All Classical Radio James Depreist

Walt Curtis, unofficial poet laureate of Portland, dies at 82

The poet, painter, and writer, whose novel "Mala Noche" was turned into a film by Gus Van Sant, was a fixture of Portland's poetry-reciting club scene in the 1970s and '80s.


In the summer of 1995, Walt Curtis and Bill Plympton drove around Portland while Curtis talked about poetry and ideas. The result was a one-hour documentary, "The Peckerneck Poet."
In the summer of 1995, Walt Curtis drove around Portland with filmmaker Bill Plympton while Curtis talked about poetry and ideas. The result was a one-hour documentary, “The Peckerneck Poet.”

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.” 

Walt Curtis worked with Portland filmmaker Gus Van Sant (right) to turn his autobiographical novel “Mala Noche,” into a film. Curtis played a role in the movie — though not the part based on himself.

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).


All Classical Radio James Depreist

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.

Poet and friend Leanne Grabel posted photos on her Facebook page of Walt Curtis holding forth a few years ago. Photos by: Julie Keefe
Poet and friend Leanne Grabel (sitting at back) posted photos on her Facebook page of Walt Curtis holding forth a few years ago. Photos by: Julie Keefe

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.”


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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, essayist, and arts journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She writes about language arts, dance, and film for Oregon ArtsWatch and is a staff writer with The Oregonian/OregonLive. Her work has been published in San Diego Poetry Annual, HereIn Arts Journal, Humana Obscura, The Chronicle, and others. She has been an artist-in-residence at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Archipelago Gallery, and Art/Lab, and was shortlisted for the Bridport International Creative Writing Prize in poetry. Havin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based dance performance company, The Holding Project.


16 Responses

  1. When I was doing my midnight Tuesday radio show I would see Walt hanging in the lobby and often stop and talk for a while. He had gone to high school at Oregon City and had graduated with my brother in 1959. He remembered Pat fondly. Pat later was killed in Viet Nam on Christmas eve 1968. Walt remembered that also. And I remember the night Walt took over the microphone during one of his notorious kboo pledge drive rants. Funny thing – as outrageous as he could be, he was usually right on. I hadn’t though abut Walt for a few years and now I must again grieve for those lost and bravely face my own eventual demise.

    1. This message is from Hans Radtke. I was a close friend to Pat woods and Walt Curtis in High School and later. Pat Woods died in Viet Nam in 1968…After he had served in the Peace Corps in Bali and Thailand from 1964 to 1966. It still saddens me and pisses me off to think about that senseless War that Pat could not get out off. Walt Curtis and I went to school at Oregon City and Portland State. The last time I saw him was on his 70th birthday (I bought his lunch), he told me he was drinking two bottles of wine a day. It is a wonder that he lived so long. My friendship with Pat and Walt were so different. Pat with a Catholic upbringing, always doing the right thing…and Walt the counter culture poet…I miss them both. If there is to be a memorial for Walt please let me know… Hans Radtke

  2. Amy Leona Havin, this is such a great article. Walt’s sister called it “beautiful.” Cheers to you. Now to write my own something for Walt. A flash memoir, I think. Thank you, ALH.

  3. Walt would occassionally appear during a live radio program and being undeterred, there was literally no way to prevent him from taking over the broadcast. When ever I would see Walt walking, I’d pull over and give him a ride. We had some terrific conversations running his errands. He was so supportive of my art and I am so glad to have called him a friend.

  4. So long, Walt! I’ll miss you!
    The last time I laid eyes on him was at a wake for another sadly passed away Portland icon, film archivist/hoarder Dennis Nyback. I unfortunately didn’t get to talk to him but we greeted each other and I was glad to see him. Old Portland’s circle of creative folk is getting smaller and smaller.

  5. I’ll miss you, Walt. Those crazy pledge drive nights. KBOO parties. It always made my day when I’d run into you on my walks, and we’d chat. I remember the last time I saw Walt, outside a Plaid Pantry, and we were talking animatedly and loudly, and the clerk ran out to ask you if I was hassling you. Not at all, but it made me really happy to know people had Walt’s back. Walt, you meant so much to so many of us.

  6. There is so much I could say about Walt Curtis that words fail me. He was complex beyond anyone of my experience, a bundle of contradictions. We talked almost daily for years and ranged the universe. He was a walking encyclopedia of facts and conjectures about literary and historical figures. He shared intimate details of his life, his loves, his unresolved conflicts. I’m deep in grief, but at some point I’ll mine my memory bank and offer up an in-depth account of the Walt I knew for 45 years. I laugh through my tears, thinking of his narrow escape: He hated hospice, where he spent his final hours, recoiled at the thought of assisted living, which some had proposed, and said “No!” to a gathering of friends expected to descend on him the very next day. Bravo, Walt! cantankerous to the end!!!

  7. Well, I was an “all in” friend to WALT, his longtime gallerist (30 years! at the Mark Woolley Gallery when NO other established gallery would show his admittedly graphic and “transgressive” (to some) brilliant (to me) intuitive and powerful paintings (so I collected them when he wanted, needed to travel…) and co- producer with WALT(in my gallery and elsewhere) many literary evenings (usually “raucous” and always FUN) and co-celebrant of his “BORN on the 4th of JULY” birthday parties, usually at “the
    River”— Sandy or Clackamas most often, most memorably his 60th, with TONS of Portland’s “glitterati” prancing around my upstairs Pearl gallery in American flags and glitter. People sometimes say about a person: “they broke the mold..” but with WALT, that is an understatement. I was one of those friends who was looking to see him on Saturday in hospice on Holgate… and he “slipped out and away,”
    now seemingly purposeful (“Fuck NO!” I can hear him saying now … “Fuck hospice!” and I can respect and understand that… but it breaks my heart not to have been able to give him a big ‘ol HUG. 🥲🥲🥲🥲🥲🥲🥲🥲🥲😇😇😇😇😎😎😍😍😍🥰🥰🥰 loves… MARK

  8. So sad Walt is gone. We knew each other for 38 years. Always brilliant, creative, and thoughtful, and often contankerous, Walt added greatly to Portland culture and that of the Northwest. He helped me tremendously with my Mexico book. Grateful to have known and interacted with him. I miss you, Walt. Thank you for all you did. And thank you for doing your awesome reading last September at my exhibit at the Multnomah Arts Center. Rest in peace. Thank you for this nice article, Amy Leona.

  9. I came from New Orleans in ’80 to soon learn Portlandia was a cornucopia of creative, insurrectionist energy– and Walt was at that vanguard. We’d chat his later years in the Hollywood Library; I’ve carried his extraordinary outrageous spirit with me, intact.

  10. Devastated by the news that I have been expecting for some years now. Walt, love him or hate him, was an icon and a Portland / Oregon institution. It was a privilege to play Walt in Gus Van Sant’s film Mala Noche. After I was cast in the role Gus took me to Hung Far Low to meet with Walt and his entourage. I remember being approached by a pitchfork wielding group led by outspoken Walt advocate Mike Merino who demanded in a full throated assault “What makes YOU think YOU can play WALT?” …. I still wonder what my answer to that should have been.

    May the poems of the street sing you to your rest!

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