M Train – Patti Smith

Kimberly and Jane find Patti Smith still on fire in her latest book, M Train, as she lights up everyday life and loss by adding the spark of imagination to every event, small or large. 

KC: I wanted you to read the Patti Smith book M Train because when I read it, it completely reconfigured my brain and the way I wanted to walk in the world and reminded me of how much I had loved her as a teenager. You and I keep talking about a “new” female voice we are hearing and seeing coming into today’s popular culture but when I think of Patti, I recall that this “new” woman has always been around, just not in the mainstream garnering consistent recognition.

JAS: You say the craziest things, brain reconfigured. (Hear me laughing.) “Read Patti Smith and get your brain reconfigured.”  But there is something special about the way she shows us how our imagination is always active, lifting everyday activities onto another plane where we all share the meaning of being and feeling alive wherever we are. I read and re-read her opening chapter a few times.  Just before waking and falling into her morning ritual, she hears a cowpoke saying “It’s not so easy writing about nothing.”  He won’t interact with her and when she demands he respond because, after all, it’s her dream, she sees words in his journal, “no, it’s mine”.  Then the whistle blew. She boards the train and, in real life, fed the cat and headed off to her favorite café that’s pictured on the front of the book. She, looking out like the cowpoke at a whole lot of nothing.  Like we, making something out of nothing.    

KC: After I read her book, which is basically a journal of a period of time in her life when she is walking us through her daily rituals of life in New York and reflecting on things in life like loss, aging, and just plain living as a poet, I felt myself “softening.” And by that, I mean, I felt myself wanting to enjoy the ordinary, average, mundane moment rather than my typical inclination to work toward something big and exciting. It reminded me of why I got my tattoo on my left arm that says “Art.” It reminded me that life is the greatest form of art and the gems aren’t always in the accolades or the big, flamboyant events, many of the gems are in the simple and every day. Patti nails the idea that being a poet is not so much about making poems as it is about how you operate in your world on a daily basis, how you allow yourself to sit and notice the moments whether they be boring, surprising, beautiful, etc.

JAS: But it isn’t either-or, that’s the key she is giving us. The poet is not on one side while the wife or mother or working woman is on another. She’s been integrating her imagination with the way she Iives for a very long time and I think she is an important example of what we keep striving to highlight about the “new” woman in our culture. We’re beginning to notice, appreciate and value an active integration between the creative and the ordinary. To me, the process feels feminine.  We are getting rid of the enemy—the idea that there’s a separation between working and making a living and raising kids and doing the chores while also living a creative life. She brings them together for us, even in grief and loss, and helps bring through our conversation about women who are now presenting their own stories from within that integration.

KN: Exactly. Patti’s always been a total badass to me.

JAS: Which reminds me of what you said in the beginning.  Patti is not technically “new”.  She was there breaking ground for you as a teenager and now again as you enter mid-life and me my late years.  For me, her eloquent, soulful reminder of the miracle of our ability to hop on our own train anytime anywhere is just great.     

KC: Reading this book gave me a look into her femininity in a way that allowed me to juxtapose it with her masculinity and see that integration you’re talking about. Seeing the whole her was what made me “soften” — really feeling the idea in my bones that my life could be my own and not in a combative way, but a very organic and true-to-myself way.

JAS: What would you call that, a woman having both those qualities?

KC: Fully realized. But I also like something else you told me when you read the book. You spoke of how Patti allows herself to succumb to the “authority of the day.” To trust in the present and let it inform you.

JAS: I think we’re trying to find a vocabulary for a woman’s sense of an organic, female wholeness that women are tapping into today for whatever they want to do in their lives. We’re seeing it everywhere, with older women as well as young.  It’s not to be taken for granted that we are holding Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria-Octavia Cortez in the same frame!   

KC: I think both sexes have contributed to making a change in preconceived notions of stereotypic female roles are. With Patti, I go back and think of how I found her. I was an insecure, screwed up 15-year-old girl reading biographies of other screwed up, creative women for relation. I found Patti when she was being interviewed by George Plimpton for his book on Edie Sedgewick. I was idolizing Edie at the time. I wanted to go to New York and dance on drugs and be a darling of the fashionable art set. All hogwash but inspiring. And then there’s Patti talking about her suburban upbringing and wanting to be a poet and finding Edie exciting but very, very endangered. I reverted my admiration from Edie to Patti and never looked back. After reading M Train, I am again inspired by her, and particularly in the way she decides to make her life beautiful. I love how she “follows” this religiously. She teaches me that every moment of your life you can make a decision to explore what interests you in any given moment. Living life compelled by an openness toward what piques your imagination. How extraordinary!

