect. Without getting Freudian I started to wonder if we ever completely overcome our early influences or, at the very least, can we learn anything about ourselves and our poetics by examining these early "secrets"?

In the spirit of that investigation I went back to one of the earliest embarrassing influences on my poetry: a skit by John Cleese. During my teen and pre-teen years in Oshawa, Monty Python was a big source of entertainment at mostly-male weekend gatherings where the albums and films were always in heavy rotation. I imagine it has been the same among socially-awkward and pseudo-intellectual boys across North America and the U.K. for the past 30 years. Thus it is with chagrin that I realize how much my early writing was influenced Cleese's "Word Association."

This piece taught me about parataxis long before I read Gertrude Stein, about the importance of grammatical shifters years before encountering Steve McCaffery, and the energy that can be created by shifting verbal registers before I had even heard of Bruce Andrews. Both the skill of this performance and and the humour of this piece reminds me of the best LANGUAGE poetry, and I wouldn't be surprised if I one day learned that Charles Bernstein was inspired by some of the Pythons (although I'm guessing he would cite Groucho Marx and early American comedians before the British). I also seem to recall that Brian Kim Stefans once made a quip about possible connections between the performances of John Cleese and Steve McCaffery. I can't remember if Steve thought the comparison flattering or apt, but I think there's something there: in my writing, if not in his and the others.