Wet Dog Cafe was full to the brim with diners Friday night; there was a waiting list to snag a table. Waiters weaved in between patrons, carrying trays laden with burgers and beverages. But Tele Aadsen’s soft voice rang clear as a bell above the low buzz of laughter and clink of dishes.
It was the 16th annual FisherPoets Gathering, a weekend that saw about 70 commercial fishermen and women assemble from across the country in Astoria to read poetry, tell stories and sing songs about their occupations.
“You see things that a lot of people don’t get to see,” Jon Broderick, co-founder of the FisherPoets Gathering, said of working as a fisherman. “It’s not just the fish. It’s the work we do and the people we know.”
In “Lost at Sea: After the Man in the Tote,” Aadsen, of Bellingham, Wash., told the story of a U.S. Coast Guard rescue she witnessed after the fishing vessel Kaitlin Rai went down off Cape Edgecumbe, Alaska, in early September 2012. One of the crew members survived by floating in a fish tote, or plastic bin, for more than 24 hours after the boat sank.
“Fishermen are never a stronger community than in situations like this. When tragedy cuts one of us down, we all bleed,” she read, focusing on what it felt like to hear that the ship’s crew was missing.
She described the Coast Guard rescue swimmer descend from the helicopter and hoist the lost fisherman safely aboard: “What does that first moment of physical human contact feel like?” Aadsen read. “Had the man in the tote wondered if he’d never again feel touch other than the ocean’s assault, the wind and rain’s stinging slap? Or had he maintained hope through the night’s darkest hours?”
Speakers on stage told many stories throughout the weekend: tragedies and triumphs, homesickness, sleep or the lack thereof, the pride of a first boat, the physical labor, the friendships. Audiences listened to limericks about white gulls, poems on Frankenfish, stories of heartache and songs of the sea. And all of it focused on the art of fishing.
The start of the Gathering
In 1997, at the end of coaching a high school soccer season, Broderick had an empty time slot in his afternoon, and he decided to fill it with something he’d always wanted: to gather commercial fishermen off the water in one place to share stories.
He contacted the Alaska Fisherman’s Journal, a regional commercial fishing magazine. Edited by John van Amerongen, the magazine ran news as well as creative writing about the commercial fishing industry – so Broderick knew fisher poets were out there and writing.
With the help of the magazine, the FisherPoets Gathering was born. That first year saw one venue – Wet Dog Cafe – filled with roughly 40 poets, who all read in a single night. 16 years later the Gathering has grown to, a three-day event with six evening venues and numerous daily activities.
“I didn’t organize it; I just made the first phone calls,” Broderick said. “I never had to twist anybody’s arm to do anything. All we ever did was find people who said, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea, let me do this, let me do that.’ People always jumped aboard and tried to help.”
“I think our occupation, the work we do, is largely a neglected artistic subject,” Broderick said. “We spend more time at work than we do in love, and yet we end up writing about love all the time until we’re just tired of it.
“Work is what we do with our lives, and if you’re not writing about it, exploring it, approaching it artistically, you’re missing something.”
Reflecting on and sharing about your job can help you make significance of it in your life, even if the work is miserable, Broderick said.
With dark humor and raw descriptions, 25-year-old Billy Delaney of Port Townsend, Wash., explored the bleaker sides of her experience commercial fishing in Westport (Wash.) during the Gathering.
“I think both of these things (I read) are a little bit darker than some of the other stuff I write. I have a tendency to write when I’m in a bad mood … I had a couple bad seasons down here,” she said between the two essays she read Friday night at the Astoria Event Center. “Winter fishing can be really hard.”
“I used to write down itemized lists of everything I saw,” she read in one essay. “In trucks and diners, in boats. Inventories that wind up resembling a portrait of lonely people more than anything.”
Delaney continued, “Today I’ll just light another cigarette and let the February squalls blow right through me. I feel old sometimes – not tired, the way some people are, one day waking up assaulted by invisible aches and pains. But I feel strange surrounded by all these men who seem joyless and have child support payments instead of kids. Nowhere better to go. And I seem to be losing all this abundance I’ve found. But maybe that’s just the winter talking.”
