Plazm Magazine: Documenting Creative Culture Since 1991
Plazm is a magazine of design, art, and culture with worldwide distribution. Founded by artists as a creative resource, the magazine is now published by the nonprofit New Oregon Arts & Letters. Order Plazm #30 now.
Salmon Pageantry: Carl Hanni Converses With Walt 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?
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.