Interview with Patti Smith

Posted by Goodreads on October 5, 2015
There's the much-imitated solo shot, androgynous and cool on the cover of her debut album, Horses. There's the one with Robert Mapplethorpe on a fire escape, the both of them impossibly lithe and feral and beautiful. There are more of her, gaze level, holding a camera or cooing at a dove or braiding her graying hair. The images of celebrated musician, writer, and artist Patti Smith are nearly as powerful as her work, which includes the bestselling Just Kids. That slim memoir tells the story of her relationship with photographer Mapplethorpe when the two were young and hungry in the New York City of the '60s and '70s, a time full of danger and possibility. M Train is Smith's follow-up, and its chiaroscuro cover photo of the author in contemplation at her favorite café will likely join those other iconic portraits. Inside, there are shots of her own, taken on pilgrimages to artistic holy sites like Frida Kahlo's home in Mexico and Rimbaud's grave. Stories of journeys taken are interwoven with Smith's thoughts on love and loss and art-making as well as memories of her husband, MC5 guitarist Fred Sonic Smith.

Smith spoke to Goodreads from her Manhattan apartment, where she'd just finished feeding her cat.

Goodreads: How did you choose Cafe 'Ino as your favorite café?

Patti Smith: I just chanced upon it. It was really because they were open really early, and there was a little table sort of by itself. It was between the high wood bar and the coffeemaker and the front window, so you had the illusion of being on your own, my own little corner of the world.

But also because for breakfast I like really simple fare that, simple as it is, you can't get anywhere. That is bread, olive oil, and black coffee, and they had really nice brown bread and really, really fine olive oil. They were Italian. And I would get there before it opened, and no one would really be there. For an hour I had it all to myself. And they didn't play really loud music, and I could just write and daydream. And it also was very small, which I liked. And right on Bedford Street. You know, I knew the street well; William Burroughs used to live on that street.

GR: Do you have a new spot now?

PS: No. I started going to Caffe Dante just as I finished the book, [but soon they] could not afford the new high rent. A lot of really classic parts of New York are being pushed out because of these exorbitant rents that very greedy landlords are charging. And the Dante has been there for a hundred years, and they have to leave because their new rent is so high that they can't even break even. They sold their liquor license, so the new café is also called the Dante, but they took out all the murals of Dante and Beatrice, and now it looks like a little precious wine bar. I can't really bear to go in there. So now I'm sort of a drifter, drifting from place to place. Now I'm just having coffee on my stoop.

GR: I loved how this book ultimately pulled together a set of beautiful meanderings—there are a lot of unexpectedly dramatic episodes and satisfying resolutions for things that at first might not seem to have much dramatic potential, like a table and a chair at a favorite café. Did the structure for this book fall into place as you wrote it? Or was it something that you already had in mind?

PS: It fell in place just like life sometimes falls into place. Just Kids was so structured, I had to think about it for so many years, even before I wrote it, to make sure I had everything as truthful and as chronologically sound as possible. With this, I just wanted to write. I didn't have any idea what I would write about. It really came just as…it started with a dream. In the first line of the book I was contemplating this phrase: "It's not so easy, writing about nothing," and I was just sort of toying around with the idea to see what would happen if I wrote about nothing, and things unfolded.

I never expected to write about a lot of these things. I never expected to write about Fred. I never expected to buy a little bungalow in Rockaway. I never expected that the things that happened, happened. But that's just the way life is, you know. And so I think that if I learned anything by the end of the book, life is like that song 'Old Man River.' It does just keep rolling along. You just have to stick it out. And in terms of things resolving themselves, things just do sometimes. Some things remain a mystery, but certain things do just resolve themselves. Sometimes life is beautifully symmetrical.

GR: What was it like to write about Fred and to revisit your time together?

PS: I never expected to write about him, to write about that period of our lives. It's just so private and our life as man and wife, and mother and father, but it just came out and it kept coming. And I started thinking that Fred just wanted me to write some stories about him. You know, my kids and I laughed. We imagined him saying, "C'mon, you wrote a whole book about Robert!" But in the most humorous, nice way, you know? I felt like it was actually a relief to write about Fred. It was sometimes difficult, and also I was always very respectful of him because he was very private, but it was also a relief to be able to talk about him, to share something of Fred with the reader.

GR: Were there different responsibilities or considerations writing about him in a memoir as opposed to Robert Mapplethorpe?

PS: Well, Robert asked me to write a book. He asked me to write it before he died. Robert really wanted me to write a book telling our story. And it took me a long time to do it, but I promised him I would, and I succeeded in that mission.

