As the 20th annual FisherPoets Gathering kicks off in Astoria, Oregon, meet the fishermen and women who plumb emotional depths as well as literal ones
(First published in American Way magazine, February 2017. With photography by Malte Jaeger)
In the winter of 1998, in the waterfront town of Astoria, Oregon, a handful of fishermen got together to do something fishermen rarely do: recite verse. Around 40 budding poets came to the Wet Dog Cafe, Astoria’s oldest microbrewery. By the end, according to one of them, there were lots of “big, burly fishing dudes with tears in their eyes.”
This month, the FisherPoets Gathering enters its 20th year, with performances in venues across town. In the words of the website, visitors can expect “deckhands and skippers, cannery workers and shipwrights, young greenhorns and old timers, strong women and good-looking men.”
Last year, around 1,500 people paid $15 for the button that gives access to all the events over the weekend—mostly open mic readings delivered by around 100 poets with commercial fishing experience.
“We’re adamantly non-commercial and real inclusive,” says Jon Broderick, a fisherman and former high school teacher who organized the original event, and who still plays a big role. “The whole thing is authentic, not polished. The experiences are genuine, and the songs and poetry are honest.”
“It’s a real love fest,” says Dave Densmore, an old-school captain who has been fishing since he was 12 years old. “Most of us are talking about something we love and have given our lives to.”
Densmore doesn’t see any disconnect between casting nets and writing verse. “There’s real poetry in fishing,” he says. “You can’t live that close to nature without seeing the spiritual side of it.”
There’s also, for Densmore, an element of changing perceptions. “We want to show another side to this industry. Show people that there’s a human story behind that piece of fish in Styrofoam: blood, sweat and tears; a guy who missed Christmas with his family; a guy who lost a finger.”
Stories are not in short supply among the men and women who gather in Astoria, a town where the logging and fishing industries have largely given way to microbreweries, art galleries and “a sort of shabby cachet” in the words of one fisherpoet. We meet some of the people who will be telling them.
The bay is flat and greasy
and the mudflats feel like Mars.
Past buoys long neglected
we head south among the bars
Where sometimes the sea is breaking
when it kicks up hard southeast
and water, dark and angry,
tries to swamp you on the beach.
—from “Hell to Pay”, by Jon Broderick
Now 62, the founder of the FisherPoets Gathering has been a commercial salmon fisherman since 1976. He lives in Cannon Beach, Oregon, and fishes with his four sons in Alaska’s Bristol Bay each summer.
“From that first phone call 20 years ago, people have been remarkably enthusiastic. Of the 41 people I contacted who’d written poetry in The Alaska Fisherman’s Journal, 40 showed up. It’s created a sort of fisherpoetry genre that’s now thriving around here.
“Fishermen are often natural storytellers and some of their experiences have been tough. At our Saturday afternoon story circle a few years ago, a fellow was telling about a terrible accident in the 1980s when he and his partner got wrapped up in the trawl. His partner was killed and the guy was pinned to the net reel for three days in the winter while his boat idled along. He was nearly dead when the last pass of the Coast Guard plane spotted him. The diver who saved his life showed up at the story circle. They hadn’t met for over 25 years. It was a pretty moving reunion.”
Recall the oily lazaret
Where we stored spare web for patches
We’d flip for chores—who lost that bet
Ventured through those nether hatches.
Chances lost and fish holds plugged,
Words at the galley table;
Exhausted, laboring as if drugged,
When we were young and able.
Round and round Alaska’s bays
We hauled the seine in circles.
Now 20 years on, we tell play by plays
Like amateur Studs Terkels.
—“Old Parts”, by Moe Bowstern
An artist, writer and musician, Bowstern became a deckhand and cook in Kodiak, Alaska, at age 18. Working on commercial fishing boats on and off since, she is also the founding editor of fishing-themed zine Xtra Tuf.
“When I was 22, in normal life, I was too loud,too everything. But up in Alaska I wasn’t enough. You need to get stronger, mentally and physically; you have to become a badass.
“It could be lonely on board commercial fishing boats—people grunt, stop talking, stop being human—but there’s also so much beauty. It can feel like the stars are raining down on you.I wouldn’t trade comfort and hot water for the sight of the Pleiades on a moonless night out at sea.
“Seeing these macho guys open up [at readings] is something really beautiful. There was one old skipper I knew from Alaska, this sour divorced guy who had no time for me. But he started reading at the FisherPoets Gathering and it turned out his writing is gorgeous. It’s totally changed the way we see each other, and he and his daughters love me now.”