Jack Merrill, who has worked as a lobsterman in Islesford, Maine, for 35 years, said he’s always been a writer. But after coming to the Gathering in 2011, he started writing more about what he does for a living.
“Seas that were gentle becoming snarling monsters,” he read from his poem, “October Blow,” Friday night at the Astoria Event Center. “The sea doesn’t have a conscience, just a lot of power. And you better respect it.”
Ron McDaniel of Sulphur Springs, Ark., showed up to the low-lit, intimate setting of Clemente’s Friday night dressed half as a cowboy – complete with hat and boot – and half as a fisherman in a green raincoat. With a cowgirl for a mother, who always told him “keep your feet on dry land,” and a fisherman for a father, McDaniel told a humorous tale of his struggle between loving both ways of life.
Broderick, on guitar, and co-founder Jay Speakman, on harmonica, sang songs on various fishermen themes, often with a tint of comedy. One song focused on a “screamer,” a fisherman whose loud shouts can be heard by many because sound carries across water.
“You’ve heard lots of skippers swear, but not like this guy, no beware,” Broderick sang. “His face turns red; his heart turns black: He’s a floating heart attack. He blisters paint. He can’t keep a crew. I just quit him, maybe he’ll hire you.”
For those who wanted to turn their own pens to paper, the Gathering offered many opportunities to do so. The annual poetry contest invited anyone wearing a FisherPoets Gathering entry button to compete with an original poem, and the winner was chosen at the Astoria Event Center Saturday night.
Seasoned writers also taught poetry and songwriting workshops Saturday during the day.
“Poetry is a lot about distilling; it’s a lot about what you leave out,” Joe Millar of Raleigh, N.C., said at a poetry workshop Saturday morning at Baked Alaska. Millar teaches in the MFA writing program at Pacific University.
He suggested focusing on strong sensory images, writing in the present tense, and getting into a rhythm of writing at the same time and place every week. “What you’re really trying to do when you write a poem is you’re trying to go unconscious a little bit, to put a spell on yourself. You want to surprise yourself, and a good way to do it is to have a rhythm because the unconscious relates to rhythm.”
The Gathering also focused on industrywide issues. The Columbian Theater screened “Tipping Point,” a documentary on ocean acidification, and the Columbia River Maritime Museum held a panel that discussed ways to oppose the Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska. Friday night’s lineup of fisherpoets at Clemente’s also focused their readings on the Pebble Mine, a proposed mine of copper, gold and other minerals near Bristol Bay, which is home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery, as well as other strong salmon runs.
“It’s going to set a precedent,” Jen Pickett of Cordove, Ark., said if the mine becomes a reality. “It’s not just the fish that we’re saving, but the way of life for a lot of people.”
“The mine is so big and the resource so rare that it’s really an issue for anybody who lives in the Pacific Rim,” Broderick said. “It really threatens commercial fishing of Bristol Bay, and it has to be resisted constantly. We have to continuously say no to it, but they only have to say yes to it once. The resource will always be there and the pressure to extract it will always be there.”
Bringing people together
Staying in touch can be tough in the commercial fishing industry. Work is seasonal, different boats move to different fisheries and people retire. But the FisherPoets Gathering gives commercial fishermen the chance to meet and share their experiences, making new friends and rekindling old friendships.
“It’s authentic; it’s real. It’s not ersatz; it’s not manufactured,” Broderick said about the Gathering and why it draws people who don’t work in the commercial fishing industry.
“The characters that this event brings together – who knew that all these people who work on the water were interested in literature and poetry and music?” Merrill said. “They’re multitalented people. We have so much in common. And I think that’s true no matter where you fish in the world … it’s like a big family.”
According to Merrill, Astoria’s FisherPoets Gathering has spawned several similar happenings on the East Coast. March will see a second annual fisherpoet event in Portland, Maine.
“It was literally inspired by this event,” Merrill said. “So far it’s just one night and one venue … So the house is packed.”
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.