Poets & Pop Songs: Jamila Woods and Patti Smith

There’s long been a connection between pop songs and the literary. This transcends what might be the most obvious example of this: neatly bound volumes of collected or selected lyrics, generally from a songwriter associated with cult or critical acclaim. (A copy of a book assembling Mark Lanegan’s lyrics over the years recently arrived at my apartment.) Some of these fall into the high-culture category: shortly after Bob Dylan’s Nobel win last year, I can recall seeing bookstores giving prominent space to collections of Bob Dylan’s collected lyrics in the same way that they might have had Marilynne Robinson or Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o been so honored.

Some volumes that assemble lyrics come with a more overtly literary lineage. In 2015, a revised edition of Patti Smith’s Collected Lyrics was released as a hardcover. Smith is a relatively unique case, however, in that her careers as a writer and as a musician exist somewhat independently from one another. One can imagine someone seeing Smith in concert without ever having read one of her poems; it’s also possible to envision some reclusive poetry devotee who’s followed her work in verse without ever hearing a note of music she’s played or sung.

Smith is one of a handful of figures who falls into this realm; Leonard Cohen, Saul Williams, and her fellow alumnus of the downtown New York music scene, Richard Hell, also come to mind. But this isn’t simply a phenomenon confined to figures who were long ago elevated to the status of legends. This fall also brings with it a new edition of HEAVN, the debut album from Chicago’s Jamila Woods. Look closely enough and you can find distinct websites for Woods’s music and her writing; she’s also, I suspect, the only artist to play New York’s Panorama Festival who also has a page on the Poetry Foundation’s website.

Woods initially released HEAVN digitally last year; it earned abundant acclaim, including a solid showing on the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop critics’ poll, and a Best New Music designation from Pitchfork. (This fall, Jagjaguwar will release HEAVN in an assortment of formats.) kris ex’s review of it on said site put it succinctly: “Filled with personal memories, affirmations of self, and gazes of society’s racial strife, HEAVN is a singular mix of clear-eyed optimism and Black girl magic.” It’s a bold, terrific record that segues from languorous melodies to urgent political rallying cries to perfectly crafted hooks–in other words, a record that succeeds on a host of levels.

It’s also an album with a constant thread of inspiration running through it. Sometimes that can take the form of sociopolitical inspiration; at others–especially the final verse of “Blk Girl Soldier,” which invokes (among many others) Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks–she’s looking to specific historical figures. There are also moments where she quotes from or adapts other pop songs: both Paula Cole and The Cure have songs interpolated into Woods’s compositions. It makes for an unexpected dose of the familiar; it’s also a nice reminder of the stylistic range on display in this album.

All of which brings up an unlikely commonality, besides their multidisciplinary work, between Woods and Smith. Just as HEAVN shows an abundance of methods by which influential people and creative work can be incorporated into a bold and satisfying album, Smith’s new book Devotion offers a version of the same process, albeit in prose form.

Devotion unfolds in three parts: “How the Mind Works,” “Devotion,” and “A Dream is Not a Dream.” Throughout the first part, Smith invokes the act of creation–or the frustrations that can accompany it. To wit, this quote, from early in the book when Smith describes a trip to Paris, with accompanying events, turned frustrating by her own pause in projects. “A writer who isn’t writing is going to talk with journalists about writing. What a know-it-all, I chide myself,” she writes.

The middle section, which gives the book its title, is bookended by essays that allude to Smith’s process of creation: we see her interactions with some of the images and spaces that turn up in “Devotion.” The years in which Estonia was part of the Soviet Union, for one thing; the works of Patrick Modiano, whose atmospheric tales of betrayal and memory are evokes here, are another. And what it becomes, ultimately, is a succinct document of how certain moments and aesthetic obsessions and locations that the author moves through can ultimately become art.

In a recent interview with the Boston Globe, Smith discussed the fact that writing has been a constant presence in her life, and has an increased one now. There are echoes of this in a comment Woods made in a conversation with NPR: “My mission as an artist is always to create art that’s useful.” Perhaps that’s also a talent specific to those who move between the musical and the literary: a sense of perspective, and a willingness to chart the spaces occupied by their art.


Tobias Carroll frequently writes about books, music, and pop culture for a variety of publications. He is the author of the books Reel and Transitory, and can be found on Twitter as @TobiasCarroll.

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