‘My Flashlight Was Attacked by Bats’: Farewell to poet Marty Christensen

We heard about the death of poet Marty Christensen, best known for his collection(s) “My Flashlight Was Attacked by Bats,” last week from poet/educator Leanne Grabel. We asked her if she could write something about him,  and she agreed, asking fellow poet Doug Spangle to contribute some thoughts as well. Tonight at 7 p.m. there will be a memorial gathering for Christensen at the Three Friends Coffeehouse, 201 S.E. 12th Ave.

Here’s what Grabel and Spangle sent us.

First from Leanne:

Marty Christensen
born Astoria OR January 7, 1942
died Portland OR January 5, 2012

Marty Christensen died last week of pancreatic cancer. I heard he was in hospice a few days before Christmas. Lorna Viken, his wife, said they found out about the cancer in mid-August. Tried treatment, but Marty did not respond to it. Doctors told him he had 4-8 months. They moved him into a convalescent hospital on September 11. My husband Steve Sander and I went to Harvest Homes in North Portland to see him and were shocked at his frailty. He looked like a dying yellow man of at least 100. A bag of bones.

Poignantly, he thought he was the subject of a movie celebrating his life and his poetry. His collection “My Flashlight Was Attacked By Bats” was lying open on his hospital bed. He was concerned about going before the cameras that day. Lorna, his partner of over three decades, was sitting on a small couch in the spare room trying to re-attach him to reality. “There is no movie, Marty,” she said.

There were no books in the room, no plants. It was just a room. I asked them what they wanted, what they needed. Lorna said, “I want to read ‘Sometimes a Great Notion’ and ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ Never read them. And Marty wants an eggnog milkshake. I want eggnog.” So we came back the next day, which was Christmas Eve, with all of the above and a poinsettia. Steve helped Marty with the thick shake. He didn’t have the strength to get it through the straw. He took two sips and that was it.

Marty gave his last poetry reading about a year ago at Three Friends Coffeehouse in SE Portland . The reading was devastating. Marty fumbled with papers, mumbled his poems. The audience of old friends squirmed and tried to avoid each other’s glances of dismay. The audience who didn’t know who Marty was (or had been) just looked embarrassed. I hadn’t seen the guy for maybe a decade. Or maybe I saw him, but crossed the street to avoid him. It was hard to be around Marty. He was usually very drunk, very loud, and he, shall I say, perseverated on things until you wanted to tape his mouth shut.

I first met Marty and Lorna over 30 years ago at the Mediterranean tavern. He was brilliantly insightful and wry, albeit obnoxious. His readings were full of humor and poetic brilliance. He reminded me of Jack Benny, with his thick glasses and well-placed, stretched-to-the-edge pauses. And his heart was huge and kind. It was a time in my life when I made a lot of wrong decisions about men, walked around with a tattered heart. Marty was always there to soothe me. With his acerbic wit, he would verbally destroy my horrid men, ripping them a new lyrical asshole…so to speak.

Poets have a tendency to self-destruct. We all know this. Why? Because in order to be a real poet, you have to strip off all the defenses, over and over again. You have to walk through life as naked as you can to really feel it, see it, know it. At least, that’s my theory. And it’s cold out there with no clothes. It’s abrasive. It can kill you.

Yes, Marty’s down. But his work will live on. The poems are gems. They’re funny and they’re true…

I am just jogging
with my pants down
still aiming for the world.

Marty Christensen
by Doug Spangle

I just heard last night that Marty Christensen cashed in—not that it was a surprise exactly; we’d heard that he was in hospice. He was just a tad shy of seventy, but nobody expected him to last this long. All of us mortals are looking over our shoulders, and there’s a sense of an era ending, at least in the little world of poetry.

He came by way of Astoria, a town whose main pastimes seem to have always been alcoholism, depression and suicide. He elected to leave that sort of thing to the amateurs, and came to the big city for more risky game: plying his genius for poetry amid the fleshpots of Portland.

And so he took his place as part of the heady scene of the Sixties and Seventies (and further), along with this city’s finest: Walt Curtis, Katherine Dunn, John Shirley; he careened wildly among the venues that wouldn’t pitch a poet forthwith out on his ear. This is what passes for our artistic heritage. Wherever Marty neared, sphincters would tighten among the punters who were responsible for doling out bits of Art to the masses.

No matter. It was the Age of the Mimeograph and DIY presentation. Marty had teamed up with the Lovely Lorna, in what must be one of the most enduring relationships the artistic world has ever seen. They saw into print Marty’s literary progeny: a handful of broadsides, chapbooks and folios, culminating in 2003 with “My Flashlight Was Attacked by Bats,” a more or less complete collection of Marty’s poems.

