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In ‘M Train,’ Patti Smith journeys to where art comes from

Poet and performer Patti Smith crashed onto the rock scene 40 years ago, and made a splash in the literary world five years ago with an award-winning memoir, "Just Kids." Her newest book, "M Train," takes a trip through time to visit the writers and artists who’ve influenced her, as well as her own loved ones now gone. Smith sits down with Jeffrey Brown to discuss her latest work.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Forty years ago, a poet and performer named Patti Smith crashed onto the rock scene with her debut album, "Horses." Five years ago, she made another kind of splash, winning the National Book Award for a memoir titled "Just Kids" about her early years in New York and her friendship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

    Now she's back with another book titled "M Train." The M is for memory, a trip through time to writers and artists who influenced her and to her own loved ones now gone.

    Patti Smith talked with Jeffrey Brown recently at the George Washington University Library for our NewsHour Bookshelf.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Patti Smith, welcome to you.

    PATTI SMITH, Author, "M Train": Thank you.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    One theme that I saw is where art comes from and how it's transmitted, because so much what you're writing about is going to authors who have inspired you, artists who have influenced you, and it sounds like you were thinking about that transmission.

  • PATTI SMITH:

    Well, I'm always thinking about that. I have thought about that my while life.

    I thought about that when we recorded "Horses" 40 years ago, when we wrote songs in memory of Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. But I didn't have any particular design. It just happened that I was ruminating on these things. And, like you said, it's a natural course of my life. And I think a lot of it is about process.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    A lot of it unfolds literally in a cafe, right?

  • PATTI SMITH:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Sitting in a cafe. And it's interesting, because there's a point where you write about how there were no cafes in your childhood.

  • PATTI SMITH:

    I was raised in South Jersey. I had read about them in books about French poets, seen lots of photographs of mostly French or Moroccan writers in cafes. And I was beguiled by them. But I didn't see them in person until I went to New York City.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Many of the vignettes here are about people who have influenced you.

  • PATTI SMITH:

    Well, yes, I mean, it's a way of identification, but also showing gratitude, I think.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Gratitude for their work?

  • PATTI SMITH:

    Yes. I'm grateful all the time that Louisa May Alcott wrote "Little Women." I'm grateful the New Testament was written. I love books, and I love what the hand of mankind produces, whether painting or music, opera.

    I just think it's wonderful that we have that in our life.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, there's the high and there's the low. Right? There's television. You love to watch "CSI" and you love to watch PBS mystery shows.

  • PATTI SMITH:

    Oh, yes, I love "Masterpiece Theater."

    And when I was a kid, I loved Sherlock Holmes. I'm not interested in crimes. I'm interested in the mind of the detective and his process, which to me is a lot like the artist.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And the other thing that comes out in the book and in your life is the photography, right, photographs of a table, a chair of a writer that you love, or the bed of an artist like Frida Kahlo.

  • PATTI SMITH:

    What are they, these objects? They're like relics, really. Because I travel so much, I might one day see the grave of James Joyce and the other day see the typewriter of Hermann Hesse, just day after day, seeing such wondrous things, and that I want to remember, but I also want to share with others.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You refer in the book to these influences as portals, windows. To what?

  • PATTI SMITH:

    Well, you know, I can hold my father's favorite coffee cup, and I'm transported to the atmosphere of my father.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The other day at the New York Public Library, I saw the very humble dipping pen of Charles Dickens. And holding these things, I could almost sense the scratching of the pen over the paper. It doesn't have to be a profound thing. It's just a moment of clarity or a moment feeling a sense of the owner of these things. For those of us who grew up listening to you and thinking of you as rock 'n' roller, this love of books was there first, I guess, right, for you?

  • PATTI SMITH:

    Oh, absolutely.

    When I was a little girl, my parents read voraciously, and there was always books everywhere, and I was very curious about them, so I learned to read quite early. And I just loved books.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And you wanted to write.

  • PATTI SMITH:

    I didn't think of it until I read "Little Women."

    And Jo was such a great role model. She was sort of tomboyish, like I was, and what they used to call a bookworm, and she wrote. And then I thought, ah, I can write, just like Jo. And I was quite young, but I took that in my heart as my vocation.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You know, there is also in this book a lot of — an air of solitude. There's loss, some 20-plus years since your husband, Fred, died. Is it in some way a response to that sense of loss?

  • PATTI SMITH:

    Really, it just threaded its way through the book.

    Truthfully, I didn't want to write about loss at all. I wanted to write something where I was unfettered by any destination, any responsibility. Yet we are who we are. And I often — my husband, Fred, is always with me and in my thoughts, as my mother and my father. So the people they love and lost found their way in this book. I didn't expect them to find their way, but they did. So I welcomed them.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And now you find yourself, I think, an established — well-established writer, as well as musician. Does that feel right to you?

  • PATTI SMITH:

    I always hesitate when people call me a musician.

    I have had no musical training. I can't play anything. I really think of myself as a performer. It's always been writing for me. I evolved with my band in rock 'n' roll through poetry, not through music. I feel At this point I have spent at least 60 years writing. I guess I can at last call myself a writer.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, the new book is "M Train."

    Patti Smith, thanks so much.

  • PATTI SMITH:

    Thank you.

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