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Patti Smith on Being Broke, William Blake, and Writing About Writing

The woman known as punk’s poet laureate stopped in Chicago to promote her new book Devotion and perform some heartfelt songs.

Smith performing at Provinssirock festival, 2007. She stopped in Chicago last night to promote her new book, Devotion.   Photo: Beni Köhler/Wikimedia Commons

Patti Smith was scheduled to read from her new book Devotion at the Music Box Theatre Wednesday night, but the rock legend had other ideas.

Accompanied on stage by a pile of her books, a microphone, and her guitar, Smith instead spent most of the hour reading things from her other books to “connect the idea of devotion.” She often interrupted herself with anecdotes and songs memorializing her well-known late friends, artist Robert Mapplethorpe, playwright and actor Sam Shepard, and her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith.


Image: Courtesy of Steven Sebring

A Chicagoan by birth (she spent most of her childhood in Pennsylvania and New Jersey), Smith has become a cultural icon through music and writing over the last five decades. Smith’s Just Kids received the 2010 National Book Award and her 2015 book M Train became a critically acclaimed New York Times bestseller. The event was organized by the Book Stall, an independently owned bookstore in Winnetka.

Donning a William Blake T-shirt and black blazer, she capped off the evening with an a capella performance of her 1978 hit “Because the Night.”

Here’s what else punk’s poet laureate had to say.

On the creative impulse and starting as an artist  

“As I grew, that desire to work, to have a job and to create, sent me from where I lived in a very rural community to the city. I was 20 years old, I had about seven dollars, I spent a little time homeless, looking for work, and a little time hungry…That was in July 1967, which was the summer of love. Where I had come from was so uncultured, I didn’t even know the summer of love was happening.”

On William Blake and devotion to one’s craft

“Once when I was feeling, I don’t know, ‘down,’ misunderstood, or something like that, I got to thinking about how William Blake was such a great visionary, poet, philosopher. Yet he was virtually ignored in his lifetime. He died in poverty and was almost forgotten. But William Blake, through it all, never let go of his vision. He never stopped working. He had true devotion to his craft and to his vision.”

On love, friendship, and loss

Smith spoke of her relationships with Robert Mapplethorpe and Sam Shepard and how, after the romances ended, they maintained life-long friendships.

“On July 27, we all lost a great writer, a great playwright; and I lost one of my dearest friends, Sam Shepard. Sam and I had had a beautiful relationship, which had to end because he had other responsibilities. So, this was the end of that relationship, but not the end of our friendship, because like it was with Robert, we found a way to continue our friendship, until death do us part,” she said, before singing a song in his honor.

On writing Devotion

“How this book came into being was: I was supposed to give a talk about writing, how we write, why we write. I did my talk, then I had this task to extend the talk like a long essay. I’m not much of an essay writer,” Smith said, despite all evidence to the contrary. “I’m not very analytical, and after a page or two, I thought, ‘well, that’s it, I have nothing else to say.’”

“I was in Paris and I wound up writing a story on the train there. And from that, it would sort of be a three-dimensional view of how we write, where the impulses come, and writing itself. Hence, Devotion.

On the writers who inspire her

“I often go to the resting place of artists and poets and people I love and people I admire for their work. Sometimes I take photographs, and sometimes I’ll just thank the person for everything, all the inspiration. It’s the way to thank people like Sylvia Plath or Frank Dusy or whoever, you just go and say ‘Hi’ and talk to them.” 

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