Fred and I never talked about anything like that, but I know what he's like and I know what he would feel comfortable with. I didn't write anything that I felt compromised him in any way. I didn't have any agenda at all. I just wrote about him. And then at the end of the book I had my most positive dream I ever had about him, and if I had any doubts or worries, that seemed to quell them because he appeared in my dream with such a beautiful smile that I just figured it was all OK.

GR: You go on so many pilgrimages throughout this book! Why do you think it's so important for you?

PS: I don't think it's important; it's just something that I do. I get a lot of pleasure from doing it. I've always done it. I mean, when I was really young, my first trip to Europe, I went to Paris with my sister, and I mean I visited everybody. I went to all my favorite writer's graves, and I went to the house where they said Genet was living, I was so curious and so charmed. You know, there's an artist of such stature, who's work you've been so moved and so inspired by your whole life, and they died in the 18th century, and you can visit their grave. You're in very close proximity to not just the poet or artist but also their friends who were around at his burial and all of the people of the last century who have come to visit. And it's just a nice way to connect with artists and poets as people. I mean, Sylvia Plath was a girl, you know? She was just a girl. She was a mother, she had a brilliant mind, and obviously somewhat troubled, but we know her through her work, we know her through her poems, but in going to visit her resting place, it's an acknowledgment. Or Charlotte Brontë, or William T. Blake. As human beings, just as we acknowledge our mother or father when we visit them. It's just something that I've always done.

GR: Do the objects that they've interacted with feel sacred?

PS: They take on some of the hopes and dreams and beliefs and spirit of the people who had them. Hermann Hesse, he invested hours, hundreds of hours in front of that typewriter, typing his masterpiece, The Glass Bead Game. You know, it's beautiful to look at this instrument just like it would be beautiful to look at Hank Williams's guitar or the writing desk of Charles Dickens. I find it wonderful.

It's not just artists who are dead. I remember going to see the painter Brice Marden's studio, and I was just so taken by looking at his paintbrushes, and the pigments that he made, and the mortar and pestle that he crushed his pigments in. You know, so much work and imagination and creative energy has been invested in these things. It's the same kind of thing that perhaps people feel when they go and look at the relics of a saint, or you go and look at the garments of St. Francis—they'll have a jawbone of a saint or a piece of St. Therese's dress. I don't think it's even…it's not fetishistic, it's a connection. A beautiful connection.

GR: It seems like sometimes when there was no relic, you created your own, like when you gathered stones from the town in French Guiana that once housed the penal colony that Genet wrote about in The Thief's Journal. Can you talk about that impulse?

PS: I guess it's sort of the same thing backwards. It's my own mission. They were just humble stones with some dirt on them, but their proximity, where I unearthed them, was a place that was important to Genet, and they were most likely trampled on by the prisoners that he admired. And also going, knowing that it was quite a grueling trip to get these few humble stones, they take on a special quality. I invested a lot of time and energy and emotion in those little stones, and they have no particular value, but neither do the garments of St. Francis of Assisi, but they're so precious. It's not something you can attach monetary value to or museum quality value to, but so much love or energy, or so much toil or sweat, has been put into them.

GR: So many of your pilgrimages feel like searches for evidence. Do you think your love of detective shows is related to that?

PS: I think sometimes my photographs are like evidence—they're evidence that I've been to a certain place. I don't like horrible scary crime shows or serial killers, things that are too gruesome. I really like getting into the minds of the detectives as they try to unbraid all of the clues and evidence they have and figure out the end. It's sort of like the process of writing. You have to discard all of the stuff—you have all of these notebooks, all of these thoughts, but you have to discard anything that takes from the prime directive and write what you really mean, get to the end, get to your punch line, get to your last line.

GR: It seems like your choice of heroes determines a lot of the trips that you've taken and artistic roads that you've traveled. How do you feel about being a similar sort of hero for other people now?

PS: I can't imagine that! I seriously can't imagine. But if it's true for anybody and if traipsing around where I've been gives anyone as much pleasure as me traipsing around where someone else has been, then that's fine. It's part of the fun of life. I'm a responsible person. I do the things I'm supposed to. I'm responsible to my family, and I'm a hard worker, but I'm also…maybe I'm eccentric! I enjoy doing stuff. I'm looking forward to going to Zurich tomorrow, and I'm going to visit James Joyce's grave in Zurich. Then I'm going to Berlin, and I'm probably going to say hello to some of the angel statues that I like, and I'm probably going to the café Pasternak, and, you know, I like doing stuff like that.

