Poetry, the art of Maya Angelou, Robert Frost and William Shakespeare, can be an intimidating thing, especially for a novice presenting one’s compositions aloud to others.
But intimidation is a relative thing. Powering through 30-foot seas, banking on unpredictable seasonal income and working in a world of sharp hooks, slippery metal, tangling nets, constantly swaying footing and a cold, deep, unforgiving ocean isn’t exactly comforting.
It’s dramatic, inspiring, exhilarating, beautiful and idealized, but can just as easily be dull, discouraging, heartbreaking, harsh and vilified. And all of that makes commercial fishing fertile grounds for poetic creativity.
“When you start thinking about commercial fishing — whether you’re a set-netter or you’re a drift-netter or a seiner — whatever type of commercial fishing you do, you’re associated with the water. That presents its own set of challenges but it also presents its own unique beauty. So whether you’re trying to catch fish on a calm sea with an orca surfacing near you or you’re riding up 30-foot breaking waves trying to survive the day, there’s a lot of inspiration to write about there from the struggles that you go through,” said Pat Dixon, keynote presenter at this weekend’s Kenai Fisher Poets gathering.
Fisher Poets began in Astoria, Ore., as a way for fishermen to gather, catch up and share the stories, songs and poems the season inspired, along with, perhaps, a beer or a few. Since the first in February 1998, it’s been an annual tradition in Astoria, and other Fisher Poets gatherings have sprouted up in fishing communities along the West and East coasts, as well as in Alaska. These regional, on-the-road events are a great way to introduce newcomers to the Fisher Poets scene, and even to each other.
It’s this social aspect that Dixon particularly enjoys about the events, as that’s what drew him in the first place. After commercial fishing for 20 years in Cook Inlet in the summers and teaching photography in Kenai in the winters, Dixon took a teaching job at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., in 1997, sold out of his commercial fishing operation and relocated south with his family.
“It didn’t take me very long to realize that I really, really missed being in Alaska and I very much missed commercial fishing,” he said.
A friend introduced him to the second ever Fisher Poets Gathering in Astoria, and he was immediately hooked.
“It felt like going home,” he said, since Astoria was a commercial fishing town. He walked into the bar hosting the Fisher Poets events, “And all of a sudden there’s these folks that have had fishing history who look a lot like fishermen I’ve known, even though I didn’t know many of them. And they’re reading their poems and singing their songs and telling their stories.”
It was fascinating getting introduced to people through their poems and music, and getting to hear the stories behind the poems after they sat down from the mic.
“It really helped pull me out of the depression I was feeling for having left commercial fishing. Because it gave me contact with that world in a way, even though I wasn’t out there catching fish,” Dixon said.
Regional events, like this weekend’s Kenai Fisher Poets, are an even better chance to catch up with friends and get to know new ones, he said.
“A lot of times these smaller ones are more intimate because you get to talk about your work and share your life and become closer friends with the people you’re performing with,” he said.
Be they experienced Fisher Poets or first-timers. Everybody’s got to start somewhere. Dixon started his first time attending Fisher Poets in Astoria.
“I immediately went into the back room and wrote something new and read it at open mic the next night,” he said.
Of course, Dixon was already a writer. He’s an Artist Trust Edge Literary Program graduate, has been published in Cirque Literary Journal, Oberon Poetry magazine, The Smithsonian, Pacific Fishing, Oregon Coast magazine and others, and has two published chapbooks, “Fat City” and “Swimming with Fish and Other Animals.”
“All my life I have used poetry to express emotion,” he said, and he gravitated toward writing about his commercial fishing experiences.
His first fishing-related poem was inspired by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, while the oil was spreading beyond Prince William Sound and approaching Cook Inlet.
“It was before our season started but I was convinced even then that we weren’t going to have a season. So I sat in my truck one day on the beach — I’d just finished getting my boat ready for the season in June — and I wrote the first fishing poem I ever had written. What I tried to do was describe, if I was standing on land, what it was that I would be missing by not being out there. So it was a celebration of fishing but it was also a lament because of the fact that we weren’t going to get a window (to go fish),” he said.
“I fished for 20 years and I haven’t fished for 15 and I’m still finding that my experiences fishing are inspiring poems. In those 20 years I got a lot of stories, a lot of poems, just a lot of experiences that keep feeding my writing that way,” he said.
And it’s different for everyone, because everyone’s fishing experience is different. Not only gear type — set-netters to drift-netters to trollers, seiners or crabbers — but perspective, humor, voice, spirituality and on and on.
