"I no longer need people to cloak me"

[from Patti Smith interview with Penny Green in Andy Warhol's Interview, 1973]

Where are you from?

Well, I was born in Chicago, lived on a sheep farm in Tennessee, but then finally ended up in South Jersey, which is very different from North Jersey. Yes, I'm just a Jersey girl. I really loved that I was from South Jersey because it was a real spade area. I learned to dance real good . . . there was a lot of colloquial stuff I picked up, that's where I get my bad speech from. Even though my father was an intellectual, I wanted to be like the kids I went to school with so I intentionally never learned to speak good, although I wish I would have now because it hinders my work sometimes. I thought I couldn't use it on the dance floor so what good was it?

There's a great deal of religious imagery in your poetry.

Somebody once pointed out to me that I was a religious poet. I didn't even realize it. I do work on spiritual planes, like I have Egyptian Coptic visions, I try to commune with Rimbaud. But I generally considered myself as tough, dirty, Rimbaudian. My father taught us not to be a pawn in God's game. He used to blasphemy and swear against God, putting him down. I got that side of me from him.. The religious part I guess is from my mother, who is a complete religious fanatic.

What was she? Catholic?

She was everything. I'm very ritualistically-oriented. I tried to be Catholic for a while because I really like that whole ritual. I was never in a Catholic church until I was about 8 years old. It was like being in the Queen's house, it was all like jewels and diamonds. Well, it's the best theatre you can get in New York or anywhere for that matter. I still go. St. Patrick's has this really neat saint there, St. Stanislaus . . .

You juxtapose religious and pop imagery. For instance, you make Brian Jones and Edie Sedgwick into almost demi-gods.

I've always been hero-oriented. I started doing art not because I had creative instincts but because I fell in love with artists. I didn't come to this city to become an artist, but to become an artist's mistress. Art in the beginning for me was never a vehicle for self-expression, it was a way to ally myself with heroes, 'cause I couldn't make contact with God. The closest, most accessible god was a hero-god: Brian Jones, Edie Sedgwick, or Rimbaud because their works were there, their voices were there, their faces were there. I was very image-oriented.

You were speaking before of Edie Sedgwick and "Ciao Manhattan" how much you admired her, loved her, and wanted to be like her. Then you spoke of how horrible it was to see her bloated and wasted right before she died. Don't images always disappoint because they don't last? Eventually they betray.

It's not really betrayal, I wasn't dealing with myself. It's only how that I can deal with myself. Now, I have no heroes, I no longer need people to cloak me. Heroes die, images fade. I never considered myself my own best hero. Only in the last year, since my work has become solid, can I look in the mirror and worship myself on a work level. There's almost no poet I'd rather read than myself.

This was a necessary part of your evolution, wasn't it?

I'm still going through it . . . When I was younger, I didn't consider myself a real artist, but didn't have a groupie consciousness. When I met people whose work I admired, or who I admired for themselves, I identified with them inside myself. But I couldn't view them as equals. My work wasn't solid enough. Now I'm getting to a point where I can let people choose me and that's a neat feeling.

So you [no] longer need the support these figures gave you. How did this happen?

I once did a show at MOMA, a documentary on getting my knee tattooed by this girl Vali. She's an Italian beatnik-witch and she was a big hero of mine when I was fourteen. She lived on the Left Bank, the supreme beatnik chick -- thick, red hair and big black eyes, black boatneck sweaters, and trench coats. Before Edie Sedgwick, she was my heroine I had pictures of her all over my walls. I never considered her as a real person. I was confronted with the real girl, and I though, "Oh man, what I going to do," 'cause I had dealt with the image for so long. She came over to me and we played all these, not really lesbian games, but like flirting with a boy in high school. When she tattooed me, it was painful. It looks like a little lightning bolt. This girl was real. My photos had become real, and I had to deal with it as a reality. It was a great turning point in my life because it had come full circle. It had begun as an image and then it manifested itself in flesh and blood. She left right after that. She permanently marked me, not only as an image but physically. Permanently branded me. It was something that I absolutely had to deal with for the first time in my life. Right after that I focused in on myself. I turned the flashlight onto my brain, instead of having a searchlight out for Brian Jones, Edie Sedgwick, Keith Richards or Anita Pallenberg, all of those people, the whole rock scene. I'm still good friends with someone like Todd Rundgren, but this is a real friendship. I've zeroed in on myself.

You've lived in Paris?

Yeah, about six months. I used to work the cafés on weekends with this fire-eater, Adrillias, and a little street-circus. We worked between Dome and the Cupole. It's the best place for tourists. I had a little black dress on and looked like Piaf. In Paris, everyone's a poseur. The French are the best actors in the world. They're not deceitful, but everyone's conscious of his image: they're very involved in delineating their images. When I left the States I was still very much into image. I wore my black suit and my dark glasses . . . feeling cool . . . everybody's into that. I always felt that I was in a black and white 16 mm film. Paris to me is completely a city of images. I found it impossible to work there.

And New York?