GR: You say in the book, "These are modern times, but we are not trapped in them. We can go where we like, communing with angels." How much do you feel like you live in modern times and how much do you feel like you live in the absence of time? And why do you think that's appealing to you?

PS: I live in real time probably a lot less than my own time. But I live in real time when it's absolutely necessary. When I'm performing, I live in real time, because my mission is to communicate directly with the people. Talking to you, totally in real time. All my focus is on talking to you. If my son or daughter needs me, I'm totally focused in the moment we're living. But when I'm on my own, my mind tends to wander into the future, or in ancient times, or when I was 11, or into parallel time. I like parallel time, too.

GR: Parallel time?

PS: I just mean…how can I explain that? I guess daydreaming. Where you're in your own time, but I'm not really thinking about my own past or my future or anything. I'm in some other world like the Matrix or something. Someplace more science fiction, I guess. An alternative reality.

GR: Who are you reading now?

PS: I'm getting ready to read this book called Nabokov in America, so that's the book I'm going to read next. While I've been writing my book and copy editing, I haven't been reading that much because I was so mentally exhausted. I just read a book called The Blind Contessa's New Machine. I'd never heard of this girl, I found this book at the airport, and it's just an exquisite book. Oh, I know what book I was just reading! It's called Le Corbusier: The Architect on the Beach. This book is awesome. It's about how the beach and natural forms influence Corbusier. It's got really cool pictures in it. I usually read about three or four books at the same time unless I'm really obsessed with one, but I'm also a really fast reader.

GR: Which books have been the most influential?

PS: I don't know how I can answer that. I can think of what books I keep returning to philosophically. I didn't really talk about it a lot in the book, but someday I will. The Glass Bead Game has really been an important book in my life, one I read and reread. But I loved reading the Japanese writers. Not just Murakami but Akutagawa; he has this long story that's like more of a novella in parts called Spinning Gears, and I love it because he talks about the writer's process and the process of his particular madness, which I like so much because I so identified with it. I don't suffer madness, but I could understand exactly where it's coming from, for different reasons. But I like all kinds of books. Pinocchio and Alice in Wonderland, I'll reread.

GR: Goodreads member V asks, "Where does your courage come from? Were there moments you were afraid? Were there moments you hoped for something else entirely? How did you overcome?"

PS: I don't know that I have specifically courage. I had a lot of guts when I was young. I'm not saying I don't now, but it manifests itself in different ways. I think instead of saying I have courage, I love life.

I've had a lot of blows in my life mostly through the loss of people, but I love life and I want to keep living. And at the lowest point of my life I had two small children to take care of, so at the very lowest point of my life I had no choice but to keep going. I can't say that that's courageous, just a strong survivor.

I don't suffer a lot of fear. Once you're a mother you always fear that something will happen to your child—that they'll get sick or be unhappy or suffer. That's a branch of fear. I'm not saying that I'm completely fearless, but I'm not dominated by fear.

GR: Goodreads member Jim says, "I have certain ideas and projects in mind that have been with me for years. Do you shepherd projects or ideas along and bring them to finality in their time, or are you more current in your focus?

PS: I always work on several things at the same time because I'm multidisciplined, which doesn't mean I'm great at multithings, just that I have multiways in which I express myself. Sometimes it's visual. A painting or a poem or sometimes through performance, and it takes a lot of effort and also you have a lot of things you never can finish. I have so many things and so many ideas, I could never possibly execute them all. I just do what I can and execute some of them. But I think one of the things that saves me from being remorseful about that or frustrated is that I enjoy process, and some things we just do because we do, maybe just for process or to learn. I've written piles of manuscripts that have never been published, and maybe they'll never be published, but in the process of writing them, I learned how to write.

GR: Goodreads member Pauline asks, "How do you feel about how the Internet has impacted the creative process currently for artists, in comparison to your creative development in the '70s?"

PS: It hasn't really impacted my own development. I just sort of work the way I work. I'm an old-fashioned worker. You know, I'm not really so much of a 21st-century artist. Even as a performer, my band still performs the same way we did at CBGBs. Our equipment's still the same, we're still fairly raw, I still write by hand, I put it in that computer and I edit it, but I'm still a hands-on worker.

