Astrid Swan went to Flow 2018 to see Patti Smith, Lauryn Hill, Charlotte Gainsbourg and many other wonderful women do their magic. In this fake interview with Patti Smith, she imagines a phone conversation ahead of Smith’s appearance at Flow.
There are a handful of people, some dead some alive, whose art has touched me so deeply that I feel as if between us there is a neural highway of communication. Yet, we will never meet. It’s a sense of closeness that occurs sometimes through reading or listening and possibly seeing too. As if we occupy the same space, knowing in our bodies something shared. Beyond language.
It’s a relating that breaches unfamiliarity and becomes intimacy.
It’s mostly possible to get to this garden of shared time, through a solitary act of living with art that someone made. It’s as if that time exists in a space of its own and it is that space I can enter.
Encountering the maker of the work is not necessary in order to relate. It may even endanger this infatuated, engulfing sense of oneness.
This is me explaining why, instead of trying to interview these people – the makers of my favorite sentences and melodies and the occupiers of sacred ground – I am resorting to fake interviews. I am constructing conversations that ellipse the expected in rock mythology, or the genealogy of journalistic encounters. I am traipsing in through a gaping door on the left. One forgotten or unnoticed till now. The imagination.
I’m talking with Patti Smith, just before she played Flow Festival 2018 in Helsinki. I’m using my imagination and my knowledge of her works to wield through exchanges between the interviewee and the interviewer.
With the fake interview I hope to illuminate how fandom, devotion, love, admiration, sisterhood and more interweaves into the relationship I have over time spun from the art works and the imagined closenesses with an artist.
The interview was conducted via phone. Patti talking from a Scandinavian hotel somewhere. I could hear from her end some clicks and bangs. They came from a TV that was on in the room. She was watching a Norwegian detective series. Just to have something on and because she has an affinity to Scandinavian crime series.
The interview was conducted via phone. Patti talking from a Scandinavian hotel somewhere. I could hear from her end some clicks and bangs
I sat in my writing chair and walked around my apartment overlooking the sea, nervously holding my iPhone. But because this is happening in my imagination, I don’t have to be nervous about talking to one of my big heroes. Yet, I am a little… because I am, after all, talking with my writerly love and musical crush. Because this is just happening in the imagined, I am chatting away, as if there are no barriers constructed between people. As if there was no hierarchy in which I am a woman with no name and she is a legend. As if I could just call up Patti Smith and chat away like a friend, or a colleague and a fan and a younger one, following in her footsteps in some unimportant and completely fundamental way.
Because this is just happening in the imagined, I am chatting away, as if there are no barriers constructed between people. As if there was no hierarchy in which I am a woman with no name and she is a legend. As if I could just call up Patti Smith and chat away like a friend
Astrid: Hi Patti Smith, such an honor to be interviewing you, or speaking with you on the phone. How are you?
Patti: My pleasure Astrid, that’s your name right? Like the woman who gave the Beatles their haircuts?
Astrid: Yes, that’s right, and the Swedish woman who wrote the Pippi Longstocking books…
Patti: Oh, yes, those… I read those a long time ago with my kids.
I’m good, thank you I’m on a tour at the moment in Europe. I’ll be over in Finland in just a couple of days. I love Finland. So nice to be back. I’m playing the Flow Festival in Helsinki. Are you coming to that?
Astrid: I am. I’m coming to hear you play.
Since we don’t have a lot of time on the phone, can I just go straight to my questions?
I think I want to ask you about writing, and remembering and your books and telling stories. Is that ok?
[there’s a pause and a rattling and clicking and maybe sipping and a slurp. Pause for thought]
Patti: Yes, I am the right person to talk with about those. Although my memory is going about stuff like schedules and what country is next on this tour, I remember stories word for word. I store them like images. And I collect little pieces, artefacts to remind me about the stories.
Astrid: Very fascinating… So, I’m a songwriter and a performer, but I am currently writing my first book to be published in 2019 and you are a rock’n’roll icon and an inspiration to someone like me who as a girl was looking for answers to the question “am I welcome to rock’n’roll” or “can I write songs and get up on stage to perform”. Your presence as an image and a voice has been there as long as I can remember. Still, through reading your books Just Kids, M-Train and Devotion, I have connected and admired you even more. It’s somehow as if I hold literature and writers up on a pedestal more than rock stars and what I have gotten from your books has been explosively important.