I know New York is bad for me, but I came to New York at nineteen. I was thrown out of school. Everyone thought I was weird. All I was was romantic, not rebellious. No one stared at me here. New York was like a huge cathedral. I could come here and hide. It's the only place that really accepted me. New York and me get along real good metabolically. It's a city of work. Paris is different. There, you dream, you don't have to work.

Much of your poetry had images of criminality. Where do you see the link between poetry or art, and criminality?

Stealing . . . what any art is all about. When I perform, I'm stealing from the crowd 'cause I need their energy, their need of me -- their desire. Every time I see the Stones I feel as if someone has a rubber hose to my mouth and is drawing my breath out. One can't be a bad thief. People who do bad art are bad thieves because they're wasting energy.

You work in the Tombs, don't you?

Yeah, every Thursday for a couple of hours. I jumped at the chance, because of my romantic obsession with criminals, I thought I should pay my dues since I write about it. I thought I'd be hard, because these are tough, cool guys, spade guys. They enjoyed it, but there was something missing. I'm not a tough, cool guy, I'm a girl. So, I relaxed and read a really fragile poem. I've learned from this not to be afraid of failing in front of people. What I'm trying to do now is to pull these black guys away from identifying themselves as merely black -- trying to get them to write in a surreal manner. Some of them only think of themselves as being fucked-over. A criminal at his high point is just another artist -- a thief who does not hesitate -- he has artistic rhythm.

Have you found your rhythm?

The stuff I wrote for my first book, Seventh Heaven . . . what I was dealing with was rhythm. That's how I got the reputation as being a rock poet. The rhythm was banal, rock an roll was what I knew best. Now my work is completely different. I found a certain rhythm which finds his rhythm, can either defy nature or commune with it. He can go anyway he wants, because he has a solid rhythm.

What do you feel about doing something like the Revillon-Saks show, poet as the darling of the "beau monde"?

I consider myself as basically an entertainer. When you perform in front of people that means you're taking an hour of their life away. I have to make sure that hour is a motherfucker. If I'm entertaining enough, then I do a longer room which has to do with architectural space in language. I don't care for whom I perform. One time I had a reading and I thought I was the plaything of the rich, there were all of these posh people. But other times I read for kids, prisoners, anyone really. I read at St. Mark's, anywhere. Anyway, I like Fernando Sanchez, who designs furs for Revillion. He makes me feel like Anouk Aimée . . .

Is that an image you like?

I would love to dress in Balenciagas. When I was a kid and going nuts over Bob Dylan and Rimbaud, I was also reading Vogue and Bazaar. An image is an image. I thought the whole Saks show was a great honor. To me it was like Midsummer Night's Dream, all of those costumes. In order to be a successful part of that I had to get into that rhythm. After the show, I sang a little song with this fur boa wrapped around me. I dropped my velvet coat to the floor and was wearing a long, ratty tee-shirt and all the women gasped. I modeled it just like they did. I knew that in some aesthetic, in some vein, I looked good . . . I did the song "Baby's Insurance."

Isn't that a kind of Peggy Lee number?

I love June Christie, Chris Connor, Billie Holliday . . . I'd like to sing like them. Look at those chicks in the fifties, they all look like platinum bull-dykes.

They probably were, which brings us to the question of the portrayal of sexuality in your poems. When you don the persona of a woman involved in a heterosexual relationship, you're always passive, a victim. But in a lesbian relationship, the figure is always the aggressor, there it is dynamic.

I was always a tom-boy. I hated being a girl. I was always Flash Gordon, not his old lady, I never identified with any female at all. When I had a baby, I was forced to look at myself as a female, although only physically, not intellectually. I gave it away because I had to assert myself as an artist, in a body of work.

When you started considering your own sexuality as a woman, you began to consider other women sexually?

The Seventh Heaven poems were mostly about girls. Actually, it was the first time I considered women at all. But I didn't know how to do it, so I had to do it like I thought myself as a guy. All of these poems are about women, seduced, raped . . . me in a male role.

When you didn't assume the male persona . . .

I was a complete victim, like in "Longing." That poem grew out of the first time I fell in love with the guy I'm living with now. It was the first time I considered that a woman' true position was on her back. The first time I assumed a completely passive role. There's a very clear movement from one mode of sexuality to another. I had to relearn myself, redefine myself. That's why I could do that show. Someone even did a review of me calling me a "pouting frou frou." Me, who was always a tough motherfucker, a "pouting frou frou." I'm different now, I don't mind getting knocked around a little.

But isn't that just another role?

I don't know, maybe. But I really like it. I never felt oppressed. I chose it. I'm sort of like Streetcar Named Desire.

Blanche or Stella?

Stella, although I understand Blanche intellectually. Sexuality is just not as important to me as it once was when I was trying to establish my sexual identity. When I read "women's lib poetry" or look at "women's art" it smacks of being "the new woman." I revealed sexual attitudes, things I was going through , the other is bullshit. I'm not dogmatic.

Do you read any poetry written by women, Rich, Sexton, Wakosky?

No, I read François Sagon, love comics, Gone with the Wind. Most women writers today are like the new black poets, they can't get out of what they are.

Copyright © Penny Green 1973

back to babelogue