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Posts from the ‘Patti Smith’ Category

Conversations with the Dead: Patti Smith’s M Train

Patti_Smith-2015-M_Train_book_cover-715x1024

I let my coffee run cold and thought about detectives. Partners depend on one another’s eyes. The one says, tell me what you see. His partner must speak assuredly, not leaving anything out. But a writer has no partner. He has to step back and ask himself – tell me what you see. But since he is telling himself he doesn’t have to be perfectly clear, because something inside holds any given missing part – the unclear or partially articulated.

Patti Smith’s M Train (I presume the M stands for memory) is essentially a series of conversations with the dead and pilgrimages to the haunts and grave sites of writers past: Rimbaud, Burroughs, Bowles, Genet, Wittgenstein, Camus, Sebald, Plath, Mishima, Akutagawa, Dasai. Comprised of a patchwork quilt of genres, it combines autobiography with a book of dreams, a touch of travel writing, a salute to coffee houses, an ode to memory. Smith, who is a latter-day Beat and an admitted Romantic, blends a deep, if non-denominational spirituality with an unshakable commitment to fate. She reads Tarot cards, believes in dreams, isn’t concerned if she loses a camera or a favorite overcoat or realizes she has forgetfully left all of her luggage in a hotel room as she boards a flight. Unlike the A train that Smith takes to her ramshackle bungalow on the boardwalk of Far Rockaway, her M train delightfully meanders through time and place without warning or direction.

Perhaps the most telling story in Patti Smith M Train (Knopf, 2015) is the one we encounter at the outset of the book.

Several months before our first anniversary Fred [Sonic Smith, who she married around 1980] told me that if I promised to give him a child he would first take me anywhere in the world. Without hesitation I chose Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, a border town in northwest French Guiana, on the North Atlantic coast of South America. I had long wished to see the remains of the French penal colony where hard-core criminals were once shipped before being transferred to Devil’s Island. In The Thief’s Journal Jean Genet had written of Saint-Laurent as hallowed ground and of the inmates incarcerated there with devotional empathy. In his Journal he wrote of a hierarchy of inviolable criminality, a manly saintliness that flowered at its crown in the terrible reaches of French Guiana. He had ascended the ladder toward them: reform school, petty thief, and three-time loser; but as he was sentenced the prison he’d held in such reverence was closed…Genet served his time in Fresnes Prison, bitterly lamenting that he would never attain the grandeur that he aspired to.

Patti and Fred make their way to French Guiana (no easy task) and when they finally reach Saint-Laurent she solemnly takes some photographs and gathers up three stones to save in a Gitane matchbox, “with its silhouette of a Gypsy posturing with her tambourine in a swirl of indig0-tinged smoke. I pictured a small yet triumphal moment passing the stones to Genet.” She never managed to meet Genet, but some two decades later, on a visit to Morocco, she finally deposited the three stones on Genet’s grave in Larache, not far from Tangier. But it isn’t Genet that she recalls when she places the stones (“Genet was dead and belonged to no one”). It was Fred, who died in 1994, “dressed in khaki, his long hair shorn, standing alone in the undergrowth of tall grass and spreading palms. I saw his hand and his wristwatch. I saw his wedding ring and his brown leather shoes.”

This difficult trip to French Guiana represents, if you will, the yang side of Patti Smith, the intense, often gregarious world traveler. Smith’s yin side manifests itself as a kind of routine New York-centered idleness, a deliberately meditative isolation. But it’s a nourishing, regenerative idleness in which Smith dreams, observes, thinks, soaks in detective programs on the television, fills up her notebooks. Smith’s life, the reader quickly sees, is full of rituals, whether it is occupying a favorite chair at the neighborhood coffee house, visiting the grave of a hallowed writer, or photographing objects and places as if they were sacred.

Smith is well-known for being an admirer of W.G. Sebald. She put “anything by W.G. Sebald” on her list of favorite books a few years ago. In 2011 she participated in a huge Sebald event on the tenth anniversary of his death, and so it is not surprising that she spends a few pages in M Train writing about the effect his book-length poem After Nature had on her.

