All the Poets (Musicians on Writing): Patti Smith

Or they might just want to live. She has introduced books of poems by Blake and Rimbaud, published several volumes of her own verse and song lyrics, and won the National Book Award for Just Kids, her 2010 memoir about her crucial early years with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Just pure intuition. There’s something about the clarity, if it’s a good translator. But I have one that’s even worse. Nobody wanted them. Richard Hell was a poet, and I came to rock ’n’ roll through poetry. But it was all work-centric. Smith’s new book is Devotion, a slim volume that is — at once — an ode to her favorite French writers, a short story or fable about a mysterious young ice skater, and a meditation on the creative process. I know it’s probably impossible to …
Well, yeah, that’s really impossible — I can’t talk about Sam in such a general way. Tour less, travel less, and just focus on writing. You mentioned Mexican literature …
It’s more Mexican art. Modiano is a French writer whom a lot of Americans, including me, don’t really know, aside from the fact that he won a Nobel Prize. It was a crappy job. I’m a serial monogamous reader. There’s a connection — it’s still the same and you can still feel all of that. But I’m thrilled to have the books that I have. Right, just like Rimbaud. I got this prize, you know — a prize connected with a bigger prize. It’s both complex and simple at the same time. It’s not really country-based, it’s usually person-based. I’m thrilled that there are great translators that let us read Genet or Murakami. But I do like somebody like Genet, who crosses the line between fiction and nonfiction — they’re so perfectly melded that you have your feet in both words. He loved to read, he loved to talk about books, he cherished his books. He took it and we shook hands! You know, just dusting off books and putting them on metal rollers to take to universities or something. When you have a calling, it’s like a beautiful obsession. It was a really great place for us to develop a vision that sometimes was only half-formed. Well, that’s part of being restless, you know? You go and see something and you want to photograph it. I was able to see it all unfold before me. I’ll read the first couple sentences and I’m either in or out. It’s that kind of mental restlessness that keeps us going and keeps us working. I love seeing it there, because so many of the bookstores are gone. I can’t say that I’ve read a lot of Mexican writers. It’s also curiosity. I’ve been reading since I was about three-and-a-half or four, and by the time I was 20 years old I was well acquainted with all kinds of scenes. I read Marguerite Duras’s Writing, a very simple book, and shorter than Devotion. That brings me to the New York music scene of the mid-’70s. There’s a fervor to it. And it’s funny, because I do write memoir myself, but I’m often writing about people who are departed. Well, yeah, all the time. What gave me permission was, around 1946 or so, Nabokov was commissioned by New Directions to do a biography of Gogol. And then I went to see him in the Visions of Johanna period, in Forest Hills. I saved my money and I did get the train and go up there and see him. But for some reason I love reading books in translation. Between you, Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine, and Lou Reed in the background …
Well, the thing is, we didn’t walk around saying that we were punk rockers. Sometimes the first sentence will turn me off and I won’t read the book. And it just grew. You mentioned Picasso, and there’s also Dylan, Miles Davis. Even though I can only read in translation, there are beautiful translations of Rimbaud, and not just Rimbaud but French literature in general. Is there a sense of not being satisfied with what you’ve done before, of being hard on yourself? So it never gets old for you? He loved reading history. So one of the stores I really like was going out of business. But it just cost me a quarter — I mean, I had a good eye when I was a kid. Bolaño’s lucky he has great English translators. Because I was into it, and then I forget it somewhere, and then I see it in a bookstore and I’m hungering to read it again. It was In the Café of Lost Youth or something. Like with Bolaño, Natasha Wimmer. But Bolaño — I was just in Mexico City and read some poems dedicated to him, and he’s much revered in Mexico, much revered. What does French literature do that nothing else can: English literature can’t do it, rock ’n’ roll can’t do it, punk rock can’t do it …
PATTI SMITH: Yeah, but Roberto Bolaño could! You can see it when you’re standing on the street where Picasso painted Guernica, and all the streets are named after poets. The suffering, the joys of America. There’s just something in the fact that they haven’t changed. Now many of those books are worth a lot of money, you have to find them online, but back then, you could get a library of the most wonderful books that nobody wanted! I have Welsh, English, French. It was a shitty place to work. Yeah. One doesn’t know why people do that — maybe it’s because of a certain bitterness, or maybe it’s a sense of completion. People, if they love their work — whether one is a baker, or a mother whose whole life might revolve around her children — it’s all the same: if you love what you’re doing, it’s beyond romantic. If I could get a good price, I’d sell it.” You know, he said, “I’m leaving.” And so I took out my envelope and I said, “I have £4,000 in this envelope. In, like, a paper bag. And there, in the window, like glowing [laughing], like the ruby of books, the crown prince of books, was this battered red copy of Finnegans Wake. Well, I worked at Brentano’s in ’67, Scribner’s from ’69 to ’72. He was an American writer. So it was a lot of money. And it got waylaid by writing Just Kids. I can still see my young self walking in the park where Marcel Proust used to walk. It wasn’t blue collar, it was rural. He said he still had a million ideas but not the will to execute them. There are a lot of references to him. Yeah, there is. But for me my target has always been an imagined greatness: I want to do something really great, or I want to do something better than the last thing, or I want to get closer to doing something of worth. In the ’50s, when I was a kid, I loved looking at fashion magazines and the House of Dior and all the great houses, and then the films — Cocteau and Godard and Bresson — and the way they dressed, and the poets, the architecture. I love books, I love every aspect — the paper, everything. So owning it is like having the essence of everything. I wonder what makes the difference between people who continue to grow and people who don’t. Well, I don’t know, for me I just do my work. Some people, like William Blake, still scrawl on their deathbeds. And then you have César Aira. We’re still in business, we’ve still got the Strand.”
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Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to approach the book, but when I was looking at all this material, as I explain in the book, I started thinking that instead of trying to describe process, I would just show it — show what I was thinking in the diary section, in the small essay pieces, and show it in the little piece of writing that I was doing while I was thinking about all this stuff. That perhaps has shifted, and it might not have the same deep romance. When we moved there in 1957 it was mostly swampland, orchards, and pig farms. And there wasn’t much difference in age between us, just a year or two. I like the merging. All of us were writers. And the great thing about CBGB’s was — we just did what we wanted. And I said, “How much is it? There are a lot of things in it that just subconsciously came out in the story, whether it was a plate of eggs, or a skater, or Simone Weil’s haircut. So I had read about 85 percent of Modiano when I was writing Devotion. I wonder, when you were a teenager living in a small town, you weren’t taking the train to whatever the cool club was in 1970, or 1965 …
Oh no, when I was young we had an armory down the street that once in a while had dances, and maybe if you were lucky they would have somebody come and lip sync and maybe do one song — it might be Cathy Young, it might be Hank Ballard. I have one last question. We think of it as being punk rock, as being raw and direct, but it was actually very literary. It was at Perrytown, New Jersey, or something, at a fair, and I went to see Joan Baez and she introduced Bobby Dylan. I thought that would have some kind of unique charm. Since I turned 70, I’ve really thought about what I want to do with the next decade of my life. What’s interesting about Joyce is that he’s always so musical. I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction, I don’t read a lot of American writers, I don’t really like contemporary nonfiction or self-help books. And other things fall around it. He loved Nabokov, Bruno Schulz. And again, it’s like an addiction. And Tom Verlaine had worked at the Strand, and I think Richard Hell, too. And also, thinking about Paris in the ’20s and going to Paris, there’s so much history there. There wasn’t any intentional thing, things just seeped into it. My copy of Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, which I got when I was 16 — a battered shitty paperback, all brown and crumbling —   I still read it. And reading The Stranger and his other works. And Nabokov wound up reading Gogol and taking notes and this and that, and instead put out this little book called Nikolai Gogol, which has biographical material and quotes, but it’s Nabokov’s take on Gogol. And I just went in, and the guy’s packing everything up, you know, and I said, “Could I look at the Finnegans Wake?” And he lets me look at it. I wonder what draws you to that. It’s sort of like a short story, sort of like a fable, sort of like a prose poem, it’s intimate —   I don’t know what it is but it’s really nice, whatever it is. I mean, I went through Ukrainian literature, I went through a Bulgakov period. They were all battered — you know, Rimbaud in Abyssinia and all these French translations that were out of print. So I have a good mix — I’m more Celtic. I basically said: “Why are you still working this hard? What connected you with his work? I’ve always had an affection and felt an affiliation. French literature in translation is so straightforward. And so it’s an honor in order to bestow another honor. The mind doesn’t stop moving just because you closed the books on a project on Monday. Well, I’m not mostly Irish. It’s like that Bob Dylan song “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” You’re always thinking: When am I gonna write this classic book that I have in my head? I laughed at that section in the first part of the book where you talk about traveling and not having a book in your luggage. Unless you have a particular target in mind. We were all reading Paul Bowles and Baudelaire. There’s just something about his language. You worked at a bookstore, the Strand I think, in the 1970s, maybe the late ’60s. But I don’t know why I told you that story …
No, every book buyer can identify with that, even if it doesn’t always end as well. And it wasn’t just French literature but film — you know, Godard, Bresson, and on and on. But the way I pick a book, I might just like the way it feels in my hand or I like the paper. It was just feeling a connection or a kinship with workers of a certain generation, and seeing the architecture that they lived in, the streets that they walked on, the work that they committed. It must be a lot of money.” And he said, “I know it’s worth a lot of money, but I’ve had it for 20 years and no one’s bought it, and I didn’t pay that much for it 20 years ago. You know, the Angel of Death is right there, and I go, “Eh, I just gotta finish this one line. I mean, I was an avid reader. I was supposed to be writing an essay. I think a lot of artists, in whatever field, tend to operate through intuition — they know they want to do something but they can’t quite tell what it is until they have a forum for it, an audience. And that also includes French fashion. I just get into somebody and that’s all I want to read. This little book came off the tail of finishing M Train, but I didn’t set out to write it. As you were getting into French literature, you were also getting into Mexican art, and, at the same time, into Dylan, maybe Velvet Underground a few years later — did these things seem to have a lot in common? It was the weirdest sensation. I’ve read a lot of Joyce, but it’s just that Finnegans Wake is more than a book. That’s how Rimbaud is for me. And think. Well, first, just his literature — A Happy Death, which is still one of my favorite books. And again, it’s a take on things. Tell us a little about what his work means to you. We sense kinship, we sense the smell of kinship, blood that has nothing to do with blood. No one knows, because I wrote it mostly in the ’80s, when I was out of the public eye, and I haven’t published any of it. You know, a first edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, with a blue silk binding. He loved the Irish writers, loved Beckett. I mean, I’m not as drawn to Joyce as I am to other writers. No, I’m happy to see Apollinaire’s head, and Boulevard Saint-Germain, happy to see a statue of Baudelaire or Victor Hugo, and happy to see La Coupole. And I reread Virginia Woolf and other writers on writing. By 16 I had read this fabulous life of Diego Rivera, so I was also connected with Mexico and with Tina Modotti and Frida Kahlo. And I tried to experiment — M Train was an experiment. I think Genet is, in certain ways, one of my favorite writers in terms of his process. My own process. I see them again. I discovered him just like I discovered Henning Mankell: in an airport, because I didn’t have a book and I was desperate. [Laughs.]
