All Classical Radio James Depreist

The Death of Walt Curtis: A Personal Note

"Walt Curtis danced to his words. His hands, his body, his voice, they were all swooping and soaring, loud, rhythmic, theatrical. And his words were setting the beat. I couldn’t believe it."

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It was brought to my attention

that the tip of Patagonia

was called Land of Fire

because the Indians built bonfires

signaling to an alien race

In the darkness.

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Not knowing what to expect.

Sometimes we are this way.

Out on a limb.

Fishing in the cosmos . . .

                                             – Walt Curtis, from “Cosmic Aliens”

***

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The poet Walt Curtis. Photo: David Hedges
The poet Walt Curtis. Photo: David Hedges

Disclaimer: Bob Hicks told me to make it personal.

Walt Curtis died on Friday, August 25, 2023, around 10:15 a.m. He was in a hospice on Southeast Division. You probably already know this. It is old news. But it has taken me a month to complete this short essay about him—maybe because his loss is so hard to digest. He seemed immortal. Alien. Walt Curtis was an unusual, and unusually complicated, being.

Walt was at a hospice less than a day. “People don’t realize how gravely ill he is,” Walt’s sister Cleo said two days before he died, when he was still at her house. “His organs are shutting down.”

I called him that afternoon. August 23. He sounded calm and clear, sober—literally and figuratively. He repeated multiple times that he had to get back to his room and his stuff and his legacy.

But he also said he didn’t think he could get up the stairs. I said he should just concentrate on feeling better and I’d see him Saturday. He said quietly that he didn’t really want me to see him like that. Then he died two days later.

It was that Friday of the rare thunderstorm. When I heard that early morning thunder, my first thought was that Walt probably died—as if the thunder were the deep, dark announcement.

Three hours later, David Milholland, the co-founder with Walt and Brian Booth of the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission, called. I don’t usually answer the phone, but I did because I knew what he was going to say. I was on my way to Washington Square Mall with my daughter and granddaughter to shop for kindergarten clothes, and then go to lunch—practically the opposite of death.

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Walt Curtis is why I live in Portland. This is truth. After eighteen years in Stockton, California [not as bad as you think], and six in the Bay Area, I moved here. The first day I was ever in Portland, just visiting, I saw Walt Curtis. He was hosting an open mic and reading his own work in between readers. He was 34. I was 24. I’d never been to a poetry reading before. And I fell in love at first sight with all of it, including Walt Curtis.

Walt Curtis danced to his words. His hands, his body, his voice, they were all swooping and soaring, loud, rhythmic, theatrical. And his words were setting the beat. I couldn’t believe it. His words were as beautiful and as ugly as they could be, all colors, dark, light, sodden, smoldering—some of them even glowing. He was a tetched preacher, offering his poems to us as if they were absolutely necessary.

Not that it matters, but Walt’s pants were unbuttoned at the top. And his shirt was unbuttoned. And he wore horrible, flappy brown shoes. No, Walt Curtis wasn’t particularly sexy or even sexual. But he flabbergasted me. I thought he was magnificent. And I knew instantly that I wanted to do what he was doing.

In three weeks, I moved to Portland. I brought my new boyfriend who had a long platinum blond ponytail and was a wonderful cook. Buh bye, California. Hello, Oregon. Hello, poetry, Mt. Hood, blankets of trees, and GREEN.

In the Fall of 1975, the poetry open mic was on Tuesday nights at the Long Goodbye at NW 10th and Everett. I started going immediately, carrying a Pee-Chee full of poems, most of them horrible. I sat there for weeks, watching all the poets read. And watching Walt. I wanted to read but I couldn’t get up the nerve.

Then my friend interrupted Walt one Tuesday at the end of the open mic, and she pushed me on stage. “Wait. My friend Leanne wants to read.” My surprise and fright could have eaten Detroit. My poems were flapping about in my trembling hands, making noises like a rain stick. But I started reading:

 APPLE ELABORATION

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the apples

the apples in redness

the apples in redness/in redness

wore droplets

By the time I got to droplets, I was calm. My voice was swooping and soaring, just like Walt’s. Even my hands were swooping and soaring. They stopped shaking and instead shaded my words—just like Walt. And Walt, like Johnny Carson with a new comedian he liked, came over and hugged me, arms awkwardly wide to avoid actually touching me. And he said, “Rich, very rich. What’s your name, honey?”

I went home that night joyous. But I did wonder what rich meant in this context.

And thus began 48 years of involvement in Portland poetry and a 48-year friendship with Walt Curtis.

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Friends and fellow poets Leanne Grbel and Walt Curtis. Photo: Steve Sander
Friends and fellow poets Leanne Grabel and Walt Curtis. Photo: Steve Sander

The best times were in the early ’80s, all the readings, the open mic at the Mediterranean, and then Satyricon, some national attention—as if poetry mattered, for a second.

In the early ’80s, Walt and George [from Satyricon] and I spent some glorious afternoons at Oregon rivers, near small towns, dark taverns, laughing so hard, bumping into each other like a trio of goats. I drank white Russians as if they were chocolate milk, Walt drank beer, and I can’t remember what George drank. Maybe vodka rocks.

Walt could and would engage anyone anywhere we were. He would charm them, entertain them—and then shock them. And if he kept drinking, he would start blasting out that Curtisian rancor. Luckily, he didn’t spew on me, or George.

