ArtSunday: the nonlinearity of influence

“I’m interested in what motivates you, and how you understand the world.” He glanced sideways at her. “Rausch tells me you’ve written about music.”

“Sixties garage bands. I started writing about them when I was still in the Curfew.””Were they an inspiration?”

She was watching a fourteen-inch display on the Maybach’s dash, the red cursor that was the car proceeding along the green line that was Sunset. She looked up at him. “Not in any linear way, musically. They were my favorite bands. Are,” she corrected herself.

He nodded.

William Gibson, Spook Country

I’ve always been intrigued by the curious dynamic of influence. This passage from Gibson’s latest finds the protagonist, a journalist who was formerly part of a short-lived band (of precisely the sort you’d expect to fascinate Gibson – not a huge commercial success, but possessing an intellectual depth that would assure riveted cult status for a generation or more) talking with her new employer (again, a typically Gibsonian character, intrigued by the potential to bridge the critically obscure with the commercially popular). In the exchange, we understand that Hollis (the protag) was influenced, but not in a linear (read, discernable) fashion, by music of a completely different genre than what she was producing.

I was thinking about this as I listened to Midnight Matinee, the new release from The Lost Patrol, a band that made my Best of list last year for their outstanding Launch and Landing CD. When you visit their MySpace page and scroll down to “Influences,” you get the damnedest list: Ennio Morricone, John Barry, Johnny Cash, The Cramps, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Ventures, The Stranglers, Phil Spector, Julee Cruise, Cocteau Twins, Jesus and Mary Chain, Gary Numan, The Church, The Damned, The Chameleons, Dusty Springfield, The Cure, V.A.S.T., The Nightblooms, The Cult, The Beach Boys, Jerry Murad’s Harmonicats, A Flock of Seagulls, Dead Can Dance, Smashing Pumpkins, Sisters of Mercy, The Shadows, Al Caiola, Jack Nitzsche, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, The Verve, Jean Michel Jarre, Duane Eddy, Andy Williams, Angelo Badalamenti, Allison Krause & Union Station, Mazzy Star, Tarnation, The Catherine Wheel, The Sundays, Sigur Rós, Echo and The Bunnymen, Medieval Baebes, Aimee Mann, Miranda Sex Garden, The Shaggs, Joanna Newsom, Goldfrapp, X, Kate Bush, Lovespirals, Abby Travis and Curve.

Now, a lot of this makes sense when you listen to them. But then you get some more influences: films by David Lynch, Hal Hartley, Jim Jarmusch, Wes Andersen, Sergio Leone and John Waters.

Again, a lot of this makes sense when you consider the way in which The Lost Patrol’s music connotes landscape – wide, empty, frontier spaces at dusk, burnt oranges fading to blackest, solitary blue.

Once upon a time I thought of influence in that linear form that Hollis references – poets inspired by poets in ways that were evident upon reading. Musicians whose lineage could be tracked in quirks of phrasing. Painters whose technique never quite escaped the gravitational well of the masters they copied in their adolescence. And so on. As I learned and developed in my own right, though, I came to understand the non-linearity of influence: how one musical style could inform something new and apparently different; how certain types of influence can hide in the woodwork, only revealing themselves to those who study the hardest; and how influence can work across genres – music on poetry, painting on film, dance on sculpture, etc.

Those who have read my poetry have noted the straight-line artistic heritage: Eliot, Yeats, Thomas, Charles Wright. (Not that I’m worthy of those comparisons at all – it’s just that whatever I have done has aspired in the direction of these epic artists.) But I also like to note how important my early exposure to ancient masters like John Donne shaped my perspective – I doubt that’s as evident to most readers.

Earlier in my “career” I played with rock music influences, as well, sometimes going so far as to riff on Springsteen and Mellencamp and U2, and today my poems are frequently indebted to all kinds of musical insurgencies.

But there’s more. My writing has always been pretty impressionist. I’ve never worried about the hard narrative edges of the “stories” being told, but have instead focused on the imagistic, on the colors and vague shapes and details that were deliberately misremembered. There’s a lot of Monet and Degas in my poetry, in other words.

I was once called a “Jungian pagan” by a friend (who’s probably reading this and can identify himself if he wants to), and while I’m not 100% sure I’ve figured out what that means, there’s no denying that my writing trades heavily in the iconic, the totemic, the deeply symbolic. Jung? Sure, but also Yeats doubles back in here, and I can’t disregard the importance of Tarot in helping me think about what lies at the core of certain people, events, relationships, etc.

And what about the guy quoted at the top, William Gibson? The world I write about is frequently technological and urban, concerning itself with how my culture and my generation are being, have been, colonized by autonomous technology – that is, technology that appears to operate with its own agenda. Gibson is a core part of that, as is Bruce Sterling, and in depicting these moments I also draw on visual imagery from films like Blade Runner and the oeuvre-wide vision of directors like Tim Burton.

There’s nothing terribly profound in all this. Essentially it boils down to “influence is a highly asymmetrical, nonlinear process.” But since a novel and CD got me to thinking about my poetry, it seemed a worthy subject for a Sunday blog.

8 comments on “ArtSunday: the nonlinearity of influence

  1. Great post, Sam. I have thought a lot about what I value as a writer, musician, teacher, and human over the last year – and I’ve realized similar sorts of things about influence.

    One way I’ve approached it is to think about the stuff I like no matter what genre it is – and try to recognize it in my own work.

    Makes my life richer – and more understandable.

    Thanks for articulating this idea so succinctly….

  2. Jim:

    I guess early on that linearity thing caused me to think within strict boundaries. But when we realize how influence in LIFE works, it becomes more clear that everything that happens can shape who we are and what we become.

    It helped once I matured enough to grasp that art is the same way.

    Hell, my most recent poem, which is still far from finished, was about – of all thing, the gods save me – marketing.

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