Lasting Thrill in the Artist’s Work

Went to a literary lecture at the Sac Poetry Center, tweedy folks, women in clunky objects ‘d arte jewelry with lots of lipstick—a polite, earnest crowd. On the walls, framed water colors of Paris street scenes for sale. The artist, Jeanie Keltner, professor emeritus of English at Sac State, happened to sit next to me. We shared a lap blanket because there isn’t much heat in the center’s old building and we smiled and nodded together during the lecture like old friends.
Former Sacramento Poet Laureate Julia Connor — a gifted teacher who studied with Robert Duncan at New College in San Francisco and a friend of the poet for many years–presented a portrait of an erudite and charming  genius who created an ocean of work before his death in 1988. Connor delivered an engaging, pointed lecture that kindled my interest in knowing more about the poet, his partnership with Jess Collins and their work.
By Robert Duncan
Neither our vices nor our virtues
further the poem. “They came up
and died
just like they do every year
on the rocks.”
The poem
feeds upon thought, feeling, impulse,
to breed itself,
a spiritual urgency at the dark ladders leaping.
* * * 

Connor offered quotes from Duncan, such as: “The lasting thrill in the artist’s work is that it fits” and “The poet’s task is to make out the design in the carpet.” “An idea is something that comes to me or appears to me,” which answers the age-old question often put to writers and artists: Where do ideas come from? Duncan’s answer: They appear. I assume Duncan meant they appear to a cultivated and well prepared mind. Connor referred her audience to a new biography by Lisa Jarnot: Robert Duncan: The Ambassador from Venus, which I intend to pick up and read to help navigate such a huge and complex body of work.
The Daily Rumpus
And, then I got an email from Stephen Elliott, who is in New York preparing to shoot his movie “Happy Baby,” based on his memoir by the same name. Along with about 1,000 other people, I’m an “investor” in the movie through Kickstarter and so, along with the other investors, I get occasional updates on the project. While kicking around New York, Stephen said he’d been part of a panel discussion on the connection between art and commerce. Joining him were writer/editors Maud Newton and Steve Almond.
Stephen said, “I don’t see the link (between art and commerce). Steve Almond was talking about writing for Martha Stewart and dancing naked full of vim and madness. People were talking about writing for money. I said, Look, you can bartend, or you can teach classes, or you can write shit you don’t want to write for publications you don’t want to write for. You can be a secretary, or a hooker, or a lawyer.

“That’s all Column A.” he said. “In Column B there’s making art. There’s painting, dancing, writing poetry. In Column B there are things you don’t do for money. You don’t know why you do them at all. That can include starting a website, or sending out a daily email. Later, when you’re finished, you try to get as much money as you can. How much you sell it for is not the point. The point is, Why did you do it? I said something like, You think you’re talking about the same thing but you’re not. You’re talking about two different things.”

Like everyone, I admire Stephen and appreciate his thought provoking stance, but at times he can be maddening. Writing for money isn’t art? It’s only commerce? Who says? I want to tell him: OK, I get your point, art arises from spiritual urgency, a gnawing hunger, a leaping at ladders in the dark, but try being a single mother raising boys by yourself and using only the strength of your writing ability to put bread on the table. It’s hard to tell hungry kids to hope I can sell my art to buy them food and at the same time it’s impossible to not leap at ladders. It a chronic dilemma.

So I call bullshit. Art doesn’t fit into neat columns, but I’ll concede Stephen has a point. No matter how committed to art and excellence, years of selling your skill, maybe some of your talent, to survive is corrosive. It’s no way to prepare fertile ground for creative ideas, which Duncan refers to, so when those ideas arrive in the mind’s garden they can sprout and take hold. Creating art for money breeds a bitterness because of continual compromise. Stephen suggested resentment taints the spirit and warps the gift and I agree it’s a struggle to stay focused and committed to one’s artistic principles and while creating on demand.  I’ve been involved in this struggle for more than 30 years and can tell you it’s exhausting and rewarding. It’s how a body of work is built.

And, I just finished reading Author Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha and want to tell Stephen again that dividing money and art into tidy, separate columns is B.S. Actually, all artists are geisha, offering entertainments to survive. We’re all playing the lead role in our own Kabuki plays. Some of us, however, are more deliberate and honest about what we’re doing behind the mask than others.
Julia mentioned during her lecture at the poetry center that an exhibition of the collaborative work of Robert Duncan and his partner Jess Collins is coming to Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum — JUNE 9 – SEPTEMBER 1, 2013. I’m hoping Julia will again offer a public lecture on the life and work of Robert Duncan and Jess Collins during the exhibition so a larger audience will have a chance to better understand the artists beyond  just viewing their art.
An Opening of the Field:

Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle

Jess Collins Trust,
courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
In its introduction to the upcoming show, the museum said: “The artist Jess Collins, known simply as Jess, and his partner, the poet Robert Duncan, were one of the most fascinating artistic couples of the 20th century. Soon after they met in 1950, they merged their personal and artistic lives to explore their interest in cultural mythologies, transformative narrative, and the appropriation of images.”
This is the first exhibition to explore the couple’s artistic production and relationship. Through more than 100 individual and collaborative works of art and personal letters drawn from private and public collections, this exhibit also looks at their influence and unique position as precursors of Postmodernism. A companion catalogue includes essays by William Breazeale, Ph.D., curator at the Crocker Art Museum, as well as Michael Duncan and Christopher Wagstaff.
The exhibition is supported, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Information about the exhibit and the museum is online at:

Published by Kate Campbell

Writer, editor, photographer, novelist, short story writer, poet.

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