This book is a must-have. Marty’s poetry is both twisted and pithy, utterly loony and deeply elegant at the same time, brief enough to write on the back of a matchbook yet covering a multitude of emotional states. I’d have to share a couple of his verses to illustrate this (all from the aforementioned collection).

LORNA

You are a plum tree moving
towards the mountains.
Liberated, you are a jade flute
used only in the highest
mayan ceremonies. I guess
you are
about the only american
whose tastes are truly French.
you could be a jukebox.
I could be a dime.

PROSE POEM

Scientists, working for Adolph Hitler,
succeeded somehow in transforming 500

pineal glands into one enormous freak, who
to this day lives on, above the Alps, where

he lies bleeding in a thousand languages.
Recently, carried by a southern wind, globs

of his spit dropped onto Texas lawns whose
owners swore the “blobs” were still growing

hours later. Isaac Asimov, scientific expert
called in by the government, was heard on tv

to make this remark…Oh my God, Oh my God. For
nestling in the phlegm was something enigmatic.

THE WRONG PROFESSION

I am tired of being an insane poet.
I want to drive around in a big cigar.

IN THIS POEM

There is an imaginary ocean. Not a
merely magical lake: a vast exhausted ocean
which can barely even undulate
its aches and pains around much anymore.

Overhead the pockmarked corpse of the moon
is starting to shed dandruff. Almost all
these specks of manna will disintegrate
into that unsteady lawn of spindrift tears.

But, some of those flakes may crystallize
and harden into diamonds sparkling like dew.
Only by then they could be a million fathoms down
so even if you did find one you probably would drown.

23 Responses.

  1. susan banyas says:

    thanks barry for putting this out. very poignant. leanne & doug, thanks for this composite portrait of a poet who is part of the soul of this place and time, then and now. praise be to marty and to poetry that stays alive in any way possible.

  2. Just want to thank Barry for running these tributes and Jeff Baker for tweeting about it. And Teresa di Falco too.

    The tribute was small and a little sad. The poetry was awesome.

    Bye, Marty.

  3. Mark Sargent says:

    “THERE IS NO MOVIE, MARTY”

    I came to town in late ’74 from a year in the Bay Area and eager. The Scribe listed a poetry reading only blocks from where I was crashing. I called a couple of friends, oddly now, both gone, and we walked to the Questing Beast on 24th and SE Stark full of enthusiasm and thirst. The reading was upstairs in a dance hall sort of room and was hosted by, who else, Walt Curtis. I did my bit, shouting out my new poems into the dark and after the reading was corralled by Walt who invited me on to his KBOO radio show. And then, right off Walt’s shoulder, in a cloud of smoke, was a myopic owl squinting over his glasses, saying, “Olson, Patchen, Creeley, and Ginsberg, obviously.” Marty Christensen was precisely accurate about my current influences and this set a pattern that continued for the next twenty years. After readings I would be approached by this ironic pedant, a perpetually smoking thoroughly lubricated penguin who would announce, this time tilting his head back to view through his lenses, “Marinetti, Rothenberg, and… some Blackburn and O’Hara.”

    Everyone I’ve ever met who was on SSI (crazy money, we called it) claimed they were running a scam on the government, yet they all, every last one, appeared utterly incapable of actual employment. Certainly Marty couldn’t possibly have held down a job, but, he’d found his niche and suffered it. Of course he was mad and could drain the color from the day with a variety of obsessive/compulsive spews on obscure subjects, personal conspiracies and picayune slights grown grand. Typically, you never knew who you were going to get, nit or wit. One sunny afternoon I was swinging down Burnside when I heard a sharp thump on glass. There on the other side of the pane was Walt and Marty, sucking down the Kingston Tavern’s draft beer. I detoured in and attempted to catch up, but before I got there we’d been asked to leave. Walt was in full roar about how all heterosexuals want to fuck their mothers and Marty was egging him on. We crossed the street to an empty Flatiron Tavern and continued swilling cheap beer. Marti told us a story about a friend of his who had had a sex change operation and was now minus his male anatomy. He stood up from the booth and gesturing spastically, asked, “But what did he do with it? They cut your cock off, do they give it to you?” “Maybe it’s sitting on his/her mantle in a jar of formaldehyde? A souvenir?” “No, no, that’s the cliché,” Marti barked, “there’s only one proper response. You have to eat it! That’s what he must have done!” “That’s it! Get outta here you perverts!” The owner of the dump had been listening in and self cannibalization was meal he couldn’t stomach. And we were on the sidewalk again.

