Poetry on deck

A performer reads at the Liberty Theatre during the FisherPoets Gathering.

It’s time for the 2020 version of the FisherPoets Gathering. We’re delighted to welcome the poets and the audiences who will savor their salty tales and applaud their creativity.

Simple statistics are one measure of its remarkable success.

Poets from all over the world will descend on the greater Astoria area for three days of performances. There are seven venues and 112 performance slots.

From a modest start in 1998, it has grown into one of the North Coast’s staple events — right up there with the Crab, Seafood & Wine Festival, the Astoria Regatta and the Scandinavian Midsummer Festival as a must-attend fixture.

“We have always put authenticity over quality,” says founder and organizer Jon Broderick, who anticipates a writer’s annual question about why it flourishes. “It’s all about people who value their profession.”

Broderick, a retired teacher from Cannon Beach, has run a set-net operation on Alaska’s Bristol Bay every summer. His credentials are matched by performers who will come from Canada, Belgium and the East Coast, as well as West Coast ports and Alaska.

Pat Dixon, who edited an anthology of fisher poetry a few years back, spent 20 years gillnetting for salmon in Alaska’s Cook Inlet. More recently joining the ranks was Rob Seitz, who fishes the West Coast and has established a retail outlet in Astoria.

In some ways, the gathering captures the spirit of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, an event created in 1985 which draws thousands to Elko, Nevada, and runs six days. But some performers there are professional poets — not truly working cowhands.

Broderick and fellow organizers Hobe Kytr, Florence Sage and Jay Speakman point to the contrast in their lineup. The performers in Astoria this weekend are fishing professionals; their vibrant poetry is secondary. Their hands are scarred from ropes and hooks; they wash fish guts off their boots every workday. But like cowboys in the bunkhouse, they maintain an oral tradition — except their stories are of ships’ bellies full of sockeye or finicky diesel motors.

Organizers are mindful of keeping their Astoria festival manageable, however, although press coverage in the New York Times and even the BBC attests to its worldwide appeal. “We want to make sure that we don’t get too big,” Broderick says.

What especially delights us when this annual gathering rolls around is the opportunity to celebrate a core part of our North Coast heritage. As the hub of the commercial salmon industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries, scores of canneries lined the Columbia River. As fish populations dwindled, many commercial fishermen relocated seasonally to Alaskan waters.

Fishing is still in our blood, even as working the river and ocean has changed over the decades. Gear is more sophisticated. Regulations abound. Those who survive the rigors of the industry have demonstrated the smarts to ride economic waves, as well as real ones.

And what has not changed is that nothing short of wartime combat can match the dangers on the rough water. FisherPoets capture that essence in visceral words that resonate with veteran fishermen while educating landlubbers. They write of ineffective rain gear, a favorite knife, a filleting technique or a quirk with nets.

Broderick acknowledges that some of the poetry often does not read well on the printed page. “It has to be performed by the artist, the one who has been out there doing the work,” he says.

We join him in welcoming the 2020 poets and thank his team for another potentially fun weekend. As he notes, “I think there is a hunger for authenticity in our culture — and here it is.”

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