Booze, booze, booze. Such a mother***ker. Walt always had bottles in his backpack, in his suitcase, in a brown paper bag. And cups to drink from—in his backpack, in his suitcase, in a brown paper bag. And he always drank too much.

To be honest, I avoided Walt Curtis more than I didn’t these past 25 years or so. Because he went on tangents. And wouldn’t stop. And because he got loud. And soggy and sloppy. And loud.

Poet Walt Curtis's graduation photo from Oregon City High School.
Walt Curtis’s graduation photo from Oregon City High School.

The night Walt died, I was having a small party for filmmaker Penny Allen. She was visiting from France, where she has lived for the past 33 years. Walt was in Penny’s first movies, Property and Paydirt. They were old, old friends. Most of the party guests were old, old friends of Penny’s and Walt’s.

It turned out to be the best party I’ve had. There was something about the stun of Walt’s death, mixed with this immediate opportunity to be together with other old friends of his that just worked. The food was good, the drinks were good.

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A week ago, I was sitting at the Neighbours Table, a cafe at the corner of Northeast Flanders and 29th, trying to finish this. This café is inside a community church. I know nothing about the church’s religious message, but the church does act like a community church. They feed the hungry, provide groceries, emergency shelter, warmth, and good coffee. I used to see Walt Curtis here on Sunday afternoons getting groceries. He would be on his bike that had two saddle baskets in the back. Sometimes George would come by to help Walt with the food, and also to get food for Lorna, poet Marty Christensen’s widow.

Marty Christensen, you may remember, died about ten years ago, basically from drinking, just like Walt. I saw Marty on his death bed. He wanted a coffee milkshake. We drove around and found one. He died the next day without tasting it.

The tragedy of these two poets, of course, is that most people missed the brilliance of their poetry—the surprising beauty and quietness of Marty’s, the punch, crunch, craft, and dank, stunning truth of Walt’s—because of their horrible, off-putting, booze-fueled behavior.

So, what’s up with that? Such a tired, sad cliché.

I’m not going to go into my theories of why so many artists destroy themselves here, although I will say America is pathetic in its lack of support for its artists. That’s one thing.

And I’m not going to discuss my feelings about how an artist’s bad behavior impacts or doesn’t impact my assessment of that artist’s work. But that’s a damn good topic.

Walt Curtis performing. In the large photo at left, Leanne Grabel is seated in the background. Photos by Julie Keefe.
Walt Curtis performing. In the large photo at left, Leanne Grabel is seated in the background. Photos by Julie Keefe.

One of the last times I spent with Walt for longer than a couple minutes was last summer in front of The Neighbours Table. Walt was getting groceries and drinking coffee. He had just turned 81. George was getting food for Lorna. I was just riding by. In fact, we were all on bikes. Me, George, Walt. I loved that—forty years later and we were still acting basically the same. I remember thinking it could make a good poem—the bikes, the years gone by, old friends … but I never wrote it.

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Walt Curtis’s face is in my vision every day, although the time and clarity wanes. I do think his death has galvanized me, though. Yes, galvanized. Not a word I ever use. But Walt Curtis always gave me courage. And now he does even more.

His death still seems unfathomable. He seems unfathomable. How did such a being—a beat/bohemian/blasphemous poet—come out of Oregon City High?  And how did I find him?

***

A celebration of Walt Curtis's life will be held 3-5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023, at Pacific Crest Community School, 116 N.E. 29th Ave., Portland. It'll be a potluck, with an open mic. Postcard created by Angelina Marino-Heidel.
A celebration of Walt Curtis’s life will be held 3-5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023, at Pacific Crest Community School, 116 N.E. 29th Ave., Portland. It’ll be a potluck, with an open mic. Postcard created by Angelina Marino-Heidel.

***

See also Walt Curtis, unofficial poet laureate of Portland, dies at 82, Amy Leona Havin’s obiuary for Oregon ArtsWatctch, from Aug. 26, 2023.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Leanne Grabel is considering going back to writing poems on the page; in other words, simplifying. Her latest performance (& chapbook & postcards & posters) was Old With Jokes performed at the Eastside Jewish Commons as part of ArtLab 2023. She is currently teaching flash memoir at Menucha Arts Center and Silverton Arts Center. She has books. Most recently, her collaboration with filmmaker Penny Allen This Rescue Thing (Penny wrote the novel, Leanne illustrated it) will be published by The Opiate Press in 2024. www.leannegrabel.com

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4 Responses

  1. A beautiful tribute to the man I would dub, will all sincerity, Oregon’s most colorful character of this or any century. Of course, my experience with Walt differs vastly from Leanne’s in certain respects. While she crossed the street to avoid him in his later years, I saw through his “mean old man” exterior and enjoyed countless hours in his company or on the phone, traversing the universe in Conversations (with a capital C) unlike any I’d had with anyone before. We did deep dives on everything under the sun, with one topic flowing seamlessly into another and another. I played caregiver to him in the weeks following the final fall that sent him to the hospital, dropping by three times a day with food and treats, and we roamed the literary landscape, traipsing from the Nick Adams stories of Hemingway to the poetry of D.H. Lawrence. I was inured to his verbal bombasts, which came with increasing frequency toward the end, but he broke through my armor with one (pardon the shout): “I AM A DEAD MAN!” He was told he had six months to live, and I felt robbed when he slipped out the back after only three weeks. He was my best ever friend. A piece of me died with him.

  2. Beautiful stuff – Rich Leanne …. very rich. God bless Bob Hicks and his admonitions! You too David, comforting to know he had you through it all until the very, VERY END.

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