Dear Patti Smith,
I’m currently re-reading M Train because there’s a quote about ‘talent’ a vaguely remember from it that I’m trying to find. After years of underlining and scribbling into books, M Train must have entered my life when I had decided to keep books free of my thoughts, let them be themselves. So I can’t just find the quote by leafing through the pages. It’s actually a bit of a welcome excuse, too, because I guess the M could well stand for Medicine and I must have known somewhere deep inside that I needed that book right now. Not just because I’m experimenting with Memoir writing myself (and it was great company on a recent trip with my mum to her family home, dipping into her childhood). But also because I feel a bit lost, my own version of your Malaise, having allowed my journey to take me to Germany for a moment when, really, I’ve long made the UK my home. Now I’m living in a tiny flat in a tiny town in rural Germany and people around me don’t quite know what to say when I mention that I write poetry. Well, one person so far who understood is Chinese and moved here from Shanghai a few weeks before me with her husband. He creates collages with x-ray photos and writes performance pieces, and she’s a photographer and teaches English on Zoom, using TED talks and National Geographic articles about bees, drones, natural cosmetics.
I’ve not yet reached that quote but I’m sure it’s there where I left it. In the meantime I’m allowing myself to get lost again in your meanderings and am amazed about how much I’ve forgotten since I first read the book. I knew it was beautiful and in a slightly haunting, maybe Sebald-kind of way; but I had forgotten you actually mentioned Max Sebald in it. Which had prompted me to buy After Nature back then. It always seems to me that his writing is much more valued outside of Germany; and the only thing that confuses me about this is that he actually wrote his books in his native German instead of English despite his degree in English literature, years of teaching in English plus living in the UK. But I guess he’s had his own malaise and maybe being at odds with many things of his native German made it the chosen language in which to write about loss and being lost. I knew that he had a link to Immenstadt where my friend Barbara is just organising the first ever solo reading of my poetry. Inspired by M Train I’m thinking that I could maybe explore some of Max Sebald’s traces when I get there, but they are as confusing as his fame. Apparently he’s visited the Catholic Gymnasium St. Maria Stern there from 1954-1956; which is kind of realistic in that it had been returned to the nunnery (after it was taken over by Nazi administration as a field hospital for wounded soldiers) in 1945 and was reopened to teaching in 1954. But from all the accounts I can find it was always exclusively a girls’ school and so I can’t quite picture Sebald in it but will drill down a bit more.
Where I got actually stuck this morning and what prompted me to write this email is your account of checking in at the airport for your flight to Mexico City where you’re invited to talk about Frida Kahlo’s revolutionary life and work at the Casa Azul; I felt so much sympathy reading about that whole mess of being dropped off at the wrong end of the terminal, having to push your way against the current of travellers to your check-in desk where the assistant instead of assisting gives you instructions of how to check in digitally, this then all going a bit pear-shaped and you allegedly a bit agitated (in my case this would definitely be outright irritation at this point) when the screen freezies, you’re asked to move to another computer and that computer jams your boarding pass. Leaving you to question yourself and why you got so ‘steamed up ‘ about the 21st century reality.
Well, I don’t know and maybe it’s not my place to say so but I think you were damn right to get steamed-up. It’s the lack of steaming-up-ness of computers that’s our problem. Their air-conditioned air of frosty service is beneath us, an evolutionary step back and misuse of their and our purpose. I haven’t made it beyond your moment self-critique yet because I don’t think I could bare it if you found fault with your human reaction and defence for the computerised service. And maybe I need to emphasise that I don’t dislike digital technology and can’t imagine life without my tiny MacBook and a good wifi connection anymore. But there’s a place for computers and a place for humanity.
Your writing is so full of the latter – I thank you for that with all my heart!
Yours most sincerely,