It’s like I was saying that, if Devotion was a crime, all around it was the evidence of the crime. I remember reading those 1970s poems in college, and Buried Child, and they were simultaneously completely bizarre and made perfect sense. For me, when I was young, it was all about language. You’re of mostly Irish descent. It was more of a lower middle-class area, places where GIs got little houses with their GI bill … My father was a factory worker and my mother was a waitress. He loved Nabokov and Beckett. I interviewed Sonny Rollins once, and I asked him why, at age 82, he was still flying around the world playing when he could just hang out with his friends. There’s something about French in translation that I just relate to. I haven’t published much but I write a lot of it. But I’m not the classic essay writer — I don’t have the kind of sustained analytical ability, or the vocabulary, to write an essay like Sebald or various other essay writers I like. There was a time when all I was reading was Yeats. You know, it was like the Rose Period, the Blue Period, Cubism — you had to move quickly with him. I have three copies of Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, three or four copies of Bolaño’s 2666. ¤
SCOTT TIMBERG: So I want to talk to you about the new book and the inspiration that went into it. Tom Verlaine is a really fine musician — he was an exception. And there were no expectations or restrictions. I’ve bought books for a quarter, when I was a kid. And I was a very, very experienced book clerk, because I had worked at Scribner’s for years and I was very good at what I did. And Richard Hell and I weren’t even musicians, we were performers. Yeah, but they might do something else. That’s the first thing. It was because I was supposed to write an essay on writing. As I got older, the writers changed — it became Camus, the movies became Resnais — but it was a continual mental dialogue between myself and much of French culture. I just got drawn into that one. He’s like mid-Jersey. He was much on my mind. It’s just the nature of that kind of calling. Are you hoping to publish more character-based stories? Usually those things are very far apart, and to have them running parallel was unique. I walk by it and I think, “Okay. I was chosen to write a long essay about the process of writing to introduce the recipients of the Windham-Campbell Prize. Shook hands on it. Maybe they feel they’ve said all they wanted to say. I mean, I still love the Strand, but I’m not gonna make out like it was a great place to work. It wasn’t an intentional thing — I wasn’t planning to write about him. And the Strand was a gold mine of used books. Developing original material and not being confined by anything. Maybe it’s the starkness. And we just sense things. Unless it was a cabaret, but a lot of them had uptight rules. I’m not saying that I’m as good as them or anything, I’m simply saying, “Yeah, I understand this, and I know why this is good, and I have a relationship to it.”
There are whole areas of literature that I can’t even read. In a different way from some of the people we’re talking about — there’s just that lilt to the language with him. So I just thought, I’ve got to figure out a way to present the process of writing, but in a way I can handle, in the way that I write. The landscape, the roads, the people, the diners. And I admit, at 16 years old, I didn’t always understand what I was reading, but it really didn’t matter. I like writing fiction. And then, in ’73, maybe a little later … well I was going to CBGB’s when I was working at the Strand. I feel like it might just as well be a Sumerian text. But I think the difference was, for one thing, Bob Dylan was alive. I’m curious about your interest in Camus. Bob Dylan was alive and reacting immediately to our times. I was looking for a new Murakami book and I couldn’t find anything, and I saw Modiano. That seamless process of fact and fiction. I know that people always say you’re missing something because you’re not reading the real French. So reading Verlaine and Rimbaud and so on must have been pretty exotic. And you know, I was a young girl with a romantic imagination, and it was nice to have a romantic imagination about a guy who was living. So you grew up in a small town, which I expect was pretty provincial, pretty Catholic. As soon as I’m done with this sentence.”
