By Laurence Cotton
On a wintry weekend designed more for snow sports in the mountains, over three days and nights that were mostly filled with swirling clouds, horizontal wind driven rain, and a penetrating cold, some eighty-odd performers and an appreciative audience of more than one thousand filled seven performance venues at the Fisher Poets Gathering in Astoria.
Yet there was more on offer at this expanding event during the dark, rainy time of the year. The Gathering effectively occupied nearly the entire downtown, including one exhibit at the new Kala Gallery, home of Hipfish Monthly, and another exhibit and workshops at the Columbia River Maritime Museum. Yes, this was Astoria, Oregon, the town that has reinvented itself as a creative outpost on the coast, a center for music, visual and literary arts, while celebrating its rich maritime heritage.
In contrast to the early days of the gathering, when one participant took note of “down at the heels Astoria” when many of the Victorian houses up on the hill seemed poorly maintained and certain downtown blocks lacked life, Astoria in 2012 is now alive with restaurants, boutiques, galleries, performance venues and museums, and most of the historic residences have been restored to their former beauty.
In many respects, the Fisher Poets Gathering is the story of the new/old Astoria, a vital hub for the arts, for working fishermen, warmly embracing its maritime heritage with renewed vigor. Of course, for the local chamber of commerce, and the community at large, it doesn’t hurt that the Fisher Poets Gathering is a sizable, lively event that brings in visitors from afar and fills hotel rooms and keeps restaurants, performance venues and shops busy during a slow time of the year.
February 2012 marked the fifteenth Fisher Poets Gathering. Still largely volunteer run, with a miniscule budget, Fisher Poets is clearly not only a labor of love for the core committee that plans and hosts the event but also a celebration of community for all present—participants, performers, staff, volunteers and audience. 2012 brought in performers from as far away as Florida and Rhode Island, as well as a considerable contingent from Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
One cowboy poet, now a beloved regular, arrived from Arkansas in full cowboy attire. One presenter flew in from Japan to talk about the effects of the tsunami there. The audience, though more regional, came in from as far away as Seattle, eastern Oregon, and eastern Washington, though to be sure , the majority came in from up and down the Oregon/Washington coast and the Willamette Valley.
The Fisher Poets Festival started gestating when Seaside fisher poet and singer/songwriter/musician (and recently retired English teacher) Jon Broderick first heard Dallas, Oregon, poet Clemens Starck offer up a poem about his occupation, that of carpenter and wood worker. As Jon put it, Starck “read poetry about work…and I had never heard poetry about work before. And this whole idea of writing poetry about work, instead of love or any other thing…was captivating. And work had always been the first thing on my mind, because we spend more time at work in our lives than we do at love.”
Broderick was stunned and decided that maybe some of the fishers who call the North Oregon coast home might be willing to put pencil to paper and share some verses of fisher poetry. The first Fisher Poets Gathering occurred in 1998, when a handful of poets appeared at one venue in downtown Astoria.
After visiting the much larger and more established Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, Broderick and others gleaned additional ideas about how to slowly evolve Fisher Poets into a permanent event on the annual calendar for Astoria, a town that surely needed reasons to linger inside on cold, dark winter nights and alternative offerings for a creative arts-hungry populace. Since initially most of the poets were salmon fishers who fished the Columbia and the Oregon and Washington coasts, as well as up in Alaska, it also made perfect sense to hold the Gathering when performers would be available in the off-season, meaning winter.
Broderick, Florence Sage at Clatsop Community College, and Hobe Kytr, then of the Columbia River Maritime Museum, now Executive Director of Astoria’s Salmon For All, along with several others from the early years comprise the core group that runs the Fisher Poets Gathering now. Other than sound technicians, Ms. Sage is the only individual who is actually paid for her work as the de facto event manager.
In addition to the sweat equity donated by a small group of dedicated volunteers, Fisher Poets depends on donated, discounted and in-kind services, including those from the City of Astoria, local businesses, hotels, restaurants, and venues. Buttons are sold at $15 a piece, providing admission to all venues and workshops, all weekend long. Single event admissions are $5 at the door.
Once expenses are paid, the proceeds are divvied up and the committee sends out small stipends to the performers, the greater the distance traveled, the higher the stipend. At best, expenses are defrayed. But unlike Cowboy Poets, the performers do not receive fees. For the first time in 2012 local businesses contributed additional funds to allow for a number of “readerships” to provide more substantial stipends of $250 each to individual performers who would not be able to travel to Astoria on their own resources.
A core group of fisher poets have read at the festival since its launch. Some have come episodically, as fishing and money have allowed. Every year brings a few newcomers, often younger fisher poets inspired by the Gathering to write.
