Interviews

Why Patti Smith Writes

In her latest book, the iconic writer and musician examines belief, friendship, mentorship, and what drives her to make art.

Patti Smith (photo by Steven Sebring)

Patti Smith knows her new book, Devotion (Yale University Press, 2017), isn’t for everyone, but it’s a gift for those who get it. “I think the kind of people who will like this book — because I think a lot of people won’t like it or will dismiss it — are people who like to read and are curious to see how a piece of work comes together,” she tells me. By turns allegorical, metaphysical, fictional and factual, Devotion shows rather than tells what it means to give a life to writing. A master of poetic innovation, Smith takes her style to the next level in this slim volume, embedding a tragic short story between an autobiographical introduction and a shorter essayistic coda, which demonstrate how her direct experience traveling around Europe alchemized into a short story.

I first encountered Smith’s work when I was in my early twenties. Like so many people before me, it gave me permission to do what I wanted to do, reminded me that it had never been easy and testified to the power of love. Sometimes, in the ensuing years I would pick up a book of hers mid heartbreak or writer’s block, post coitus or cry, and flip to a random page. Smith’s words brought inspiration and guidance without fail.

With the release of Devotion, she formalizes the guidance many have sought from her. I had the chance to speak with her directly. Our conversation roved from spiritual practice to mentorship to musicality and back.

Katherine Cooper: How do you begin a book?

Patti Smith: Well with this little book, Devotion, the genesis was a talk I was invited to give at Yale about writing, and then the idea was that I was supposed to expand the talk into an essay about writing. How I set to work with Robert’s book was, again, not something that I chose. I had promised Robert, the day before he died, that I would write our story. I had been mostly unpublished (still am) so it was a bit daunting to start such a big nonfiction project. I wrote many, many chronological outlines trying to remember everything that I could. M Train was much more fun. The cowpoke in M Train is really Sam Shepard and Sam and I talk about writing all of the time. I had this dream about him and then I just decided to see if I could sit day after day writin’ about nothing, no plot or anything, you know, just writin’, to see what happened.

KC: It’s interesting to hear you call Just Kids “Robert’s book”— you’ve said that you see the making of art as a gift. Devotion is dedicated to Betsy Lerner, but who is it for more broadly?

PS: I dedicated it to Betsy because she has been my editor since Just Kids. It took me so long to write that book that I was actually dropped by the first publisher, which was Doubleday, and Betsy continued on with me. She also eventually left Doubleday and she became my agent and continues to be my guide. But I suppose it’s to people who like to read or people who are writing.

KC: Eugenia, your central character in the story, is born with a natural gift for ice skating. It’s in vogue right now to think of creativity as innate to everyone—I wonder if you think that some people are just born with talent and some aren’t?

PS: A creative impulse doesn’t have to blossom as art. But absolutely some people are born with special gifts and they can be excruciating and cause a great amount of sacrifice. What it means is that you go through life sometimes with a half life because at least half of your life is devoted to practicing, working, developing your craft. Many people can learn things but I think there are others who, for whatever reason, have a calling— it’s in their blood, their ancestors had a specific affinity towards a certain thing, or [they’re] touched by God. It doesn’t make them more valuable than another person, but people do have gifts. And then there is the lack of gifts. I would love to speak language, for instance, but I can’t speak anything really except English — yet there is a cashier at the deli down the street who can speak fourteen languages and I keep telling him, “you should work for the UN!” He’s a polymath.

KC: Yeah I was gonna say he’s not only a cashier, he’s a polymath.

PS: He’s not a cashier, he just plays one on TV.

KC: This book is in many ways the first book you’ve written that’s not devoted to someone that you have been involved with — Robert Mapplethorpe is the central figure in Just Kids and your late husband Fred Sonic Smith is in M Train ….

PS: The story is called Devotion, but what [Eugenia] is devoted to is not a love interest. The love interest to me in this little book is writing. And for her, her love interest is skating. It’s one’s craft.

