Salmon Pageantry

Carl Hanni Converses With Walt Curtis

In Curtis country ideas and lifestyles roam free. He is a right wing worst case scenario, exactly what the control freaks fear the most: an outspoken, uncompromising, gay poet with a big mouth and a lot on his mind. Spouting Green politics, pantheism, 'dirty' words, with a bold wit and equal verve and enthusiasm, Curtis hugs a tree one moment and dances with the devil the next.

Curtis' activities are so numerous that a just the facts list is in order. His publications include: 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), Mala Noche (1977), Peckerneck Country (1978), Journey Across America (1979), Rhymes for Alice Blue Light (1984), as well as numerous pieces in various regional magazines. He starred in Penny Allen's film PROPERTY (1970); appeared on Satyricon...The Album (1990), which documents Portland's longest running underground nightclub; traveled to Spain in search of Lorca's GYPSY BALLADS; and in 1991, Curtis received the Oregon Institute of Literary Arts' "Stewart Holbrook Award for Significant Contribution to Oregon Literature." And, as if this isn't enough, he has hosted the Talking Earth poetry program on KBOO radio for the last twenty years.

Friends and readers: Walt Curtis...

PLAZM: You were born on the Fourth of July in Olympia, WA, and you've lived all your life in the Pacific Northwest. How has being a native of this area affected your writing?

Walt Curtis: The fog and rain, for one thing. I've got a ton of rain poems. I grew up on the Puget Sound, with that smell of oysters and the beach and waves. I think the big thing is the sense of the forests and mountains. Turning 50 this year I realized I'm a regionalist person, even though I've done some urban writing. But there has always been a sort of redneck, having a woodstove thing in my background...I grew up around gyppo loggers and people like that, there were always log trucks on the road. I can empathize with out of work millworkers and small timber communities, even though I always bring up socio-political points in my poetry. I don't feel like I'm a purist lyric poet. In the old days there were plenty of trees to cut. There is a time to draw the line, to make sure the eco-systems are saved, that the rivers have to be clean and cold for the salmon, watersheds must be saved. I think it's time we set aside–whether we like it or not; and there will be economic damage. There's just been too much consumptive cut over the landscape.

It's not just here in Oregon, it's world-wide. The human rodent is over-running the world, deforesting and shitting in the rivers, and the human race, to be bold, is fucking itself into oblivion. Sometimes I even wonder about AIDS. I know this is a touchy subject, but whenever population of animals gets overnumbered, things begin to happen. For me, the overriding issues at the end of the 20th century are to save the biosphere and to check human population. I actually feel that human society was better off in 1920. These themes are cropping up in my poetry, and I can't stop it.

PLAZM: You moved to Oregon when you were thirteen. A move in the throes of adolescence must have been hard.

W.C.: I moved to Oregon City. Oddly enough, it was the seat of the Oregon Territory, the seat of Oregon history and literature, which I didn't know about at the time. This wasn't taught in the public school system. It was a smelly paper mill town on Willamette Falls, where the first long distance transmission of electricity in the United States occurred. I like to tell people about the Electric Hotel, which was a whorehouse for the millworkers...

Anyway, I had to establish friends. We were a lower class family and we moved into a housing project. I was very happy about that, because suddenly I got some socialization.

And I had already been propagandized by fundamentalist Christianity. My mother went to different churches, so I got a dose of fire and brimstone and feelings of sexual guilt. I remember, they used to say that a kiss was a sin. In a way it was catastrophic, I think, because–we might as well start right now–even at the age of ten, I had some feelings of gayness. I wasn't even aware of what they were, but I sort of had sexual or physical feelings towards Butch, the neighbor boy. I get furious at the Oregon Citizens Alliance, and many fundamentalists saying that sexual identity, gayness, is a lifestyle, a matter of preference. When actually, new scientific analysis shows that sexual identity may begin very early, almost at a hormonal stage. Certainly, it begins before a child realizes s/he is leaning in a sexual direction. And in my case, I've always felt like I was a borderline figure. I like women, I find them attractive, it's just that in the 50s, there was no sexual/ political discussion. Women were really followers of their attractive boyfriends. There was really no independent feminist spirit. That would happen in the hippie era.

PLAZM: There were beatniks around at the time, who really helped break down the walls of gender identity.

W.C.: Actually, the beatnik business was one of the great, liberating things that happened–

PLAZM: To you personally?

