"Marty looked as if he was seeing things that most of us would never see. And doing things we would never do. And thinking things I will never think. And saying things that we would never be able to say... I have to read them or hear them... to find out what they are."
—Gus Van Sant from his introduction to My Flashlight Was Attacked By Bats
"Marty’s flamboyant, uninhibited, sometimes very difficult personality undoubtedly made it hard for many to experience his poetry with anything like neutral eyes. Some, for instance, could never take him seriously once they’d seen him drunk. Often, it was not a pretty sight."
—Portland novelist Todd Grimson
Southwest Portland, 1976
Back in the day before he and his beloved tall, pretty, sad-eyed girlfriend Lorna lived in East Portland—a little house with plants cut to animal shapes in front, dunes of tapes and books all over the living room floor and an apparently totally bottomless “Hole to Nowhere” where you could drop a beer bottle straight to hell or China out back—you might have seen Marty Christensen over at P, C & S Tavern, crouched up out of his chair, fists balled and shaking the lenses of his glasses—not quite coke bottle—magnifying his round eyes, evoking the riches to rags élan of a broke blue blood down on his luck. Author of:
Pink & blue
Enfolded by the ocean
Walk & shimmer
3 of the judges
Notice. 2 give
Marty paused a moment and ran an unwashed hand through the thick comma of tan hair atop his high forehead. With the passion of a Sepp Dietrich exhorting his doomed troops before the Battle of the Bulge, he rallied to the defense of Oregon’s psychedelic answer to William Faulkner and Ayn Rand.
“THEY CAN’T DO THIS TO KEN KESEY! THEY CAN’T GET AWAY WITH IT!” What he was alluding to is the Milos Foreman film of Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
, which Kesey, who did not cotton to the script, Jack Nicholson or his cut of the profits, was unhappy about.
Marty, his face by this time pumped with blood and a livid orb, had captured the attention of not only everyone around the table but half the other people in the tavern as well. Orotund but forceful, booming, yet incisive, Marty’s style was not celebrated everywhere. Recently, he’d been discharged from the tavern for “beating on the walls.”
“I was not beating on the walls,” he insisted, “I was beating on the table. I asked the manager about that. I said: You know I wasn’t beating on the wall. So why did you choose that image?”
A young writer could learn a lot from Marty. Like, say, how to write. Just by reading:
a failure even
became a tragic
comedy, the pants
removed before the
operation hang like
in the nursery
of your ex-wife
I can remember sitting in another tavern off west Burnside, back in the daze of disco, over a table turned into a wood skating rink by spilled beer. I’d just made the mistake of tying Ken Kesey in arm wrestling (I knew how to cheat) and after Kesey informed me, “I ought to knock you back to the Ohio River.” Marty, author of this homage to the man across the table,
There is a strange boom
when he explodes
we go up
& remain aloft
he gestures from below
we feel calm
& flap our arms
But do not dare to bend over.
who he referred to respectfully as The Commander, cooled things down immediately with words of sage advice: “Ken, Mark is a young man of frightening limitations, but at least he’s aware of them.”
Marty was also a painter. His paintings, known as “Martys,” ranged in price from $35 to $35,000, depending, and were not representational, but as far from formalism as right is from wrong. Marty made Jackson Pollock look like Norman Rockwell.
As a poet his fans included William Burroughs, Gus Van Sant, Katherine Dunn as well as Kesey who met Marty circa 1972 at a poetry reading downtown at Fool’s Paradise, a dank, dungeonly off-Burnside dive where the Mexican bartender suffered a speech impediment to two languages and where performers including “the world’s tallest midget” Bob Dylan look-a-like Corky Hubbard performed songs like “So Sorry I Came on Your Dress” and “Sleep with One Eye Open, Moshe Dayan.” One night Kesey came into the tavern with Prankster second-in-command Ken Babbs. They set up an applause-o-meter in the back of the gloomy beer mill as Marty was reading from a portfolio of poems.