One major writer we haven’t talked about is someone you knew well, who just left us, Sam Shepard. But yeah, I’ve gone through many periods of literature. The language to me was so beautiful, and I was just drawn to it. SEPTEMBER 29, 2017

In this monthly series, Scott Timberg interviews musicians on the literary work that has inspired and informed their music. I looked and I have four copies of Nabokov on Gogol. It is process itself. And that would have been an incredible time to see Dylan, too. Well, it could be anything! I imagine you growing up in Springsteen country, very blue collar. People stop writing, stop painting — the inspiration is gone. And I took it out into the street, not even in a bag. And it’s one of my prized possessions. I’d say a large portion of people in CBGB’s worked at the Strand, or at Bleecker Bob’s, you know, when he sold records, or Cinemabelia, selling movie memorabilia. On Thursday your mind’s already moving on to another one. I had a really shitty job — I wasn’t on the floor. You go into a movie theater and you’re watching it and your mind starts moving and redoing scenes, or you go to a concert and some melody line you’re hearing somebody do produces words of a different nature. And we weren’t just poets, we were people who loved poets, we were people who read all kinds of literature. No, no, I worked at the Scribner’s Bookstore. That’s the type of writing that I aspire to, especially in the future. There were no rules that you were supposed to be … anything! Sam Shepard does that a lot. Or was French culture its own thing? But I don’t really care. And the cover is red silk cloth, and the pages are all cut and raggedy — it was just so beautiful. ¤
AFTER DECADES as a major force in punk rock — dating back to her shows at CBGB’s and her 1975 LP Horses — Patti Smith has earned a considerable reputation as a literary figure as well. So you were hit as a teenager by the 19th-century poets. And so the first tier of CBGB’s had a poetic nucleus. Right, Victor Hugo and so on …
Yeah, exactly. You’ve described exactly what it’s like when you’re drawn by pure language. I’m from a rural area. But, nostalgically, I still fall in love every time I go there, I still want to see the same things that I saw in the books. I have a hard time restraining myself from buying books I already have and love. No no, I’m from rural south Jersey. Nobody wanted Gérard de Nerval or stuff like that, printed in 1934. But I have some really beautiful books. He has a whole different set of concerns — he’s morally engaged in a different way from those earlier writers, who saw themselves as immoralists. Tell us a little about Modiano and why you sank so deeply into his work. And you know, Sam loved books. I like fiction, I like biographies of people who are dead (I don’t like any about people who are living). I can imagine myself being like that, still writing. Will that do it?” And this book is worth at least twice that much. Another Paris guy, too …
[Laughs.] A Paris Irishman. It never would have occurred to us. But in terms of what he gave us, he was an American writer. You wake up in the morning, and that’s just part of who you are, what you do. You open it up and it’s incomprehensible, a lot of it, but the language — it’s like the whole of the world in this book. My father was mostly Irish and English. It was beautiful in that sense. I mean, I was deeply into Rimbaud when I was a girl of 14, 15, 16, but then, when Bob Dylan came on the scene, the difference was — he had a very Rimbaudian look, in a certain way, and he was a poet, and he gave us a political awareness, but he also moved quickly through his work like Picasso. Except doing your own thing. The little loosely kept diary of me traipsing around Paris and Ashford. But I’ve written a lot of fiction. Can you tell us a little bit about that? That’s the first time I ever saw him. This is at Yale? Sam — my friend Sam Shepard — loved Beckett, and I went through a Samuel Beckett period with him because that was his fella. We did our time in those little shops. But in 1965, I did save my babysitting money, I saved my factory money, and I saw Bob Dylan, I saw Joan Baez. Except us. A long essay. (It is based on a speech Smith gave at Yale and is part of Yale University Press’s Why I Write series.)