What a drug this little book is; to imbibe it is to find oneself presuming his process. I read and feel that same compulsion; the desire to possess what he has written, which can only be subdued by writing something myself. It is not mere envy but a delusional quickening in the blood.

If I had a “best ten books of 2015,” M Train would be on the list, and now I am anxious to read Smith’s memoir of her time with Mapplethorpe, Just Kids. Smith writes with a lack of pretension that is utterly winning. Other than an occasional reference to giving a concert or a reading, nothing in M Train tells us that the author is an internationally acclaimed writer and musician (or, in the unfortunate wording of the book jacket, a “mulitplatform”artist). She takes the subway, rides the bus, feeds her cats, and sits on her East Village stoop to smoke a cigarette like any other ordinary New Yorker.

Patti Smith, Reader & Writer

It’s now a few days after the Sebald event at Snape Maltings and I’m not finding much coverage online.  The Guardian hyped the Patti Smith concert and the Grant Gee film for days but doesn’t seem to have reviewed either one yet.  A couple of online writers have added their musings.  Check out Invective Against Swans Tumblr commentary and Skywritings blog post.

In case anyone was wondering about the connection between Patti Smith and Sebald, apparently she gave out a list of her favorite books at the Melbourne International Arts Festival a few years ago. It’s an interesting blend of cult books (e.g. The Glass Bead Game), the expected Beat classics, Beat must-reads (Rimbaud, Blake, et al), more than a handful of genuinely great books, and two I’ve never heard of before. Several authors rate high enough that Smith recommends all their books, including Sebald.

“The Master & Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov
“Journey To The East” by Hermann Hesse
“The Glass Bead Game” by Hermann Hesse
“Heart Of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad
“Moby Dick” by Herman Melville
“Billy Budd” by Herman Melville
“Songs Of Innocence” by William Blake
“The Wild Boys” by William Burroughs
“Howl” by Allen Ginsburg
“A Season In Hell” by Arthur Rimbaud
“Illuminations” by Arthur Rimbaud
“Wittgenstein’s Poker” by David Edmonds & John Eidinow
“Villette” by Charlotte Bronte
“The Process” by Brion Gysin
“Cain’s Book” by Alexander Trocchi
“Coriolanus” by William Shakespeare
“The Happy Prince” by Oscar Wilde
“The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles
“Against Interpretation” by Susan Sontag
“The Oblivian Seekers” by Isabelle Eberhardt
“Women Of Cairo” by Gerard de Nerval
“Under The Volcano” by Malcom Lowery
“Dead Souls” by Nikolai Gogol
“The Book Of Disquiet” by Fernando Pessoa
“Death Of Virgil” by Herman Broch
“Raise High The Roof Beams Carpenter/ Franny & Zooey” by J.D. Salinger
“The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
“A Night Of Serious Drinking” by Rene Daumal
“Swann In Love” by Marcel Proust
“A Happy Death” by Albert Camus
“The First Man” by Albert Camus
“The Waves” by Virginia Woolf
“Big Sur” by Jack Kerouac
anything by H.P. Lovecraft
anything by W.G. Sebald
“The Thief’s Journal” or anything by Jean Genet
“The Arcades Project” or anything by Walter Benjamin
“A Poet In New York” by Garcia Lorca
“The Lost Honor Of Katharina Blum” by Heinrich Boll
“The Palm Wine Drinkard” by Amos Tutuola
“Ice” by Anna Kavan (or anything by her)
“The Divine Proportion” by H.E. Huntley
“Nadja” by Andre Breton

What’s next for Patti Smith?  Apparently a detective novel.

Let England Shake – Prepping for Snape Maltings

CD Cover for PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake

The Guardian has posted the previously announced video piece of their writer Stuart Jeffries in conversation with filmmaker Grant Gee.  At 4:33 it’s a mere snippet and doesn’t provide much foreshadowing of Grant Gee’s new film Patience (After Sebald), which premieres in two days.