Patti: Hmm… well first of all, I am humbled. Thank you, I think I get what you are saying. And I’m still a fan of a lot of writers and people. So many heroes, gone and still breathing.
I grew up in a time when it was simple to identify what was socially acceptable and what was not. I was fascinated by the beginnings of pop culture and youth culture. But I grew up in a Catholic home and fell upon things like poetry by accident. Even discovering the poems of Sylvia Plath was radical to me. I carried her poetry book Ariel in my pocket for years after stealing it from a book store once.
But I grew up in a Catholic home and fell upon things like poetry by accident. Even discovering the poems of Sylvia Plath was radical to me
Astrid: That’s so amazing. I discovered her in the mid-1990’s when I was a teenager and ended up loving her so that I once stole a page of her poetry from a book in a library and later in life ended up writing a master’s degree thesis on her journals.
So you were a fan of literature first?
Patti: Yes, you have to remember – or try to imagine that this was a time when questioning the idea of a middle class home, being a wife and so on was considered failing. It was like I was speaking in another language all together. I rebelled by reading Rimbaud and dreaming of being a poet. I fled to New York City to get away from these narrow expectations. I thought I had failed already, because I got pregnant at a young age and had a child go into adoption.
So, there in the city I thought I was training and discovering things to become a writer and a poet.
I lived with Robert Mapplethorpe and it was a combination of being explorers and having an education. The kind you cannot get from any school. I had to break language apart and put it back together the way that made sense to me… and my heroes.
Astrid: Thank you for sharing all that. You did become an artist but you surfaced through music. The books came later. What urged you to write them?
Patti: In 1991 I began to write what would become Woolgathering because I was asked to write a little book in a series of minibooks. It turned out that being 45 was a perfect age for becoming a writer. I think it also coincided with the loss of my husband Fred Sonic Smith.
I wrote, as I had always done, before the kids and while they were small – I wrote detective stories – and then I just wrote more and there was this idea of writing about my life. And when Just Kids finally came out, it became huge and suddenly there was all this interest in what I had written before. The books initially, did not attract a huge audience.
I wrote, as I had always done, before the kids and while they were small – I wrote detective stories – and then I just wrote more and there was this idea of writing about my life
Astrid: Oh, two more themes I am desperate to ask you about because I need advice, or just to hear from the ones gone before me…
You lost your partner, then raised your kids alone and continued to work and at a very high professional level; publishing and touring. How did you survive?
I’m asking as a cancer thriver myself and also a parent of a small child.
And then, another facet: your son now plays in your band. It’s so sweet and somehow I connect this to the loss you experienced as a family and a connection to the lost parent.
How do I get my child to play in my band one day?
I guess that my question really, is that as your life has been quite a journey full of losses and sorrows too, how do you go on? And what is the role of writing in this?
Patti: Ok, so first off, my memory is not that great anymore so I will not remember all your questions. So sorry. And thank you for sharing. You know, you don’t learn to live with loss and you don’t get over it. I still miss Fred. And my brother who died soon after. I miss all of them. I do. But it’s not the kind of grief that incapacitates me. Not any more. He’s here with me all the time. And nothing we had together has disappeared. It’s comforting. It’s great to see our children, and having my son in my band is just a development of being a family of creative people. That’s all we could do and we didn’t try. If you can understand what I mean, that there’s no way of controlling these outcomes, good or bad. But I’m happy about sharing music with my child. You cannot bribe a child to join your band. But they might want to anyway.
what was the other question… oh yeah, how you go on? And about writing?
Astrid: Yes, I have this experience that writing is somehow so restorative to me. Even if no one reads what I write, it helps me to deal with the uncertainties that life is throwing at me. And it helps me to make sense of where I am. I’m just wondering is it related to your survival in the face of loss?
