In 1998, North Coast commercial fishermen and women came together for a reunion of old friends and colleagues to share poems and stories. In the days of commercial fishing gone by, men and women would do the same, anchored alongside one another before the season got underway. They would read over radios when fishing was slow or during late nights at the cannery. With a desire to revive and revitalize this tradition, organizers decided to gather in Astoria once a year on the last weekend in February to present original work. Dubbed the FisherPoets Gathering, it became a way for the commercial fishing community to honor one another and the memory of those who had gone before.
The fishing industry is closely associated with the past and present of the North Coast. Like all fishing communities, Astoria remains proud of its fishing heritage. Established near the mouth of the Columbia River, it was the hub of commercial salmon fishing in the 19th and early 20th centuries. With thousands of resident fishermen and scores of canneries lining the river, the town’s identity was linked to the salmon industry. As salmon populations in the Columbia River dwindled, many commercial fishermen relocated seasonally to Alaskan waters.
The Fisher Poets Gathering – which takes place Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 22 to 24 – honors the history of Pacific Coast fishing, as well as those currently living the fishing life. Besides poetry, the weekend will feature films, workshops and music. During this three-day celebration, audiences are given a rare insight into the close-knit culture of the contemporary fishing community.
The Gathering’s oral tradition combines a new generation of poets and audiences, and it has evolved into a vibrant art form. It retains the character of yesteryear while discussing more modern themes relating to the fishing industry. It is not uncommon to hear fisherpoets examine ideas on sustainability, concerns about the fishing industry’s future, and its relationship with the modern demands of the 21st century.
2013 marks the 16th year of the FisherPoets Gathering in Astoria, and it shows no signs of slowing down. The event brings together renowned fisherpoets and musicians from around the North Coast. Familiar names include Lorrie Haight of Long Beach, Wash., Victoria Stoppiello of Nehalem, David Densmore of Astoria, and the Brownsmead Flats of Brownsmead.
The gathering also welcomes talented fisherpoets from all points of North America such as Alaska, California, Maine, Massachusetts and British Columbia. In all, 70 fisherpoets from 11 states and Canada will travel thousands of miles to gather for a chance to read poems, sing songs and connect with their peers. “It’s a testament to the love commercial fishermen feel for this work and the connection we have to one another,” said event founder Jon Broderick. “Many of these people travel from so far away, largely at their own expense, to participate. We love building bridges between coasts.”
The program includes a wide variety of performances including original songs, essays, riddles and poems. Heavily examined are the inherent dangers of fishing, which often inspire stories and poems centering on spiritual elements. Each piece is delivered by men and women determined to keep their oral tradition alive while illustrating the abiding love they feel for a life that can be at once heartbreaking and rewarding.
Traditional types of stories can be heard at the Gathering, ranging from comedic to somber. There are graphic accounts of peril at sea, legends of buried treasure, melancholy love songs of a sailor, odes to herring scales and ponderings on the thoughts of various marine creatures.
A reoccurring theme is the fisherman’s close relationship with the natural world. One such example was delivered by late Gathering participant Harrison “Smitty” Smith of Long Beach, Wash. Smitty’s poetry garnered him acclaim, thoughtfully blending humor with environmental stewardship. “He killed a lot of fish during his life, but also took time to look through their eyes,” Broderick said. “One of his poems considers jellyfish, a real nuisance to fishermen in southeast Alaska where they can foul nets and sting eyes: ‘What good this critter to the earth? / Does it have a single worth? / Well, maybe, perhaps, possibly, the jellyfish asks the same of me.’ Smitty had deep empathy for creation.”
The FisherPoets Gathering has grown considerably since its fledgling event at the Wet Dog Café in 1998. After starting with just a couple of venues that year, 2013 will feature multiple venues for audiences to choose from: the Wet Dog Café, Baked Alaska, the Astoria Event Center, The Voodoo Lounge, the Columbian Theater, Fort George Brewery’s Lovell Showroom, Clemente’s restaurant, the Cannon Beach Art Association Gallery, the Columbia River Maritime Museum, the Gearshack, and KALA Gallery. “The growth has been a group effort,” Broderick said. “The great thing about the Gathering is that we never had to persuade anyone. It was eagerly received and supported from day one.”
The 70 poets participating is up from the original 40 in 1998. “The poets that come have heard about us largely by word-of-mouth. In 1998, I placed an ad in an Alaska magazine asking for poets and got a nice response,” Broderick said. “While we’ve had a big bump in poets, it’s the increase in audience numbers that has been astounding. We felt like we were taking a huge risk with two venues, now we’re almost in over our heads. It’s fantastic.”
Broderick and his fellow committee members decided the Gathering would give fishermen and women an important outlet. “The idea is similar to the western cowboy culture,” he said. “They would gather together after long hours of hard work and share tall-tales in the bunkhouse.”
The Gathering centers on occupational poetry, which give audiences a glimpse at the everyday work of commercial fishermen, from the mundane to the dangerous. “It’s occupational poetry, or someone writing about their work,” Broderick said. “Work is what everyone spends most of their day doing, and it’s good to share that. There’s too much poetry written about love and not enough about work.”
Above all, the Gathering is a chance for participants and audiences to enjoy the opportunity to connect and reflect as they listen to poetry. “More than anything, we don’t take this too seriously,” Broderick said. “This should be fun. It’s a chance to celebrate life’s work and each other, and the opportunities to do that during the day are few-and-far-between.”
To learn about the FisherPoets Gathering schedule of events, learn about how to participate, donate, or become an event volunteer, log onto www.fisherpoets.org