Well, we’d made a mile or so,
When we saw a crabber’s lights approaching.
It was the only other crab boat
That was even out there on the ocean.
We’d thought her a hundred miles away,
But God, she was a beautiful sight!
Her lights were on us, we were saved,
As she came charging from the night!
But suddenly she seemed to turn away!
Or at least she was running on past!
I grabbed our lone parachute flare,
As my crew just stared aghast!
We sat there in that bouncing raft,
Watching her lights fade away.
Until I said, “Well, grab an oar.”
There was nothing else to say.
—from “The Ride”, by Dave Densmore
A native of Kodiak, Alaska, “Dangerous” Dave Densmore bought his first boat at 13 and was the youngest king crab skipper in the Bering Sea at 23. In 1971, he and three crew members spent four days on a life raft in a violent storm—an incident recalled in the excerpt above. In 1985, his father and son were killed in a fishing accident. Always “happier on the ocean,” he lives on a 54-foot ketch in Astoria.
“I didn’t allow myself to think we’d die on that raft. On the first night, I told my guys the rules: We weren’t gonna talk about food, water, wives, girlfriends. It was just the four of us, the raft and the now. Eventually, we almost got run over by a Japanese trawler. It flipped the raft. Luckily, they let us onboard, all shivering and shaking.
The Japanese sailors took turns to bring Savlon and warm water and massage my purple, frostbitten feet. Without them, I was told I would have lost both feet. “When I lost my father and son, I lost everything. It was mighty dark for a couple years, and I didn’t write for a while. But eventually writing a poem about my son helped me come to terms with what had happened. I read it for the first time in public at the FisherPoets Gathering. There was a guy and his wife in the audience who’d lost their son and they weren’t doing too well. Of course, I think about him all the time, and the kids he might have had. But you can find a silver lining if you look hard enough.
“At the FisherPoets Gathering, there’s just this sense of being with people who’ve been around the same things and had amazing experiences. You hear of a lot of miracles out there. I’m not a religious man, but I can see the spirituality in it all.”
I cursed the day and the buckshot spray
and I cursed the incessant motion.
And I cursed the wind and I cursed the tide
and I cursed the Atlantic Ocean.
Then I cursed all the knots in that snarl of pots,
and every damned inch of rope.
But the only thing I wouldn’t curse,
I wouldn’t curse my boat.
—from “A Tale of the Old Muddy Reef”, by Jay Speakman
Now 67, Speakman spent 12 years as a lobster fisherman in Maine before heading to Alaska and British Columbia to fish halibut, salmon, herring and king crab. He and his wife now run an art, and furnishings store in Cannon Beach, Oregon.
“We spend a lot of time in an environment that’s little seen and little appreciated. Out there, you see the food chain, the flow of life—it connects you. A lot of the poetry is about expressing that appreciation, without getting too mushy about it. We’re not celebrating it in a way that is cocky. It’s a very humble profession. You have full-grown men talking about how they feel watching the color slowly drain from a beautiful salmon—the sorrow of that, the need for a kind of forgiveness. It’s not just drinking and having fun.”
I don’t miss the bar crossings
and backbreakin’ toil,
The ice forks and shovels
and salt-water boils,
Diesel-fouled foc’sles with
The stink, and the sweat,
the gurry and funk…
Sometimes at night,
in a tea cozy warm bed,
I think of the years
that I stood on my head,
and Albacore jiggin’,
I miss the fish,
but I don’t miss the fishin’.
—from “I Miss the Fish but I Don’t Miss the Fishin’ ”, by Geno Leech
Leech lives between Cape Disappointment and Dismal Nitch in Washington state. A former merchant seaman and Gulf Coast dredger, he also worked in commercial fishing off the Oregon and Washington coast.
“Most of my poems are about other people and boats. The thrill is in the hunt, a bit like fishing—sitting with that empty piece of paper, not knowing the ending, trying to hook something.
“I like [reading] with music; it holds the crowd better, especially when you rock it and sock it with a rhymer. ‘Poet poets’ tend to frown on the rhymers—they look at you like you’re an accordion player—but here it works. I load up the adjectives, then hit ’em with the rhyme.
“Broderick and the guys could have cashed in and gone big with this. But they’ve kept it real, and they’ve not let it become over-developed. For me, I just like the rush of being on a stage.”