The 2018 FisherPoets Gathering in Astoria, Oregon took place this last weekend, and I’m still high on fish stories and great companionship. I’d been wanting to attend this event since it began 21 years ago—back when I was still an active fisherperson. This year I finally managed to fit it into my schedule.
What is the FisherPoets Gathering? It’s an annual three-day event, held every February in the historic fishing town of Astoria, Oregon, “to celebrate commercial fishing and its community through story, poetry, and song.” From its start as a small mid-winter get-together of fishing friends, it has grown into an enormous fun-filled family celebration drawing participation and audience from all over the country and beyond.
This year about 110 fishing people read, recited, and sang over two evenings in seven different locations around town, from bars and beer pubs to theatres, concurrently. Nearly 2000 other celebrants bought $15 entrance buttons for admission to whatever events they chose. In addition, the days were filled with various kinds of workshops, presentations, panels, and films. There were late-night poetry contests and slams, and just a whole lot of visiting with old and new friends. Sunday morning included a sing-along of hymns related to rivers and seas and the “crossing of bars.”
This is how it works: Anyone who wants a time on stage signs up earlier in the year and is scheduled for two fifteen-minute slots, in two different locations, one on Friday night and one on Saturday. Each evening at each place a pair of MCs makes introductions and keeps things moving.
This is not a literary event, which is not to say that it lacks literary and other values. It’s a grandly democratic gathering, where anyone with something to say has his or her fifteen minutes to share it—and an appreciative crowd claps loudly for it all. Like cowboy poetry (or Robert Service), a lot of the presentations involve rhyming couplets, the kind of thing likely to get shot down in a college poetry class. But the stories are detailed, heart-felt, and well-told. I have the utmost admiration for anyone who recites from memory.
As Jon Broderick, FisherPoets founder, put it to me: “Part of the magic is that ordinary people accept this small goal and everybody picks up that challenge. They have an attentive audience, the undivided attention of everybody there for fifteen minutes.”
The Alaska connection is everywhere. Although most participants come from the Northwest, most of their fishing is Alaskan and much of it generational. We heard stories from Southeast, Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, Bristol Bay, and the Bering Sea—about fishing for salmon, halibut, hake, and crab. We heard poems and stories and songs of going to sea for the first time, of ships going down, of raging skippers and exhaustion, of fishermen fathers and fishermen daughters, of rivers running to the sea, of making a “busted knuckle living.” There were memorials to fishermen of the past and the recently gone. There was bluegrass music someone called “crabgrass.” There was a lovely piece about the art of writing code—for communicating numbers with fishermen friends over the radio—and another about nearly being run down by a cruise ship.
Many of the poets and storytellers were retired folk, but there was also a large contingent of younger people, including many young fishing women with their own vibrant stories. For historical context, my friend Holly Hughes read an older essay about her difficult start in the industry in the 1970s; when she first stepped on a boat an old Norwegian skipper screamed at her to get off “because women are bad luck” on boats.
Jonathan White, author of the book Tides, gave readings and a very well received presentation about the science and spirit of tides. Another daytime presentation was a panel of four fishing couples who discussed how they negotiated the life—sometimes fishing together, sometimes separated for long periods, sharing the work of raising a family and running a business. One man taught the art of weaving chafing mats out of recycled groundline, another the art of Japanese fish printing. There was even a writing workshop about revision!
There were political elements to the weekend, too. There was a session about carbon tax legislation in Washington and Oregon and the threat to our oceans from warming and acidification. There was another about efforts to encourage more women in the industry. There were numerous references and signs and buttons opposing the Pebble Mine. There was a beautiful song about tolerance and acceptance—not directly related to fishing but more to immigration policy and perhaps those workers on the processing end of the industry.
What did I contribute? I wrote a poem just for the event—a fisherman’s consideration of Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem, “The Fish.” I also read small fishing-related pieces from my fiction and from the introduction I wrote to the anthology Made of Salmon. The first night, in a brew pub, the audience was an enviable two hundred strong, listening raptly to every word by every presenter. The second night, in a theatre, a different atmosphere but another great crowd and applause.
What did I gain? A huge new appreciation for all the ways we can make art and meaning from our lives and for the importance of our commercial fisheries both here in Alaska and beyond. I saw some old friends, including Mary Jacobs, formerly of Kodiak and well-known for having one of—or maybe the first—all-women fishing crews, and Toby Sullivan, also of Kodiak, who read a lovely essay he’d first drafted in a writing class I taught. I met a lot of kind, funny, generous, and creative—not to mention hard-working—people.
Regrets? Only that, with so much going on in so many different places at the same time, I missed so much. I’d especially wanted to hear my fellow Alaskans, of which there were many, as well as some of the “legends.” Next year!
One of the afternoon highlights was the showing of six short films related to fishing. Take three minutes to watch this one, a promo for a new, small fishing company in Pelican. Take another eight minutes for this film about Kasilof resident Steve Schoonmaker, a regular at FisherPoets and around Alaska.
Check out In the Tote for photos, audio, and examples of written work by the Fisher Poets mentioned above. Photos, videos, and the winner of the onsite poetry contest from this year are already up at the website. (The poetry contest challenge was to write a poem using these four words—port, starboard, coil, and washboard—and no rhymes except for a rhyming couplet at the end.)
Nancy Lord, Alaska Writer Laureate 2008-10, is the author of several fiction and nonfiction books including, most recently, pH: A Novel. She teaches in the UAA MFA program and the Johns Hopkins graduate science writing program, and she is regularly a member of the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference faculty. Her website is http://www.writernancylord.com.