Saturday September 19th, 7pm Alaska time

(Sunday September 20th, 4am UK time!)

FisherPoets is a creative celebration of the commercial fishing industry in poetry, prose, storytelling and song. FisherPoets from the US coasts east and west to Alaska include Jon Broderick, Jay Speakman, John van Amerongen, Jon Campbell, Katrina Porteous, Geno Leech, Meghan Gervais, Steve Schoonmaker, Meezie Hermansen, Clark Whitney, Pat Dixon, and Mary Garvey. Join these artists from the annual FisherPoets Gathering in Astoria, Oregon, some of whom have attracted the enthusiastic attention of national and international media.
$10 / Free with All-Festival Art Pass

Register HERE

The FisherPoets began in 1998 with a small gathering of far-flung friends, all fishermen and women, meeting in a pub in the former cannery town of Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River, to share their poetry and songs. This get-together became an annual event, organised every February, when the fishing is quiet, by fishermen Jon Broderick and his friend Jay Speakman and others. It’s attended by fisher poets from all over America – Florida, Maine, Chesapeake Bay and Alaska. Hundreds listen: there are sessions in bars and readings all over town, workshops, exhibitions, and the community radio station broadcasts proceedings live. Occasionally, some of the fisher poets get together at other times to perform. This event, part of the Alaska World Arts Festival, based in Homer, Alaska, is such an occasion.

At the trouting nets with Jack Douglas, c.1995

A few years ago, in 2014, I had the privilege of taking part in the FisherPoets’ Gathering. This was made possible by BBC Radio 4, for whom I presented a documentary covering the event, produced by Julian May. I heard astonishing work: from Dave Densmore, on his boat Cold Stream; from Moe Bowstern, an extraordinarily prolific writer about the lives of fisher women; from Richard King who fishes in Alaska, and farms in Hawaii; and from Lloyd Montgomery, an Aleut fisher poet. Wherever they were from, I found, fisher poets share concerns over sustainability – of fish stocks, of their communities, and of their way of life. You can still hear my documentary HERE.

With fisherman Dave Densmore, Astoria, Oregon 2014

Now, due to the strange conditions of 2020, I have an opportunity to catch up with the FisherPoets and to perform with them again – this time as part of a virtual event. The 7pm start is Alaska time, so it’s an unsociably early hour (or a late one!) if you live in the UK. Still, fishermen are used to getting up at 4am. The event will last up to 2 hours.

If you’re wondering about my credentials as a FisherPoet, here’s my background. I live in a fishing village in Northumberland and have written about local fishing traditions since 1990. Throughout the early 1990s, I was very closely involved in the community’s working life, going off to the potting with Charlie Douglas aboard his coble in his last year, taking turns to row the Douglas’s trouting boat, and working with gear in their huts, ‘putting on’ nets and mending creeves. I haven’t done much hands-on fishing for a long time now, but I’m still closely involved in what remains of our fishing year.

Charlie Douglas and I preparing salmon nets, 1993

Sad to say, 2019 was the first year salmon fishing was banned altogether on this coast, and this year, 2020, boats have not fished for sea trout either in our bay. The reasons are complicated: declining salmon stocks have led to ever-greater restrictions imposed by the government’s Environment Agency, while the Atlantic Salmon Trust has bought out most of the remaining netting licences. I gave a talk about this to an international conference, ‘Owned by Everyone: the plight, poetry and science of the salmon’ in Cambridge last December. The proceedings of that gathering are due to be published later this year, and you can read more about that HERE. The conference focused on the poetry of Ted Hughes, who I think would have had sympathy for the traditional netsmen’s plight. I very much wished that some of my fellow FisherPoets could have been there.

One of the things that fascinated me about the FisherPoets’ tradition was the number of female fishers on the West Coast of the USA. I haven’t come across many British female fishers, but I did meet one inspirational woman skipper volunteering for the North Shields Fishermen’s Heritage Project last year. Here’s a recent song-lyric, Low Light, loosely based on what she told me. It’s published alongside a photo of Ray Lonsdale’s memorial to fishermen lost at sea, ‘Fiddler’s Green’, in the book Tyne Anew: celebrating public art in North Tyneside (Northern Voices Community Projects).

At the Alaska World Arts Festival event, I’ll read a poem from The Lost Music, and probably one from Two Countries, too. They’re available HERE. Do join the FisherPoets if you can for a life-affirming and truly international event of fishing-related poetry and song on the night of September 19th (or morning of Sunday September 20th!).

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