Bad Influence

by on Jun.27, 2011

I wrote the following in early 2007, at the height of Pussipo’s activities, when a bunch of experimental women poets found themselves together on a highoctane Internet weirdfest known as a listserve:


Pussipo will see you in the Underworld where “poetry in [that] tradition, [has been] self-slain, murdered by its own past strength.”

Pussipo emulate that child who vomits up her own materials in order to rid herself entirely of tainted skins. Pussipo do not try to rescue or retain our own materials, but jar them loosely in fermented mare’s milk and gasoline. Pussipo do not try to rescue our own spilled materials, but send them along with the abject spinning into the Underworld, the sewer, whatevs Underground where we will later collect them and put them to good use. This is not like compost in that we do not expect to grow anything beautifully edible. It is like compost in that it shall be stank.

Pussipo rejoice in Western art and literature’s ascription of the rank corpse. In these glossy hides, Pussipo gain access to the Underworld and begin.

Pussipo will see you in the Underworld.

Pussipo do not fondle the reified detritus of the phallus encrusting the common chat. If its purse is split, pocket its jewels, but otherwise we’ve got bigger fires to tend. Pussipo proceed directly to the genital and carry its mucoid jargon to the Underworld. Pussipo place a pin in every accomplished lip.

Pussipo splice together those brief crags with our own historical organs. Thus Pussipo create gold-toothed cyborgs; part poem, part biologue. Entirely analogue.

Pussipo will see you in the Underworld where Pussipo will remake you with your own discarded fat cells, where Pussipo will poke out your faux god-eye and insert the thousand-chambered fly-eyes of the pussilarva.

Take heart.

Around the time I wrote this, I was reading Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence for my Ph.D. exams. I was thinking about influence, of course, but more specifically in whom influence is expected to (don’t forgive me) bloom.

This is about that basic unit of power: gender. Or it could be about that basic unit of power: genitals. Or: race. Or: desire. Or: nationality. Or: class. Or, or, or. If you’re in some way or another born into the world such that your parents/the state take a gander at you and say, poor perv, it’s the underworld for you, then you’re always already a gravedigger. Your presence is a desecration, a failure of sperm and egg to produce the finest possible copy of a copy of a copy. You’re not a pale imitation of some apocryphal original. You’re a mutation, an incorrect variation. Sometimes you’re a welcome mutant, and they invite you up out of the basement, and you earn a cookie for performing your trick, but eventually you have to go back down.

So. Maybe you feel more at ease than surface dwellers do thieving in the graveyard, and you think, whose old phalanges will I use to type today? You dig up Ginsberg, you dig up Bataille, Nabokov, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Paul Bowles, but Jane Bowles is in the reader, too, and even though you’re a 17-year-old cockroach, you’re not stupid. Plath left you a trail of bones, and Anais Nin’s an easy find. There’s a whole anthology of Russian poets including Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova, Bella Akhmadulina. It’s okay if some of these people are still alive at the time. Better, even! Take a souvenir, swipe yourself a reliquary. You’re not an idiot. You read LeRoi Jones, Jean Toomer, Gwendolyn Brooks. This is all before college, even. Then you build yourself a bone suit and hop inside, and this is how you learn to become a writer. You take apart your bone suit. You make bone soup. You deflect your nasty professor with a bone when he tells you your prose is boring. You make yourself a second spine of other writers’ bones. You wear a bone crown and jam bones in your ears when people say dismissive things about you.

You’re lucky, actually. Getting anxious about your influences is a luxury, but it isn’t a very pleasant one. Your neighbor boy is sobbing because he’ll never be James Joyce, and there you are with James Joyce’s dehydrated eyeball staring out from your orifice, because, after all, you’ve read Bataille, and you think you know how power gets transferred, and you need it fast because you know you’ve got to write twice as much in half the time. You’re only 19, but you’re already scaring off boyfriends, wearing out girlfriends. You disappoint daddies and teachers and editors. You do something they like just to see if you can and when they call you up to give you a cookie, you puke all over yourself. You’re lucky, everything you do is garbage.

You’re lucky because when it turns out that art isn’t something you do but something that does you, when it turns out that humans are strategic sites for art, when it turns out influence blooms rotten in your gut and saps all your nutrients trying to dig its way out, you know you’re going to be okay. You’re used to being occupied. You know who the brassier demon is.

