Patti Smith’s book “Just Kids” is conceivably saving me, and my work. Certainly, Smith’s life-long friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe is tender, if arcane. Their years as lovers and then friends are documented intimately in Smith’s memoir. But it is when she recalls her years as a poet and bohemian – sharing plates of food from her Chelsea Hotel hot plate, dressing in Salvation Army cast-offs, brushing shoulders with Warhol’s gang, with Janis and Jimmi – that I am moved. The artist’s life in New York in 1971 was exhilarating, if a little terrifying.
In Patti’s time, there were no artist grants, no slush-piles. Smith was just a “country mouse” from New Jersey, a girl who slept in Central Park for two weeks before she landed her first apartment in Brooklyn. But Patti never turned back. She stayed in slums and worked in bookshops and feverishly wrote poetry, for herself, and for her friends. She said she had everything she needed: there was burgeoning rock and roll. There was Bob Dylan, a man she revered and reveres still. And there was a whole posse of derelicts and hustlers and leather boys and poets that gathered in New York to make art because they needed to. They had each other.
Here in Vancouver, I often feel isolated in my writing. I compile my manuscript pages in the giant downtown public library, surrounded by diligent strangers. I attend film screenings and plays and gypsy jams with close friends, but we are not like Smith’s strange society of artists, drawing and writing “like wild, feral children into the night, until, exhausted, we fall into bed.” Now we type solitary tracts in sacred scraps of time, between grant proposals and theatre shifts, teaching gigs and cubicle assignments.
And still, somehow, my greatest pals are finding ways to quit the cubicle, to downsize apartments and sell cars and travel on their own dime to get the good story. We are still making weird art, and not for the chance to sell it but the chance to make it, to share it with each other. We look to Patti Smith and Mapplethorpe as our idols, the way she looked to Dylan, they way he looked to Rimbaud. Amid grumbles of not getting paid for publications, we still submit. Without a patron to buy our paintings, we still paint. And we are learning to treasure most our days between teaching gigs and theatre shifts, so that we may, for even a few hours a day, return to our feral, child-like states.