FisherPoets Gathering

ArtsWatch Weekly: Sheer poetry with Grabel and the fishing crew

Leanne Grabel and Breads & Roses, FisherPoets and the song of the sea. Plus the week's dance, drama, sight, and sound.


IT’S A BIG WEEK FOR POETS IN OREGON, and an especially big week for longtime Portland poet Leanne Grabel, who’s been named the winner of the second annual Soapstone Bread and Roses Award. The prize, given by the women’s literary organization Soapstone to honor a writer who has helped sustain the writing culture in Northwest Oregon and Southwest Washington, comes with a $1,000 award. It’ll be officially presented at a Soapstone board meeting on March 6, two days before International Women’s Day.

Portland poet Leanne Grabel, the 2020 Soapstone Bread and Roses Award winner. Photo courtesy Soapstone, Inc. 

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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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