May 2, 2011

Smith and Eggers headline in LA


Punk poet goddess, Patti Smith, at the LA Times Book Festival

The LA Times Jacket Copy report lets us in on a highly coveted ticket — the Patti Smith / Dave Eggers double-bill at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival. The event, hosted by David Ulan, was packed with a rapt audience of fans.

Smith warmed up the crowd, reading from a section of her book, Just Kids, about her friendship with the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe:

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.”

When asked about the genesis of their work, Eggers, author most recently of Zeitoun, volunteered that:

…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.

Referring to both authors as “role models,” Ulin encouraged them to talk about the daily efforts of art making:

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.”

Valerie Merians is the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.