On Oct. 17, punk-rocker and writer Patti Smith and book critic Maureen Corrigan engaged in dialogue at the Maltz Performing Arts Center as part of the William N. Skirball Writers Center Stage series, a collaboration between the Cuyahoga Public Library Foundation and Case Western Reserve University.
The series, which frequently invites acclaimed writers to lead discussions in the Cleveland-area, is normally lecture-style, but Smith personally requested that Corrigan, the book critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air” and writer for The Washington Post, interview her.
“I’ve noticed that my students have a greater respect for fact, truth-telling and a renewed respect for knowing something—not just quick knowledge,” she said.
Before the sold-out event, Corrigan devoted an hour of her time to meet with students on campus and discuss her work as a Georgetown professor, book critic and literary enthusiast. Corrigan also explained the responsibilities of her work with NPR.
“Radio is storytelling,” she said. “You have to grab the attention of people while they’re doing everyday activities.”
The 62-year old critic recalled one specific audience member who said his wife played the podcast while she was in labor with their child.
In anticipation for her discussion with Smith, Corrigan mentioned that the author “brought her guitar, so I think that means she wants to perform, too.”
Indeed, when Corrigan took the stage with Smith, a guitar was mounted to their left. Smith appeared excited for the conversation, frequently trailing off into self-deprecating tangents.
“I usually scribble my ideas on napkins, and my assistant, a long time friend, transcribes them into documents,” she said. “I never knew what she did with the napkins, though. Then, one day, I found this big, disgusting bag and it was filled with all this crap, so I opened it, and it was all these napkins.”
The author’s astounding modesty and spunk are integral parts of her personality and, ultimately, her artistic success. At 19, Smith dropped out of college at Glassboro State College in New Jersey (“I don’t have that ‘academic intelligence’ I wish I had.”), hopped on a bus and began working at a bookstore in Manhattan. From there, she pursued her greatest passions: “Music, poetry, and fine art.” In 1978, her song “Because the Night” earned her the 13th spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Smith attributed her blue collar roots to her hard working mentality, telling Corrigan, “I have a romance with great work. I love working, hard working people.”
Smith, the “punk poet laureate,” also explained where she draws poetic inspiration from, citing the works of Sylvia Plath and Bob Dylan. Her love for Plath derives from, she explained, reading her empowering poems as a young woman.
“There are many breaks within [Plath], but her poetry is so strong and it defies gender,” she said. “When you read her poems, you don’t say, ‘What a great female poet.’ Instead, you say, ‘She’s a great poet.’”
In addition to her 20 published works, Smith looks forward to authoring more memoirs and fictional stories, and, of course, reading them. She has authored the memoirs “Just Kids” (2010) and “M Train” (2015).
The program concluded with an a capella performance of “Because the Night” and a question-answer session with the audience.
The next sold-out talk of the Writers Center Stage series will be “The Handmaid’s Tale” author Margaret Atwood on Nov. 16.