Patti: Sorry… wait a second, I’m just making another coffee cup here in my nice and clean Scandinavian hotel room. I love coffee… as you may have heard if you have been reading my books. Here we go [slurping and clicking noises] Ahh… where were we…
Yes, I discovered Arthur Rimbaud when I thought I was lost and hopeless as a teenager and I modeled my life on his ideas. Like that you have to run away and leave where you are from and go into the anonymity of a big city and you have to find love and experiences and that miseries and poverty are all somehow part and parcel of that experience. That is to say that I had romantic notions about suffering. Romantic while realistic, you know. So I feel like yes, I was saved by reading. Reading changed my life. And then writing became something I could rely on. And I also had this urgent but dreamy idea of relating to everyone and being important and being heard. Writing was my vessel. Although for a long time no one knew about it and even when I was published, they did not care so much.
That is to say that I had romantic notions about suffering. Romantic while realistic, you know. So I feel like yes, I was saved by reading. Reading changed my life
So I guess, yes, I go to cafés to write, or I sit there and drink coffee and feelings and thoughts come and go and I write some of them down. I always carry a notebook and a pen and scribble everywhere. Sometimes it happens though that I don’t have my notebook and then I write on a napkin.
Astrid: Do you write on your phone these days? I find that it’s actually kind of handy and fast way to write down stuff on the run…
Patti: Yes, I have heard but I prefer the paper and writing down and being able to cross over and you know… my notes are full of arrows and little rewrites and things get lost in there. But I like the artefacts. I’m always worried that things online or on a computer just get lost in the sky. They can get away…
And there’s just one more thing about going on, you now, as you were asking about loss.
I’m someone who loves life, I adore it and I continue to be at awe, even though I am critical and political and worried for the planet and so on… But I continue to live and wonder about it all and when I face the losses, all those people that have gone already before me, I feel it is my duty almost, to live while I’m here. So I just get on. I buy another coffee and I call my kids. And I write and I play shows…
So will I see you in Helsinki Astrid?
Astrid: Yes, I’ll be there. But I’ll be too shy to meet you. I’ll be in the audience though. I’ll wear orange and black. I have short blond hair.
Patti: I’ll give you a wave.
The interview ends with heartfelt thank you’s and well-wishes and I am in tears. I hang up and feel like I have spoken with a true-life fairy godmother who is at the same time in my imagination and completely real. I think that this is what it is like to be close to a famous person. Then I think that it is just her aura and wisdom, nothing to do with any special fame pedestal. I think of my own fragility and I try not to rewind my questions and responses in my head as I am likely to begin to feel shame. Shame for my stupidity and stumbling and not finding the right words and so on. I know it’s stupid and totally unnecessary. I go into my kitchen and I make green tea. I make a whole pot to celebrate and I look out the balcony door and see a swan drifting on the sea. I know I’m lucky.
So I wrote this fake interview, which is really more like a collection of thoughts and positions I am struggling with or finding myself in. It’s an odd collection of what I can remember from reading Patti Smith books and watching her talk in documentaries and on Youtube. I’m maybe beginning to think that this is not so much about imagination rather than it is me reconstructing what is or has taken form. And this leads me to yet again, question our imaginations. I wonder, are we really so good at imagining or are we actually just relocating rocks and bits and pieces and arranging them, as Virginia Woolf has referred to her thoughts. As pieces to be arranged.
I wonder, are we really so good at imagining or are we actually just relocating rocks and bits and pieces and arranging them, as Virginia Woolf has referred to her thoughts
Is this my imagination? Why are there no rainbows, no wings on people, no comfy beds or expensive shoes on anyone? All I can say is that Patti Smith is adorable. Even from this distance, and certainly up close…
Gradually, the limits between imagined and real, fiction and fact dissolve into a pool of… I don’t know what. They are muddy.
I think we can only construct ourselves in ways that are possible at a certain time because language and collective vocabulary as well as social conditions allow only some things to be expressible or eligible at a time. So we can only recognize and frame our stories in a way from a limited perspective. That is how come someone like Patti Smith is only just making more and more sense. She continues to reframe and rephrase. She keeps moving and interjecting. She keeps writing and creating. And in my mind she appears to be getting more free all the time.
Photograph: The things we did before (2018) by Tekla Vály