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A Conversation with Portland Poet Walt Curtis and Singer/Songwriter Dusty Santamaria

A Conversation with Portland Poet Walt Curtis and Singer/Songwriter Dusty Santamaria

Photo by Scott McHale
Photo by Scott McHale

It may seem that the unofficial Poet Laureate of Portland, Walt Curtis, has been overlooked. Not true. His life and his work is legendary. He lived in Portland in the same era that Bukowski drunkenly wrote about and Bob Dylan sang about in the sixties. He recounts how Allen Ginsberg once quipped, “Who is this Walt Curtis person anyway?” while reading at an anti-war protest. Curtis lived at the bohemian Lawn Apartments on NW 18th, where bands like NuShooz and Holy Modal Rounders resided. All that creative space is now a million dollar condo, of course. Gus Van Sant filmed his first feature, Mala Noche in Walt’s room, which was based on the poet’s days as a wino grocery store clerk. Obsessed, Curtis became intimate friends with young illegal Mexicans.

Today, Walt is mentoring charismatic Dusty Santamaria, a local singer/songwriter whose passionate voice harkens back to those heady days when song lyrics mattered. Hosting The Talking Earth for forty-three years on KBOO, Walt has never stopped. I spent time with him and Dusty at the Lone Fir Cemetery. We hung out and drank wine, argued over politics and poetry. Walt read some of his recent work about death. A perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon in the new Portland.

ELEVEN: How are poetry and musical lyrics related?

Walt Curtis: Today, young musicians are as energetic as Ginsberg, or Dylan, or Dylan Thomas. Just by being themselves. I was impressed by Dusty Santamaria because of all the passion in his lyrics. He really puts his heart into his performance. I realized he was a real poet. His songs had truth and existential life. Dusty wrote a song “Like a Red Rose Rising.” I wrote “The Roses of Portland” in 1975. Did I inspire him?

11: How did you guys meet?

WC: We met at Sheridan’s, an Italian produce market where Dusty worked. His father had a produce stand in California. Oddly enough, I have the exact same birthday as his father: July 4th, 1941.
Dusty Santamaria: I was about to move out of town, and I met you and you gave me a copy of The Air Conditioned Nightmare by Henry Miller.

11: What’s the connection with your poetry and Dusty’s music?

WC: Dusty and I have an intuitive thing when we perform together. I recite poetry, and he plays music. It’s a psychic phenomenon, I believe. Poetry is magic.

11: Dusty, can you tell me a little about yourself?

DS: I grew up in this little town called Rainbow, California. I played in this offshoot punk band there called The Commercial Rockstars. We wanted to go to Los Angeles, but we just pointed to a place on the map, and it read, Portland, Oregon. “Let’s move there!” we decided. Soon after, I wrote all the lyrics for all the songs, and a dude who was a much more schooled musician wrote the music, but quit the band. I was gonna split town, but I had this job at Sheridan’s. I met Walt there. As a poet, he introduced me to an artist community which I didn’t know, but was always looking for. I started to find myself at that point.

WC: It takes time to know a city, but I have time, I own time. Time owns me after fifty years in Portland… I know everything about this place, The Lone Fir Cemetery. The dead and forgotten writers and poets of the city. John Reed. Hazel Hall. Sam Simpson who is buried here. I collected graveyard verse at Lone Fir. Joel Weinstein of Mississippi Mud magazine who published Mala Noche. His colorful gravestone with Mexican skeletons is right here.

11: How do you feel about the development here?

WC: Our city is evolving–no it’s devolving! It’s over. The billionaires have got it.
DS: Every major city in the United States has the same complaint.
WC: Dusty is not directly political, but I am. I’ve always been a political poet since they tried to draft me in 1966 to go the Vietnam War. I was gay and I refused. I got a 1Y because my middle finger on my left hand was cut off in a sawmill accident. When I give people the finger, they laugh.

11: Can you expound on the relationship between poetry and politics?

WC: I read in 1967 with Allen Ginsberg and William Stafford, the Portland peace poet. He emphasized, “In war there are always two losers.” Around 1970, there were a lot of in your face political protests inspired by poets. Eventually, we protesters and poets shut the Vietnam War down. It took a long time. In that era, I met the media critic Norman Solomon who founded F.A.I.R. and now He and I started Out of the Ashes Press. The image is based on the phoenix being reborn from the flames. Fear of nuclear annihilation drove us.
11: What do you think about the poetry scene as it is?

WC: It’s impossible to listen to, for a normal person. After my years of being a street poet, and a scholar of poetic history. I read with The Beats, I like Shakespeare and Gary Snyder. Theodore Roethke, the true Northwest master from Seattle. The new ones have MFAs, but I do not view them as true poets. A poet has a presence like a good musician has a presence. We’re not doing university work, we’re not doing essays in literature, calling ourselves poets. We real poets project our expressive beings, as well as show off our spoken word skill. I’m a project-or.
DS: I think the language is almost secondary to the essence itself.
WC: You say that as a musician, but I disagree. Poetry skill is a refined art, which takes years to perfect. A true poet has to find his or her own original voice. So does a songwriter.
DS: I’m not just a musician when I perform, but I become a part of the audience, engaging with them. Audience and performer cannot be separated. We are one collective unit. Words just by themselves do not carry the energy or spirit of what’s behind them. The “live” performance is necessary for the magic to happen.

11: Walt, were you ever a musician?

WC: Only with Dusty. I’m known as Portland’s Unofficial Poet Laureate, but I actually was in a band called The Four Bastards. We played at Satyricon, and other places. Two of us were poets, Michael Paul Marino and myself. Our lyrics became very political. We musical-ized them. Anyway, I wrote the song “The White Waterfall” at Oneonta Gorge. I swam naked there with friends and performed it that night. The Columbia River Gorge is now overrun with newcomers. Outsiders who possibly don’t understand the old Oregon. Here are a few lines: ”Hell hath no fury like the dream spurned / I saw a waterfall of death and purity / Which will cleanse life of its dirt / We will bathe there naked and free in the morning light of a new dawn.” I am a poetic ecologist. I am concerned with climate catastrophe and saving planet Earth. I am dubious that there is a future.

11: You have a large body of work, not easy to access. At this point in your life, how would you like your writing to be received? How would you like to be remembered?

WC: I want to emphasize I am a scholar of forgotten and neglected Oregon writers. I want a curriculum in the schools. More importantly, I want the next generation to have a future, as I have had an extraordinary past. Who is preaching to save planet Earth? Where is the leadership to stop fossil fuels? Climate catastrophe. In 1974, I wrote on newsprint Mad Bomber’s Notebook, predicting the destruction from militarism and corporations. The destructive process is still happening. In 1994 I did the film, Salmon Poet (now on YouTube). I consider myself a spiritual ecological preacher. As a poet, I have been given the cosmic task of alerting world consciousness from the Tao, and the divine intelligence in the Universe. With the last biological years I have left, I will enlighten if I can. »

– Scott McHale