Look: this is what Harold Bloom says:

The great poets of the English Renaissance are not matched by their Enlightened descendents, and the whole tradition of the post-Enlightenment, which is Romanticism, shows a further decline in its Modernist and post-Modernist heirs. The death of poetry will not be hastened by any reader’s broodings, yet it seems just to assume that poetry in our tradition, when it dies, will be self-slain, murdered by its own past strength.

Marjorie Perloff says, look: Bloom is talking about a specific lineage: Romantic poetry will be self-slain, murdered by its own past strength. Which seems to me exactly what the Romantic poets would want to see happen. Who would be happier about their poems haunting the fuck out of us? Who would rather roll around in the grave with their own poems, and then come shooting out on a gust of ectoplasm and slap a poor, unsuspecting fawn in the gut?

But, look: it doesn’t have to come from the past archaeologically (from crust to core), and it doesn’t have to come from the past genealogically (daddy, grandaddy, great big weepy-ass grandaddy).  It doesn’t have to be a reclamation (grandmammy!). It doesn’t have to be familial, incestuous, kinship, property-based, gift-exchange, legacy, it doesn’t even have to be dead. When art gets into a human and comes twisting out the other side as over-oxygenated despair-o-gram, spin-the-bottle high camp tongue kitsching, whatever, it’ll infect and deform you. Some of it will even break (into) your heart.

A shaman becomes so because a shaman has battled a bad spirit and survived, has hacked out a ball of death, has seen the otherside. Or, a shaman becomes so because a shaman still has a ball of death inside, an undead baby demon disease, and lives anyhow. A shaman is a rent that allows us access to the otherside, and as Anna Tsing and others who consider the upside of abjection tell us, those abject things: shit, maggots, flies, they’re gateways. The shaman knows where it’s at.

Look: everyone who came before you was also ordinary and small and subject to the limits of the human machine. I did that thing where I stayed up past 5 am writing the other night, and then I tried to sleep it off, and by noon I was up again drinking coffee yelling “how am I supposed to fit all this stuff in my body?” and “why do I have to operate within the confines of space and time?!” and “what kind of coffee is this anyway, huh?!”

At readings, events, things, people ask me who my influences are, and I want to say, well, everyone, duh. But I know what people mean when they say influence. They mean what work are you aping? What work can’t you resist regurgitating? What work won’t leave you alone? What work finds you a fetching squat? What work sticks like a burr in the brain, like a subcutaneous oil slick, like it’s coding into your cells right this very minute?

My daughter keeps asking me what a crush is. What does it mean to have a crush? Somewhere Jonathan Lethem talks about loving a Talking Heads album (Fear of Music?) so much that he wanted to take off his head and replace it with the album and that, my friends, is influence. The trick is to keep your head. In a bag. Or tucked under your arm. Or in a pumpkin shell. The trick is to become hydra-headed. The trick is to do it well.



11 comments for this entry:
  1. Gabriel Lovatt

    I love this, Danielle, and I specifically adore how it implicitly provokes a conversation between Kristeva’s theorization of monumental time and cyclical time. It seems to me that this articulates a lineage that doesn’t just reject patriarchal constructions of heritage but cannibalizes it.

  2. Johannes Göransson

    Great post Danielle. I think the ending really gets at the heart of “influence.” We have to have our separate little complete authorships, and as a result “influence” will always be a threat to our “originality.” The idea is: you have to be learned, but you must not let that Talking Heads record replace your (talking) head. You must retain your health. Problem with art is that it’s not healthy, it’s always doubling shit up, always ending up in the (velvet) underground. Don’t look back. Like Dylan in the movies.


  3. Philip Hopkins

    What’s a crush? Great question. See Richard Siken’s poetry book on the subject.

    Love always wakes the dragon and suddenly
    flames everywhere.

  4. Nate Hoks

    Really lovely. Enthralling & invigorating. The shaman bit made me think of Maria Sabina (a little).

    I have never given a lot of thought to the problem of influence and have mostly just avoided it because it annoyed me. The Bloom passage you quote makes it pretty clear that one way of conceiving influence is as a kind “bad copy”—a platonic model where imitation is by nature faulty, immoral, tainted, a line tracing only decline. In this regard it all goes back to the representation / mimesis problem. But I love your (& Joyelle’s) inclination to celebrate the infections and deformations.