W.C.: To me personally, and to the American psyche, I think. Rock and roll preceded it a little, which came in, for white boys, around 1956. They borrowed from black musicians, but the energy was just revolutionizing the really dull music of the Eisenhower era. Around '58 and '59 came the beats. You've heard of Allen Ginsberg taking off his clothes on stage while reading his great gay liberation poem, Howl. At the time it was just revolutionary for a man to say 'Hey, I'm gay, I've been fucked in the ass by this saintly motorcyclist.' For me Jack Kerouac is really the strongest figure of all. His books ON THE ROAD and DHARMA BUMS are tremendous. Kerouac's kind of oral bebop, jazz word poems, and this incredible energy of people saying 'I'm tired of this, this is boring,' and beat, for me, means 'I'm tired of this beat, dull system that we live in that beats you down, and I want to be beatific.' Hopefully, society will always have young people who want to discover the joy of being alive. As we get older, sometimes we lose that joy, or the capitalist system wears us down or something.

In those days a lot of my free spirit came from running around with my teenage boyfriends. It wasn't like we were doing gay things or anything, it was just that we expressed our sexuality. I was always a book worm, kind of an honor student, but I would also go fishing. We could get a $50 car and drive up on the backroads with a case of beer, turn the rock-n-roll on and sit in the dark. I did have this kind of angst from realizing I was different. I feel that in adolescence there's a lot of natural, bisexual kind of energy, and people don't worry about things. Maybe they do more today, because we feel so self-conscious about gayness, with gay-lib and AIDS.

PLAZM: When did you first consciously view yourself as being gay?

W.C.: I've suffered a lot of dues for this. The great artist-philosophers tell us that suffering gives personality and character and makes art happen. But, back in those days, to actually feel like you might be locked into a homosexual identity–if I hadn't harbored all these feelings of identity problems, and if the church, if there had been any sense of gay liberation or any real sexual information that made sense, perhaps I, to this day, wouldn't be basically gay. As a friend says, I'm a latent heterosexual.

The first bit of writing I did, when I was 19 or 20, was an autobiographical thing called Jack Rain. It mixed Christianity and this redneck feeling that he (Jack) might be gay, and what a guilty thing this was. Wanting a friend, and even the question of Jesus as a friend, how real was he, and things like that. It was scary stuff, and I then became so self-conscious, until the early 60s, when I moved to Portland, to PSU.

The hippie thing had begun happening, and Marxism, sexual politics, all kinds of new stuff. I met some affectionate and relaxed people, my isolation dropped. Until that time, I had really felt suicidal about being gay. I was almost technically a virgin–this is embarrassing, but why not say it-- it wasn't really until I was 29 that I had a mutually satisfying sexual experience.

I want to emphasize that I'm very angry with the Oregon citizens Alliance and homophobia. I can see that heterosexual people downstate don't realize what gays are, because there aren't many around. Outside of the metropolitan area, a lot of people don't know anything about black people, or what Vietnamese are like. In an urban setting, you get a mixture of people, but in smaller towns people are generally similar.

Back then I actually got so self-conscious that I felt if I loved a male, got involved with him, I might permanently twist his sexual character. But I learned that you don't turn someone into a homosexual, you don't make one, I mean did my mommy make me a homosexual? No, nor can anyone else make me one, it doesn't happen like that.

PLAZM:  Your fear and guilt sound like the voice of the church.

W.C.:  It's still a fear that a lot of families have, if there is a gay teacher or something.  I would really like to see gays come out in society and say 'I'm like everybody else.  I love my partner like you love yours.'  I'm not running around proselytizing gayness, it's simply a natural fact of human nature that 10% of people are gay across the board.

PLAZM:  Your poetry encompasses a wide variety of themes and approaches to language.  Some of your poetry is traditional (or in some cases untraditional) nature poetry, other pieces are political, and others would be viewed as being blasphemous.  But your reputation has really been built on saying outrageous things, shocking people.

W.C.:  Yes, I've become known as a dirty word poet.  I started standing up in front of crowds in the late 60s doing a thing that amateur poets often do, which is getting up and reading the most serious, dull, academic poems.  There is no reaction.  People said, 'Why is this guy so gloomy, why are poets so gloomy.'  I realized that by reading poems with humor, with surrealism, with energy and different points of mood, I could really play with the audience.  I didn't need this steady, deadening monotone.  I decided that in my published work I would mix the serious with the funky, the nature poems with the urban, scatological drawings, the works.  Poetry should be extravagant imagery and lots of music.