    Much in the tradition of poets drinking, I hurled Marty from a party once. It was from my bourgeois Irvington house full of non-poet friends of my wife whom Marty insisted on badgering about their occupations. I asked him to chill but he insisted on shuffling from one conversation cluster to another demanding to know how these people made a living. “Marty,” I said, “it’s a party, they don’t want to talk about work!” “They don’t want to admit what they do.” “Admit?! Jesus Christ, they’re school teachers and cooks, carpenters and waiters, what the fuck is there to confess?! Yes, everyone is bourgeois compared to you, but what does that prove?” He didn’t believe it and finally, he had to go. He resisted and three of us shoved him out the door. He missed the last step and ended up rolling on the lawn, cursing me. He’d been thrown from better parties, hell, so had I. He once brought down Tom Cassidy’s lectern at the front door of the Earth Tavern as Joe Jaikin and several others attempted to eject him. There was a surprising bit of fight in that lumpy little figure.

    I was running the Lovejoy Café, whipping up gelato and coffee drinks, this would have been ’84, and Marty often came in with a story or opinion. At the time
    the long-suffering Lorna, after a mental or emotional crisis, was taking a break of sorts up on the hill at the Oregon Medical Center. She’d been there for weeks and they had her doing busy-work therapy, needle point, leather crafts. Marty was furious with the whole affair and brought out of his pocket a leather patch. “Look at this shit! This is what they have her doing! The whole damn thing is pathetic! She’s been reduced to this!” He held out the patch. Embossed, badly, on the leather were the words: MY FLASHLIGHT WAS ATTACKED BY BATS. “Take it, it’s yours.” This morning upon hearing of his death I opened the drawer on my desk and fished out this same patch. I’ve carried this totem through many moves and thousands of miles and it is always in the drawer. I don’t attribute any particular power to it, enough that it conjures Marty, and Lorna and a reckless time.

    It was literary book festival type affair, LIT ERUPTION, erection, something like that and it was held in a large room at the Masonic Temple. I was seated on a staircase above the fray glancing at the broadsides I’d just picked up. Marty plopped himself down next. He began on a usual theme, the local literary world was deliberately ignoring him because of jealousy, stubbornness and just plan ignorance. He spied an Oregon Arts Commission official down on the floor and said, “He said he was going to arrange a grant and publication for me, but I haven’t seen a thing.” “Marty, go down there and remind him, damnit.” Marty slopped down the stairs and for the next few minutes engaged the man. Then, shaking his head, he trudged back up the stairs and sat down. He turned to me, “Mark,” he said in a Brooklyn mumble, “I coulda been a contender.”

    for the memory of Marty Christensen

    13 January 2012
    Varsova, Greece

    Mark Sargent

    • Olya Bowers says:

      I never knew Marty but you made him come alive for me. Now I shall seek out his poetry…

      Olya, Newcastle, UK

      • Douglas Spangle says:

        Dear Olya,

        Lorna, Marty’s widow, suggests that you might be able to obtain a copy of the book through the secretary of Lorna Viken Books,

        Kurt Mickey
        P.O. Box
        Portland, OR 97280

        A copy should cost about USD 20, postage included.

        I hope this helps.

        Best Regards,
        Doug Spangle

        • Douglas Spangle says:

          Lorna pointed out that I’d left the PO Box off the last posting. It sould read:

          Kurt Mickey
          P.O. Box 19381
          Portland, OR 97280

          As I mentioned, the book is essential. Everyone should own a copy.

          Doug

  4. Barry Johnson says:

    Man. First off, thanks to you guys for sharing your memories of Marty. I’m starting to get him, I think, because of you and because of his own poems, which are pretty wonderful.

    Mark, I love your memories of Marty and that time in Portland, when the city really started re-inventing itself, I think. It’s great to hear that beneath the combat and the rebellion lurked an intense analyst of poetry and, well, the world. Fabulous.

  5. One of the better things I did as editor of SWEET REASON in the early 80s was publish some poems by Marty. We drank a lot together in those days. “You could be a jukebox. I could be a dime.”, his poetry brick, is something I’ve mentioned often in my work. In fact, in one of my novels a protagonist wanders into a bar on the coast where Marty is reading. His talents as poet and painter were larger than the Official Critical Establishment seemed to embrace but those who know his work will always cherish it. I’m actually surprised he lasted this long — but then, I’m surprised I’ve lasted this long. Rest In Peace.

  6. K. C. Bacon says:

    I used to run into Marty a lot in the Nobby Tavern in the late 1980s. He and Lorna were semi-regulars there, along with Charles Deemer and Terry Simons, others. Marty wasn’t a poet of the type I’d known before except in books about Beatniks. I liked Marty. He was real. And his talent was obvious. Honest, hard poems of the sort I had always admired. And, he defended me once while Walt Curtis insulted me for being some sort of cartoon antagonist that lived in his head. I appreciated that. Marty was always very decent to me. And funny. Honest funny. I knew a lot about poetry as a student of it, so could join in the circle’s conversation, but I didn’t share my own poems with many people then. The first time I did was in a Northwest Portland bar with Marty. Marty applauded me with his feet. He was an honest poet, folks. You can’t get more real than that. I never got to see any of his paintings. I regret that.