In terms of other people, I can't speak for other people because a lot of people build projects through programs and things—I don't have those skills. In terms of the creativity, it's sort of equalized certain things. It hasn't equalized greatness, because it's not that many people who I would call great. There's only one Michelangelo, there's only one Jimi Hendrix, but the Internet has provided people with tools to express themselves creatively. When I was young, you needed a lot of money to make one little record, and no one would hear it anyways unless you had a record company. Nobody took photographs except for photographers—you couldn't afford the camera, and the processing was expensive. Now anybody can take photographs, and thousands of people make their own records in their basement, on their computer. They can put them on the Internet and people can hear them, so it's equalized a certain strata of creativity, but that's only what it is.

I think it's good that everyone has the opportunity to express themselves. But art is a huge, huge life commitment that requires immense amounts of sacrifice. And I mean all the arts, not just being a musician or a poet. It's not just doing one or two things and sharing them—which I think is good—it's a calling. It's a life calling, which requires an immense amount of sacrifice, and that's not going to change. I mean, people can change, culture can change, tastes change, and what's culturally in or out might change, but this one thing, this one truth, will never change. The idea of having a calling and committing to it, and giving the world—through that calling and through so much sacrifice and so much effort—something fine, something of worth, something transforming, that's a whole other thing.

GR: What would your advice be to artists who want to do that, who want to make that commitment?

PS: My advice is always to work hard. My advice would be very simple: to question what your motivation is. One should be motivated hopefully to bring something new to the table. Bring something transforming. Make people see in some new way. If one is looking for fame and fortune, that might be all they get. People say, 'What kind of agent should I get?' Don't even think about that. Just concentrate on the work. Work is what will endure. If you want to be a pop star, that's fine, but you're really going to have to work hard because pop stars really work hard. It's work. All of it is work. There's not some magic thing; you can't go from A to A in a second, no matter what you want to be—a doctor or a farmer or a baker or a mother—you have to work, and you have to make something. You have to make something new.

Comments Showing 1-14 of 14 (14 new)

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message 1: by Joan (new)

Joan I also just saw/listened to a wonderful interview with her, livestreamed by NYPublic Library. I believe one can see an archived copy on line.

message 2: by Connie (new)

Connie Wonderful interview...awed by the life-force of Patti Smith. What a thirst she has for adventure and knowledge!

message 3: by Ruth (new)

Ruth Segal Can't wait to read the new book.
PS has been one of the strongest influences in my life for 40 years.
She is a direct conduit to God.

message 4: by Keith (new)

Keith Yocum I listened to an audiobook of Jo Nesbo's "Blood on Snow," and was shocked and a little put off by the reader: Patti Smith. I nearly shut it off 5 minutes into her reading, which is a first-person narrative of a Norwegian male. But Smith's laconic, gravelly, NY-accented voice lulled me in, and made the book more nuanced and interesting. Worth a listen. Wonderful voice; brave publisher for using her for the audiobook version. Loved her take ...

message 5: by Elena (new)

Elena DeRosa I didn't think I could love Patti any more than I already did...I was wrong. Looking forward to reading "M Train."

message 6: by Cat (new)

Cat Ji Good to see Patti Smith show up, in my goodreads newsletter. Interesting that she mentions Herman Hesse's Glass Bead Game; i suppose i should also read it again.
...Trying to remember the name of the weird play she wrote, back in the day. i stil have it somewhere, a folder of printed papers. But no-one was ever interested and, if anyone did read it, that i suggested it to, they never said anything. :-/

message 7: by Elena (new)

Elena DeRosa Cat wrote: "Good to see Patti Smith show up, in my goodreads newsletter. Interesting that she mentions Herman Hesse's Glass Bead Game; i suppose i should also read it again.
...Trying to remember the name of t..."

Was it "Cowboy Mouth?"

message 8: by Lengsoeu (new)

Lengsoeu This book is have good contents but should have more picture

message 9: by Karen (new)

Karen Rose Yes, I believe she co-wrote the play and performed it with Sam Shepard?

message 10: by W.R. (new)

W.R. German Karen wrote: "Yes, I believe she co-wrote the play and performed it with Sam Shepard?"

You are correct.

message 11: by Kate (new)

Kate Waites It always puzzles me when peopl ask for more pictures, especially for a writer whose words create pictures.

message 12: by Ram (new)

Ram Aurora She's so cool.

message 13: by Lisa (last edited Oct 21, 2015 06:15AM) (new)

Lisa Recently attended her reading of M Train in Boston. She was fantastic as usual... witty, insightful, and she asked us to sing "Because the Night" with her. An evening I will never forget.

message 14: by Aomame* (new)

Aomame* Lengsoeu wrote: "This book is have good contents but should have more picture"
Pictures... of? What for instance?

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