All the Poets (Musicians on Writing): Patti Smith

In this monthly series, Scott Timberg interviews musicians on the literary work that has inspired and informed their music.


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. 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.

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. (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.


SCOTT TIMBERG: So I want to talk to you about the new book and the inspiration that went into it. A lot of us who know your music have long been aware of your admiration for French literature, especially poetry — Baudelaire, the Symbolists, Rimbaud. I wonder what draws you to that. 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!

For me, when I was young, it was all about language. Even though I can only read in translation, there are beautiful translations of Rimbaud, and not just Rimbaud but French literature in general. And it wasn’t just French literature but film — you know, Godard, Bresson, and on and on. I was aesthetically drawn to French culture. And that also includes French fashion. 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. So a lot of it was, especially as a young girl, aesthetic.

The language within Rimbaud to me was intoxicating. And I admit, at 16 years old, I didn’t always understand what I was reading, but it really didn’t matter. The language to me was so beautiful, and I was just drawn to it. 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.

I’ve always had an affection and felt an affiliation. 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. And also, thinking about Paris in the ’20s and going to Paris, there’s so much history there. You can see it when you’re standing on the street where Picasso painted Guernica, and all the streets are named after poets. It’s wonderful.

Right, Victor Hugo and so on …

Yeah, exactly. It’s a very romantic city. That perhaps has shifted, and it might not have the same deep romance. 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.

So it never gets old for you?

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. There’s just something in the fact that they haven’t changed. I can still see my young self walking in the park where Marcel Proust used to walk. There’s a connection — it’s still the same and you can still feel all of that.

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. Or you could go to the skating rink. But in 1965, I did save my babysitting money, I saved my factory money, and I saw Bob Dylan, I saw Joan Baez.

And that would have been an incredible time to see Dylan, too.

That’s the first time I ever saw him. It was at Perrytown, New Jersey, or something, at a fair, and I went to see Joan Baez and she introduced Bobby Dylan. 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 just once or twice.

So you grew up in a small town, which I expect was pretty provincial, pretty Catholic. I imagine you growing up in Springsteen country, very blue collar.

No no, I’m from rural south Jersey. He’s like mid-Jersey. It wasn’t blue collar, it was rural. I’m from a rural area. When we moved there in 1957 it was mostly swampland, orchards, and pig farms. 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. So it’s a whole different type of upbringing, and a different type of community.

So reading Verlaine and Rimbaud and so on must have been pretty exotic. Did it seem like a whole different universe to you?

I mean, I was an avid reader. By 16 I had read The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera, so I was also connected with Mexico and with Tina Modotti and Frida Kahlo. 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. But it was all work-centric. 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.

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? Or was French culture its own thing?

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. You know, it was like the Rose Period, the Blue Period, Cubism — you had to move quickly with him. But I think the difference was, for one thing, Bob Dylan was alive. And it was exciting to be drawn to someone who touched on all of art, travel, social awareness, and who was alive.

You couldn’t go see Rimbaud with the Hawks at a club …

[Laughs.] No, I tried! Bob Dylan was alive and reacting immediately to our times. 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.

That brings me to the New York music scene of the mid-’70s. We think of it as being punk rock, as being raw and direct, but it was actually very literary. 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. It never would have occurred to us. All of us were writers. And Richard Hell and I weren’t even musicians, we were performers. Richard Hell was a poet, and I came to rock ’n’ roll through poetry. Tom Verlaine is a really fine musician — he was an exception. And Lou Reed was also a poet. And we weren’t just poets, we were people who loved poets, we were people who read all kinds of literature. We were all reading Paul Bowles and Baudelaire. And there wasn’t much difference in age between us, just a year or two. And so the first tier of CBGB’s had a poetic nucleus. And it just grew.

There were no rules that you were supposed to be … anything! Except doing your own thing. Developing original material and not being confined by anything. There wasn’t any place to play for people who were off the grid. Unless it was a cabaret, but a lot of them had uptight rules. And the great thing about CBGB’s was — we just did what we wanted. And there were no expectations or restrictions. It was a really great place for us to develop a vision that sometimes was only half-formed.

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.

Well, I don’t know, for me I just do my work. That’s the first thing. It’s just about the work, and where it goes comes second. Unless you have a particular target in mind. 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. That’s the first thing. And other things fall around it.

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. I basically said: “Why are you still working this hard? 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. 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? When am I gonna do this song that communicates the most to people? And sometimes we’ve already done it and we don’t even know, and we just have to keep going. It’s that kind of mental restlessness that keeps us going and keeps us working.

I wonder what makes the difference between people who continue to grow and people who don’t. You mentioned Picasso, and there’s also Dylan, Miles Davis. Is there a sense of not being satisfied with what you’ve done before, of being hard on yourself?

Well, that’s part of being restless, you know? It’s also curiosity. You can’t stop your mind from thinking, reinventing. 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. You go and see something and you want to photograph it. The mind doesn’t stop moving just because you closed the books on a project on Monday. On Thursday your mind’s already moving on to another one. It’s just the nature of that kind of calling.