There’s better reading in The Guardian‘s interview with Patti Smith, who will play a concert this coming Saturday night

where she will improvise work based on WG Sebald’s poem After Nature. She has spent the morning reading him, and “listening to Polly Harvey’s new song – she has this new song, The Words That Maketh Murder – what a great song. It just makes me happy to exist. Whenever anyone does something of worth, including myself, it just makes me happy to be alive. So I listened to that song all morning, totally happy.”

Patti Smith. Photograph: Richard Pak for the Guardian

Even better, skip all the journalism and watch the music video of PJ Harvey singing the song mentioned by Patti Smith, The Words that Maketh Murder, from her recent CD Let England Shake.

Sebald, Snape Maltings, and Smith (as in Patti)

Located in the beautifully-named town of Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh Music is planning a weekend of film, music, conversation, and walks devoted to W.G. Sebald from January 28-30, 2011 called After Sebald – Place and Re-Enchantment: A Weekend Exploration.  Aldeburgh Music is a permanent performance center that has emerged out of the Aldeburgh Festival established in 1948 by Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, and Eric Crozier.  (In his recent book The Rest Is Silence, music critic Alex Ross made a brief but strong connection between Sebald and Britten.)  Below are some of the details of the weekend, which I’ve extracted from the organization’s website.  Additional details can be found at Aldeburgh Music’s website under the individual events.  Here’s the link to the main page.

Friday 28 January
Patience (After Sebald) – World Premiere
Written and directed by the award-winning filmmaker Grant Gee, Patience (After Sebald) is a multi-layered essay film on landscape, art, history, life and loss.  It offers a unique exploration of the life, work and influence of W.G. Sebald (1944–2001) via a long walk through coastal East Anglia tracking The Rings of Saturn. Visually and aurally innovative, Patience features contributions from Tacita Dean, Robert Macfarlane, Katie Mitchell, Rick Moody, Andrew Motion, Chris Petit, Iain Sinclair and Marina Warner.  After the screening, Grant Gee will be in conversation with prize-winning writer on place, Robert Macfarlane (The Wild Places).

Saturday 29 January
Towards Re-Enchantment – Symposium
A day-long enquiry into the landscapes of Suffolk, the spirit of place and its various meanings, taking Sebald as its foundation. Presentations, discussions
and readings with Robert Macfarlane and other leading writers.

Saturday 29 January
Max: A Tribute by Patti Smith
Internationally renowned for her visionary creativity and commitment, the iconic musician, poet, writer and cultural activist Patti Smith needs no
introduction. In an exclusive concert created for this weekend, she will respond to Sebald’s book-length poem After Nature in an intimate evening of song and spoken word performance.

Sunday 30 January
Orford Ness Walk

This singular landscape has inspired many artists, including Sebald, whose visit, recorded in The Rings of Saturn, captures perfectly its unsettling presence and buried past. Take advantage of a very rare opportunity to explore this haunting location in the heart of winter.

Tickets. Weekend tickets (best tickets, excluding Walk and Lunch) are available at £55. Only Weekend tickets will be available from Wednesday 1 September; booking for individual events opens Monday 18 October.

More on Grant Gee’s film:

Grant Gee’s film Patience (After Sebald) is part of a new series of commissions from a group called artevents as part of their project The Re-Enchantment:

The Re-Enchantment is the first national project exploring culture and the rural through original artistic commissions. This ambitious project seeks to interrogate the various meanings of ‘place’ in the twenty first century.  At a time when globalisation, the implications of extreme environmental change and the multiple alienations of modern society all threaten our sense of belonging, the importance of ‘place’ to the enhancement of identity and creative possibility in life and art cannot be underestimated. The Re-Enchantment aims to deliver an imaginative response through art, live performance, film and writing to one of the most pressing issues facing the contemporary world.

Note: On Saturday September 11, Gee will talk about his film with writer and critic Chris Darke and apparently will show clips at The British Library, as part of a one-day program Landscaping: Artists, Maps and Britain.