    But the Jonathan Lethem bit make me think of influence another way—not as a bad copy / mimesis issue, but rather as pageant of selves wherein one is constantly becoming another—some kind of Rimbauldian derangement where I am plugging myself into another machine and becoming that machine—costuming and role-playing which takes us who knows where. Influence via imitation as an escape from the self: I mean, why not replace my head with an album (especially one produced by Brian Eno!)? Get me out of me!

  5. Danielle Pafunda

    Thanks, all!

    Nate, I love “pageant of selves!” I always thought there was something futuristically ecstatic in that Lethem anecdote (which I almost mistyped as “antidote”).

    & Gabriel, I’d been thinking of Foucault’s archaeology vs. genealogy, but you’re so right–lady, I miss you & your amazing brain!

  6. Josef Horáček

    Clever point about the Romantics. We mostly think about influence in terms of being influenced, not as much in terms of influencing. And of course wouldn’t Great Poets (of any generation) love it if they found out that they really were the Last Great Generation?

    To bring together what you said with the Durbin piece you link to: the shaman, of course, is a fraud. I’ll leave it at that.

  7. becca

    Danielle, there’s so much here that I want to respond to!, but most urgently:


    1. I had no idea that Pussipo started out speaking as a ‘we’ that glommed up and made a collective monster. Huh! We should play more with that.

    2. Why do you delve into second person after the Pussipo part?

    3. Is this post’s movement from first-person plural to second person to first-person singular, historical woman (‘My daughter keeps asking me what a crush is’) a performance of personhood/authorship? Are you asking us to think of you as a member of a collective (Pussipo, synchronic influence) and a mother of a daughter (putting the genealogical back where it actually makes sense) and as a virus (infecting ‘you’), but not so much as a diachronic ape?

    Maybe #3 is not really a question so much as a proposition, but I’m curious what you think!

  8. Danielle Pafunda

    Hey, Becca!

    Yep, early on in the Pussipo listserve there was some fun collective manifesto play!

    As to the rest, I guess I’m slipping through pronouns because I’m speaking about the multiple ways an incoherent mishmash of a self receives influence, has an influence, where influence becomes self, where influence remains after self dramatically alters, etc. I’m trying to map all these first-person speakers who experienced the influence that persists…

    For instance, I’m not a teenager any longer, and Pussipo isn’t presently much of a collective, but the influences/infections/autoimmune disorders from those times stay pretty fresh. A multichronic chronically ill ape, me!

    I prob’ly also drop into “you” just to give my present day self some extra distance from the long ago “me” I’m talking about, because, whoa, I don’t want to be her again, and it could’ve been any “you” as easily as it was “me.”

    I don’t know, tho’–maybe it’ll be different for the next generation of people who make things after they get influenced, artists, whatev. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be able (especially if you’re privileged with access) to get infected by so many different things so often–YouTube, Grooveshark, Kindle, everything all the time available to be in your face–plus still be able to stumble across a weird book in the back of some half-stranger’s car. Totally new monsters a’breeding.

  9. becca

    Yeah, maybe I’m interested in all the pronoun/person-play because it shows how even the self becomes an other than can influence (even in a sort of anxiety-of way, or at least in a rebelling-against-the-elder-self way, as in: “whoa, I don’t want to be her again”).

    That the self can be plural both in time and in community is really interesting for ideas of authorship.

    The idea that influence-as-infection has something to do with technology seems worth thinking about more, too. That word ‘viral’ being both of the internet & of science, and the fact that, although access is a privilege, many of us have no control over what we access. Images/sounds/etc. hurtling at us are unsolicited, perhaps even undesired influences. But this has been going on for a century at least, of course! Just more & more supersaturated. What does the overflow/meltdown look like? Poems I guess.

    I’m reminded of Zizek in *The Examined Life* (watch instant on Netflix or watch the clip here:

    “We should become more artificial.”

    I did a little cataloging in my pomo expo of Montevidayan ideas of influence, by the way!:

  10. “Excessive Beauty”: The Dangers of Influence - Montevidayo

    […] jives in many ways with Danielle’s post about “bad influence“: You’re lucky because when it turns out that art isn’t something you do but something […]

  11. adam strauss

    I dig–the piece strikes me as very much a prosepoem; I often don’t like criticism as poem but this is, I think, quite fly. I think it’s the delicious vocabulary, the lovely lexicon/anatomy of gunk; cheers!