It’s standing room only for a poetry reading at the Voodoo Room, a dive bar that stands a block from where the metal-green skeleton of the Astoria–Megler Bridge spans the Columbia River. There are as many canvas tote bags in the dim watering hole as you’d expect at a poetry reading—so, lots—but there’s something different about this poetry jam. More fleece vests, more callused hands. These bards come not to praise a summer’s day or two roads diverging in a yellow wood, but fish.
Everyone in the bar, and practically everyone in Astoria this weekend, is here for the FisherPoets Gathering, a two-day winter festival devoted to the lyrical qualities of seine nets and industrial-grade hip waders. The Voodoo mic is set up under a wall of neon beer signs and indigenous masks lit by Christmas lights. Some readers sport the classic Gorton’s look, all broad shoulders and bushy white beards, but there are almost as many young women with full tattoo sleeves and knee-high boots. All have been commercial fishermen.
Sure, most of the poems, stories, and songs rhapsodize the fishing life—the joy of a good run, the frustration of a bad one. But there are plenty of odes tackling business, environmentalism, the tradition of broken families and the pains of watching a way of life dwindle and die. Life, death, unbearable loneliness—you know, the stuff of poetry. Repeat attendees still talk about Dennis McGuire’s legendary ditty known as the “Franken-Fish” poem, a humorous political screed against the tyranny of GMO salmon.
The Gathering began as a casual lowercase gathering 18 years ago when 40 or so off-duty fishermen traded verses in an Astoria bar; now the last weekend of February brings the riverfront town to a halt with daytime writing workshops and 80-plus readers scheduled into six downtown venues.
The festival is still centered at the Wet Dog Cafe where it began, where the family-friendly brewery serves a Poop Deck Porter and three varieties of fish-and-chips—all pointedly labeled as wild. Ron McDaniel, an Arkansas cattle- and horseman, holds a prime slot at the Wet Dog and sticks out in his wide-brimmed hat and Deadwood-size handlebar mustache. He calls himself the token cowboy poet of the Gathering, and the interloping makes sense; fishermen are the mournful cowboys of the sea.
Pat Dixon spent 20 years gill-netting the Cook Inlet in Alaska, and he thinks the impulse to compose poetry is natural for fishermen faced with slow days or long dark nights on the boat. There’s a hunger to share the experience of a quintessentially lonely profession, he says. “Whether you’re a shrimper on the Gulf of Mexico or crabbing in the Bering Sea, we have a lot in common.” In the face of a graying Alaskan fleet, the Gathering draws young Portlanders and far-flung ex-fishermen. As one of the organizers, Dixon says, “I know more fishermen now that I did when I was fishing.”
Though he usually writes in verse, Dixon’s 2015 performance is prose, a mostly true story about carrying ship groceries on a stormy night; the 10-minute tale garners riotous laughter and grim nods of recognition from the crowd. There are also a number of musical acts playing sea chanteys. “A lot of fisher poetry is not strictly poetry,” he says. “It’s a way of telling your stories. If fishermen have anything, they have lots of stories.”
Astoria has always been caught somewhere between blue blood and blue collar. Named for John Jacob Astor, the hillsides are dotted with Victorian and Queen Anne homes whose gables and turrets give them the delicacy of dollhouses. At its highest point, the concrete Astoria Column crowns the city like a multicolored barber pole. (It’s 164 steps up to the top.)
But there’s nothing delicate about the mouth of the Columbia River where Astoria sits. Lewis and Clark found their expedition destination so intense they labeled a nearby landmark Dismal Nitch. The treacherous Columbia River bar has swallowed so many ships it’s called the Graveyard of the Pacific. The Columbia River Maritime Museum traces that history in town, and in nearby Fort Stevens the sand-blasted shipwreck of the Peter Iredale illustrates it in situ.
The sea captains who survived are the stuff of legends—Captain George Flavel’s legacy includes the town museum and a murderous grandson known as Hatchet Harry—but Astoria’s most famous heroes are the underdog kids from The Goonies. The movie’s house was a major town attraction until it closed to tourists last August when the owners tired of the crowds. What’s left is a vibrant if modest small town, where lunch means choosing between the greasy spoon Pig ’N Pancake and the beer-and-beards scene in Fort George Brewery, housed in a refurbished warehouse.
There aren’t as many fishermen here as there used to be, not since the cannery piers became the luxury Cannery Pier Hotel and brewery–coffee shop–hotel suite combo at Pier 39. But the fish are still here, enough that sea lions crowd the river docks in such numbers that their hoarse barking echoes around town. Last year locals even tried circling a 32-foot motorized orca decoy to chase them off, hoping to reclaim some of the harbor real estate. In a town of fake whales and dead ships, a crowd of fishermen poets fits right in.
February 26–28, Astoria, OR