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On Patti Smith, National Book Award winner

November 19, 2010 |  3:18 pm

Pattismith_ccole At a poetry reading in New York City on January 1, 2010, Patti Smith decided that this was going to be a good year. "I think we're going to have a really great year. I think it's going to be really magical. Why not think it's going to be magical?" Smith said. "Every year, I think, this year is gonna really suck. I worry about our political situation, or I worry about the world. This year, I'm not going to worry about anything. I'm just going to be happy, and believe that we're going to have a really magical year."

It seems that Smith's hopes for the year came to fruition Wednesday night, when she won the National Book Award for nonfiction. Book critic David L. Ulin looks at "Just Kids," Smith's memoir of her close relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, and what its win means in terms of memorializing a certain kind of culture.

Smith and Mapplethorpe were lovers before he came out; after that, they were roommates, confidantes, best friends. Their story is their own, of course, but also reflective of anyone who ever moved into some marginal neighborhood to be a poet or a painter, who ever gave over his or her experience to creativity.

This notion, of a life consecrated to art, has become the stuff of cliché as we increasingly allow our dreams to be commodified: Where are the new bohemias, the new Williamsburgs or Echo Parks?

If "Just Kids" has a message, however, it's that bohemia exists within us, that the only imperative of the artist is to create. Halfway through the book, Smith recalls a conversation with Corso, who, during a visit to the loft she shared with Mapplethorpe, noticed a crucifix embellished with the phrase memento mori.

"It means 'Remember we are mortal,' said Gregory, 'but poetry is not,' " Smith writes, and in that moment, we get a glimpse of exactly what we're dealing with, of how much everything means to her.

Smith, who is best remembered for her work as an iconic rock artist, started out writing poetry -- which she continues to read. Maybe she'll do it again Jan. 1, 2011.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Patti Smith in 2009. Credit: Carolyn Cole /  Angeles Times