Reigning queen of art punk Patti Smith won the National Book Award Wednesday for Just Kids, a memoir about bohemian New York in the ’60s and ’70s and her “brother-sister” relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Though she may have thumbed her nose at such establishment recognition as a scrawny 17-year-old poetess, Smith was obviously still high on her triumph Friday night at the Miami Book Fair. And this turned out to be very, very lucky for the hundreds of people in attendance.
True to her punk roots, Smith interrupted her own introduction when she walked out onto the stage in the middle of University of Wynwood founder Scott Cunningham’s prepared remarks. Wearing an ill-fitting men’s jacket, white button-down shirt, and jeans tucked into slouchy leather boots, she wandered around the auditorium looking a bit like an old-folks-home escapee as Cunningham led a rousing choral reading of “Vowels”, by French poet Arthur Rimbaud. As Cunningham recited the lines from the podium, scattered members of the audience stood in succession and chimed in:
A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: the vowels.
I will tell thee, one day, of thy newborn portents:
A, the black velvet cuirass of flies whose essence
commingles, abuzz, around the cruellest of smells,
“I never saw anything like that,” Smith would say later. “That was really cool.”
It was quite a compliment from a woman who has seen a lot. Reading from Just Kids, Smith related one incredible story after another: eating at the Chelsea Hotel, in 1969, alongside Jimi Hendrix, Grace Slick, and Janis Joplin (“People ask, ‘Were you at Woodstock?’ No, Woodstock came to me.”); sharing a cup of laundromat coffee and a sandwich with a prowling Allen Ginsberg, who mistook her for “a very pretty boy” (“Does that mean I have to give the sandwich back?”); encountering Muhammad Ali in the Chelsea’s elevator while she was wearing, naturally, light-leather boxing shoes; and seeing Television perform Marquee Moon at CBGB.