So you were hit as a teenager by the 19th-century poets. I’m curious about your interest in Camus. 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. What connected you with his work?

Well, first, just his literature — A Happy Death, which is still one of my favorite books. And reading The Stranger and his other works. So it began with literature and other aesthetic connections. There’s just something about his language. There’s something about French in translation that I just relate to. Maybe it’s the starkness. It’s both complex and simple at the same time.

I think sometimes I’m drawn to writers who reaffirm that I’m on the right track. 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. 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. I like fiction, I like biographies of people who are dead (I don’t like any about people who are living). And it’s funny, because I do write memoir myself, but I’m often writing about people who are departed. 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. That’s the type of writing that I aspire to, especially in the future. I like writing fiction. I haven’t published much but I write a lot of it. I like the merging. I think Genet is, in certain ways, one of my favorite writers in terms of his process. That seamless process of fact and fiction. Sam Shepard does that a lot. There are certain writers who do that, Samuel Beckett does it.

Another Paris guy, too …

[Laughs.] A Paris Irishman. I go through phases, though. A couple years ago I went through a Murakami phase — I spent almost a year reading Murakami. And a couple years before that it was Bolaño. I’m a serial monogamous reader. I just get into somebody and that’s all I want to read. When I was writing Devotion I was in my Patrick Modiano phase.

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. Tell us a little about Modiano and why you sank so deeply into his work.

I discovered him just like I discovered Henning Mankell: in an airport, because I didn’t have a book and I was desperate. 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. And I found Modiano the same way. I was looking for a new Murakami book and I couldn’t find anything, and I saw Modiano. It was In the Café of Lost Youth or something. But the way I pick a book, I might just like the way it feels in my hand or I like the paper. I’ll read the first couple sentences and I’m either in or out. Sometimes the first sentence will turn me off and I won’t read the book.

I just got drawn into that one. And again, it’s like an addiction. So I had read about 85 percent of Modiano when I was writing Devotion. He was much on my mind. There are a lot of references to him. It wasn’t an intentional thing — I wasn’t planning to write about him. It was because I was supposed to write an essay on writing. A long essay. I got this prize, you know — a prize connected with a bigger prize. I was chosen to write a long essay about the process of writing to introduce the recipients of the Windham-Campbell Prize.

This is at Yale?

Yeah. And so it’s an honor in order to bestow another honor. 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. I read Marguerite Duras’s Writing, a very simple book, and shorter than Devotion. And I reread Virginia Woolf and other writers on writing.

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. It’s really a little book that’s like a parable or a metaphor for process. It is process itself.

The part that startled, or pleasantly surprised me, is that middle section with the ice skater. And you said you’ve written fiction …

A lot of it. 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. But I’ve written a lot of fiction. And it got waylaid by writing Just Kids. And I tried to experiment — M Train was an experiment. But I didn’t expect to write that little story, it just came out.

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.

Yeah, I don’t know what any of my work is.

Are you hoping to publish more character-based stories?

Eventually I will. Since I turned 70, I’ve really thought about what I want to do with the next decade of my life. And I think I’m going to devote it mostly to writing. Tour less, travel less, and just focus on writing. Because I have so much unpublished work, and so much I still want to do, you know? This little book came off the tail of finishing M Train, but I didn’t set out to write it. I was supposed to be writing an essay. What gave me permission was, around 1946 or so, Nabokov was commissioned by New Directions to do a biography of Gogol. You know, a major biography.

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 it’s a very small book, not the big heavy tome they were hoping for. But it’s an awesome book. And again, it’s a take on things. 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. And think. I thought that would have some kind of unique charm. [Laughs.]

It’s like I was saying that, if Devotion was a crime, all around it was the evidence of the crime. It’s like a crime scene. The little loosely kept diary of me traipsing around Paris and Ashford. 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. There wasn’t any intentional thing, things just seeped into it. Usually those things are very far apart, and to have them running parallel was unique. I was able to see it all unfold before me. My own process.

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. 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?

Well, yeah, all the time. But I have one that’s even worse. I have a hard time restraining myself from buying books I already have and love. I see them again. I looked and I have four copies of Nabokov on Gogol. 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. I have three copies of Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, three or four copies of Bolaño’s 2666. You know, eventually, I’ll give ’em to somebody, but I can’t resist buying them again.

But I have some really beautiful books. Actually, my prize book is the first edition of Finnegans Wake, signed by James Joyce. 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 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. So it was a lot of money. In, like, a paper bag. And I was walking down Charing Cross, this street in London that I really love that has a lot of old bookstores.

So one of the stores I really like was going out of business. 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. And the cover is red silk cloth, and the pages are all cut and raggedy — it was just so beautiful.

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. And I said, “How much is it? 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. 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. Will that do it?” And this book is worth at least twice that much. He took it and we shook hands! Shook hands on it. And I took it out into the street, not even in a bag. And it’s one of my prized possessions. 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.

Well, it could be anything! I’ve bought books for a quarter, when I was a kid. You know, a first edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, with a blue silk binding. And that’s quite valuable now. But it just cost me a quarter — I mean, I had a good eye when I was a kid. I love books, I love every aspect — the paper, everything. But I’ll love a battered paperback. 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.

