‘The family owned fishing boat
is gonna become a past tense
unless the quality of regulation
starts making sense.’
— Rob Seitz
From his poem “Priorities”
Jon Broderick likes to share credit whenever he can, but there’s no question the retired Seaside school teacher should be front and center for applause when writing the history of the FisherPoets Gathering.
This weekend’s event will be the 21st annual, a remarkable achievement for an event that, like most fish stories, grows in size with each telling.
Broderick reeled in about three dozen fishers for that first humble gathering at Astoria’s Wet Dog Cafe in 1998; the event has morphed into an annual festival that attracts participants, visitors and media attention from around the world. It didn’t set out to compete with the well-established National Cowboy Poetry event in Elko, Nevada, but it has certainly become an unusual but memorable event on the nation’s calendar.
One hundred and 10 people will recite their poetry at the seven main venues around Astoria, plus three other locales that will host workshops for traditional crafts and fishery issues. The Liberty Theatre will feature the Gathering’s first juried poetry slam called “Poetry at the Line.” Of the poets strutting their stuff, 18 will be making their debut. Not all are grizzled veterans — some are bright newcomers eager to learn the old ways but bringing fresh ideas to the dangerous and uncertain industry.
All the details will appear Thursday in Coast Weekend, including profiles highlighting two poets who have made a particular impact on the fishing community — Elma Burnham, who has founded a movement, The Strength of the Tides Is Hers Also, that supports and empowers women working in the maritime industries, and Rob Seitz, a North Coast fisherman just returned from California who is restoring one of the former Flavel properties in Astoria into a fish market.
The event serves as an opportunity for fishermen and women to share their seafaring tales with fellow devotees they may not have seen in person since last year. Landlubbers are welcome, though they may not catch all the nuanced references to salmon roe, net reels or marlin spikes. Inevitably laced with heavy doses of humor and irony, these creative works entertain audiences while hitting home with additional poignancy to those who have dropped crab pots, mended nets or lost friends to the unforgiving river and ocean.
The poems reflect tales of survivors with a rugged authenticity. A cynic might suggest that it’s remarkable that there are any fishers remaining afloat in a constantly diminishing commercial fleet hard hit by buyouts, ever-changing regulations, cyclical species declines and an overall downturn in the resources.
Broderick earned his credentials during commercial fishing summers in Alaska, and delights in the interplay of poets, young and old. He reflects on the manner in which the poetry performances and accompanying competitions parallel the perilous industry that’s put his kids through college. “We are friendly and competitive, but with an appreciation for what everybody has done,” he said. Fishers compete for the biggest weight slip, yet will pull in their nets and race to the rescue if they hear a “mayday” over the radio.
“We are there to help each other out when needed and that shows in the FisherPoets Gathering.” he said. “People who are strangers can connect because we have in common the work we do.”
With crab selling for less than $3 a pound off the boat — though way, way higher in the stores — it’s no wonder that fishers who do survive have to be smarter and wiser than those forced to pull out their boats and retrain for land careers.
They deserve our admiration and our appreciation — and perhaps the Gathering helps us remember that, even if it is only one weekend a year.
On the web
For more information on FisherPoets Gathering 2018, go to fisherpoets.org