Improvising with Patti Smith and Jonathan Lethem

Before writer Jonathan Lethem wrote nine critically acclaimed novels, he found early inspiration in the “formless” form of Patti Smith’s unhindered lyrics. On Monday, November 16, Smith will visit ALOUD to discuss her new memoir, M Train, which reflects on some of the memorable places that have defined the legendary artist’s remarkable life. ALOUD is pleased to announce that Lethem, the author of Dissident Gardens, Girl In Landscape, and Chronic City, among others, will join Smith on stage for a conversation at The Orpheum Theatre. We asked Lethem how one prepares for such a momentous conversation with the boundary-breaking icon, whose lyrical force has so indelibly touched his own work—as well as many other artists and audiences across the globe. Read on for his insights, and get  tickets to this upcoming program here.


Rocker Patti Smith's song "Mercy Is" created for the film, Noah, is in contention for the Oscar for Best Original Song. She is photographed at The Ritz Carlton Hotel in New York City on November 22nd, 2014.
Patti Smith photographed by Jesse Dittmar at The Ritz Carlton Hotel, New York City, November 22, 2014.


Later this fall you will share a stage with Patti Smith. How does one approach interviewing such a legend?
Over the years I’ve done a number of public events in this format, the “on-stage conversation”. I have the benefit of having been on both sides of such things. The result can either be the most natural or the most artificial thing in the world. Obviously we’re all rooting for “natural” here! The little bit of wisdom I’ve gained is that it really benefits if it is a conversation — a talk between us, proceeding from my own curiosity and inclination, rather than an “interview”, such as I’d conduct if I were trying to create a transcript of Patti’s words to use in a written piece. It also seems hopeless to try to plan too much — if I’ve got a lot of ironclad ideas about where we’ll go as we talk, I’m less likely to be listening to where the conversation actually wants to go.


In this case I have a lucky advantage: we’ve met before, and in one of the more humbling and remarkable — and unrepeatable — occasions of my life: along with Steven Soderberg, Patti and I were given honorary doctorates together (from Pratt, the art college in Brooklyn that she writes about in her earlier book). We dressed up in robes and marched around with a bunch of “real” students. It was a gas.


What are you excited to talk to her about?
Do you really want spoilers? We’ll surely talk about books, cities, and music. I’ve got one question about Bob Dylan I’ve been meaning to ask her.


Lars Eidinger, Jonathan Lethem
Jonathan Lethem photo by Lars Eidinger.


Smith is such a lyrical force. Has her writing and/or music influenced your writing in any way?
In all sorts of ways. I didn’t know her writing when I was coming of age as a writer — I was too young to have caught her great years as a public poet in the St. Marks scene — so I thought of her strictly in terms of the records until much later. But every one of her great early epics — “Piss Factory”, “Gloria”, “Free Money”, “Radio Ethiopia” — had something to teach me, or any writer, about the relationship of form to chaos, of repetition and obsession to the ultimate freedom found in improvisation.


At the upcoming program, she’ll be discussing her new memoir, M Train, a follow-up to her National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids. What’s most interesting to you about how Smith approaches telling stories from her remarkable life?
In contrast to the surrealist flourishes and the indirection of some of her poetic writings — I did get to know them eventually — the two memoirs are so arrestingly direct, like flaming arrows. It may be a case of “late style”, or of the fierce necessities she encountered when she began trying to do justice to the forces of time and memory, but there’s never a wasted breath. It makes a great lesson in the power of clarity.


Learn more about this upcoming program with Smith and Lethem, and watch below another fantastic ALOUD conversation with Lethem and writer Daniel Mendelsohn about the art of the essay.


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