At the fourth annual Windham-Campbell Prize Festival on Monday, an eclectic crowd of Yale students and New Haven community members welcomed legendary musician, poet and visual artist Patti Smith for the prize’s flagship lecture. Smith is an American rock icon known for her seminal album, “Horses” — hailed as one of the top 100 albums of all time by Rolling Stone magazine — as well as her 2010 National Book Award-winning work “Just Kids” and a number of other achievements in music, visual arts and writing.
During her talk, which was more like a narration of her poetic thought process than a lecture, Smith spoke of the inspiration that sparks her writing and how that inspiration eventually translates onto the page.
“I am … overcome by the hubris to believe that I can answer the call [of writing],” Smith said.
Held at Sprague Memorial Hall, the Windham-Campbell Guest Lecture and Prize Ceremony drew residents from across New England, including those who grew up with Smith’s music and a smaller contingent from the Yale community. Although the event was scheduled to begin at 5 p.m., a vast majority had already filled both the mezzanine and the gallery levels well before.
While the hype for Patti Smith was certainly the driving force behind the event, there were literary enthusiasts also present to celebrate the writers honored by the Windham-Campbell Prize. This year’s winners include Hilton Als, Stanley Crouch and Helen Garner for nonfiction; Tessa Hadley, C. E. Morgan and Jerry Pinto for fiction; and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Abbie Spallen and Hannah Moscovitch for drama.
The ceremony commenced, a little later than planned, as Mike Kelleher, the program director for the prize, welcomed the crowd and elaborated on the history and mission of the Windham-Campbell Prize while also announcing that poetry will be added as a separate category for next year’s festival. He called upon Daphne Brooks, professor of African American Studies and Theater Studies, to introduce and invite Smith to the stage.
Smith’s lecture was to be on the simple question, “Why I Write?” — a theme the festival employs each year. But in her “outsider” fashion, Smith decided she would rather talk about how she writes. She started by reciting a fragment from a piece of prose she is currently working on titled, “Devotion.” The story follows a boy’s obsession with a girl who decides to quit school at age 16.
While Smith’s narration itself captivated the audience, she also spoke about how “Devotion” came to fruition — from a hastily taken flight to Paris to reading Simone Weil by chance to spending some time in Albert Camus’ family home. Smith detailed her trip to France and pinpointed where all the minuscule elements of the story originally came from. She mentioned how the piece she was planning to write in a cafe next to her home was finally penned in a train she took from Paris.
Casey Odesser ’20 raved,“Everything [Smith] was saying sounded like poetry itself.”
Gabi Rivera ’20 said she listens frequently to punk music and that after hearing that Smith is a punk-rock idol, she decided to attend the talk and said she will give “Horses” a listen.
Smith included multiple anecdotes about how she drew inspiration from the likes of Camus and Vladimir Nabokov, the places they lived and the “agitations” they felt. For example, Smith mentioned how upon reading Camus’ original last manuscript, she noticed that he stopped using stationary with his name printed on it after the 100th page, signaling that seeing his name distracted him from his work. Smith also spoke in detail about how many of her ideas were from dreams she had in which different aspects of her reality were merged.
As for how or why she is a writer and poet, she concluded, “The answer writes itself because we cannot simply live.” She received a standing ovation.