GOOD OLD DOCTOR OSWALD
Once, one of my professors
was struck blind right in class.
“Oh well, Milton went blind”
He shouted philosophically.
Of all the poets performing that night, Marty got the highest score on the Prankster applause-o-meter. Kesey was so impressed he named Marty head of the Portland delegation to Bend in the River, Kesey’s national symposium designed to determine the hippie/utopian/Keseyian future of the Republic.
This at a time before Portland puck rockers vampire eyed teeny-bopper Formica and the Bitches, before grunge—but after "Louie, Louie"—before Portland skate punk and before Portlandia
nailed Portland as the free range chicken eating twit utopia that I guess it has become, there were the street poets, Marty and Walt Curtis—who together combined the styles of Ogden Nash, TS Eliot, the Marquis de Sade and WWF Smack Down Wrestling back circa Pac Man when Portland was still, aside from disco, a one horse laugh town—Marty and Walt vying with dada poets like the Impossibilists (who once left me a ransom note that read WE HAVE KIDNAPPED YOUR FIRST BORN SON AND UNLESS YOU MEET OUR DEMANDS WE WILL TURN HIM INTO GOD) to turn poetry from the bookish to the brutal in Portland taverns whose clientele might otherwise have comprised the wino demographic on down.
Yet, Portland was also then the seed bed for young writers and editors like Katherine Dunn, Susan Orlean, John Shirley (the founder of cyber-punk), Todd Grimson, Mikal Gilmore (Shot in the Heart) Larry Colton, Pierre Ouellette, Ursula K. Lequin, soon to be National Magazine Award winner Bill Boly, Maternity Ward author Susan Stanley, Rads author Tom Bates and Simpson's creator Matt Groening—all composing away while teenage Chuck Palahniuk was washing dishes at a Burlingame Mr. Salty's and current New York Times
Editor Bill Keller was just another good writer at a bad newspaper, the Oregonian
“Auxiliary” Prankster Marty was one of Kesey’s favorites perhaps because nut house alumni Marty had lived the zero gravity life Kesey only dreamed about and because Marty gave Kesey shit: “Ken, contrary to your own opinions, do you realize that most people locked up in insane asylums are actually out of their minds? It’s sound crazy but it’s true.”
Kesey got a kick out of that and, after all, Marty should know. Locked up at twenty-two for expressing too many “opinions” in front of a judge after a drunk and disorderly charge, Marty—like Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest anti-hero Randle P. McMurphy—parlayed a soft spot for hospital food and Demerol into a “Ward Leader” position at the Dammasch state mental institution in Wilsonville.
I first interviewed my ex-cousin Marty (his anesthesiologist sister married my beloved my eye surgeon cousin before the former threatened to blow the latter’s head off) when I was 26. Marty’s reputation proceeded him like sirens announcing a tsunami. Tales likely too wild not to be true: Marty at 12 “surfing” the roofs of Astoria houses caught in a landslide, Marty as a bantam—if not bumblebee—weight defensive end on the Astoria High School—or maybe it was junior high school—varsity flattening opposing running backs by decapitating them at the knees.
As honest and unforgiving as a bathroom mirror, when I first wrote about Marty he’d just starred in a film Marty’s Apartment
produced by Norman Gould, best known previously for his docudrama Thirteen Stories for Marcia
, about a young woman who jumped off the Meier & Frank building.
“I like Norman because of his spectacular bad taste,” Marty admitted. I asked him what Marty’s Apartment
was about and he said, “My apartment. I had all my stuff in there, my rubber boat and everything.”
Pacing my steep-part-of-Vista street apartment, he asked, “Now what do you want for the interview?”
“For starters, what kind of poet are you?”
“An abstract realist.”
“Lookit–type this down: Here are my views: I’m–comma–at this point–comma–interested primarily in the emerging climate away from provincialism in Portland–comma–which can lead to more interaction and collaboration between writers, painters and poets. There was–apparently–comma–a period in the late fifties and sixties when painting and poetry and poetry and music and so forth were more closely interactive than they have been recently. Marty Christensen wants to see that happen again.”
