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When Commercial Fishermen Get Together to Recite Poetry

Ever year, hundreds of commercial fishermen gather in Astoria, Oregon, to present their poems and talk about an industry in flux.
Astoria, Oregon. (Photo: goingslo/Flickr)

Astoria, Oregon. (Photo: goingslo/Flickr)

The annual Fisher Poets Gathering is pretty much exactly as advertised: A group of around 70 mostly commercial fishermen from mostly the Pacific Northwest and Alaska gather in Astoria, Oregon, to read mostly poetry, mostly about commercial fishing. It draws hundreds of people—one account said 700—to hear poems, songs, and stories of this profession, the kind of talk and art that has always flooded and buoyed those who do this work, but that most people never hear.

The poetry of fishing runs deep and draws from oral traditions both ancient and modern. At the Fisher Poets Gathering, you'll hear historians singing shanties formerly sung shipboard and ashore, and you'll hear audiences join in. In more recent times, high-powered ship-to-ship radio communication has allowed fishermen to be in touch with one another—and to "while away long hours at sea when waiting for the fish to bite by sharing recipes, stories and poems." Writing, as mentioned in the documentary Fisher Poets, has similarly strong maritime ties in the form of fishermen's letters home, to loved ones, and so on.

"Every next year seems to be a big year in fishing. That's how it traps you. The quick money traps you, when it is there. The hard work on the water—which I admit I love with that still-kicking poetic corner of my older wiser wayward soul—traps you with its freedom from the nine to five grind."

The work at the festival ranges widely. In 2012, Lara Lee Messersmith-Glavin gave a long and meandering account of sex, drugs, hippie parents, and fishing. In 2012 and again in 2013, I was most moved by the poems of work, mostly construction and carpentry, by former fisherman Clem Starck. These two were professionalized kinds of writers, presenting polished and powerful pieces of work. Much of the work from the festival has been collected in the book, Salt in Our Veins, a long-running zine called Xtra Tuf, and a site known as In the Tote.

In all those spaces, and on stages in Astoria, there is room for other members of the commercial fishing community to take their turn, whether they be fishers, family members, or friends. The event's poetry contest, where a given theme and certain formal restrictions are supplied, is open to all attendees. Beyond poetry, there's room for activism, for the politics of the Columbia River, for science about Fukushima or ocean acidification, for art, or for just hanging out, drinking, and commiserating.

COMMERCIAL FISHING IS DANGEROUS and sometimes fatal work. From 2000-2010, the average annual death rate for commercial fisherman was almost nine times that of the average American worker. This drives and underlines a lot of the poems and stories, as in these two lines by Hobe Kytr: "Here's to the Triumph and her gallant crew / They went out, but they didn't come back." Or take the case of a man named Larry Hills, who went out to fish, and while casting his nets, got tangled up in a line that left him motionless and exposed for two full days, and kept him knotted next to his dead deckhand, Dick Cooley. Blood flow all but cut off, unable to move, Hills was eventually rescued by the Coast Guard in the teeth of a storm. In 2012, a silent audience listened to Hills, one of a crew of two, tell his story in a quiet and completely undramatic tone.

Even when all is going more or less well, you’re still on a boat, far from home. As Buck Meloy writes in “Potatoes” from Salt in Our Veins:

[W]hen one is working this hard, and constant wind, wave, and rain guarantee that he is wet, cold, tired, and miserable, little things like something hot to eat, or even just a cup of coffee, can take on a much greater importance.

We can get used to no clean underwear, jellyfish stings, itchy scalp and skin due to heavy sweat and no way to bathe, salt-stiff hair, stiff socks, clammy wet gear, strong odors. But that doesn't mean we like them.

A majority—57 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—of the fishermen are self-employed, which is an added burden in a volatile industry, where the median salary comes in at around $33,430 per year but your take is often determined by how much you catch. Yet, despite the danger and the uncertainty, as Aili Farquhar writes in Extra Tuf 6, a unique appeal remains:

Biologists say next year will be big, as there are so many small crab. Every next year seems to be a big year in fishing. That's how it traps you. The quick money traps you, when it is there. The hard work on the water—which I admit I love with that still-kicking poetic corner of my older wiser wayward soul—traps you with its freedom from the nine to five grind. Five months to do as you please with no work to do traps you. Fucking up and celebrating too much before, during, after fishing (of this I am guilty) traps you.

The event peaks with the last nighttime event: the poetry contest, which fills the Astoria Event Center. In both 2012 and 2013, everybody seemed rollicking and joyous. The big room was crammed with loud voices and clapping, as attendees voted for their favorite pieces, all written just for that event, just for that moment, and delivered by both new and old faces. The themes of the two competitions: "work is our joy" and "fishing is complicated." The winners: Hillel Wright, now in his 70s, and Chloe Rathmell, then 12.