February 13, 2014
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.
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.