13th Fisher Poets Gathering

Three days ago I had no clue what a Fisher Poet Gathering was.

I knew what a poet was, I had a good idea what a fisher was, and I have been to my fair share of so-called gatherings, but I had no clue what these three words meant when strung together, nor what they would mean to me after a weekend at The Fisher Poets Gathering in Astoria, Oregon. In retrospect, I can only compare it to what it must have been like when The Beats of the 50s began to get notice – Ginsburg, Burroughs, Kerouac, or the early days of Johnny Cash and Sun Records, or maybe a little closer to home, the creation of “Grunge Music”.

Now, in its thirteenth year, the gathering welcomed more than 1000 patrons, many of which appeared to be well worn professional seamen. The Fisher Poets Gathering offered some 70 different performers. Men and women, all fishing industry professionals – Real skippers and deck hands, real cannery workers. Many represented generations of fishermen, the once common experience of children working with their parents, perhaps only in fishing does this still exist. The performances were varied, brilliant and done with gut wrenching sincerity. I can say in all of the scheduled poets there was not one that was mediocre, not one. Sure, some I liked more than others, but that is only personal preference, it was all quality, it was all profound in it’s own way.

There were four participating venues – the main event was held at the Astoria Event Center, which was broadcast on KMUN, the local community radio station, The Voodoo Room, The Wet Dog Cafe, and Baked Alaska. Plus, several related short films showed at the Columbian Theater – right next to The Voodoo Room, and there were two art shows and a variety of Saturday workshops. Every single event was packed. Each hour offered three performers and then 5 or 10 minutes to get to the next program – downtown Astoria is so especially suited to an event such as this because everything in downtown is within about a three block radius.

What I witnessed is what I imagine would be Jack London or John Steinbeck’s dream for the men and women depicted in their stories. These are hard working, hard living men and women, who are smart, thoughtful and sometimes brilliant. “There is no ego here”, Dave Densmore, Astoria’s most famous “Fisher Poet” says of the event. “We flex our ego out there”, motioning toward the sea.

There were some stars, but all of the stories, songs and poems were beautiful and informative. Each day seemed like the next day could not be better but inevitably it was. On Friday there were certainly a few more nerves than the next few days, and by Sunday the poets were calm and cool.

The weekend began with a musical performance by event founders Jon Broderick and Jay Speakman. I still have the chorus “The girl with dark eyes at the cannery” going through my head, and it has been a few days now. Then we headed to the Voodoo Room for the token cowboy poet Ron McDaniel from Sulphur Springs, Arkansas, (seemed strange but fit perfectly into the program, after all who is as lonely on the job as fishermen but cowboys). He was followed by tales of a haunted tug boat from Fred Bailey of British Columbia and then from Robert Powell of Florida, a story of a 29 foot boat hauling a 95 foot long mast for some 300 miles — and he had the photos to prove it. Also wonderful were Mary Garvey’s beautiful old songs, sung a cappella. She appears to be the musical historian for fishing songs of the region, and there are many. My favorite was ‘Seaview Bells’, as much for the story behind the song, as the fact I live in Seaview.

From there it was over to the Wet Dog for two of the event’s favorites – Dave Densmore and Geno Leech. It was a very warm and tender moment when Dave introduced Geno as his best friend, and read a poem he had written for him. With Dave it is amazing to see such sensitivity pour out of such a dangerous looking fellow, Geno on the other hand goes into a Jim Morrison style trance reciting his words completely from memory with a strange sort of solitary slow dance.

A great surprise was Steve Schoonmaker who especially stood out for the strength and pain of his beautiful words, and I was lucky enough to see him perform again on Saturday. Another interesting performance came from Lara Lee Messersmith Glavin who grew up in a fishing family and told the story of her father’s – a screamer of a skipper – tale of near death on the open seas.

Friday rounded up with the finale at the Astoria Event Center with Clem Stark, a fisher/carpenter poet who won the Oregon State Book Award for his work, and Jon Campbell of Rhode Island performing poetry and songs with a guitar he made. He offered a great poem called “We never looked so bad until Discovery came on board” about the cable channel’s recent love of the fisherman and his experience being under their lens.

Saturday began with the “Story Circle” at the Astoria Convention Center, a half dozen men and women calmly told harrowing tales of loss and near loss. One man recalled nearly dying tangled in nets and ropes, another spoke of loosing a fellow deck hand, reaching out and just touching fingertips as he went over the side. This is a lifestyle for the very few, and those that do it, deserve our honor and respect. I must say here that every single fisherman had a story about death on the seas, which was a real eye opener – all this death and suffering to bring salmon to the world, to put crab on your plate. I will never look at my seafood the same again, I will eat it with thanks and pride. And, I will never ever eat farm raised fish again!

Moe Bowstern, female fisherman and zinester started out our evening program with some songs and some great stories from the seldom heard female perspective, then the encore of Steve Schoonmaker, who with the leathered face of a real tough guy delivered sensitive prose with the mastery of a victorian lord. Next, Rob Seitz from Chinook offered several humorous poems. Aftewards we headed over to The Voodoo Room for another Chinooker, Geno Leech, it was packed, and a wall of poetry fans were forced to watch from the doorway, straining to hear over the street sounds behind us. Giving up on that, I headed to The Wet Dog where the stage was bare, so it was back to the Astoria events center for the finale of the evening with none other than Dave Densmore.

After two unsuccessful days of making it to an open mike event, Sunday was our day, with a morning gospel and then several hours of open mike performances, many of which were extraordinary, and several that put a tear in my eye. Three performances stand out as favorites, Dave Densmore offered a moving story about saving a baby seal that got caught up in a friends net, and a gentleman whose name I did not catch offered a near rap about his boat breaking down, called ‘Pushing A Rope’. Finally, a wheel chair bound Smitty received a standing ovation for his poem and for being the god-father of the Fisher Poets Gathering.

The Gathering disbanded about 1pm on Sunday, most of the speakers milled about afterwards, taking photos, exchanging information, handshakes and hugs. To me this was a mind blowing event, life changing, seriously. I asked a number of people about Fisher Poets in other places, but here in Astoria is the place, and these brave men and women are changing the world with their poetry. I just witnessed what I believe may become the biggest Northwest export since Grunge Music.

-Amy Stocky

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