Walt Curtis, poet, novelist, and self-described “primitive painter” whose long-standing stature in Portland’s literary community earned him the title of “unofficial poet laureate of Portland,” died Friday. He was 82.
“He was the most at peace that I have ever seen him,” his sister Cleo Buckley wrote of his passing, adding he “had been walking around in his room [and] in the hall until he lay down and was gone in about 10 minutes.”
Walt Curtis was born July 4, 1941, in Olympia, Wash., and moved to Oregon City with his family at the age of 13. He co-founded the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission and began KBOO’s Talking Earth poetry radio show in 1971, hosting it for many years. He was a larger-than-life character, on par with local celebrities and beloved landmarks; some considered it good luck to spot him strolling Portland streets.
A fixture of the ‘70s and ‘80s poetry club scene, Curtis often read with arms waving passionately, a page of poems in hand. He could be recognized from blocks away on his nighttime strolls; a head of mussed gray hair, kinked mischievous smile, and layers of shirts, coats, jackets, and scarves piled atop his slim frame, sometimes accented by a bright red necktie. His thick mustache danced enthusiastically above his mouth as he stopped to chat with strangers, friends, and people asking for change, occasionally exchanging a firm handshake. With his emotive voice, Curtis drew curious crowds whenever he began to recite or ramble, and his unruly bravado captivated them as students to his philosophical lessons.
In 2010, after a fire burned down the Great Northwest Bookstore where Curtis had his basement home, Portland Mayor Sam Adams declared July 1-7 “Walt Curtis Week.”
Beyond the state’s borders, Curtis was most widely known for his 1977 autobiographical novel Mala Noche, which inspired Portland director Gus Van Sant’s 1985 film of the same name. The book and film portray Portland through the eyes of two young, rambunctious, and lovesick men inspired by people Curtis met while he was working in an Old Town grocery. Called “an important prelude to the New Queer Cinema of the nineties and a fascinating capsule from a time and place that continues to haunt its director’s work” by The Criterion Collection, Mala Noche paved the way for other counter-culture noir-style narratives of typically underrepresented characters.
Curtis was a prolific writer, with published works including Angel Pussy (1970); The Erotic Flying Machine (1970); The Roses of Portland (1974); The Sunflower and Other Earth Poems (1975); The Mad Bombers Notebook (1975); The Mad Poems, The Unreasonable Ones (1975); Journey Across America (1979); and Rhymes for Alice Blue Light (1984).
An equally prolific painter, he melded expressionism with abstract form and experimental color blocking to create wild and surreal depictions of people interacting with nature. His black-and-white line drawings showed naked men riding huge fish, floating boats, uprooted trees, and other wildlife exaggerated into unique, twisted positions. His poetic and artistic styles melded surrealism, humor, grit, and sexual energy, coming from a place of autobiography and the relationship he had with Portland’s underbelly. In the early 2000s, for example, Curtis lived in a studio apartment in The Osborne Hotel building under the former indie rock bar East End — until he was evicted after bar patrons noticed an antique prop firearm in his home.
Curtis’ influence spans generations of Portland artists, from those who knew him intimately to those who met him once or twice (perhaps sharing a bottle of wine in the middle of the night while he recited at Lone Fir Cemetery), to those who have heard whispers of his name.
Often owning his nickname as a “dirty word poet,” Curtis never shied from the controversial. He played intellectually seductive games of cat and mouse with his audience, dedicated himself to writing about street culture, and credited the Beat era as one of the great liberating movements of his lifetime — helping him discover personal joy, freedom of sexuality, and a revolutionary spirit that he felt was in contrast to his conservative Christian upbringing.
“He was magical. He danced his body, his words, his hands. I was utterly inspired. And over the years, we remained close. He was always very supportive of me and his last residence was a few blocks from my house… I am sorry more people did not know him during his younger years,” poet and artist Leanne Grabel, who credits Curtis for her move to Portland in 1975, said over email. She had spoken to him Wednesday, and his sister confirmed that he was planning a river party just days ago.
Curtis’ long career kept him planning, plotting, and writing into his final days. Friends said he never wavered from his pantheistic philosophies and green politics that prioritized living in the present, which allowed him to amplify stories in the bizarre, passionate, and resonant ways he felt they needed to be told. Recognized with the Oregon Book Awards’ Stewart H. Holbrook Literary Legacy Award in 1991 at the age of 50, Curtis believed that provocation played a large role in securing the attention of both audience and institution without losing sight of what truly matters.
“I’ve been forced into the spoken, bardic, oral tradition. In this community, I’ve often been called a street poet. Actually, there has been this supposed controversy, a splitting of poets between the ones that the academic community will publish in university literary magazines and the rest of us. Unfortunately, it’s a club, a good old boys’ club,” Curtis said in a 2016 interview with Plazm Magazine. “If you are on the outside, you read at anti-war rallies, at taverns, say things that are politically and sexually outrageous. I don’t think we poets should compromise. Not for some short term salary, or the publication of some watered down book. We have to be honest with ourselves, and I’m beginning to feel that there isn’t much time left for me, for any individual, perhaps for the entire planet. You can’t waste your time, you have to be really clear about the statement you’re making.”
In a Facebook post, local painter Stephen O’Donnell wrote, “I hear that Walt Curtis has passed on. I know so many of us are thinking the same thing: that, with him, goes a huge piece of what so many of us think of as ‘the old Portland,’ the way Portland used to be; mourning his passing will be tied up with the mourning for those lost times. I only talked to Walt a handful of times. But his Mala Noche was hugely important to me when I moved back to Portland in 1993. And I saw him “in action” many times — the good, the bad, and the ugly. [There is] no one like him — such a FORCE. An icon. I’d say I hope he rests in peace, but I’m not sure he ever could; wherever his spirit’s gone to, I’m sure he’s stirring up a ruckus.”