Patti Smith on Virginia Woolf’s Cane, Charles Dickens’ Pen & Other Cherished Literary Talismans

Oh to be eulo­gized by Pat­ti Smith, God­moth­er of Punk, poet, best-sell­ing author.

Her mem­oir, Just Kids, was born of a sacred deathbed vow to her first boyfriend, pho­tog­ra­ph­er Robert Map­plethor­pe.

Its fol­low up, M Train, start­ed out as an exer­cise in writ­ing about “noth­ing at all,” only to wind up as an ele­gy to her late hus­band, gui­tarist Fred “Son­ic” Smith. (Their daugh­ter sug­gest­ed that her dad  “was prob­a­bly annoyed that Robert got so much atten­tion in the oth­er book.”)

Cher­ish­ing the mem­o­ries comes eas­i­ly to Smith, as she reveals in a fas­ci­nat­ing con­ver­sa­tion with the New York Pub­lic Library’s Paul Hold­en­gräber, above.

She and hus­band Smith cel­e­brat­ed their first anniver­sary by col­lect­ing stones from the French Guiana penal colony, Saint-Lau­rent-du-Maroni, in an effort to feel clos­er to Jean Genet, one of her most revered authors.

She believes in the trans­mu­ta­tion of objects, unabashed­ly lob­by­ing to lib­er­ate the walk­ing stick that accom­pa­nied Vir­ginia Woolf to her death from the NYPL’s col­lec­tion in order to com­mune with it fur­ther. She may turn into a gib­ber­ing fan­girl in face to face meet­ings with the authors she admires, but inter­act­ing with relics of those who have gone before has a cen­ter­ing effect.

Need­less to say, her fame grants her access to items the rest of us are lucky to view though the walls of a vit­rine.

She has paged through Sylvia Plath’s child­hood note­books and gripped Charles Dick­ens’ sur­pris­ing­ly mod­est pen. She has ““per­pet­u­at­ed remem­brance” by com­ing into close con­tact with Bob­by Fis­ch­er’s chess table, Fri­da Kahlo’s leg braces, and a hotel room favored by Maria Callas. Her rec­ol­lec­tion of these events is both rev­er­en­tial and imp­ish, the stuff of a dozen anec­dotes.

“I would faint to use (sculp­tor Con­stan­tin) Brân­cuși’s tooth­brush,“ she quips. “I wouldn’t use it though.”

Where tan­gi­ble sou­venirs prove elu­sive, Smith takes pho­tographs.

Inter­view­er Hold­en­gräber is unique­ly equipped to share in Smith’s lit­er­ary pas­sions, egging her on with quotes recit­ed from mem­o­ry, includ­ing this beau­ty by Rain­er Maria Rilke:

Now loss, how­ev­er cru­el, is pow­er­less against pos­ses­sion, which it com­pletes, or even, affirms: loss is, in fact, noth­ing else than a sec­ond acquisition–but now com­plete­ly interiorized–and just as intense.

(The sen­ti­ment is so love­ly, who can blame him for invok­ing it in pre­vi­ous con­ver­sa­tion with NYPL guests, artist Edmund de Waal and pianist Van Cliburn.)

The top­ic can get heavy, but Smith is a con­sum­mate enter­tain­er whose clown­ish brinkman­ship leads her to cite Jimi Hen­drix: “Hooray, I wake from yes­ter­day.”

The com­plete tran­script of the con­ver­sa­tion is avail­able for down­load here, as is an audio pod­cast.

Note: You can down­load Just Kids or M Train as free audio books if you join’s 30-day free tri­al.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mas­ter Cura­tor Paul Hold­en­gräber Inter­views Hitchens, Her­zog, Goure­vitch & Oth­er Lead­ing Thinkers

Pat­ti Smith’s List of Favorite Books: From Rim­baud to Susan Son­tag

Pat­ti Smith and David Lynch Talk About the Source of Their Ideas & Cre­ative Inspi­ra­tion

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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  • steve kerensky says:

    Patti‘s fear­less strength, her poet­ic nature, her wit, inquis­i­tive­ness and all her emo­tion­al pow­er emo­tion­al pow­er shine out of this broad­cast. Those qual­i­ties con­tributed so much to my recov­ery from men­tal ill­ness when there seemed at times to be no point to any­thing. And now, when­ev­er I occa­sion­al­ly find myself piss­ing in a riv­er she lifts me up again. So I can nev­er quite express every­thing she gives out so freely, except to say how grate­ful I am for all this. And to you for mak­ing this record­ing.

    In the noise of the mod­ern world, she speaks above all that dead­en­ing rack­et for life and poet­ry and music. Praise be.

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