I had been on the Oregon Coast just shy of five months when I learned of the FisherPoets Gathering. I’d never heard of fisher poets, much less a gathering for them. But I must have been intrigued all those 19 years ago, because I drove the 130-odd miles up U.S. 101 to Astoria, a place I’d never seen.
That was the fourth year of the gathering, which celebrates the commercial fishing industry in poetry, prose and music. Even then, the Wet Dog Café venue was filled to overflowing. I returned several years for more, and nearly two decades later, the poems — though not necessarily the poets’ names — stay with me.
There was the young guy who hired on with a fishing vessel only to show up at the dock on the appointed day to find the skipper had headed out a day early. Not long after, he learned the entire crew perished when the vessel capsized. One woman talked of the time her boat burned on Thanksgiving, destroying everything, which wasn’t much in the first place. I made friends with Dave Densmore, who read Skeeter’s Song, the story of the day he lost his son and his father when they took Skeeter’s boat out for a quick cruise on the bay and never returned. It was Skeeter’s 14th birthday.
This year marks the 23rd FisherPoets Gathering, which takes place the last weekend of February at multiple venues around Astoria. Nearly 100 poets, storytellers and songwriters will share tales beginning Feb. 28. Event buttons, good for all weekend, are $20 and available at the door.
The gathering was fisherman Jon Broderick’s idea, earning him the title of “founder,” but only, he says, because he made the first phone call. That was to John van Amerongen, then-editor of Alaska Fisherman’s Journal, who frequently published the work of fisher poets in the magazine.
“I called to see if he had addresses for me,” Broderick recalled. “He did. Forty addresses. I contacted all of them. Thirty-nine said yes. Everybody I called said, ‘Let me talk to someone else.’ One person called another. We never talked to anybody who didn’t think it was a great idea. By word of mouth it spread. We never had to twist anyone’s arm.”
Broderick, whose family has fished for salmon in Bristol Bay, Alaska, for three decades, was already writing poetry, but his motive in putting together the gathering was not so much to foster literary pursuits, but friendship.
“Commercial fishermen are tightly knit, but far flung,” Broderick said. “You lose track of people. These are people … they’ve sunk boats, gone aground. They’ve had to deal with hardship and figure ways to carry on. That kind of resiliency is typical of commercial fishermen. Of course, this was all in the days before social media, and if you wanted to get together, you needed an occasion. I invited my friends to get together and read poems. Everybody came and they brought friends.”
From the earliest years, the gathering has had a few stars, like Geno Leech of Chinook, Wash., who tends to keep his often-rhyming poems light. He recites from memory, eyes scrunched, fists throttling the mic, feet and knees keeping time.
Shortly after I first met Leech, he was invited to take part in the People’s Poetry Gathering in New York. Accompanied by a cowboy and two logger poets, he returned to the city he had hitchhiked to when he was fresh out of high school in Seattle.
“The event took place in the East Village,” Leech said. “The big one was at the Cooper Union Building, which was a big deal. Mark Twain was on that stage; President Lincoln, too. Not only that, they flew us back on their nickel. Picked us up at the airport in Jersey. Put us up in a boutique hotel. From a kid going back there just for some excitement and adventure, and then to come back that way was pretty huge.”
Densmore, another giant on the gathering stage, started his poetry career writing short verse about “something funny” that happened on deck or another boat.
“Sometimes I read them to the other guys over the VHF,” said Densmore, who lives in Astoria. “Guys started asking for a poem, usually at night when we were fishing round the clock or traveling. Once, I even got a call in the middle of the night from someone up off of Vancouver Island. The guy said he’d been hearing and enjoying my poems and wondered when I was going to read another one. But that was it, just fooling around with it, not taking it serious.
“Then after Dad and Skeeter drowned, things were pretty dark for a couple years. Then one day three poems came all at once fully formed and we were off again.”
Maybe it’s the journalist in me that remembers the dark tales more than the light, but as Broderick reminded me, not all the poems and stories are tragic. On the contrary, Broderick said, most are about the routine, the daily goings-on aboard a fishing vessel.
“As a fisherman, I feel like virtually 90 percent of the stories are positive stories,” he said. “The public is attracted to tragedy. It attracts our interest, but the thing we talk about at the FisherPoets Gathering are the successes, the dumb-ass things we did that no one got hurt. I think art lies in the routine rather than the exceptional things. Or else you become nothing but a voyeur or thrill-seeker.
“That’s why I wanted to write about work. The best love poems are about enduring love. That’s what the best work poems are about, too, about doing something in a community and working hard, some funny things that happen, success, failures. It’s not the Deadliest Catch kind of stuff. We’re not trying to impress anybody. It’s a gathering, a chance to be together and enjoy each other’s company and the work we do.”
To read some of the fisher poets’ work, go here.