They were far from the sea.
Too-damn-many years ago, I was in Elko, Nevada, for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, and I kept running into these two women in work clothes that were in no way “Western.” They were commercial fishermen and “FisherPoets,” see — part of a burgeoning movement to celebrate in verse and music another traditional culture increasingly under siege in the modern world.
They came to Elko to see how the cowfolk did it. We hit it off, and before we parted ways I gave them my beloved CD Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys. They needed it more than I did.
On Sunday morning I caught an OPB story on the FisherPoets Gathering in Astoria, Oregon. The fledgling project those two women were helping to pioneer is an established cultural happening. Hats off to ’em.
A celebration of the commercial fishing industry in poetry, prose and song, the FisherPoets Gathering has attracted fisherpoets and their many fans to Astoria, Oregon the last weekend of February since 1998.
Originally conceived as a modest cultural reunion for far-flung friends in the commercial fishing fleet, the FisherPoets Gathering now attracts nearly a hundred poets, songwriters and storytellers from both the west and east coasts’ commercial fishing communities. They gather in Astoria’s pubs, restaurants and galleries to read for each other and for the hundreds of fisherpoetry fans who come to hear the authentic, creative voices of deckhands and skippers, cannery workers and shipwrights, young greenhorns and old timers, strong women and good-looking men.
There’s something bittersweet about such doings; they tend to celebrate cultures that are well past their golden age and are passing, much to our cost. Commercial fishing, like whaling, beaver trapping, mining, timber-cutting and other extractive endeavors, built America. All of those endeavors were done unsustainably and at great ecological cost. That, of course, must be recognized, and put right to the extent that it can be put right.
But the cultures that grew up around hard, dangerous, real work in the outdoors have much to recommend them, rough as they may be around the edges. We’ve lost a lot of vitality in the transition to a service economy.
I never did any commercial fishing, but some of my best moments in my 20s came on long-range fishing trips with my brother. They were sporting trips, but they gave enough of the taste of life on the salt to understand how it could become not just a living, but a way of life.
The poetry that celebrates that way of life is usually traditional, in a ballad style that would be instantly recognizable to Banjo Paterson. Which is as it should be. You can find some of it at InTheTote.com.
A few years back, Marilyn and Ceili and I went to Newport, Oregon, on the coast, for her spring break. It was one of the best vacation trips of my life. Newport still feels like a real town, one that gets its living from the sea. Gentrification hasn’t flattened it out and turned it into the Land of the Bland.
Perhaps poetry can be an act of resistance — or at least protest — against such doings, which are leaching the soul right out of America.