Pat Dixon wrote his first fishing poem in 1989, in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. For 12 years, Dixon had gillnetted salmon in Cook Inlet, the finger of water that points from the Gulf of Alaska to Anchorage. After the Valdez dumped its noxious cargo into nearby Prince William Sound, fishing in Cook Inlet was shut down, and Dixon was cast adrift. One bleak afternoon by the water, as he watched a squall move along the beach, he found himself day-dreaming about all the things he was going to miss. A poem came to him, unbidden, and there, in the front seat of his parked truck, he began to write.
Twenty-six years later, on a chill night near the mouth of the Columbia River, Dixon — a barrel-chested man with a beard the color and texture of polar bear fur — climbed onto a stage in Astoria, Oregon, to read a new poem, “Exit Strategy,” to a rapt audience of 200. In a clear, unhurried voice, he intoned:
I shall leave today,
motor through a school of leaping fish
stretching from the river mouth
to the horizon’s soft curve,
sluice my bow through a green
ocean swell, tide on my stern,
sun white alongside, burning
reflection in a moving mirror.
Dixon was among the 87 commercial fishermen who’d come to perform at the 18th annual Fisher-Poets Gathering, a weekend-long celebration of maritime verse. Readers came from Cordova, Alaska; Camden, Maine; Jyväskylä, Finland. On the streets, pickup trucks sported bumper stickers condemning salmon farms and the overreach of the National Marine Fisheries Service. Baseball caps and facial hair were de rigueur.
“This is our party, and we’re doing it our way,” Jon Broderick, Fisher-Poets’ founder, told me. Broderick is a former high school teacher who chases salmon in Alaska’s Bristol Bay with his sons every summer. He’s also a talented songwriter, and he’d followed Dixon’s reading with a swaying, klezmer-inflected ode to an alluring female cannery worker. “There’s nothing ersatz or kitsch or phony about it.”
“Write what you know,” they say, and it’s a maxim the fisher-poets have taken to heart. Their verse serves as a crash course in the daily rituals and hard-won knowledge of their profession. John Palmes, a hand-troller from Juneau, tore through a song about humpback salmon’s singular preference for pink lures (as opposed to coho, which favor chartreuse). Doug Rhodes, from Craig, Alaska, drew reliable laughs by poking fun at the government’s regulatory ineptitude. Rob Seitz, a trawler from Los Osos, California, performed “Tribute to the Five-Gallon Bucket,” a bit of doggerel about the hazards of at-sea defecation:
The water from the bucket would get your backside drenched
Kind of like those toilets designed by the French.
Even love and lust, poetry’s most timeless concerns, were contemplated through a briny lens. From Erin Fristad, of Port Townsend, Washington: “She engulfs me like she has the mouth of a lingcod / I know that shouldn’t be sexy, but it is.” The landlubbers in the audience giggled uncertainly.
On the festival’s final evening, a standing-room-only crowd packed into a waterfront restaurant that jutted out over the Columbia on wooden pilings. Rust-colored tankers glowed in the fiery sunset; sea lions honked beneath the pier. At the front of the room, a mop-haired veterinarian named Meezie Hermansen stood at the mic. Hermansen has fished summers in Cook Inlet since she was a child — “I knew I was a fisherman before I knew I was a woman”—and she’d started writing poetry in college to amuse her friends. Fisher-Poets had long been on her bucket list, and her set at the 2011 gathering was the first time she’d ever read in public.
“Now I think about the event all year long,” she told me. She’s inseparable from her notebook. “I’ve written poems out on the skiff, which is not the most convenient place to have something come to you.”
Onstage, Hermansen had time for one more poem. “Back home in Alaska, there are some proposed projects that stand to threaten our wild salmon stocks and habitat,” she said. She ticked off the dangers: coal mines that would bury streams, dams that would obstruct rivers, the Pebble copper mine in Bristol Bay. Her voice low and lyrical, she launched into the piece without notes:
We need to realize
Open our steel eyes
Before we jeopardize
What we should all esteem.
There is a place for enterprise
But we need to analyze and scrutinize
As they attempt to minimize and -capitalize
For we all live downstream.
The crowd applauded at poem’s end, and Hermansen smiled shyly as she left the stage.
To read and listen to more Fisher-Poetry by Dixon, Broderick, Hermansen and other performers, check out In the Tote.