Street Poems: The Prehensile Imagination of Walt Curtis

A portrait of the poet in 1984.

Walt Curtis in 1984 (WW Archives)

In May 2016, Walt Curtis mailed WW a typewritten letter. “My Gawd, I just heard that Katherine Dunn died,” he wrote. “I am saddened, stunned. I always felt that she was indestructible.” The two Portland writers—one a “street poet” who resented being so pigeonholed, another a bartender turned journalist turned literary star—had orbited each other over four decades. This week, as Curtis’ death occasions tributes and memories from those who knew him, we bring you a portrait of Curtis on the cusp of a little fame, as written by Dunn in our pages.

This story first appeared in the June 27, 1984, edition of WW.

A crack opens in the walls of Jericho and the scrawny poet leaps onto a chair to trumpet his celebration. Walt Curtis, his wiry frame muffled in layers of ragged shirts, his jeans drooping as usual, plants his feet and sways, chanting. The silver fuzz on his pate tickles the ceiling.

The room is on the upper deck of a crumbling houseboat moored in a reed-green notch of the Willamette. The food and wine are cheerful and the room shifts and subsides gently as tugboats pass. Dancing on his chair from the ankles up, Curtis roars out the line, “Humble as a freshly washed sock!” and folds up in his own laughter. His audience of 40 friends dissolves.

Walt Curtis, the thorny rose poet of Portland, is drunk on glory and roaring like a cannon in church, with Bad George passed out and snoring behind him on a thousand bucks’ worth of somebody else’s white sofa.

The houseboat soiree is the official presentation by Lynx House Press of its latest publication. Rhymes for Alice Blue Light, a volume of poems by Walt Curtis. Alice Blue Light is an all-Portland production, designed by Maggie Checkoway, printed by John Larsen’s peerless Press 22 and edited by Chris Mowell. (Even with partial backing from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Council on the Arts, as well as private contributions, the best Lynx House can hope for financially is that sales of this edition will enable it to break even.)

Curtis is reading request numbers now. “Read ‘Blanco’!” “Do ‘The Umbrella’!” the voices call for favorites. He insists on stopping after every line to explain its origin. “Skip the footnotes!” the audience complains. He reads on, enchanted.

It’s good to remember that every book has some such moment of celebration at its birth, but why all the fuss? After all. Curtis is so prolific that he must be used to this. He’s liable to pop up in a dozen publications in the Northwest. In addition to his poetry, he churns out a constant stream of feature journalism, essays, and fiction. Filmmaker Gus Van Sant is working on a movie version of his novella, “Mala Noche.” Curtis has published 11 books in the past 14 years. So what’s the big deal?

The fact is, most of Curtis’ poems have been, as he says, “mimeographed or Xeroxed or hand-printed on newsprint to pass out on street corners.” Rhymes for Alice Blue Light is Curtis’ first real book and it is. potentially, a breakthrough to a wider readership.

Curtis has long been labeled a “street” poet. “What does that mean?” he wonders. “Do we live in the street? Do we sleep in the street? Do we read our poems in the street? Are we uneducated? I have a degree in English. Or do we write about the street experience? I think it’s that my poems deal with real life and that’s what the term ‘street’ means.”

The real life that fosters Curtis’ excruciatingly hilarious and messianic humanism spawns poems that range from the acidic events in the “wino” grocery stores where Curtis works to pay his rent to pastoral raptures, political ranting, clinically detailed and explosively sensual homosexual love poems. Curtis has a thousand subject matters. He is an authority on Oregon literary traditions, a fan of the state’s topography and a scholar of its history.

“I like the Romans,” says this egghead. “Catullus, particularly…The Satyricon, by Petronius, who was an epicure for Nero! I have always wanted to write pornographic and witty poetry. And to be sensual and passionate in my writing.

“People always compliment my reading delivery, which I work damned hard to make good. But I know it’s a backhand slap, suggesting that my poems wouldn’t stand alone without me reading them. I am an oral poet, always have been. I began with interior monologues and became fascinated with the way my imagination could move out into the world.”

Curtis can, and does, perform on street corners as well as in formal readings. For years he has been the voice of KBOO Radio’s “Talking Earth” program on Thursday nights, and is the instigator of the Wednesday night open-mike poetry readings that have come to roost at The Satyricon in Northwest Portland.

The main thing about Curtis is that he is not boring. In this dry, shriveled era of Respectable American Poetry, going to a reading tends to be like entering a temple during the more awesome portions of the ceremony. Poets too often moon out at us as though their pages held some ineluctable holy of holies, but usually end by delivering little more than lacquered bagels: questionable as art and useless as food.

For the last decade and more it has been part of the fun of a Walt Curtis reading for listeners to smile knowingly at each other and say, “Some of his stuff is so fantastically good and some of it is such incredible trash. And Walt doesn’t know which is which (implying that the listeners, of course, do know). What he really needs is an editor!” Having played this game myself, I can affirm that, though a dozen listeners might concur on Curtis’ uneven quality, no two can agree on which of his works are bilge and which are pearls from heaven. “I write so much,” says Walt. “I get absorbed in so many subjects. I’m curious about so many things. And what one audience hates can knock the socks off another audience.”

An editor has finally stepped forward, a general to conduct the final stages of the Curtis campaign. A poet himself and the founder of Lynx House Press, Chris Howell has assembled a playful Curtis in fine form. Rhymes for Alice Blue Light is made up of a homey surrealism so comfortable that we forget to be alarmed at the prickly or scandalous moments. These poems are the short, mercurial flights of a prehensile imagination. The voice changes a dozen times and ranges from a penny whistle to a howitzer, but remains accessible, excluding no one. If the ravenous political rages, the narrative raunches, and the mind-blasting love poems are absent from this collection, we are still treated to pure Curtis-in-love-with-life: passionate about his umbrella sweetheart, seduced by a spring tree, giddy over lost glasses, swept into the mind of a trout, caught up by a pet spider as large as a “curly-haired terrier.”

“Walt has the ability,” says Mowell, “to be candid without being serious. It sounds simple but it’s very hard to do. And he has this tremendous innocence that allows him to make bald, almost sappy affirmations that work for him and for us.”

Before you send this book off to Aunt Madge in Missoula, read it carefully. This is Walt Curtis, after all, and not a likely candidate for PG ratings. But Pinky will like it, for sure.

“Angel Pussy”

For Pinky, my alcoholic landlady

who was a skinny bag of bones

at Porter Street House,

who used to lie in wait, ambush at 6 A.M.

for the speed freaks

who use the dirty old john to shoot up in,

with a pistol in the pocket of her faded dress,

one-day murmured to the beautiful

blonde-haired hippie Orville

" . . . . my little angel pussy.”

Beyond the d.t.’s and the stars.

This poem is for her

and her yipping dog Sandy

which she loved more than any other of God’s creatures.

She used to slur drunkenly

“I’ll shoot anyone hurts little Sandy,

my little angel pussy. Yes, I will!”

Curtis’ long, crooning, bellowing, tantrum-throwing siege outside the walls of respectability has ended in a laughing volume with a mild face and a hidden reservoir of bite. It may not breach the walls entirely but, he laughs, “It will ruffle a few pubic hairs on the way.”

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