JAS: Yes, and I guess what you’re calling ‘religiously’ is what Twyla calls habit. She insists on valuing imagination as an enhancement and positive influence on decisions.  We’re very familiar with how folks pit logic against emotions.  She’s advocating following your whims and pleasures, not being afraid of yourself. It could be that the development of the feminine means we’ll get centuries of hard work developing emotions, intuition, and imagination the same way we’ve had centuries of developing the intellect.  

KN: Even walking for coffee in the morning along a dirt road in an average town.

JAS: All those spontaneous decisions she made that led her closer to ways of connecting with others.  Patti led a rather ordinary life in her married years, and I like this. Maybe her ability to combine being a punk rocker and an ordinary family is part of her appeal. She easily expresses her admiration for her father who was an ordinary, hard-working man. She’s not fringe in the usual sense of the word.  As she’s singing “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” for Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize award ceremony, she falters, and apologizing to the high brow audience, she confesses, “I’m so nervous.”  She’s met with laughter and acceptance.  She’s crossed boundaries not often crossed with grace and healing.  Her ability to find balance in a very challenging public life is inspirational for the inner as well as outer life. 

KC: Yes, and she is inherently comfortable with who she is. Another thing that struck me about her is the importance of ritual. Hers tends to be the cup of coffee at her coffee shop each morning at her favorite table. Again, this goes back to your thesis of integration — she maintains an integration of flow with ritual. There is something powerful in this about making your life your own.

JAS: I love hearing how early she came in for you, I feel like I have just discovered her.  I knew her name, of course, but I didn’t ‘know’ her.  And now that I’ve read M Train, I’ve been listening to her music and her lyrics.  I like her voice.  I like what she has to say.  I think she fits right in with our themes of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary and the personal becoming universal through the expression of emotion in performance.  Spoken word poetry lends itself to that just as dance does. As an added benefit, there’s a book, Patti Smith, Collected Lyrics 1970-2015, where I looked up lyrics and read while listening to her sing. 

KC: She was a role model for sure.

JAS: At any age, apparently. M Train actually follows after she suffered three big personal losses within a short period of time: her husband, her brother and her close friend Robert Mapplethorpe. The book is a window into the way she transforms grief and loss into that beauty you talked about. She honors loss by paying close attention to the details of her experiences, not shying away from how they’re colored by grief. She talks about her attachment to objects, how she talks to them as real beings and mourns them when they disappear. Loss of attachment is the issue. It’s the caring for someone or something, the consequence of losing remains after the person or object is gone.  I often think about what women have lost by not being welcomed, honored, encouraged as a loss women are still processing.  It’s a hard loss to put into words but I think Patti gets close by giving loss her full attention, turning nothing into a thing of beauty and inspiration in M Train. 

KC: Yes and her willingness to loll around in this for us, to present it as stream-of-conscious style as it comes really pinpoints the idea for me that women embodying their full complex lives are not selfish.

JAS: Was that a phrase you heard as a kid – ‘don’t get too big for your britches’? Especially as a girl, I heard that when I wanted to go where women hadn’t gone. I love how M Train is about how hard it is to write about nothing. She might as well be saying it’s hard to make a life out of nothing. It can be more challenging than following a template of expectations. I’m glad to have ‘discovered’ her now because we’re living longer, healthier lives than ever before and we need to value the freedom to imagine what our lives are about more than ever.

KN: She reminds me of the saying, “What you pay attention to happens.”

JAS: Yes and what you don’t, won’t. My biggest takeaway is to infuse ordinary things I’m doing with imagination. I was having lunch with a friend a few days ago and when I was emailing her a note, I found myself telling her about how I was imagining all the hundreds of lunches we’ve had like Andy Warhol portraits, each face to face meeting in different colors.  We’ve been friends sixty-plus years.  Patti talks about poets and writers being like detectives. M Train starts with the dream of a cowboy who gives her a clue about what her book will be about. From the get-go, she’ll be riding the rails between reality and illusion, turning nothing into something. And in her irresistible way, urging us all to do the same.    

KN: That reminds me of what another favorite of mine, Anais Nin, said, “Live from the dream outward.”

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