Fisher Poet regular Alaskan Toby Sullivan has been working as a commercial fisherman since he was nineteen years old. As he puts it, “there is something very basic and elemental about catching fish for a living.” In the late 1990s Toby returned to school, eventually earning a Masters Degree in Creative Writing.
Through arrangements with the Anchorage Press, Sullivan secured credentials to serve as an embedded journalist in Iraq. As he tells it, “a small fire base with the Marines in western Iraq is very similar psychologically to being on a boat in the Bering Sea. A small group of men in a dangerous situation, depending on one another.” On a prior year Toby read a new piece that intertwined elements of that experience in Iraq with that of being a fisherman. While working on a book Sullivan still gill nets on the wild West side of Kodiak Island and in the winter serves as director of the Kodiak Maritime Museum, currently a virtual museum without walls in search of a physical home.
Modeling a prose poem about commercial fishing after Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” after lyrically itemizing practical gear, Toby Sullivan’ closes the end of his “The Things You Need” in this fashion:
“You need a knowledge of cookery. The ability to learn how to change the oil on a Caterpillar 3298. An appreciation for dawn. A respect for night. Books about anything. Money. Your toothbrush. Extra strength Tylenol. Kneepads. A Walkman. Jimi Hendrix for good days and Hank Williams for bad ones. Paper for letters. Stamps to mail them. A calling card for the phone on the dock in Akutan. The numbers of people who will answer that phone late at night, who will listen to you breathe when you forget what you wanted to say, who will know without being told. Pictures of those people. A calendar. The memory of dry land, summer, trees, and the smell of your woman. A piece of her clothing in case you forget. Your plans for the future. A plane ticket home.”
John Palmes, a Juneau singer songwriter, has been penning lyrics and singing since his boyhood days. A part-time commercial fisher, John heads a hundred miles west of Juneau to find waters somewhat less crowded with vessels of all kinds and a healthier supply of fish. His music and words often come to him when he is running his boat and listening to the drone and constant beat of his engine, when he hums and sings out a tune, often in response to the water, the weather, the quality of light, his physical exhaustion the loneliness and boredom, and other thoughts that come to mind.
Then as Palmes puts it “in the afternoons when things are slow I might sing one of these songs on the VHF radio to my fellow fishermen…cause they are the only ones who really understand what the songs are about and why they’re funny.”
Palmes, who brings training and work experience in biology says that all those years writing professionally (mostly environmental impact statements) helped him learn “how to put words together.” Palmes must have been reflecting on recent instances of politicians trying their hand at popular music, when he proffered ”I don’t know why more politicians don’t sing because I think that is the most effective way to reach people. Cause it has an intellectual part of it…There is an emotional part of it. There is the kinesthetic part, there is a beat…I can sing a song and you cannot even like what I am saying, but it is hard not to get caught up in the music.”
2012 marked Jen Pickett’ssecond appearance at Fisher Poets. She is one of the younger fisher poets at the Astoria gathering. Pickett started fishing in Alaskan waters in 1993, and as she put it in a conversation peppered with unintended puns, “I was way in over my head and it was more work than I ever thought humanly possible. I had no idea what I was getting into, I was seasick and miserably underpaid, I was still hooked.”
A few years later Jen bought her own 28 ft. gillnetter, serving as skipper and sole crew to fish plentiful salmon on the Copper River Flats, among the more dangerous fishing grounds in Alaska. Some years later, she thought she was done with fishing and with grant money available to retrain fishermen, she went back to school, finishing undergraduate work and obtaining a Masters in Psychology, intending to go into that field. But as Pickett relayed it, “It was too late for me. I just can’t do the 9-5 Monday to Friday. I had already been ruined by fishing.”
For Jen, there is comfort in writing and sharing her work at the Fisher Poets Gathering: “There’s so many crazy emotions that go along with fishing…The ups and downs, the stress and the money. The near death experiences.” She is now “floundering around “ while working on a book about her experiences, and also sailing more tropical waters in the winter.
This is how Jen Pickett measures up her catch, in her poem “Value.”
“I will take a sockeye out of Bristol Bay.
I will take the roe from its belly
and go and preach to the world;
you shall see
I will not meet a single
heretic or scorner,
you shall see how I stump congressmen,
and confound them
you shall see me showing a scarlet egg,
and a gold pebble from the beach.
I will ask them to weigh their value.”
