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The Poets Of Fishing Gather In Oregon


This weekend, fisherman and fishing women gather in Astoria, Ore., as they do once a year, to appreciate the compositions of BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music, and to read and perform their own poetry. Melanie Sevcenko has the story.

MELANIE SEVCENKO, BYLINE: Moe Bowstern named herself after the front and back end of a ship. She calls herself a fishing woman. And for her, writing poetry comes with the job.

MOE BOWSTERN: Well, I mean, have you ever been fishing?

SEVCENKO: No (laughter).

BOWSTERN: It's unbelievably boring. And so you just have to think of something else to do.

SEVCENKO: Now retired from commercial fishing, Bowstern is one of dozens of fisherpoets who have been meeting for their annual gathering in a Astoria, Ore. During the last weekend of February, the far-flung fisher people interpret the commercial fishing industry in prose, poetry and song. At FisherPoets, Bowstern is one of the stars.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Moe Bowstern - here she is in the flesh.


SEVCENKO: Bowstern started fishing in Kodiak, Alaska, in the mid-'80s when women on commercial boats were scarce. Her zine shares a name with a popular brand of deck boots, XTRATUF. This piece is called "Things That Will Be Difficult."

BOWSTERN: It will be hard, if you are a man, to understand why your female crewmate, who started out so friendly, is so silent now when you are only trying to help. It will be hard if you are a woman to go...

SEVCENKO: The poetry onstage at FisherPoets touches on what Bowstern calls an incredibly difficult life.

BOWSTERN: Not just because of the rigors of the actual physical experience of the life, but it's just, how can you be a fisherman at a time of climate change? And, like, where are you going to position yourself with resource extraction?

SEVCENKO: That's something John Copp has written about. For 20 years, he ran operations in Bristol Bay in the Bering Sea. Multinational corporations want to mine gold and copper from the area nearby and have been angling to do so for years. His poem "Tsunami" is inspired by his opposition to the proposed Pebble Mine.

JOHN COPP: Rich men from foreign lands promise a moon made of copper and gold, seducing politicians in suit and tie.

SEVCENKO: Many commercial fishermen have been against the Pebble Mine because of the damage it could do to the biggest salmon run on the planet. Copp is retired and lives in Oregon now. But he's still inspired to write by the natural beauty of Alaska.

COPP: Alaska has an existential force. So the poetry comes like a bird flying into your backyard and says, hey, you know, check this out.

SEVCENKO: The poets do write about the landscapes and seascapes that are the backdrop of their work. And they do all the styles, 1990s slam style and even old-fashioned lyrical poems that actually rhyme, like this piece from fisherpoet Rich King.

RICH KING: I can smell the ocean. I can hear the sound. I can feel the blessings of this life that's by the pound.


SEVCENKO: So this weekend, once again, the fisherpoets will do what they've done for more than two decades - gather on piers, in cafes and in theaters to perform their poetry for grateful audiences in this seaside town. Bowstern feels lucky that people who've never even been fishing want to hear their stories.

BOWSTERN: We're participating in two traditions that have been going on. Like, storytelling is probably only a little bit older than fishing, you know? So we get to tell stories in our special, weird language. And people just can't get enough of it.

This, too, is what it's like to be a woman on a fishing boat.


BOWSTERN: Thank you so much.

SEVCENKO: For NPR News, I'm Melanie Sevcenko in Astoria, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN LURIE'S "CANOE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Melanie Sevcenko