You’re of mostly Irish descent. Has Joyce been a major figure for you for a long time?

Well, I’m not mostly Irish. My father was mostly Irish and English. So I have a good mix — I’m more Celtic. I have Welsh, English, French. But yeah, I’ve gone through many periods of literature. There was a time when all I was reading was Yeats. Sam — my friend Sam Shepard — loved Beckett, and I went through a Samuel Beckett period with him because that was his fella. He loved Nabokov and Beckett. I’ve read a lot of Joyce, but it’s just that Finnegans Wake is more than a book. It’s like it contains the world. 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. So owning it is like having the essence of everything. I feel like it might just as well be a Sumerian text. But I don’t really care. I mean, I went through Ukrainian literature, I went through a Bulgakov period. It’s not really country-based, it’s usually person-based.

What’s interesting about Joyce is that he’s always so musical. In a different way from some of the people we’re talking about — there’s just that lilt to the language with him.

Yeah, there is. I mean, I’m not as drawn to Joyce as I am to other writers. Even his music isn’t the music that I hear. I might read Beckett more, and I really loved Yeats as a kid. But for some reason I love reading books in translation. There’s something about the clarity, if it’s a good translator. Like with Bolaño, Natasha Wimmer. Bolaño’s lucky he has great English translators. She’s a genius, that Natasha Wimmer. And then you have César Aira.

French literature in translation is so straightforward. I know that people always say you’re missing something because you’re not reading the real French. But I’m thrilled to have the books that I have. I’m thrilled that there are great translators that let us read Genet or Murakami. I thank them — I include them in my prayers, great translators.

You mentioned Mexican literature …

It’s more Mexican art. I can’t say that I’ve read a lot of Mexican writers. The culture of Mexico is what I was talking about. Especially at that one period — Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera. But Bolaño — I was just in Mexico City and read some poems dedicated to him, and he’s much revered in Mexico, much revered.

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.

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. There’s a fervor to it. When you have a calling, it’s like a beautiful obsession. You wake up in the morning, and that’s just part of who you are, what you do.

I totally agree, but don’t you think that, with some people, it can just disappear? People stop writing, stop painting — the inspiration is gone.

Yeah, but they might do something else. Or they might just want to live. One doesn’t know why people do that — maybe it’s because of a certain bitterness, or maybe it’s a sense of completion. Maybe they feel they’ve said all they wanted to say.

I mean, Brâncuși just stopped at a certain age. He said he still had a million ideas but not the will to execute them. Some people, like William Blake, still scrawl on their deathbeds. I can imagine myself being like that, still writing. You know, the Angel of Death is right there, and I go, “Eh, I just gotta finish this one line. 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. Tell us a little about what his work means to you. I know it’s probably impossible to …

Well, yeah, that’s really impossible — I can’t talk about Sam in such a general way. I’d been friends with him for almost 50 years. And you know, Sam loved books. He loved to read, he loved to talk about books, he cherished his books. 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.

He was an American writer. He loved the Irish writers, loved Beckett. He loved Nabokov, Bruno Schulz. He loved reading history. But in terms of what he gave us, he was an American writer. 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. The landscape, the roads, the people, the diners. The suffering, the joys of America.

I remember reading those 1970s poems in college, and Buried Child, and they were simultaneously completely bizarre and made perfect sense. It was the weirdest sensation.

Right, just like Rimbaud. That’s how Rimbaud is for me. You’ve described exactly what it’s like when you’re drawn by pure language. 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. Just pure intuition. And we just sense things. We sense kinship, we sense the smell of kinship, blood that has nothing to do with blood.

I have one last question. You worked at a bookstore, the Strand I think, in the 1970s, maybe the late ’60s. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

No, no, I worked at the Scribner’s Bookstore. Well, I worked at Brentano’s in ’67, Scribner’s from ’69 to ’72. And then, in ’73, maybe a little later … well I was going to CBGB’s when I was working at the Strand. And Tom Verlaine had worked at the Strand, and I think Richard Hell, too. We all worked at the Strand.

I worked in the basement. I had a really shitty job — I wasn’t on the floor. 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. But I was stuck in the basement. You know, just dusting off books and putting them on metal rollers to take to universities or something. It was a crappy job.

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. And the Strand was a gold mine of used books. I mean, I bought every single book on Rimbaud that there was in English. They were all battered — you know, Rimbaud in Abyssinia and all these French translations that were out of print. I filled my shelves, because they were all just a couple dollars and I got a big discount. That’s why we all worked there. It was a shitty place to work. I mean, I still love the Strand, but I’m not gonna make out like it was a great place to work.

But it was a great place if you loved books. We didn’t get paid much, but we got a really good discount. It was beautiful in that sense. 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! Nobody wanted Gérard de Nerval or stuff like that, printed in 1934. Nobody wanted them. Except us. And we bought them.

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. We did our time in those little shops. And thank god the Strand still exists. I love seeing it there, because so many of the bookstores are gone. I walk by it and I think, “Okay. We’re still in business, we’ve still got the Strand.”


Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.