The Bible. Lord of the Rings. Mao's Little Red Book. The Qu'ran. The Ramayana. The dictionary. Harry Potter. For reasons of literacy, government mandate, religious belief, practicality, or inspiration, certain books have been central to people's homes. What if you could keep only one book from your collection to read over and over? Which one would it be?
"Summer 1982. To be read constantly," I wrote in my copy of Babel by Patti Smith (G.P. Putnam's Sons, NY: 1978). For about ten years I kept this one book by my bed and read a little every night. When I finished, I started over. Patti Smith was the first of what would become my three muses (the other two were Laurie Anderson and Gertrude Stein). I was gripped by Smith's use of language and wordplay, vivid imagery, sly humor, sexuality, rhythm/cadence, and her delight in the sounds of words in addition to their meanings. The fact that she crossed boundaries and art forms excited me as well. One of her inspirations was Rimbaud, so I began to read him as well. Revisiting Babel today, I can still pull out quotes that intrigue me, that are examples of what initially drew me in.
Wordplay. From: "grant" (24)…he has plunged into a state of atrophy. a trophy. a stationary prize.
Imagery. From "neoboy" (34)…memory is just hips that swing / like a clock
Sensory. From "munich" (59)…in my pocket was a helmet of pink felt. i brushed it and hung it on a branch.
Word sounds. From "judith revisited (fragments) / the ladies room is ravaged" (90)…human? no mam. go away from them. mistress in gelatin. atom.
Writer/artist connection. From "doctor love" (49)…sometimes i slip away (like this moment) and take open my red portfolio w/the soft burlap ribbons. i like to run my hand across the skin of each drawing.
I found this book around the time a college friend introduced me to Patti Smith's albums, which was a few years after Smith had stopped touring and gone to raise a family. Her poetry was passionate and driven, and I was angry I had missed her live performances by so few years. Who knew that all I had to do was wait? I finally got to see her at a comeback concert in San Francisco in the early 1990s. She seemed at ease in front of an audience. A man yelled, "Take me home with you!" Patti replied that what she did at home wasn't very interesting, like cleaning toilets. To which the man replied, "I'll clean your toilets, Patti!" Throughout the evening people continued to shout out to her as if they were all old friends, and she treated them all as if they were.
So, I was very happy that on November 17, 2010, Patti Smith won the National Book Award for Just Kids, a memoir of her life and friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. And I was pleased that I could hear her read an excerpt of it right away. (If you are interested in reading more, check out these articles.)
One voice. One book.
I made this homage to Patti Smith in 1983, when I had just begun bookmaking. It was made from four collages that I photocopied onto cardstock (front and back), cut out and shaped, then stapled into a pamphlet. Most of the images were from her books and albums, a few were my own, such as my hands in the fingerless gloves on the back cover.