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Rock legend Patti Smith and Oscar-nominated actor Ethan Hawke shared stories and ideas about process, acting and writing Thursday afternoon at the SVA Theater in Chelsea to kick off the Tribeca Film Festival Storytellers series.

Here is some of what I learned about the rocker/poet, who it turns out is a fascinating and amusing raconteur.

How Patti Smith came to co-write “Cowboy Mouth,” a one-act play with music with Sam Shepard:

Sam and I wrote this play because we had this relationship which we shouldn’t have because he had a small kid, a family. We were young, and we knew we had to end our relationship even though we liked each other so much … So we wrote this play sort of as our swan song… [He said] let’s stop crying and write a play.

I said, ‘I don’t’ know how to write a play.’ Sam said, ‘You’re the girl and I’m the guy … Just do what I say … He writes a little set up and then he says something and he hands me the typewriter so I just answered him. We wrote out a whole play that way and then he thought we should perform it … Sam at the time was sort of like a big deal, so we got to do the play at American Place Theater and there was a part in the play where Sam wanted us to have a battle of language … we battled with language.

Patti Smith
Rock Legend Patti Smith at Tribeca Film Festival Storytellers Series | Paula Schwartz Photo

How Patti Smith learned to improvise:

Sam improvises his language, and my character is suppose to improvise back, and I said, ‘How do we do that? What will I say?’ … He said, ‘I’ll say stuff and you’ll say stuff back to me, any kind of rhythm and poetry…’ ‘What if I make a mistake?’ He said, ‘It’s improvising! You can’t make a mistake. If you lose a beat then you invent another beat,’ and that made perfect sense to me. And that little instruction and then doing a play with him I learned how to improvise, which has served me my whole life in everything I do. It was one of the greatest lessons I ever got was from Sam.”

On how Smith likes getting awards:

It’s really fun to get like accolades. I’ve gotten awards from the French government. I love my medals, and I really get in the swing of it. Somebody wants to give me a medal, I’m really happy. But really, the only real success is when you’ve done something well, when you finish a poem or you do a certain performance and you know you’ve done a good job.

On Gregory Corso and Patti Smith’s first poetry reading:

Of the beat poets, Gregory Corso was the youngest … Gregory had intense energy and he was also very academic as well as being one of our greatest poets … We would go to poetry readings. I was only 20 years old. They don’t have poetry readings in South Jersey … a lot of these poets go on and on … I have to say it was kind of boring… I just sat there quietly… Gregory goes, ‘Shit, shit, shit… No blood, get a transfusion.’…and I was like, ‘If I ever do a poetry reading it can’t be boring, Gregory will cream me.

So I did my first poetry reading in St. Marks in 1972. I was talking to Sam Shepard, and I was telling him I’ve got to deliver. I have to do something that will transcend boredom and Sam said, ‘Play a guitar because a lot of your poems have a lot of rhythm.’ I asked my friend Lenny Kaye, and I asked him if he could play like car crash sounds or feedback and things to the poem and stuff like that. He did and it caused quite a ruckus and Gregory wasn’t bored.

On Smith’s work habit rituals:

I write in the morning, usually for a few hours, since I was about 10, almost every day. If I don’t write, I feel agitated. I’ll write in a bathroom or on a train. I just feel the need always to write something. When I was younger I would stay up all night or smoke a little pot and write … I would sit all day typing on the typewriter but once I had children, a baby, I couldn’t do that. I had to redesign and redefine my work time, so I started waking up at 5 in the morning – this was in like 1981- and from 5 to 8 when my husband and baby were sleeping, that was my time to write. That’s when I actually really developed a certain work ethic.

How Patti Smith went from being a poet to a performer:

I started out writing poetry, which is a very solitary discipline, drawing, painting also, and I never wanted to be a performer really, but through writing poetry and performing it, I evolved into being a performer and then having a rock and roll band, but it was not a planned thing. It was nothing I aspired to, so it was evolving right in front of me and the people were part of the fabric of that evolution. I would never have done that by myself because I was a solitary worker … I think that’s the one thing that makes me a little different from other musicians, other performers or other rock and roll singers. I’m really of and from the people as a performer. I feel we’re all part of the same fabric. I just never would have done it. I wouldn’t have found it on my own. I didn’t even aspire to it.

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