Smith spoke to me from her home in New York City. And I was walking down Charing Cross, this street in London that I really love that has a lot of old bookstores. I filled my shelves, because they were all just a couple dollars and I got a big discount. Do you have that compulsion when you’re traveling, where you keep finding stuff that moves you and that you want to acquire, especially books, and you have to restrain yourself? And I got paid in cash — you know, like £300 here or there — and after about four or five of those readings I had, like, £4,000 I think. But just once or twice. I thank them —   I include them in my prayers, great translators. I mean, Brâncuși just stopped at a certain age. And that’s quite valuable now. The culture of Mexico is what I was talking about. She’s a genius, that Natasha Wimmer. Actually, my prize book is the first edition of Finnegans Wake, signed by James Joyce. You can’t stop your mind from thinking, reinventing. It’s just about the work, and where it goes comes second. True American writer — that you can say: this person represents a great aspect of the American consciousness, high consciousness —   not religious, or even spiritual, just the essence of America. So it’s a whole different type of upbringing, and a different type of community. And the way I got that was, I was traveling really light, and I had to do a poetry reading, a couple of them, in Ireland. And I think I’m going to devote it mostly to writing. And Lou Reed was also a poet. And thank god the Strand still exists. Of course the work was paramount, but I was also fascinated by the lifestyle of someone like Rimbaud … reading about all the lives of the poets. We didn’t get paid much, but we got a really good discount. So a lot of it was, especially as a young girl, aesthetic. When am I gonna do this song that communicates the most to people? It’s wonderful. When I was writing Devotion I was in my Patrick Modiano phase. There’s something idealistic about the love of art and poetry in Bolaño’s books, the sense that this is what makes life worth living, that romantic experience. And I found Modiano the same way. Or you could go to the skating rink. That’s why we all worked there. We all worked at the Strand. That’s the first thing. A lot of us who know your music have long been aware of your admiration for French literature, especially poetry — Baudelaire, the Symbolists, Rimbaud. Even his music isn’t the music that I hear. I mean, I bought every single book on Rimbaud that there was in English. I think sometimes I’m drawn to writers who reaffirm that I’m on the right track. And sometimes we’ve already done it and we don’t even know, and we just have to keep going. You can be totally seduced by language, and just the music of it, the sound of it, the way the words form in your mouth, the way they look on the page … We evolve, but before evolution we have intuition. And a couple years before that it was Bolaño. It’s a very romantic city. You know, a major biography. But the great thing about it was, back in 1974, they didn’t have AbeBooks and all these book services online, and you had to come to a store. It’s really a little book that’s like a parable or a metaphor for process. You couldn’t go see Rimbaud with the Hawks at a club …
[Laughs.] No, I tried! Because I have so much unpublished work, and so much I still want to do, you know? And we bought them. I’d been friends with him for almost 50 years. Did it seem like a whole different universe to you? Eventually I will. But it was a great place if you loved books. And you said you’ve written fiction …
A lot of it. Has Joyce been a major figure for you for a long time? The part that startled, or pleasantly surprised me, is that middle section with the ice skater. But it’s an awesome book. There are certain writers who do that, Samuel Beckett does it. It’s like a crime scene. So it began with literature and other aesthetic connections. But I’ll love a battered paperback. We talked about a million things, but, as I said, there was hardly a conversation in our life that we weren’t talking about some book, some writer, some idea. Especially at that one period — Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera. And it was exciting to be drawn to someone who touched on all of art, travel, social awareness, and who was alive. It’s like it contains the world. But I didn’t expect to write that little story, it just came out. You know, eventually, I’ll give ’em to somebody, but I can’t resist buying them again. Yeah, I don’t know what any of my work is. I might read Beckett more, and I really loved Yeats as a kid. I worked in the basement. There wasn’t any place to play for people who were off the grid. A couple years ago I went through a Murakami phase — I spent almost a year reading Murakami. I totally agree, but don’t you think that, with some people, it can just disappear? And it’s a very small book, not the big heavy tome they were hoping for. I go through phases, though. The language within Rimbaud to me was intoxicating. But I was stuck in the basement. Aren’t you Sonny Rollins?” And he said, essentially: “Well, I am Sonny Rollins, but I’m not yet the Sonny Rollins I want to be.”
Yeah, exactly, I can totally relate to that. I was looking for someone else, I don’t know who I was looking for, another M writer, and I ended up finding Henning Mankell and I read all through the Wallander books. I was aesthetically drawn to French culture.