16th Annual FisherPoets Gathering, Astoria, Oregon

Riki Saltzman, OFN Director

The annual FisherPoets Gathering happens in the dead of winter—the last weekend in February. While this may seem an odd time for most of us to go traipsing off to the wet and windy northwest coast, it’s downtime for salmon fishermen. As poet, fisherman, and teacher Jon Broderick has noted, however, crabbers and longliners are still hard at it. Regardless, this event warms and renews all who take part. Oddly, it’s about everything but the food, which is, admittedly, the end product of what these folks do. As this event makes clear, fish do not become food until fishermen catch them, canneries process them, grocers sell them, and we lucky consumers get to buy and eat them.

Back in the late 1990s, a few commercial fishermen (preferred term by men and women) decided to create a gathering to share their songs, stories, and poetry. FisherPoets was based in part on the highly successful Cowboy Poetry Gathering (Elko, Nevada), which celebrates, presents, and preserves the various cultural traditions around raising range animals. While FisherPoets involves similar kinds of public presentations, it is a way for commercial fishers to renew their ties, catch up on news, and connect with each other. As marine historian Hobe Kytr told me early on, “This is a celebration of commercial fisheries by and for by commercial fishers.”

At the FisherPoets Gathering, working fishermen come together to celebrate who they are, mourn their losses, laugh at their mistakes, tease each other, talk about politics, regulations, and the economy, and then write movingly in poetry and prose about who they are, what they do, and—oh yeah—the fish they catch. Besides the fact that those men and women who produce and perform excellent and moving art have amazingly dangerous and hard jobs, what surprised and delighted me was how many women were and are involved—as deckhands, fishermen, and such—and as excellent writers and performers.

To hear some of the performers, check out “In the Tote” on the FisherPoets Gathering website.

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