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Remembrances of the Punk Prose Poetess

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Smith and Mapplethorpe on their West 23rd Street fire escape, 1971.  

Smith was a fan and iconographer, fixated on the gestures of her favorite artists—she’d steal painting supplies because she heard Lee Krasner did it for Jackson Pollock, or try to hail a cab just like Dylan in Dont Look Back. “My goals were lofty,” she says. “I wanted to be a painter, or to write Pinocchio or Alice in Wonderland, the kind of book I read a hundred times when I was a kid. I wanted to be in the canon, because to me the rest was litter or jerking off.” She viewed Mapplethorpe as someone who was already there, with his collages and gruesome religious art, which grew to include leathermen and explicit S&M imagery like a mutilated penis; Smith would later use pot to get herself into a creative space, or otherwise masturbate, and begin to write. “The thing is real artists are hard to come by, just like real poets,” she says now. “Everyone has a creative impulse, and has the right to create, and should. That’s what Blake believed, that everyone could animate God. It’s very illustrative in our time, when all artists are sort of in trouble, and why is that? Because the people are making their own art, taking their own photographs, making their own songs, and I think that’s a beautiful thing. But a pure artist is a different animal. Robert was a pure artist.”

To be around the greats—to go where Thomas Wolfe and Bob Dylan created, and Dylan Thomas and Edie Sedgwick would spiral downward—there was only one place: the Chelsea Hotel. Smith heard you could get a room there in exchange for art. In 1969, she moved in with Mapplethorpe. “The Chelsea was like a doll’s house in The Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe,” she writes. “Everyone had something to offer and nobody seemed to have much money. Even the successful seemed to have just enough to live like extravagant bums.” She liked to sit in the lobby smoking Kools and reading detective novels, waiting for Gregory Corso or Allen Ginsberg to cross through—Ginsberg made a pass at her, thinking she was a man—and dashed out to hail cabs for Burroughs on his ascent from El Quixote. “William and I had the scarlet-fever club together,” says Smith, who experienced hallucinations during childhood diseases, many of which Mapplethorpe encouraged her to explore artistically. “William believed fever permanently opened a certain portal.”

“My goals were lofty. I wanted to be a painter, or to write Pinocchio or Alice in Wonderland, the kind of book I read a hundred times when I was a kid.”

Art didn’t make the rent, so Smith kept clerking and shoplifting, and Mapplethorpe began to hustle on the East Side near Bloomingdale’s. (He continued to have sex with Smith, and told his parents that they had been married in a strawberry field in California.) Andy Warhol had already been shot by Valerie Solanas, so he wasn’t around much—when he met the pair later, he initially dismissed them as “dirty” and “horrible”—but they went to the Factory, where Smith’s hair was decreed to be lame and “very Joan Baez.” That night, she chopped up her hair like Keith Richards. A look turned out to be all she needed. This was a magical time in New York, when ambitious kids could go to Max’s Kansas City one night and come out a rock star the next. Dylan’s alter-ego, Bobby Neuwirth, began to take Smith out, and encouraged her to write balladic poems in the tradition of Hank Williams. “Next time I see you, I want a song out of you,” he declared. He introduced Smith to Joplin, who called her The Poet, and she was in the room in the Chelsea when Kris Kristofferson played “Me and Bobbie McGee” for Joplin in her easy chair. “I was there for those moments,” writes Smith, “but so young and preoccupied with my own thoughts that I hardly recognized them as moments.”

Then Mapplethorpe began to hang out with a male model from London who took him shopping in a white Corvair. Smith would watch him nervously as he prepared to go out. “He chose everything carefully. The colored handkerchief he would fold and tuck in his back pocket. His bracelet. His vest. And the long, slow method of combing his hair. He knew that I liked his hair a bit wild, and I knew he was not taming his curls for me.” Mapplethorpe didn’t tell Smith that he was gay, waiting for Loulou de la Falaise, the muse of Yves Saint Laurent, to raise the issue on the dance floor. He wept when he confessed. Smith pledged to keep him close. “I loved Robert,” she says, her eyes tearing up again. “When we were together, he didn’t tell me about his exploits, and I didn’t talk to him about other people. When we were together, we were with each other.”


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