He pulled at his beard, trying to think of more quotes. Short and round-faced, Marty’s stomach was large enough so that I doubted if, looking down, he could see his belt, even if he wore one. “I’m trying to think of a way to plug my show.”
I asked him what he did for a living.
“I can’t go into that.”
“It’s a secret. Unfortunately, many of the most spectacular details of my life can never be made public.”
I asked Marty if he was crazy.
“Not true,” he replied.
Marty was scheduled to read at Kesey’s “Intrepid Trips Society for Aesthetic Revolutionary Training” (ITS ART) Festival in Eugene. Set to coincide with the 32nd anniversary of the D-Day landing in Normandy Beach. Kesey had also invited Norman Mailer, Erica Jong, Kenneth Rexroth, Tim Leary, Paul Krassner, Gurney Norman, William Burroughs, Dick Gregory, Allen Ginsberg, Tomas Fuentes, Stewart Brand, Wendell berry and Grace Paley and when Norman Mailer bowed out due to what he took as an anti-Semitic quote from Kesey about his (Mailer’s) son, Kesey scratched Mailer’s name off a promo poster and scrawled in Marty’s, remarking, “same thing.”
At the Hoo-Haw, Kesey, late in the afternoon, following a troupe of exotic dancers, Marty read at last. But just before he went on, something bad happened. The Count, a local magician who did a drugstore version of Houdini’s old routines, proceeded Marty on the bill. He was to be chained and handcuffed, locked to a concrete cinderblock and lowered into a huge pickle barrel full of water. Regrettably, the Count’s tricks failed to blossom as planned. The Count (Bruce to his friends) couldn’t get the god-damned handcuffs off. He didn’t drown or anything but the terrible scene stealing upshot was he was still thrashing around in the water, yelling, “Gimme the keys, gimme the keys!” while Marty was trying to get a little dramatic traction:
Our eyes meet and fructify
like raw eggs, broken open.
Just beginning to dry up.
Colors splash the moon less landscape
Then leave us completely in the dark.
Creeching, ‘I wanta do it over, I wanta do it over!’ The Count succeeded in diluting the impact of Marty’s reading considerably.
Days after the Hoo-Haw Marty levitated back up to my apartment hungry and asked to get in a final plug for his book, offered to take my place behind my typewriter and—indecisive Queeq at the helm— tapped out: “Well Marty, how are you coming along with your trilogy The Paranoid’s Revenge?”
“I’m glad you asked that question, Mark. So few young writers are aware these days that I am bringing out a work of almost 30 years. The first volume, My Flashlight was Attacked by Bats
, was released by Out of the Ashes Press last year and the public’s demand for my poems has been extraordinary. Thus: this summer I will be releasing an illustrated version of that now out of print classic.
He continued to type: “But, before that even, my agent will be releasing the second volume of my trilogy, Dying in the Provinces
. This (actually one extended sequence e of symbolic non-representational innuendo) has been so skillfully produced that the publisher wish to remain anonymous, to be known under the nom-de-plu, Big Foot Press.
“Which brings me to book three, The Dreams of Unknown Codfish
.” Deftly, Marty bonked more keys. “Only yesterday, I sealed a verbal pack with Harold Plople, ruin expert in the extreme. Harold and I will be working until September, at which time the three books will be release in one combined deluxe volume of fifty pages and I will have assumed my rightful place in the universe.”
Marty then slid away from my typewriter, bobbed up, lit a cigarette, wondered if I might prepare him “an ensemble” of bacon and eggs, then said, “Here’s the formula for success: don’t put anything in about me saying insulting things about my fellow poets, make sure everybody know you and I aren’t related, make me look big and Walt look small, and put Kesey in his place. You’ll get yourself a Pulitzer.”
Marty died of cancer in January. He was 68. Mark Christensen is the author of Acid Christ: Ken Kesey, LSD and the Politics of Ecstasy in which Marty Christensen appeared in a strong supporting role.