KC: I was paging through M Train again, after I read Devotion. I was struck by a line the Cowpoke says right at the beginning: “The writer is a conductor.” Devotion has a musicality to it. It’s almost like a fugue. I was curious what role musical form or music played in how you structured this book, if it did at all.

PS: In the beginning, I’m talking about this film, In The Crosswinds, about the Estonians. If you felt like it, you could go to the YouTube and see the trailer. You hear a voice, the voice of Erma. I don’t know the Estonian language but this girl had the most lyrical voice and it haunted me like a musical refrain. I’m sure that in the book I talk about it: “Luckily traffic is thin as we enter the Holland Tunnel. Relieved, I sink back into the voice of Erma. I imagine writing a story guided by the atmosphere of the particular resonance of a particular human voice — her voice — no plot in mind, just trailing her tone, timbres and composing phrases as if music and superimposing them, transparent layers, over hers.” I didn’t have music in my head per se but I had that musical quality of her voice as my inner voice for that story. That was just something I did that I figured no one would notice.

KC: Rhythmically it feels so distinct as opposed to the other two parts.

PS: Also, I wrote the whole story on a train, so I think that also comes into play.

KC: The title of the series “Why I Write” gives the illusion that you might be in for a straightforward answer but —

PS: Well, I think that the last line of the book answers it as well as it could be answered. My answer is the same as [Eugenia’s] answer: “We write because we cannot simply live.” I can’t even go to the bathroom without a book in my hand. I have to have a book with me, or a notebook, and I’ve been like that for most of my life. You know, being an artist is like being a double agent. You’re trying to move through life with full attention but you can’t because something happens that triggers an idea. I’ll be sitting at a concert listening to Beethoven and my mind makes up a story and then I feel compelled to write it instead of listening to Beethoven. It’s that dual thing. You wanna engage fully in life and give your loved ones your full attention but often you just can’t.

KC: Somebody once said to me, “When Patti speaks she incants; very few people have that ability.” How do you cultivate a practical relationship with the divine in your writing and performing?

PS: We always aspire to something higher. As a child, it seemed to me disappointing to be in a world where everything was already figured out and there was nothing more to want to achieve than making a living. My mother taught me about god before I went to Sunday school. That to me was very liberating, the idea that there was some higher force. I didn’t really have any expectations or idea of what god was, it was simply that there was something to aspire to, something that kept on going, that was infinite.

It might be as something as practical as you’re on stage and you flub something, so you just draw from some part of you for everyone to have a good laugh to transcend this rough moment and then it becomes a courageous act instead of just a piece of humiliation. Other times it’s something deeper. The way I practice communing with this other aspect, this intimate aspect, is forever changing, Sometimes it’s just talking to my mother. Sometimes it might be very abstract prayers that have no words and sometimes it might come through in a piece of work. I don’t have any specific belief system or expectations. I just believe.

KC: As I was reading this book I was thinking about the relationships of mentorship and inspiration that are peppered throughout it. You find yourself at this moment becoming an inspiration and an icon for young artists specifically — it seems like a lot of people are turning to you for answers. In my view, your work presents questions and mystery. I wonder — do you share some of your characters’ ambivalence about mentor status?

PS: Eugenia has two mentors — Maria and Alexander — but in the end the one she believes in the most is herself. She keeps showing them that she’s her own person. She has a vision that might be beyond their grasp.

It’s the mentor’s duty to let his acolyte go on without them and hopefully eclipse them. Sometimes people thank me because they say, I helped them get on the right track or something of that nature and I always tell them, “I’m glad that I was of service but you would have found it on your own.”

Sometimes [people] hold you in reverence or something and that’s a very nice thing but I think it’s really important to say “Thank you but may you eclipse my own efforts.” Or, “may you do something totally different. I have no desire to be a leader of a cult or anything. I’m a responsible person but I don’t wanna have the responsibility of all these people. I want them to be responsible for themselves and believe in themselves. I’ve been inspired by hundreds of people, thousands of books, songs and movies. Even in this little book it was Patrick Modiano and Simone Weil and the little Russian skater, all these different factions in the cauldron of my brain stirring it up and that’s what came out — this little story and this little book.

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