PLAZM:  Despite the variety in your work, people are drawn to the outrageous side of your artistic persona.  What sort of personal price have you had to pay for being a loudmouth leftist gay poet?    Have you had any specific run-ins with the establishment because of your outspokenness?

W.C.:  I have paid a price.  I've also given hundreds of poetry readings in various places, and I've seen audience's reactions to these poems-they dig the juicy ones.  They like the dramatic, zany, far-out poems.  The price I've paid is with the academic community.  It began back in 1970 with the publication of THE EROTIC FLYING MACHINE.  I sent a poem called The Girl With The Green Eyes to the ATLANTIC MONTHLY.  The editors liked it very much, and took another poem called Cabbages in the Garden, another charming and lyrical piece without a lot of punch.  So, I made the mistake of sending the entire THE EROTIC FLYING MACHINE, with its golden dildo poems, its erotic drawings, its revolutionary sloganeering.  And I got a note back, saying that the conservative editors didn't want to publish any more of my work, including the Cabbage poem.  They didn't want to deal with me anymore.  In some ways, I have forced my way through by sheer dint of energy and by making local alliances.  I've been published several times in MISSISSIPPI MUD, MR. COGNITO, several people have championed my work, I've been in the PORTLAND REVIEW and other publications.

PLAZM:  Keeping that in mind, do you consider yourself part of any specific literary tradition?

W.C.:  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.  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.

PLAZM:  Tell us about the genesis of MALA NOCHE.

W.C.:  In 1977 I met two Mexican kids, Johnny and Pepper at the wino grocery in Portland's Old Town.  I worked on skid road, and wrote every slice of life, honest and direct observations about the street culture back then.  That's one of the reasons I'm called a street poet, it's not just that I chose those topics, but I've actually been down there with those people.  I'm redeemed in my style–somebody once said Walt Curtis cooks it raw, puts it down raw–I am redeemed by what happened with my novella MALA NOCHE.  Gus Van Sant loved it, other people loved it, and it will probably be the book that is published nationally.

PLAZM:  I understand that you are working on a longer manuscript of MALA NOCHE.  What are your plans for that?

W.C.:  What I'm doing is a longer version where I talk about Mexican-American relations, and about crossing the border.  I want it to have a bit of discussion about racism, and the issues that we have always treated in some guilty way.  We have not really wanted to deal with these people on an equal basis.  Population wise, the Catholic church thing to increase and multiply worked for them.  The brown tide is coming back, they're coming across the border and permeating our culture.  I like it, I respect Hispanic people, they respect family values, they're hard workers.  The people you don't like are the ones selling heroin in Old Town.

PLAZM:  And even they are just trying to get by.  What you are doing is expanding the novella to include other characters and events?

W.C.:  The original work had to do with these two Mexican teenagers who were just having a lark.  After the novella came out, they stayed with me for a month or so, I got to know them better.  Then along came this young, radiant, independent, fiercely proud Mexican teenager, Raul.  I really fell in love with him as a person and a cultural figure.  I learned a lot from him about young Mexicans on the West Coast; how they ride the freight trains in pairs, and about this whole subculture of mixed Hispanic/ Chicano stuff.  I went to Mexico to see him, to see how Mexicans really live there.  They have this big cowboy culture down there, on the ranchos outside the big cities.  There hasn't been a really good book about this. There is the issue of the success of Gus Van Sant's first film, and how the film and the novella differ.  Gus made essentially a gay movie.  But it didn't deal with some of the bigger issues, with racism and the kind of miracle that occurred, this cross cultural friendship.  I get so furious, and have tried to address it and not let my blood get to the boiling point, but when people see the film they think it's very film noir.  I think there are some very transcendent, tender moments when there is some bonding between Pepper and the store keeper.  I had established a cross-cultural friendship, of loyalty and trust, and there is a kind of paternal feeling.  As a gay man, often when I'm attracted to younger males, I feel like I don't want to abuse them, I have feelings of concern about their long-term welfare.  I'm not just looking for some quick sexual action, I like to have a nurturing kind of tenderness involved in my relationships.  I think we all have to realize in this era, what is significant in a relationship.  If I'm an older person dealing with a younger person, I might have to give up that relationship so they can be involved with somebody else in their own peer group.  Among Mexicans, even though they are a Catholic and machismo society, they are not nearly as homophobic as your typical guy in the U.S.  They feel that homosexual activity is a secondary outlet.

