Words Washed in with the Tide: FisherPoet Fieldwork in Port Townsend

by Julie Meyer, Folklore Graduate Student

On a drizzly Thursday afternoon in March, I threw my camping gear into my car and headed north towards Port Townsend, Washington, with my dog and my recorder in tow. During the long car ride I could feel the adrenaline of conducting my first solo fieldwork expedition motivating me.Only a month earlier I had been in Astoria, Oregon, attending the annual FisherPoets Gathering as a student fieldworker representing the Oregon Folklife Network. After building rapport with a few of the women FisherPoets in Astoria, I was invited to attend the She Tells Sea Tales event in Port Townsend, Washington. This event was hosted in support of the Girls Boat Project, an organization created to support the young women of the community in their pursuit of the seas.

As the event kicked off to a start in the Northwest Maritime Center, I was able to hear sea shanties sung, stories told, poetry read, and prose performed. The range of performances included both original folk art and traditional folklore from women and girls from across the Pacific Northwest.

The day after the event I was able to meet with Erin Friestad for an hour long interview in a café in the city center, and she shared with me stories of her time working at sea as well as her work as a poet. While I had originally hoped to pull more interviews from my time in Port Townsend, I was able to establish deeper relationships with the fisherwomen I have come to admire for their strength and perseverance.

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.