The May 2 fire that burned down Great Northwest Bookstore, where Walt Curtis lived in the basement, destroyed the Portland poet and painter's possessions and archives but reminded the community what a treasure this eccentric, often-overlooked artist is. In the fire's aftermath, friends established the Walt Curtis Fund at Wells Fargo Bank, which has raised $5,600 toward establishing Curtis in a live/work space at Milepost 5. Further, Mayor Sam Adams has declared July 1-7 "Walt Curtis Week," and three events are planned to raise more funds: a literary reading featuring Curtis, poet laureate Paulann Petersen, author Tom Spanbauer, and others; a bash celebrating Curtis' 69th birthday, featuring Viva Las Vegas, BodyVox and Courtney Taylor-Taylor; and a screening of Mala Noche, the 1985 Gus Van Sant film based on Curtis' novella. WW asked the poet about the recent mix of destruction and appreciation.
WW: How close did you come to dying in that fire?
Walt Curtis: Very close. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was painting. I smelled smoke and saw a tarry particle floating in the air. I asked my friends Phil and Enrique, "Do you guys smell smoke?" The rest happened fast. The lights went out, we were in the dark, there was all this putrid smoke, and we fumbled with the fire extinguisher. We were able to get upstairs where it was fairly clear and walk out the front door. It was a good thing it happened at 2 in the afternoon. If it had been 2 am and I was drunk in bed, I'd have never gotten out.
Did you lose everything?
No, not everything. The sprinklers went on downstairs, and they soaked thousands of pages of my notebooks, photos and books. I've been trying to sort these wet papers before the mold gets to them. It's demoralizing, but people have been quite wonderful and heroic in helping me. And I say to myself, "Well, you tried to edit your poems for 40 years, and now a lot of them are up in flames. Maybe fire is a good editor."
Have you written new poems about the experience?
I rewrote a poem from memory that was burned. It was called "The Dream Burns Away," and I originally wrote it 40 years ago. It goes: "At the edge of the dream there's a curl of smoke and flame/ It's a love letter sent long ago/ The lovers are lost in the phantom of time/ Nothing remains except ashes in the rain."
The Walt Curtis Literary Extravaganza takes place at Berbati's Pan, 231 SW Ankeny St., 248-4579. 8 pm Thursday, July 1. $10. Walt Curtis Birthday Bash, Dante's, 1 SW 3rd Ave., 226-6630. 8 pm Friday, July 2. $10.
screening, Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., 223-4515. 9 pm Tuesday, July 6. $10.