dave densmore

Fishers of poetry

Nearly 100 commercial fishermen and women will share poems, stories, and songs during the 23rd annual FisherPoets Gathering next week in Astoria

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.

Besides writing poetry, FisherPoets founder Jon Broderick plays guitar, banjo, and occasional tin whistle. Photo by Patrick Dixon, courtesy FisherPoets Gathering

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.”

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Fisher poet Dave Densmore performing at the Astoria Event Center.

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.

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