“The people that either get hurt or die, there’s that end of the spectrum, and then there’s also this incredible beauty in fulfilling this way of life where you make your living out on the water, and everything in between. They cover the whole gamut,” Dixon said.
The poets invited to read with Dixon at Friday night’s Fisher Poets Present event certainly run a gamut.
- Meezie Hermansen is a lifelong Cook Inlet East-Side set-netter, working at the family site near Humpy Point every summer since learning to walk. She writes about experiences dealing with the physically demanding work, nature’s elements and the lighter moments of a lifetime spent set-netting.
- Rich King started commercial set-netting in Cook Inlet in 1975 and began drift-netting in 1980. Starting in 2010 he fished in Bristol Bay for two years, then bought a Prince William Sound seiner, on which he still fishes. He touches on some serious themes, but often does so with a humorous approach.
- Steve Schoonmaker has been an Alaska commercial fisherman for 29 years, fishing herring, salmon, crab, halibut and cod. He’s seined, gillnetted, set-netted, long-lined, wrangled horses, guided hunters and worked hatcheries and Alaska Department of Fish and Game camps from Cordova to Togiak. He currently gillnets for salmon out of Cordova. His fishing poems and songs, often in an environmentalist vein, express care and reverence for the resource.
- Brent Johnson has set-netted near his Clam Gulch home for most of his life, providing him ample experiences to capture in his rhythmic, rhyming verses.
- Emilie Springer is a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, completing doctorate research related to commercial fisheries culture and local communities in Alaska. Currently she studies and conducts oral history with fishermen, turning her interviews into character sketchers related to Alaska fishermen and fishing communities. She grew up fishing with her family and she and her husband operate a seiner in Prince William Sound.
- Clark Whitney began fishing out of Wrangell Island in 1964, trolling for kings and silvers. He began drift gillnetting in Bristol Bay in 1979, fishing there for 20 seasons. He has long lined for halibut out of Kodiak, fished for crab and shrimp in Kachemak Bay, and was active in the Prince William Sound herring fishery before the Exxon Valdez spill destroyed it. He has worked for over 20 years as a commercial big game guide and has hunted, fished and trapped in the Bristol Bay watershed from the west side of the Alaska Range to Ugashik Bay since 1970. He currently works as an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Soldotna Middle School during the school year and as a deckhand on a Cook Inlet gillnetter in the summer.
“There are so many people who commercial fish but they do it in so many different ways, even the people who write about commercial fishing in Cook Inlet, nobody writes the same way as anybody else,” Dixon said.
After Friday, it will be time for everyone else to give it a try. During the week Dixon is visiting high schools in the area to talk about writing fishing-related poetry. On Saturday, he’ll give a community workshop on the topic, open to the public. At the same time Saturday, musician and songwriter Robb Justice, of the popular local band 907, will give a workshop on songwriting. Saturday night will be an open mic poetry and music night at the Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof, including a music contest and $100 prize for the best original Fisher Poets song.
And on Sunday will be another open mic event at Triumvirate Theatre in the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna, with a $100 prize for the best original Fisher Poets poem. The hope is to get the local commercial fishing community involved and willing to haul themselves up to the mic, whether they’re old hands at Fisher Poetry, or greenhorns.
The most important thing, Dixon said, is to be authentic.
“Staying honest and writing your own truth, I think, is the most important thing,” he said. “We’re about people reading their own writing and writing from their own experiences, so about the only qualification you have to have in order to read at a Fisher Poets gathering is you have to have been associated with the commercial fishing industry in some capacity. That keeps the voices authentic,” he said.
Just get an idea down on paper. No editing, no censorship, no second-guessing to start with.
“A lot of writers say, ‘Don’t worry about being an editor.’ Worrying about the craft happens in rewriting. But just get it down first,” Dixon said.
Then, be willing to put it out there, and prepared to surprise yourself on how far you might continue to go.
“It’s really interesting watching people who have never written before make the attempt and get up there and read at an open mic the first time, and then four or five years later they’re a regular and they’re writing some really great stuff,” Dixon said.
Dixon said the weekend’s events should have something for everyone — poet or not, or fisherman or not.
“Whether or not you’re involved in commercial fishing or any of that, it’s really just Alaska stories, songs and poetry. Basically what most of us read are stories about life. So they’re going to get a good flavor of the different experiences we all have. So I think anybody would enjoy it,” he said.
For more information on Kenai Fisher Poets, visit www.triumviratetheatre.com.