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Walt Curtis, Oregon’s Salmon Poet

I can't recall the exact year I first caught Walt Curtis "read" his poetry but I do recall the venue — the Satyricon rock club in Portland. It may have been '86 or '87. I was probably drunk and leaning against the stage. Walt may or may not have been wearing a diaper.Walt may or may not have been wearing a diaper. He came on between bands and performed a manic 15-minute set rich in sexual and Pacific Northwest imagery, sometimes within the same poem. One title may have been "KY Jelly and Mt. Hood." Another one was about beavers. Walt was my first poetry reading and at the time I didn't know who he was. I do now. He was then, and he is now, the Stone Oregon Bard.

For 40 years, Walt Curtis, often described as the "unofficial poet laureate of Portland," has produced a Columbia River torrent of poems, reports, performances, stories, essays, articles, drawings, ideas, visions, rants, delusions and all around cultural mischief and upheaval. Sometimes his stuff found publishers; sometimes he did it himself. All told, I think he's got something like 16-17 books out.

Walt's shared a billing with William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and Allen Ginsberg, among other mythical American poets. He wrote my favorite sentence about Jack Kerouac: "Before Kerouac boozed out, tubed out, whatever, his Catholic, Buddhistic angelic sentimental spirit was the sweetest thing American had going for it." He also had the presence of mind to record something Ken Kesey once told him about this state: "Oregon is the citadel of the spirit." It's the best Oregon line of all time and later became the title for my anthology celebrating Oregon's Sesquicentennial. Walt contributed an essay to that book, "Cosmic Spawning," quite possibly the sexiest thing ever written about salmon. He also contributed to my 2007 anthology about the Portland Trail Blazers' 1976-77 championship season, Red Hot and Rollin'. If nothing else, Walt Curtis might be the most versatile Oregon poet who ever lived!If nothing else, Walt Curtis might be the most versatile Oregon poet who ever lived!

As a writer and Oregonian, Walt Curtis is authentic, hard core, all verve, and 100-percent Beaver State soul. See him read his poems live, and you will be uniquely engaged, occasionally shocked, and never bored, which unfortunately can't be said of many poets who find themselves in front of a microphone and audience.

I don't have many details on Walt's past, but I do know he graduated from Oregon City High School in 1959 and lived near the Clackamas River. He burst on the Portland literary scene in the late '60s/early '70s and earned a reputation as wild man who performed poetry in a way that left little to the imagination.

Besides his poetry, Walt also went to work for Oregon in a more conventional civic sense. In 1974, he served as a delegate to the legendary Bend in the River Conference, when groovy community representatives from all over Oregon convened in Bend to participate in what we today call a "visioning" process. Kesey wrote a federal grant (!) to fund the conference, and had the delegates' recommendations been enacted then, contemporary Oregon would be a utopia.Kesey wrote a federal grant (!) to fund the conference, and had the delegates' recommendations been enacted then, contemporary Oregon would be a utopia. But that is another Oregon story and groovy subject for another "On Oregon" blog.

Walt's big break came when an aspiring director he met while working on Penny Allen's certifiably Stone Oregon film Paydirt was introduced to Walt's highly unconventional and confessional chapbook/novella/memoir, Mala Noche, published in 1977. That director wanted to make a movie out of it, and in 1985, Gus Van Sant's gritty independent film version of Mala Noche premiered to glowing reviews. Four years later, Van Sant wrote and directed Drugstore Cowboy, one of the great American films of the last 25 years and probably the best movie ever filmed in Oregon. (Watch it today for the sheer joy of seeing NW Portland before the antiseptic gentrification took place and seeing how gorgeous a woman Kelly Lynch was in those days.)

Set on skid road Portland, Mala Noche is the story of an older grocery store operator's fascination with two Mexican street youths. The book, updated for a 20th anniversary edition released in 1997, is one of the few definitive texts of the Stone Oregon era.

I love Mala Noche and his poems, but believe that perhaps Walt's greatest contribution to Oregon arts and letters is his ongoing and indefatigable work on behalf of other Oregon writers and cultural figures long forgotten by the public. In a series of essays for various Portland publications in the 1980s, Walt resurrected local interest in these people, including John Reed. His superb piece commemorating the 100th birthday of Reed helped inspire the creation of the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission, which does important stewardship of Oregon arts and letters history

No, this isn't an obituary for Walt Curtis! The man is still alive, kicking, raising hell, pissing off the uptight literary typesThe man is still alive, kicking, raising hell, pissing off the uptight literary types, putting out great art, and I hope he'll plan on contributing to my forthcoming 2010 anthology called Sex in Oregon: Unique Tales of Intercourse in the Beaver State (working title).

Walt has a new project that sounds wonderfully exciting, a little something new and a little something Stone Oregon. Here's the scoop from the press release:

I'd like to inform you about a film event that will take place at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Oregon, on Saturday, September 5th, 2009 at 6:00 p.m. It is the Portland premier of the Oregon film Salmon Poet directed by the Spanish filmmaker Sabrina Guitart, in collaboration with the Portland poet Walt Curtis.

Salmon Poet is an artistic-ecological film, a poetic journey, an ode to Nature through the voice of the poet Walt Curtis, author of Mala Noche, Gus Van Sant's first film. Both artistic personas have come together to honor Mother Earth and the Voice of the poet who speaks a message of ecological alarm.

The film will be followed by a short discussion at 7:00 p.m. and then by a showing of Ginsberg in Portland, 1989 — rare footage of the poet Allen Ginsberg's performance in Oregon. Tickets are $10.00. The showing will be a benefit for the Northwest Film Orphanage. The website for the film is SalmonPoet.com.

Really, you haven't lived an Oregon literary life until you've seen Walt Curtis talk about salmon. You will never forget the experience.

÷ ÷ ÷

Matt Love is the author/editor of 10 books about Oregon. He lives in South Beach and teaches creative writing and journalism at Newport High School. His latest book is Of Walking in Rain.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Super Sunday in Newport: Notes from...
    Used Trade Paper $10.50
  2. Sometimes a Great Movie: Paul...
    New Trade Paper $30.00
  3. Red Hot and Rollin' Signed Edition
    Used Trade Paper $50.00
  4. Mala Noche New DVD $25.61
  5. Mala noche & other "illegal" adventures
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  6. Of Walking in Rain
    New Trade Paper $20.00

Matt Love is the author of Of Walking in Rain

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