Fishermen Poets Bond at Oregon Gatheringby Joseph B. Frazier, Associated Press
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - February 27, 2005
ASTORIA, Ore. -- The storytelling began in the dead of the night among lonely fishermen talking by radio on the open sea. Now commercial fishermen from all over the Pacific Coast come to this old port town each year to hear their fellow anglers' tales in a more formal setting - on stage at the Fisher Poets' Gathering.
The festival, modeled loosely on the annual cowboy poets' meeting in Nevada, has become a place for fishermen to bond and pay tribute to an industry - and a way of life - that is slowly disappearing.
Some of the poems and songs shared at this weekend's gathering celebrated the joys of the open sea, but others touched on the difficult and often dangerous life of a fisherman, shelving any romantic notions of how the fish filet gets from the briny deep to a Styrofoam tray.
John Van Amerongen of Vashon, Wash., a former fisherman who edits the Alaska Fishermen's Journal, told a tale of a greenhorn who yearned to leave his shore job to scoop up the riches of Alaska's Bering Sea.
The boy signs on to a boat where 600-pound crab pots pin him down and cost him some fingers. Six years later, the boy says: "I still need two hands just to order three beers."
"I didn't know what to do with the kid," Van Amerongen said of the poem. "I didn't want to kill him, but I wanted people to know that nothing's free on the Bering Sea."
John Palme of Juneau, Alaska, wrote about how he spent the best years of his life "working on a boat named for somebody else's ex-wife."
"Take it from me, the seafood industry will chew you up and spit you out for sure," he sang. "I always come back for more."
The gathering was the inspiration of Jon Broderick, who teaches high school French near Astoria and fishes commercially in Alaska during the summer with his sons. He said he and his friends had dreamed of getting other fishermen together to share their poetry.
He contacted Amerongen, who had been including literary snippets among market prices and other data in his publication for years, and Amerongen sent back a list of names.
"I wrote to 40 of them and hoped maybe a dozen would come," Broderick said. "All 40 showed up."
Although the gathering has grown, Broderick said organizers have tried to keep it unpretentious and open to all. Admission fees and donations go toward covering participants' expenses, including travel stipends for those who come from far away.
"If you have fished for a living or have fishermen in your family you can have 15 minutes (on stage) just like everybody else," he said.
However, some participants wonder how much longer the festival will last. Geno Leech of Chinook, Wash., who fished for years and now owns a seafood restaurant, said the poems might outlive not just the fishermen but the fishing industry itself as fish populations dwindle.
"When one fishery goes down everybody jumps on another one and puts pressure on it," Leech said.
Astoria, a port town about 90 miles northwest of Portland, is a textbook example. A century ago, more than 40 salmon canneries rattled and clanked along the lower river. They are gone now, victims of dwindling salmon runs.
Astoria tuna fisherman Dave Densmore recited a long poem about the loss of his son and father on the water 20 years ago.
The poem concluded: "If not for the love of it what the hell else would anyone here do?"
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