It’s difficult to achieve literary recognition at all, tougher still at a young age.
Cameron Robert Martinez was only 26 when he died three years ago this month, but he’d already cleared that hurdle.
People in Missoula’s arts scene knew him as a poet who was a regular fixture at spoken word events, and whose work also was published in the Slumgullion zine, a local independent writing collective.
“He probably wrote three to four poems daily, almost journal-style,” said his sister, mural artist Angelita Martinez. “If they took him somewhere more, he would go back and revise them.”
Martinez started writing poetry in high school, said his father, Robert Martinez of Arlee. Cameron Martinez went to high school in Arlee for a while, but finished at Hellgate in Missoula, where his artistic side flourished, his father said. “He was a deep thinker for sure,” and Hellgate nurtured that, his father said.
After he finished school, Martinez returned again and again to help young people understand poetry’s appeal, working with them at area high schools and after-school programs, at the library and through Slumgullion.
“The thing I grieved about most when he died was that he was such a talented teacher,” said Debby Florence, one of the founders of Slumgullion, a word for a sort of “everything” stew. “It was amazing to watch him work with young people. He just had a gift with them.”
Often, she said, he drew them in with “I am” poems. “You just do a repetitive line: ‘I am this. I am that.’” It got them started, she said.
Angelita Martinez credits both her own and her brother’s artistic interests to their mother, who died of cancer when Cameron Martinez was in high school.
“She had a huge library of books, and when we had questions about things she referred us to a book,” she said. “There was really heavy reading in our family.”
She also cited the family’s Jehovah’s Witness faith. Although neither she nor her brother was heavily active, “the background of our religion makes us really focused and passionate about what we’re passionate about,” she said.
His family remembered his beautiful spirit with a line from 1 Samuel in the Old Testament: “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
Cameron Martinez’s funeral at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Missoula was standing room only, Florence said.
“There were quite a few there that had never been affiliated with the Witnesses,” his father said.
His circle extended beyond the literary and artistic. Cameron Martinez volunteered at the Missoula Food Bank, part of a general tendency “to always try to look out for the person who was down on their luck,” his father said. “If anybody ever was on the curb, or if he was driving along and somebody was panhandling, he’d always dig in his pocket and pull out a quarter.”
Added Florence: “He wanted to be there for people as much as he wanted people to be there for him. He always wanted to be the middle person to bring other people together.”
Even after his death in an auto mishap, his influence continued, she said. “People at spoken word events really honored him,” she said.
Just the other day, Florence, who was moving, picked up a pamphlet that had fallen from one of the moving boxes.
It was the program from Martinez’s funeral. Suddenly, there he was, as present in memory as he had been in life.
It wasn’t as though she’d spent long amounts of time with him, she said. Still, to know Martinez was to feel as though you knew him well. “He’s one of those people where you say, ‘Why him? Why is he gone?’ He had a lot ahead of him.
“He was just an insightful dude.”
Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268 or at email@example.com.