PLAZM:  In the film, Gus chose to play up the gritty, seedy side of the story.  The novella itself is a very sweet, or perhaps bittersweet narrative.

W.C.:  I don't mean to pick on Gus, a filmmaker really has to dramatize and have a strong script; he did a great job of focusing the material.

PLAZM:  Do you have a publisher lined up for the new manuscript?

W.C.:  I'm working David Milholland, who has been a good editor for the ten or so articles I've done for the CLINTON ST. QUARTERLY.  I trust Milholland's instincts.  A young editor from Ballantine contacted me about it.  If Ballantine would go for a larger book, I would go with them instantly.

PLAZM:  Let's talk about your interest in Oregon authors.  Did this start out primarily by accident?  It wasn't a preconceived academic quest?

W.C.:  No, it wasn't academically fostered or initiated, no until the last few years, with the establishment of the Oregon Institute for the Literary Arts (OILA) and with the Oregon Council of Teachers of English, who are going to do a six volume anthology of Oregon Writers, and teach this as curriculum in high schools.  This is very exciting, this is what I always wanted.

PLAZM: Have you been asked to be involved with this program?

W.C.: Yes, I teach a course in Forgotten and Neglected Oregon Writers at various libraries and Portland Community College. What happened was, in 1982 I was giving a reading from THE ROSES OF PORTLAND; I've been called 'the unofficial poet laureate of Portland' since the 70s...

PLAZM: You've also been called the 'dirty old man poet laureate...'

W.C.: Oh sure, for poems like Loyalty Building Turd from THE ROSES. Anyway, I was giving this reading in front of people, this young woman came up to me afterwards and said 'Have you ever heard of Sam Simpson? He was a Portland poet, he is buried in Lone Fir Cemetery and his book is in the Multnomah County Library: THE GOLD GATED WEST.' And I thought not, I haven't, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Here I've been calling myself a Portland poet, and I didn't know any of the poets who came before.

We poor Americans think we are such lone individuals in this chaotic world, and we're alone with all this angst. When really all of us, each of us, is part of a collective web of human beings. In other words, each of us will be born, grow up, be educated, maybe we'll have children, and eventually we'll pass away. But before we die, we should pass upon to the next generation those values that are important, that cultural information, that literary heritage, whatever it is that's transcendental.

In 1974 I did a collection of poetry and a kind of diary called THE MAD BOMBERS NOTEBOOK. It was about an Oregon City boy who goes crazy, thinking that he was going to die, not because of a nuclear war, but because of ecological pollution. He became an eco-terrorist, and asked all these poetic questions. In the last four years I've come up with a new collection. I feel that what we need is a new, nature-based, transcendental religion. One that will send an ecological message across the globe about how important it is to save the planet.

The first Christian heresy was when the church separated God from nature, and nature is god. The second heresy was to separate the soul from the body. The only way that our spirit comes into being, becomes manifest, is when it's grounded in flesh, in a living thing. That's when god shows itself. God is made manifest in life only in us, in a butterfly, in fucking, in little children, when the raspberries get ripe. I want to be the founder of the Salmon Church. I have a bunch of eco-poems called the Salmon Church Gospel.

PLAZM: Your philosophy seems to be rooted in pantheism and Green politics.

W.C.: Yes, and it is one of the biggest points I want to make here. If I live a while longer, I will create some Salmon Church rituals. Each second that we are talking to each other, we're in an existential framework, and we only get so many seconds. This is the sacred moment; right now is heaven or hell. That's why I do take love-making seriously. I think capitalist consumerism is giving us very materialistic, consumptive values that are putting everything out of joint. Getting back to a slower, natural, organic kind of centered way of living is what we need to do all over the planet. At this point in biological, human and planetary history, the time has come to stand up and be counted and say 'This is my statement.' It's become that serious.

PLAZM: How do you feel about recently being acknowledged by the local literary establishment? I'm referring specifically to the OILA award you received fro your contribution to local literature.

W.C.: Well, at the age of 50 they gave me that, and I really appreciate it. They gave it to me because of my work uncovering some of the amazing literary heritage that we have here in Oregon. We have more than just a literary heritage, we have a cultural and a historical heritage that is very interesting. It's great to discover all this, and to urge people to be aware of all this, and I think that's why they recognized me. I don't want it to undermine some of my provocative way of addressing things, though.

