Every year, the Pacific flows into poetry: at the Fisher Poets Gathering, mariners take to the stage to recite their poems
The sea is your enemy. The sea is your mistress. The sea wants to claim you. You cannot live without the sea. Four men in a bar down by the pier. Four nuggets of wisdom that they can agree on. The bar feels as if it’s been here since the beginning of time. The men look as if they’ve stepped out of a Jack London novel. Behind the window, the Columbia River is a broad, commanding presence, flowing into the Pacific Ocean here – in Astoria in the northwest of the United States. The men have been sitting here for a couple of beers; everything that needs to be said has been said, and so Jon Broderick says, “Give us a poem, Geno, come on!” Wesley Eugene Leech, known to all as Geno, takes a sip, wipes the foam off his beard – and starts to rhyme. Melds verse to verse, sways gently back and forth, modulates his voice, keeping his eyes closed all the while. I miss the fish but I don’t miss the fishing. Everyone in Astoria knows these lines. Every year, on the last weekend in February, Leech performs this hymn for the whole town, at the start of the Fisher Poets Gathering.
If you can’t say it in 15 minutes then don’t say it all
It is a large, seemingly incongruous event, and it attracts mariners of all ilk: captains, seamen, rope makers, divers, dockhands and stewards. The deep-sea fishermen, the dragnet fishermen, the gillnet fishermen. The former fishermen, and those who dream of becoming fishermen. They come from Oregon, Washington and Alaska, from Canada in the north and California in the south. Last year, there was even a skipper from Finland. The Gathering casts its nets wide, and attracts an entire industry at a moment when it just happens to have a little slack time on its hands: at the end of the crab season and before the salmon start leaping. It all started out small. A few friends, a few poems, a couple of beers – that was the first Gathering in 1998. Now, 80 and more artists perform, and hundreds come to listen.
The idea has grown to become a veritable festival. The main venue is still the Wet Dog Café, with other bars, pubs and museums booked as needed. Although there are also films, workshops and auctions, the beating heart of the festival remains poetry. Each fisherpoet has 15 minutes to perform his or her lyrics. “You don’t need more,” says Leech. “If you can’t say something in 15 minutes then don’t bother saying it all.”
Back at the bar: Leech awakens from his recitation. His friends, Jon Broderick, Jay Speakman and Dave Densmore, clap appreciatively. Great, Geno! Atta-boy. You’re a legend! Leech recalls his first performance. How, wracked with stage fright and doubts and drenched in sweat, he paced the train tracks down by the docks. Would people really want to hear his rhymes? Should he share with them what he had written for himself out on the ocean, between the waves, scribbled down, raw? Rhymes caught with a dragnet. It felt like giving away his intimate diary.
Fisherpoetry takes many different forms. It can be a diary, therapy, eulogy or an ode to joy. Take “Diver Tom”, for example, a poem Leech wrote about his friend Tom the Diver. Leech first read the poem at Tom’s wedding. He had written it especially for the occasion and had gotten a license to marry the couple. The second time Leech read the poem was at Tom’s funeral. They had been out at sea together, at night; Tom dived down – and never resurfaced. An accident. On deck, Leech bellowed until he could bawl no longer. “Just because we’re fishermen and write poems doesn’t mean that they’re only about ‘fishing’. They are about so much more,” he says.
The glasses are empty. The men pile into the pick-up, leave the pier and drive into Astoria. The town, established in 1811 at the mouth of the Columbia River, is the oldest American settlement west of the Rocky Mountains. As early as the 1860s, gigantic factories were built here to can the abundant salmon. Astoria was the “Salmon Canning Capital of the World.” In 1922, the town had a population of nearly 15 000, more than ever before – and never since exceeded. The red light district shone far over the ocean like a beacon and Clark Gable launched his acting career at the local theatre. Today, almost a century later, Astoria is still a fishing town, but the industry is struggling.
Fishing was the opposite of my upbringing, that’s why I liked it
All that remains of the piers where the factories once stood tall and proud are wave-lashed pilings. Japanese freighters cruise off shore, making life even more difficult for local fishermen. The going price for a kilogram of salmon has dropped to a mere half dollar. The steep streets of Astoria may bear a superficial resemblance to those of San Francisco, and downtown is being prettified with bars and cafés, but many of the Victorian houses on the hill are falling down. The general sense of dilapidation and past glory is another reason the Fisher Poets Gathering so important for the whole bay: as an outlet for worries and concerns. As reaffirmation of self. We’re still important. We are many. Nobody is going to put us down.
