Critical Mass

PEN World Voices: Author Patti Smith Rocks the Great Hall

By Jane Ciabattari

Summery day. Drifts of tree pollen and cherry blossoms in the air. New Yorkers baring arms, legs, tattoos. Mayday protest for workers’ rights in Union Square, cheek by jowl  with fresh arugula and fiddleheads at the greenmarket. Masses of strollers with ice cream smiles. 

Inside the Great Hall at Cooper Union, a guitar onstage is a promising sign for assembled fans trying to find a seat unobscured by one of at least eighteen massive  columns.

Perhaps the biggest fan is Jonathan Lethem, who snuck into CBGB’s at thirteen to listen to Patti Smith perform. They’ve just met, but they talk today as authors, book lovers, collectors of rare books, soon-to-be-honorary PhDs from Pratt. They make easy conversation, with some asides like this:

Patti Smith: I like the sneakers.

Jonathan Lethem: They’re not vintage.

Patti Smith. It doesn’t matter. They’re classic.

The narrative is more about authorship than Patti Smith as performer. Her writing discipline (every day, at least a sentence, even if a bit of overheard conversation; after awhile you crave this discipline every day). Her influences (her friends Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, William Blake, William Blake; the song she sings, at last, is “In my Blakean Year” with chorus, “One road is paved in gold, one road is just a road.) Her reading habits (one big book at a time, beginning with Moby-Dick; she spent a year reading Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game over and over, more recently has been devoted to Roberto Bolano’s 2666) and children’s books (“My goal in life, since I was ten, is to write one of those wonderful books that children would love as much as I loved Pinnochio”—a goal that did not go unnoticed by a Harper children’s book editor, who handed Smith her card at question time).

How did Just Kids, her intimate memoir of life in New York in the sixties and seventies  with Robert Mapplethorpe, come into shape? Lethem asked.

“This book was difficult,” she said. “Robert asked me to write it on his deathbed.” She had the sources in drawers—journals, diaries, daily details like cutting his hair,  meeting Janis Joplin, …  “after Robert died I had to deal with the death of my husband, my brother, my parents.  Only in these last few years was I able to put it all down. I had two rules. No matter what I had, if I couldn’t feel like I was entering a scene like in a movie, I took it out.  Robert wasn’t much of a reader. So it couldn’t be boring or too digressive.”

There appears to be more to come. She’s still writing. “I decided to write a trilogy of books, all from the same period, each from a different angle. How I wrote songs, and other people, other things that happened.”

Listen to audio of the event here.