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Patti Smith and Dave Eggers: Who feels blessed and who feels guilty?

May 1, 2011 |  6:33 am

Smith
Before she read a section from "Just Kids," punk poetess Patti Smith set up the audience to laugh. "It has its beauty," she said of her memoir, "it has its sorrow," but Smith said she would be reading something funny instead.

And it was, but there was a moment when Smith had to pause, a rush of sorrow greeting her from the page, making her voice waver. She took a breath and then carried on -- for herself, for the packed audience in the Bovard Auditorium and for her love for Robert Mapplethorpe, who asked her to write the story of their friendship the day before he died in 1989.

Smith was reading a passage not directly about the photographer, but about the first time she met poet  Allen Ginsberg in a cafeteria of sorts next to the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. "Are you a girl?" Ginsberg asked, after spotting her a dime so she could get a sandwich.

The rapt audience, which had gathered Saturday to hear Smith and fellow memoirist Dave Eggers converse, roared with laughter. A moment later, when Smith read one of the many lines in her memoir that sings with beauty and sorrow, the audience hushed.

Ginsberg and Smith, two poets and spirit flames alike, recalled the start of their friendship many years later, which Smith summed up like this: " 'You fed me when I was hungry.' And he did."

Moderated by the Los Angeles Times’ David Ulin, who started the much buzzed-about event by admitting that his heart was "beating like a rabbit’s," the conversation between Eggers and Smith was more like an in-tandem interview. Their stories and experiences sometimes twined together, sometimes illuminated the other; other times, they were separate journeys, all of it free-flowing and easygoing.

Smith and Eggers enjoyed a playful rapport. At the start of the talk, Smith scampered over to the curly-haired author, who still talks with a bit of a Midwestern nasal twang, to have him open her water bottle.

When asked about the genesis of their books, Eggers said he simply needed to get “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” out of his way. The death of his parents was a story he had to tell before he could move on to anything else. He didn’t think anyone would really read it, nor did many of his friends mentioned in the book.

In fact, in the first edition, Eggers included the phone numbers of many of those friends, who fielded phone calls for years. When “Staggering Genius” took off, eventually getting a Pulitzer Prize nomination and topping several critical lists for the year, Eggers said he was stunned that his story resonated with so many readers.

Smith and Eggers, heralded as role models by Ulin, are artists who work in a variety of media -- music, design, poetry and community-building -- and they vibrate with a sense that art is both a lofty ideal and a daily slog.

Smith said she felt blessed to have a calling to be an artist, while Eggers said he felt guilty. Hunched in what he called his “writing position” in his shed/studio, eking out a few hundred words a day, Eggers thinks about people who are “really working for a living.”

When he was younger, he’d self-flagellate even more, staying up till 5 a.m. to write, to make it painful. “Is that some really twisted Catholicism or what?” he asked with a laugh. Smith responded with, “Don’t feel guilty: We suffer.”

She described how she can’t go see a movie without rewriting it in her head. “You’re condemned to be constantly observing,” she said, a continuation on her earlier point that artists are “equally dogged and blessed.”

Whether a rallying cry in a rock 'n' roll song or a poem that helps its creator work through grief, Smith finds the must suitable vessel for the artistic impulse. "The book," Smith said of "Just Kids," "was written for the people." She wanted it to be a fairly simple story, something that Mapplethorpe, not much of a books person, would want to read.

But it's that push and pull between blessed and dogged that manifests in an often-dichotomous reaction to one’s own creations, as flawed and beautiful as children. Eggers, in response to a hilarious question from an audience member who asked if he was an “idiot” for liking “Staggering Genius” when the author himself seemed to be conflicted about it, confessed that he probably couldn’t read the book now, but he’s grateful that it prompted readers to share stories of loss with him.

A similarly moving effect has been at work with “Zeitoun,” Eggers’ reported book concerning the government’s treatment of a Syrian-American family after Hurricane Katrina. He said some readers were moved enough to drive hundreds of miles to meet the family and apologize on behalf of the U.S., a show of compassion that Eggers said made him love the people of this country.

Throughout the hour-and-a-half chat, there was a feeling in the air that everyone present could drink in these two all afternoon. Where Eggers was often self-deprecating about his artistic gifts, Smith, mother to all the scrappy, anarchists souls, sought to soothe him and by extension everyone in the audience. “The emotional force of art is one of the things that’s kept me happy,” she said. “I’ve had hard times, lots of loss ... but I feel a calling to do this. It walks with me every day.”

-- Margaret Wappler

Photo: Patti Smith with a fan at the Festival of Books. Credit: Scott Martelle

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