Jon Broderick, one of the men from the bar, cruises along the coastal road. Broderick co-founded the festival, taking the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Nevada as inspiration. Dammit if the fishermen didn’t have the better stories to tell! Tales that told of everything. Broderick knew that from personal experience; he himself fished and wrote. In the Alaska Fisherman’s Journal, in the chunks of poetry scribbled on can labels and crammed between the catch prices and weather report he found like-minded folks. Broderick called the people who had submitted poems, and most accepted. Broderick’s real profession is teaching. He had just graduated from university, the ink still wet on his diploma, when he hitchhiked up to Alaska for an adventure and bumped into a skipper looking for men to join his crew. That is how Mr. Broderick, the high school teacher, became Jon, the fisher.
When Dave Densmore, the third man from the bar, counts the ships he has owned, it sounds like a list of past love affairs: Charlotte Bee, Cassandra Anne, Ronda. Fishermen are romantically inclined souls, you can tell by the names they give their boats. Densmore wrote his first poem when he was hung over sometime in the 1970s; it was intended as a joke. He’s been through three divorces since, and turned each one into poetry. “I have two big passions in my life: fishing and poetry,” he says. Densmore is sitting in the cabin of his sailing boat, a bear of a man; the open laptop in his hands looks like a pocket calculator. He wants to read another poem, but the barking of the sea lions starts up again.
This cacophony is the soundtrack of the town. Day and night, the sea lions bark and honk; they have become a problem for the fishermen because they get caught in the nets, tear into them, devour the fish. There are thousands of sea lions here, so many that some are caught, tranquilized and flown down to the Gulf of Mexico, only to return two weeks later – but that’s a different story. There are many poems about the sea lions. Strictly speaking, quoting the poems on paper is frowned upon. Broderick, the co-founder, says: “This is about the spoken word. The lyrics must be bellowed out into the world! Printed, they are rigid. They lose their magic when they’re printed.”
Before the Fisher Poets Gathering was set up, the fishermen would read their notes over their VHF radios. They spoke about the catch in the hold, lost comrades, the beauty of the moon. And about the next prostate examination. Their last woman. About liquor. Leech started out this way, so did Densmore and all the others. The last fishermen out on the ocean were their first audience. Silent, understanding listeners.
At the Gathering fishermen who never wanted to be famous are stars. And when it’s a fisherpoet’s turn, he doesn’t walk up to the stage, but gets up from his seat in the audience and recites. As one of them, for them. The poetry readings were interspersed with job announcements: a trawler needs a new mate, oilers required at short notice, good pay. It is the unique mood that gives the event its special charm, the feeling of going back in time, of timelessness. Anyone who plucks up the courage to step up to the microphone is greeted with applause. The festival’s success attracted investors and promoters, who told Broderick they would bring the event to TV screens across the United States. “We’ll make you twice as big,” they promised. Broderick replied: “You don’t need to throw wood on fire that’s already blazing.” It was a stubborn response, typical of a fisherman; the promoters didn’t understand and left again.
Two days later, a training ship is moored in Astoria’s industrial port. Thick fog sits on the bay, the sun shimmers dimly like a torch through a blanket. Leech is on board to teach the next generation. Everyone has on a life vest, including him – health and safety regulations. There is no one in the world on whom a life vest looks more out of place. For year, the sailing school wooed him, asking him to come and teach, but Leech had his own catch to take care of. A year ago, he finally accepted, nine days after signing off to look after his sick wife. Nine days of being a pensioner. Leech isn’t the kind of man to sit around doing nothing. “Fishing was the opposite of the unadventurous upbringing my parents gave me,” he says, “and that’s why I liked it so much.”
Leech writes by hand, on paper that looks like it was used to wipe down the engine. His friends have been on breakfast TV and made guest appearances at other festivals. Leech writes the best poems, but doesn’t care whether anyone is interested in them or not. If someone wants to hear a poem, he’ll read one. If nobody asks then he’s not about to go chasing up an audience. Geno Leech gave the sea four decades of his life. He lives between Cape Disappointment and Dismal Nitch, over there, in Chinook.
Suddenly, the radar blinks. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s damn big,” says the captain. “And it’s right below us.” After a few seconds of nervous silence a whale leaps up alongside the bows. The lads, trainee sailors and fishermen, dash over and take out their smartphones. Geno Leech remains alone on the port side, leaning up against the railing. He gazes at the gigantic fin, considers the whale underneath and says that he might write about it.