    My heart in flowers go to Lorna, and my prayers in truth to Marty, the Heloise and Abelard of 23rd Avenue.

  7. Terry Simons says:

    Marty tended to crowd your face, leaning in, drops of spittle mixed with beer flying at you from the corners of his mouth. If you objected he thought you quite ridiculous, that you might not have anything to feed his poetic hunger, and so the question became what use could you possibly have in the world? Hygiene never entered the equation. It was as unimportant as a job. You had to be careful as his madness threatened to become your own.

    • Mark Sargent says:

      And if you tried to talk to Marty and Bad George at the same time it was a spittle storm, though with BG it was wine spew.

  8. Lorna, Marty’s wife, is thrilled by this blog.

    Lorna, I’m sure Marty’s thrilled too.

  9. I hope there is a heaven G-d deserves Marty! I knew him for forty years and I am a better person for it. I will miss running into him and catching up on our lives.

    Good luck with G-d Marty

    Daniel

  10. terry brown says:

    I have several copies of a great cd of Marty reading.Anyone intrested call 503 615 3169 or email me so I can mail them.

  11. terry brown says:

    I have a great cd of Marty reading. Anyone intrested call me at 503 615 3169 or email me so I can mail them.

  12. Walt Curtis says:

    Dear Oregon Arts Watch,

    I appreciate the email remarks about the demise of my friend Marty Christensen– friend for 4l years. What can I say? I hit the mouse and erased passionate remarks. I will try again.

    We need to talk about Marty, the human being. He was unique, love him or hate him. He was possessed by genius, as Norman Mailer said of Burroughs. At the l976 Poetic Hoohaw there is a convivial photo of Marty and the author of NAKED LUNCH. Check out the Clyde Keller website.

    ACID CHRIST, unauthorized biography of Kesey– memorializes Marty. Wrong or right. Marty was respected by Ken, Gus Van Sant–who wrote the intro to MY FLASHLIGHT WAS ATTACKED BY BATS.

    I erased the good things I wanted to say. George the Greek, owner of Satyricon, loved him. When we visited Harvest Home (macabre name) 4 or 5 times– we saw his soul. His dignity. God love him! I held his hand and said,”Martin, I love you.” George caressed him. Lorna watched.

    We went to the interment in Astoria, on an insanely surreal day in bright sunlight. I wanted to open the coffin, but instead l5 persons were there from grade school and high school. They remembered “Moon,” his nickname. He stared out the window because he knew jazz, poetry, jizz, and life. Marty was the best Bohemian friend George and I ever had.

    I drank a l000 pitchers of beer, down thru the years. When he died,I saw a prequel to my own demise. Love you Martin wherever you are. Without you, your presence, I would be almost nothing. Poet companions comfort each other, arguing and inspiring, even unto the grave.

  13. Barry Johnson says:

    Thank you, Walt. I can feel the loss…

  14. Douglas Spangle says:

    My friend David Elsey put up a blogpost about Marty. Here is a link:

    http://daveelsey.blogspot.com/2012/01/best-portland-poet.html

    DS

  15. Jill M Hicks says:

    I was married to Marty from 1965-1970, spending much of that time in San Francisco living on the edge, taking acid, and wandering through North Beach. The previous postings capture how Marty was then and as he continued to be, consistently loving, tough, horrid, and unarguably a genius. I ran into him and Lorna a few times through the years, but he judged me way too ‘middle class’ to really be a friend. He was sentimental however, and once opined that I had (in my middle class way) been ‘the perfect wife’. I salute Lorna Viken for the loving longevity of her relationship with Marty. Be at peace, Mart the Fart.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      Jill, Thanks so much for jumping in here. What a complex character everyone is describing. Which is what it should be.

  16. terry brown says:

    Martys wife, Lorna Christensen’s asked me to post this.

    Marty Christensen told me 4 things before he died. I will mention two of them. He told me,
    ” I Love you, “I wrote ‘My Flashlight Was Attacked By Bats’ FOR YOU, Lorna.” Rest in peace my darling. Forever yours in love and friendship, Lorna Christensen.

  17. Marty was given a wonderful tribute by Casey Bush last night at the Hollywood Library. David Elsey has offered to begin collecting his poems for an all-inclusive anthology. Thanks again, Barry, for allowing this all to happen. L

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