PLAZM: Provocation makes people listen and hopefully leads to thinking.

W.C.: Right, hopefully. I don't claim to have the last word on any of these things, but I'm beginning to sort them out and have some information that I would like to pass on. On the issue of being gay, I've seen that one go through several transitions until now, with the horrible one of AIDS. Gay people could almost be put in concentration camps, there is a tremendous backlash of homophobia. It was bad enough when religion and ordinary morality called gay people unnatural, but now they also carry the deadly plague with them. This plague is going other routes though, through heterosexual channels. Maybe, as some of these people get sick, they will realize that being sick demands compassion. It has certainly changed sexual politics in America.

We haven't talked about women very much, have we? Let's not talk about feminism, that's sort of a loaded word. In my early 30s, I suddenly began to appreciate women. I like young males because they're rebellious, they're attractive and they have lots of energy. But males seem to begin to fall flat after they're twenty; I guess they want to get with the program. But after the hippie era, when women came out and got very independent and started talking about taboo subjects such as menstruation, and what it means to be impregnated and the right to decide if they are going to bear children, it really got me thinking. I've really come to understand what a patriarchal society we live in, how Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all very male oriented. I began to research some of that and thinking about the moon goddess, and some of the ancient myths and realizing that patriarchy and militarism go hand in hand. The idea of the warrior model, that a man should carry a sword or a gun and be macho all the time. This all goes along with phallic missiles and the military-industrial complex, having to have a hard, titanic surface to confront the world and your neighbor with. Not all males are one dimensional like that. Actually, gays and feminists have a lot in common, and one of the interesting things is–why couldn't there be a female Pope or priest? The early Christian church actually crucified women shaman. It is estimated that millions of women knew herbal lore, birth control and all kinds of other information were persecuted and tortured in their own communities. Joan of Arc was a lesbian who was probably involved with the nature of religion. Sometimes we think that history just drops dead, but history doesn't drop dead, it subtly permeates and influences everything we do. These subtle influences permeate us.

PLAZM: What positive or exciting things do you see going on locally in the literary arts scene? Portland seems to be going through a literary renaissance of sorts.

W.C.: At this time, there may be some very fortuitous things happening, but I must warn the present climate that if you don't get people to do things, stick with things, it will fade away. It's very positive and reassuring to me to see diverse groups of people flowering.

PLAZM: Do you see all the current activity solely as being a cyclical thing, or do you sense that it's sinking in on a deeper level?

W.C.: The problem with poets and artists–and I hate to build an elitist theory of human nature–but it seems like there is a limited number of people who are really strong. When they cluster together in a group, we do see the upsurges and flowerings happen. In music, for example, I'm seeing some things that remind me of the 60s, all the small, creative bands, and the kinds of poetic imagery they're using. Perhaps now the poetry thing will take off. I think the last several decades have been awful. Really horrible, with conservative kinds of ideology and propaganda, I hope to god that we're on the edge of something that will take off again, like the 60s. I'm a 60s person, I really loved that period. But, I think that we need to project ourselves out a little bit into mainstream culture, if we can reach enough people, things can happen.

As much as I hate technology, I urge you, wherever you are, to use the new media that reaches out to other people. I got involved with KBOO radio twenty years ago, and I'm still doing a poetry program. Somebody invited me to sit behind the microphone and learn how to use it, and I did. I also think that Public Cable Access could be used effectively, and we're not doing it. There is so much that we could do, just by using a little bit of our grey matter, we could project ourselves in a stronger way. You can only get 30 or 40 people in a café, but on cable, 12,000 people can watch.

PLAZM: One of the exciting things about the current scene is that it's a cross generational thing. People like yourself are mingling and working with young beatnik kids. It's nice to see a combination of young and older blood.

W.C.: One of the things I hate about this society is that it puts people in their own age bracket. We'll have all the seniors in their "homes," the swinging singles are in their group, all the mothers are over there alone, all the blacks are over there in Albina. Life wouldn't be any fun if it wasn't mixed up, and I hope that I can get some sense of the pageantry of the human condition into my poetry. Young people inspire me, as older people did when I was young. Multi-diversity is it, and targeting everything for narrow groups, and a society that organizes people into special complexes where they're privileged and pampered is total insanity.

About This Story

  • Writer: Carl Hannis
  • Editor: Neva Knott
  • Artist: Walt Curtis
  • Photographer: Jillian Wieseneck
  • Published Online: Jan 13, 2012