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Patti Smith Muses on ‘Year of the Monkey’ and the Many Ways to Tell a Story

It’s Sept. 11, and Patti Smith has been thinking a lot about people who died.

This is understandable. It is, of course, the 18th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and an annual time of mourning for New York City, the city that Smith adopted as her hometown 50-plus years ago. It’s also the day that the storied counterculture photographer Robert Frank, who shot the music video for Smith’s “Summer Cannibals,” passed away at the age of 94. Hours later Daniel Johnston, the Austin songwriter who was but one of the hundreds of heirs to Smith’s wholesale revision of the rules of rock music in the 1970s, died at 58. But at the moment, her thoughts have been with Jim Carroll, the unofficial poet laureate of the Manhattan underground whom she first convinced to set his poems to music decades ago.

“It is sort of a strange privilege, burden and blessing to have known all these people and to sometimes be the last one standing, to be their witness,” says Smith. “Look at this day, this is the day that 10 years ago, my friend Jim Carroll died. And I was thinking about him for a lot of the day. Even though of course it’s Sept. 11 and there’s so many others to think about, for whatever reason I was thinking about Jim.”

Ever since Smith entered the third (fourth? fifth?) act of her career by becoming one of America’s finest memoirists, death and grief have been touchstones of her literary work. Sometimes this is entirely intentional, as with her National Book Award-winning “Just Kids,” which she wrote to fulfill a deathbed vow she had made to her great friend, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, to tell the story of their formative early years in New York. It was less intentional with her 2015 follow-up, “M Train,” which she began without a particular plan, only to find the book largely concerned with memories of her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith. And it was even less so with her upcoming book, “Year of the Monkey,” the loosest and most structurally playful of the three, which nonetheless finds the author again confronting mortality.

“I intentionally started ‘M Train’ thinking, ‘I’m going to write an irresponsible book,’” Smith says. “I had been so responsible with ‘Just Kids’ — I had an outline, I had an agenda — so here I was just gonna write whatever I felt like and not have any plotline. But even that was still a conscious effort. Whereas ‘Year of the Monkey’ was literally written in real time, in a journal, because how it opens is what happened when I started, and I had no idea where it was going to go.”

Set during the titular Chinese lunar year in 2016, the book is simultaneously a travelogue of Smith’s journeys through California, Arizona, Portugal and Kentucky; a fantastical dream-journal full of imagined conversations with omniscient hotel signs and Roberto Bolano-obsessed drifters; and a clear-eyed meditation on Smith’s relationships with two of her oldest, dearest friends — playwright Sam Shepard and music producer Sandy Pearlman — who passed away as she was writing it. It’s funny and weird, sober and sad, and perhaps the closest she’s come to synthesizing the penetrating maturity of her latter-day writings with the improvisational wildness of her early free-form poems and songs.

“Considering the way that I write and I think, I would also invite readers to take a Cubistic style as they read it,” Smith says. “Pick up the book anywhere and read there. Pick up the book another day and read somewhere else. Because sometimes that makes everything a little more three-dimensional.”

Smith endeavored to keep “Year of the Monkey” entirely in the present tense, swearing off the deep dives into the past that distinguished her earlier writing. But as with anything Smith writes, it’s also a submergence into all of the historical and literary bric-a-brac that has been swirling around her head. Ever a seeker, Smith spends much of the book searching for landmarks and sacred objects of her heroes — Bolano’s board games, Fernando Pessoa’s hats, Maria Callas’ gown —and her own Polaroids of these objects fill the pages.

“It’s sort of a Catholic type of thing I guess, the idea of the holiness in a relic,” she explains. “I’ve been that way since I was a kid. Why do I like to visit so many artists’ and poets’ graves? I like to be in their proximity. I’ve gone all over the world and photographed things like Herman Hesse’s typewriter, Delacroix’s palette and paintbrushes, Victor Hugo’s desk… There’s something comforting about imagining all of the energy invested in these things.

“And if I can put it in the most simplistic terms, I would just say that it makes me happy. I’m going to be 73. I live a fairly solitary life. And I get joy out of the things I get joy out of.”

Smith has always been as willing as just about any American artist to pursue her own bliss, whether it be putting her blossoming music career on hold for a full decade to raise a family, or following up every step toward the mainstream with an equal and opposite jump into more unknown territory. While she’s still very much an active musician — she just finished a tour of Europe, as well as a set at Chicago’s Riot Fest — she says she and longtime guitarist-collaborator Lenny Kaye haven’t written music together since their 2014 lullaby “Mercy Is,” commissioned by Darren Aronofsky for the film “Noah.”

As she says: “We usually write songs together in phases and waves. … Plus, Lenny is in the final stages of a book — I mean a major, major book — so we talk more about the books we’re writing now.”

In the meantime, Smith has plenty of percolating projects. Inspired by her late-in-life obsession with TV detective shows and procedurals, she’s still toying with a mystery novel of her own. (“I do a lot of work simultaneously, and it’s kind of like a horse race,” she says. “So right now the detective story is like in 7th, but another one is coming in hot at 3rd…”) She was recently announced as the star of an Yves St. Laurent fashion campaign. And as for music, earlier this year she released a collaboration with experimental music outfit the Sound Collective, in which she reads from the writings of Antonin Artaud over atmospheric instrumental backing. Two further albums, dedicated to the works of Arthur Rimbaud and Rene Daumal, are upcoming.

“There was no real reason why [to do it], no real agenda,” she says of the project. “They were just three writers I’d loved since I was young. And I’d never read Artaud aloud in my life. It would’ve been too intimidating. But at this point in my life, I’m not intimidated by much.”

But as for honoring the “woeful responsibility” of safeguarding the memories and legacies of her departed loved ones, that’s something Smith approaches with the utmost seriousness.

Back in 2015, “Just Kids” was tapped to be adapted into a Showtime series, but Smith acknowledges the project is “sort of in limbo now.”

“A lot of it has to do with finding the exact right script. And it’s a difficult thing to me, because there were a lot of opportunities that opened up for that book, some really wondrous opportunities, but I have so much work to do, and it’s sort of hard for me … .” Here she takes a pause. “There’s no reason to do it unless it could be something really wonderful. There’s no amount of money, or any kind of scenario, that’s going to matter if it’s not going to be something wonderful. It’s too close to me for that.”

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