For Fisher Poets Gathering regular Dave Densmore, another Alaska-based fisherman, hosting visitors on his boat the Coldstream, a salmon seiner docked in Astoria, the Gathering has propelled him onto the national stage. Densmore bought his first boat when he was thirteen, and at one point was the youngest King crab skipper in the Bering Sea. Though he was actually born in Oregon, Kodiak, Alaska is both his physical and spiritual home.
When he was first invited to the Fisher Poets Gathering, he didn’t want to get up in front of people. However, as he put it, he got over his stage fright quickly, “One and a half verses through my first poem reading just dawned on me that this is something that I am really going to like. And people are not here to judge, they’re just here to be entertained. So I had better relax.”
Dave still fishes, but spends a good deal of time offering his muscular verse before audiences in the Pacific Northwest, in New England, and other locations, as he is in some demand. He takes particular joy in teaching teenagers to appreciate poetry, to find avenues to direct their turbulent emotions into creative, rather than destructive directions.
A few verses from Densmore’s poem “The Logbook” gives a flavor of the hard scrabble fisherman’s life, and the joy and pride of a good day at sea.
‘Southwest sixty and joggin’,
Doesn’t tell the beating that you take.
The strength of faith that you have to have,
Or the money that you won’t make.
‘Broke down, waiting for parts’,
Says nothing of the frustration of laying in port.
You know it’s meaningless at the bank,
If your payment comes up short.
‘Gusting seventy, drug anchor twice’,
No details of a long hard night.
No sleep, no rest, while hanging on,
In some little wind-swept bight.
By the same token, ‘fair weather, good fishing’,
Speaks volumes to those in the know.
Those four words, describe heaving on earth,
To those of us who go.
And ‘plugged full, and runnin in’,
May seem trivial and trite,
But it speaks of men successful and proud,
When all in their world is right.
It may seem that the Fisher Poets Gathering is dominated by Alaska fishermen. There are many participants from Oregon and Washington, though some who have expressed interest and have appeared at past gatherings, such as the crabbers, are too busy during the winter season to come to the event.
As Broderick put it, non-native Alaskan fishing was pioneered by people from Seattle, from Astoria and from San Francisco. Their descendants are still at it. Some Astorians have been fishing up in Alaska for five generations, yet they have never called Alaska home.
Local fishermen do work the Columbia, of course, and both the festival’s background and foreground is the magnificent setting of Astoria and its rich maritime heritage. Exhibits, films and workshops echo and commemorate that history. As Hobe Kytr put it, the commercial fishermen “represent the oldest industry in the state of Oregon, we have continuity going back to the 1850s. And fishermen have long memories.” They remember “the abundance that was here, before the development of the Columbia River basin. Some of our fishermen today…got the last bit of that abundance…And the fact that they get to go up to Bristol Bay and they experience what it was like…it renews that connection, that memory, that dedication to saving and restoring the salmon runs of the Columbia.”
One of the more notable development in the “work poetry” movement? There appears to be something of a growing fisher poet-cowboy poet exchange. Not only are performers showing up at mutual festivals but also cowboys are going out fishing with their fisher poet comrades and fisher poets are experiencing cattle ranching with their cowboy poet counterparts.
Fisher Poets Gathering co-founder Broderick has had a long friendship with a fellow from eastern Montana. “We have almost nothing in common. He’s a rancher and I’m a fisherman….and I’m Obama and he’s Ron Paul…It doesn’t matter. We are so fond of each other. We’ve raised each others kids.”
This year, the theme of the Fisher Poets Gathering was taken from a quote from an old-time local fisherman, Matt Korpela: “Work is our joy.” Perhaps Broderick’s poem “How to Tell a Good One” best captures that sentiment, while taking pride in the workmanship of his younger son, a novice fisherman:
“The new kid
wears waders that come clear to his chin
and a life jacket at his mother’s wise insistence.
When, at the end of a long slog across the mud, we reach the skiff
Pete, his brother, a veteran of a dozen campaigns,
hauls him aboard by the scruff of his gear.
But the kid coils the line as Pete pulls the anchor.
Nobody has to tell him.
And as we set for the first time this season
he neatly throws clear a loop of leadline from a binboard snag.
He pulls when we pull.
He picks when we pick.
Making surprising quick work of your basic #1 double-gill-on-the-bagside,
he hardly touches the fish.”
The older generation of fishermen, like Jon Broderick and Toby Sullivan, now watch their children following in their footsteps, sons and daughters who help their fathers set the gill nets and pull in the fish, some going off on their own to work salmon, cod and crab fishing operations in Alaskan waters. Come ten or fifteen years, it would not be surprising to see the next generation of Brodericks or Sullivans appear on a stage at the Fisher Poets Gathering to share a story or sing a song and to recite some briny verse as a fisher poet.