Conversation: Patti Smith

When fashion photographer Steven Sebring began shooting footage of the daily life of poet and performer Patti Smith — what Smith describes as high-aesthetic home movies — neither fully anticipated the project becoming a feature length film.

“I didn’t want a documentary. I didn’t want anyone putting together something with talking heads and trying to wrap up my life,” Patti Smith said.

But Sebring captured Smith during a time of tremendous loss (she had lost both her husband and her brother), and then her subsequent return to the public eye. “He wanted to join me as I tried to put my life together after a very difficult time,” says Smith.

The final product, ‘Patti Smith: Dream of Life,’ airs on the POV series on PBS this Wednesday. Smith is also the author of a forthcoming book called “Just Kids” about her friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

I talked with her by phone from New York.

Patti Smith, Photo by Steven Sebring

Watch the trailer for “Patti Smith: Dream of Life,” which airs on the POV series on PBS on Wednesday night:

Editor’s Note: You can also find Jeff’s previous conversation with Patti Smith, when they remembered her close friend and fellow poet and performer Jim Carroll.

A full transcript is after the jump…

JEFFREY BROWN: Patti Smith, welcome.

PATTI SMITH: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let’s talk first about this film, because it’s an usual process. First of all, I realize it was shooting for 11 years? How did this come about?

PATTI SMITH: Well, it really came about sort of doing aesthetically-high home movies, because Steven [Sebring] asked if he could film me intermittently as I went about my life and work, and we had no real plans for it. He just…he funded it himself, he shot it himself and gathered up film and after 10 years…10 or 11 years, he decided to piece it together and see if I would find it acceptable.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh really, but it started out no particular idea of making into a look at your life?

PATTI SMITH: I didn’t want a documentary. I didn’t want anyone putting together something with talking heads and trying to wrap up my life. He wanted to join me as I tried to put my life together after a very difficult time when I lost my husband, so he just filmed as I went back to public life, which I had been absent from for 16 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you said you looked at it after 10 years of shooting or so, and then what did you see or why did you feel like it could be made into a documentary?

PATTI SMITH: Well because I thought it was positive. It came from a very painful time of my life, a very tragic time, start my life over, you know with my children, with…and build a new life for us without their father and back at the public life. So it was, it was a bit daunting, but I found it a positive film, and I also I lost my parents in the process of the film and it’s beautiful to see them and beautiful to see my children small and then grow. Also we did, we had a certain political message within the film that I still believe in. So I thought that it was all right, that it was positive.

JEFFREY BROWN: One thing that comes out, I mean, it is based in this period you’re talking about when you are coming back to public life, but you do talk about first coming to New York, kind of escaping from rural life. What were you trying to leave behind and what did you find in New York in that early period?

PATTI SMITH: Well, when I was young I did live in a very rural part of South Jersey. I didn’t, there wasn’t really an artistic community. It was, I’m not saying it wasn’t a wonderful place, it was just, it was not culturally grounded, and also because I was so much different than everyone else, I felt I didn’t have kindred spirits around, so I was really looking, you know, for kindred spirits but also for work, because in 1967 there was no work in South Jersey. The New York shipyard had closed, there weren’t many jobs. I had trouble finding a job in Philadelphia, so I really went to New York City to get a job.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, speaking of kindred spirits, I was sent an early copy of your book that’s coming out, “Just Kids” with Robert Mapplethorpe.

PATTI SMITH: Yes, I’m excited. It’s coming out on the 19th of January.

JEFFREY BROWN: I started reading it. It’s delightful to look back at this, but why did you want to go back and write, and write about that period and him?

PATTI SMITH: Well, actually, I had promised Robert before he died, which was in 1989, it was 20 years ago, that I would write this particular part of his life, because our story only I know. It started in 1967 when he was 20, and I know the story best and I know how Robert struggled as a young man and a young artist, and I promised him I would write it. But it took me a long time, took me longer than Steven [Sebring]. So it was sometimes painful to write. I had started this project in memory of Robert, and then when I lost my husband and my brother and so many people, I found it just difficult to write about the past. But I found my footing, finally, you know, kept my promise, so I’m very happy that I at last achieved that goal.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the film, of course, you talk about poetry being first. You talk about William Blake, you visit the grave of Rimbaud. What was it about poetry and who else sort of grabbed you and made you want to write?

PATTI SMITH: Well, my mother gave me my first poetry books, and I discovered at a very early age Carl Sandburg and Yeats and Walt Whitman. But I think what really made me want to write was reading “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott, because we have the character of Jo, who was a bit like me, a sort of a tomboy who loved to read. And I found such a great role model in Jo, so I…she made me want to be a writer, and I’m sure that was a very big influence on me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did rock ‘n’ roll become a way to convey what poetry did for you or do you think of them as different?

PATTI SMITH: Well, I think rock ‘n’ roll as being more political and communal. Poetry is a more insular art. I began as a performer because I wanted to perform my poems, but when I veered off my course and entered the arena of rock ‘n’ roll, it was for more political reasons. I don’t write poetry for political reasons, I just write it. So rock ‘n’ roll to me is our cultural voice and a way to, you know, express ourselves, you know, in a physical way, a sexual way, a revolutionary way and a very communicative way. Because everyone, almost everyone, loves rock ‘n’ roll, so we can directly communicate through it. So to me they start veering off to be different animals.

JEFFREY BROWN: You and I talked a couple of months ago, I think it was, when Jim Carroll died, about the early rock ‘n’ roll days. Are you a different performer now?

PATTI SMITH: Not so different. I mean, in some ways I sing better. Maybe I’m less physical. I’m not apt to jump off a piano and fall on my knees with an electric guitar, but I still, you know, feel very strong. In some ways I feel stronger as a performer, and other ways, you know, the things that one has, accesses in their youth, a certain, maybe a certain kind of, you know, irreverent anger. You know, I don’t know. I’m not one to analyze myself. I don’t feel all that different. I just feel that, you know, one evolves. I find in my life that it’s not so much that I changed. I just evolved to a new place.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me end with that subject, because you brought it up at the beginning, that this film mostly is aimed at that time period when you had suffered a lot of loss and then you are working your way back to public life, really, and I think there is a point in there where you say that the loss, I forget exactly how you put it, but it made you kind of stronger or different, or you came out, or I don’t know, it guided you in a way.

PATTI SMITH: Well, also I think what, if I remember, what one of the things that I said is, I feel magnified by all the people that I’ve lost. You know, I feel the essence of each person, which makes me a better person or a more complete person. So I try not to think of my people as lost. I just feel the opposite — that I have gained. I fee, l as I said, magnified by them, magnified by brother’s positive, compassionate outlook, magnified by husband’s warm intelligence, you know, magnified by my mother’s love, you know. I try to look at, you know, our departed in that way, that we walk with them. We don’t lose them, we walk with them in a different way.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the documentary is called “Patti Smith: Dream of Life.” It’s on PBS Wednesday.

PATTI SMITH: On my birthday.

JEFFREY BROWN: On your birthday?

PATTI SMITH: Yes, it’s my birthday. I’ll be 63 years old.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, happy birthday.

PATTI SMITH: Well, thank you and thanks for talking to me.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. It’s a pleasure, thanks for talking with us.

Support PBS NewsHour: