Fisher Poets of Astoria

Ron McDaniel

Camaraderie Before the Covid Storm

On the shore near the mouth of the great Columbia River, the town of Astoria straddles hillside and riverbank. Historic architecture is uniquely preserved for this salt-laden Coast, with gridded street blocks laid out to ignore the slopes apparent to pedestrians making their way from venue to venue this weekend, between theatres, breweries, and art galleries.

It is a downtown scene far from the Coast I know day-to-day, yet this weekend’s commute to Astoria is much less for me than for most of the FisherPoets, or commercial fishermen turned original performers, that I am to meet. Hailing from Washington, Alaska, Rhode Island, Arkansas, and even Belgium, the FisherPoets have traveled far to be here, and share a close connection to each other and the environment that has shaped their life’s work and writing.

The Gathering
The FisherPoets Gathering in Astoria began in 1998 as a celebration of the commercial fishing industry through poetry, prose, and music. This was a time when declines in Pacific salmon stocks were receiving federal recognition, and fishermen up and down the coast were feeling the pinch.

Tele-Aadsen

To travel far to read poems in this context may sound superfluous at first. Jen Pickett, a “recovered fisherman” after 20 years of fishing across Alaska’s waters, admits that, “for the most part, it is telling stories just to tell stories.”

But the Gathering goes farther than this, by encouraging communal protection of the resources at the base of a fisherman’s livelihood. “You protect what you love, and you can’t love something if you don’t know it,” Pickett explains.

Before making my way to Astoria this year, I talk with Jon Broderick, a commercial fisherman since the 70’s, about how he and others organized the first FisherPoets Gathering. He humbly begins, “The extent to which I’m the founder of it is just because I made the first phone calls. A lot of people climbed right aboard and wanted to help me from the start.”

First on his list of phone calls was John van Amerongen, then editor of a magazine called the Fisherman’s Journal that, in addition to the usual industry news, ran poems by fishermen. Van Amerongen led Broderick to contact the 40 fisher poets that had previously been published in the magazine to see if they’d be interested in performing during the winter off-season in Astoria. To his amazement, 39 agreed, and said they’d bring their friends. Performers lined up and other calls were made to Julie Brown, a Creative Writing instructor at Clatsop Community College experienced in the occupational poetry genre, and Hobe Kytr, a historian who had worked at several coastal heritage centers.

Meezie Hermansen

“Next thing I knew, we had an event,” Broderick says.

The FisherPoets Gathering has been held during the last weekend of February for 23 years. Broderick still sounds surprised when he remarks, “We never expected anyone other than fishermen to be very interested in coming. Now we’ve plugged every venue [in Astoria] including the 600-seat Liberty Theatre. We don’t know quite what to do if too many more people come, we might have to start ticketing it which would be way over our heads.” He laughs in exasperation, “But it is encouraging that people want to come and hear authentic stories and authentic experiences.”

Different Backgrounds,
Diverse Performances
During the weekend’s nights of performances and venue shuffling, whenever I found myself looking downward, my eye caught onto the pattern of what seemed an equal measure of Xtratuf’s, Blundstone’s, and Romeo’s. If the typecasts that accompany these shoe brands were telling of a diverse cast of characters in attendance at each location, then the performances themselves further validated my developing hunch.

Joel Brady Power

At one venue, a traditional shanty sang by an individual was soon followed by a “sea lion serenade” from a full band. In another locale, gravelly, old-time fisher voices brought the audience into the tales being told, while next up were calls to address climate change that flung us back into the current reality. One work compared the sexist acts of other fishermen to the actions of our bully president, while another connected the story of a deckhand going overboard to the many homeless individuals left adrift in the current housing crisis across the states.

What makes such an all-encompassing collection of people and works possible?

“Plenty of commercial fishermen don’t write a lick about it,” Broderick says. “But a number of us find our work lends itself to reflection and writing. Sometimes it’s a matter of commiserating, sometimes it’s a matter of celebrating, like a lot of jobs I suppose, but maybe more so than most. Fishing is tedious, its solitary sometimes, its elating—you’re out in nature in ways most people aren’t anymore.”

My conversations with FisherPoets over their continental breakfast at Astoria’s Riverwalk Inn in the morning emphasize Broderick’s point, and provide context for their nuanced performances.

Some FisherPoets began fishing as children in their families’ businesses, while others began independently later on. Some have now ended their time commercial fishing, while others still call this their primary livelihood.

For example, Tele Aadsen, who salmon fishes out of Sitka, Alaska on the aptly named Nerka, began fishing with her parents, who moved from inland Alaska to the coast after saving enough money from their veterinary practice to buy a boat. Later on, her parents separated, and Aadsen choose as a teenager to continue crewing with her mom while her father left fishing. Eventually, her mom had to make the hard choice to leave fishing as well, but Aadsen continued salmon fishing with other boats. But eventually, she says, “I got burned out as an angry 20-year-old. I worked on some boats I shouldn’t have and ended up bailing to be a social worker in Seattle for six years. Then I came back to fishing when I burned out in a different way.”

Career changes to or from fishing weren’t unusual for many who share their stories with me, including Annie Howell-Adams, who now runs an antique store in the San Juan Islands, but made a 12-year-long career trolling for salmon out of Alaska. In college, Howell-Adams got a degree in marine biology out of the desire to experience the natural world. However, she discovered that “a lot of science is actually really dull and boring. I ended up being in a laboratory and looking under a microscope, and that wasn’t really what I wanted out of science, I wanted adventure. Fishing, of course, was a lot of adventure.” Little did she know at that time, some 25 years after she stopped commercial fishing, Howell-Adams would begin writing and performing about her time on the water.

Becoming a FisherPoet
The people behind the diverse works at the FisherPoets Gathering were clearly molded by their personal experiences, but also by the opportunity for creative and personal growth that the event provides. For many participants, performing their written works here wasn’t something they initially envisioned for themselves, and the title of FisherPoet is something they are still coming to terms with in one way or another.

“I had some underlying anxiety in that way we all have that imposter syndrome show up,” reflects Aadsen. “I was thinking, ‘well I don’t write poetry, maybe I don’t belong here as an essayist’.” However, other performers quickly brought her into the fold, emphasizing that “whatever voice you use to celebrate this unique experience we’ve all shared, there’s a place for that here.” She continues, “The term FisherPoet fit as soon as I understood that it was all of us who had this experience of commercial fishing, however we choose to express our experiences.”

“I’m an introvert, and public speaking was way down on my list,” recounts Meezie Hermansen, a net-setter based in Alaska. “But my sister talked me into this, and I thought this would be a one-time thing. The only reason I did it is because I’m not from here, so I thought ‘I’ll never see these people again, how bad can it be?’. Then the hearts that I met,” she leaves off, looking at the other FisherPoets around the table we are seated at. Twelve years later, she is still coming and performing, encouraged by the core friendships formed here.

In a similar vein, seven years ago, Joel Brady-Power attended his first FisherPoets Gathering with his life and fishing partner Tele Aadsen. While Aadsen came that year with the specific intention of performing her work, Brady-Power was just along for the ride. On the last night and after the last organized set of performances, the Onsite Poetry Contest took place. “The whole weekend had been so inspiring,” he recalls, “I was sitting in the back, they were announcing it, telling everyone to come up to the stage, and I suddenly got an idea and wrote it down on a napkin. That was my first poem, and the next year I was onstage.”

On the other hand, some found their first year of attendance inspiring to a different effect. Jon Campbell of Rhode Island remembers, “the first year I came out to FisherPoets I was so gobsmacked, I probably didn’t write anything for a year after.”

Campbell, a musician inducted in the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame in 2019, writes songs about culture along the coast and plays a bouzouki – an instrument he describes as an oversized mandolin. As a musician, he doesn’t use the term FisherPoet to refer to himself,  for more philosophical reasons. “It’s one of those things where if you are a master mechanic, or you’re a master of any kind of thing — that’s a term that other people will apply to you, but you should never use it I don’t think…I’m not comfortable doing that,” he explains. “If other people call me that, great, but I never put it in.”

And then there is the Cowboy Poet. The table I’m seated at is all laughs as I am introduced to Arkansas’s Ron McDaniel and get caught up on his background. About a dozen years ago, some FisherPoets went out to a Cowboy Poetry event in the inland West as a means of cultural “cross-pollination.” McDaniel followed suit in the opposite direction, stepping onto the first fishing vessel he had ever been on right here in Astoria’s waters, and soon enough spent his one and only week fishing with the Broderick brothers on the Nushagak in Alaska. Yet, he keeps coming back.

At a performance the evening prior, McDaniel tells me, he was labeled the “two-headed calf of FisherPoets.” He shrugs, “Every circus has their freakshow, and that would be me.”

Across the table, Campbell suggests it would be better to describe McDaniel as a remora, as in the suckerfish that attach themselves to the sharks.

“I’m a remora, there you go,” McDaniel agrees. “Remora or less,” he says to more laughter.

Reflecting a Responsibility
to the Resource

In the happy chaos of this banter, each FisherPoet at one point or another describes how they find their own way of addressing the goal of the whole endeavor that Pickett explained earlier — of getting people to cherish fish and fishing so that they will work to support the animals and people that make the industry possible.

Jen Pickett

For Hermansen, it begins with bringing the audience into her stories: “Whenever I do a set, I try to start with inviting you into my world so you can see why it’s important, and then I tell you it’s important you know, and show you…just what it means to my heart.”

Brady-Power relays a parallel strategy that allows him to draw attention to both environmental and social issues. “My work often is rooted in a lot of the imagery,” he says. “One of the things that’s really important to me about fishing is the places we get to do this in… but my work tends to veer off into bigger issues as well.”

He continues, “There are a lot of assumptions that people put on me because I’m a man, and I’m fishing… there’s this sort of impression if you just watch Deadliest Catch that it’s just very testosterone-driven. I try to challenge those assumptions and show that there’s a lot of fishermen out there that are environmentalists, that are very thoughtful, feeling, caring people, that we think about our environment… that we are the stewards of it.”

It is for reasons like this that the FisherPoets Gathering is not just a collection of evening performances. While art can bring about action in its’ own right, the daytime hours of the Gathering are filled with dozens of workshops to relay more information on issues that impact fish and fishermen, such as the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay and the plastic pollution impacting all the world’s oceans. While these issues can be overwhelming, in this community surrounding, the challenges they pose become a little less daunting to face.

It Seemed a Good Idea
When I first ask Pickett why she keeps coming back to the FisherPoets Gathering, she laughs. “I think you should write, ‘it seemed a good idea’.”

I don’t quite catch the reference she makes to another FisherPoet’s earlier performance. But the inside joke flying right by allows me to appreciate her more sentimental response soon after: “Since I’m not from Alaska and I didn’t get into fishing through family or anything like that, and then since I’m a woman, I’ve always felt a little bit of an outsider. But here at FisherPoets, none of that really matters.”

And then, there is the Cowboy Poet. You’d think if anyone were to feel the outsider, it’d be the two-headed calf, the freakshow, the remora. But this is far from the case.

“It sounds a bit corny,” McDaniel explains. “I come for the people, but not the way you think. I come for what you’re seeing right here.” He gestures around the table. “Not crowds that clap for me — that’s kind and I’m flattered — but I come for Meezie, for Phil, for Jon, for Carrie — 13 years with these folks every year. When you come to FisherPoets, if you connect any way at all with the fishing lifestyle, they welcome you in with open arms, whether you’ve ever pulled a net over a bow or ever rhymed a word. If you connect with this culture and the uniqueness of how they make their living and live their lives, you’re drawn in, and they welcome you.”

To find the works of those FisherPoets interviewed and more, check out the online anthology “In the Tote” at http://www.inthetote.com/.

By Ari Blatt

Photos by Kim Adams