Saturday, November 7, 2015

"Who Are Your Influences?"

"Who are your influences?"

I noted that this seemed to be an important question for writers and artists to answer. I had grown up collecting images and sounds, words and feelings, listening to all the songs on 93KHJ, Los Angeles, but knowing few of their names. I would have to focus, pay attention. What kinds of work engaged me? Who could I list as an influence? Whom did I admire—besides everyone? 

First, I chose Georgia O'Keeffe. I had bought a book of her paintings and studied them. For an assignment, I had even attempted a reproduction of one of the oil paintings on canvas using acrylics on paper. Later, I settled upon a triumvirate, my own trinity of women: Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, Gertrude Stein. They valued sound and rhythm, vivid imagery, a connection to visual art, humor and human storytelling, all in different styles, but with a certain edge. The work of Patti Smith gripped me, like many, the most.

I kept Patti Smith's Babel, a book of poetry, next to my bed for close to ten years, dipping in nightly, and when I came to the end I began again. My college friend Richard liked her first. He let me borrow all of his records, and I, like him, became captivated by her spoken music rock poetry. But I was too late. It was 1981, and Patti Smith had gotten married and stopped touring. I had missed her in person. 

The first time. When she reappeared in San Francisco for a comeback tour in the mid-1990s, I was finally there. The audience was welcoming, and we were thrilled to see her. (I wrote about her previously in this post, "One Patti Smith.")

She went on to receive the National Book Award in 2010 for her memoir 
Just Kids, which I promptly bought and adored. Her prose is magical, yet grounded in everyday life. I've been to New York City since then and fallen in love with it, too.

Her latest book M Train, is what I am reading now. Here, I think, is one of my favorite passages, both poetic and simple, grounded in the ordinary (page 77). In a park, a kid taps her on the shoulder and hands her a sock.

I recognized it immediately. A pale brown cotton lisle sock with a gilded bee embroidered by its edge. I have several pairs of such socks, but where did this one come from? I noticed his companions—two girls around twelve or thirteen—in a fit of laughter. It was undoubtedly yesterday's sock caught up in my pantleg that shimmied down and slid to the ground.
She's so calm about her surprise and so cool about her embarrassment. I have never seen this event in writing. Perhaps it hasn't happened to everyone. But I could identify with this tiny, specific, human scene. She captured the details perfectly.

While M Train does not have the clear narrative through-line of Just Kids, it does contain her sparkling and insightful prose. Her dreams merge with waking life. She writes of her travels, loved ones, loss, black coffee, crime and detective shows, and her relish in solitary thinking and writing time at Café 'Ino. It meanders like a thought, then another remembered. I'm happy to be on the train looking out the window of her life with her. And glad that her writing still inspires.

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