THERE ARE FISHERS, there are poets, and then there is Geno. Among the 150 poets and aficionados gathered at last month’s Fisher Poets Gathering in Astoria, Wesley “Geno” Leech is spoken of like a playground legend: You shoulda seen the moves he put on last year. “Sure, you could just come on Saturday if you want,” festival organizer Jon Broderick tells me a few days before the show. “But then you’d miss Geno.”
Just before 8 on a miserable rain-soaked Friday night, Geno takes the stage at the Wet Dog Cafe, a tavern as upscale as they come in this soggy fishing town on the southern bank of the Columbia. Geno’s a crewman on the Salvage Chief, the salvage tug that helped pry the Exxon Valdez off Bligh Reef, and he looks like he walked out of an Old Spice ad: neatly trimmed black hair and beard, chiseled features, and a deep mumbly voice. “My goal for this year’s gathering was to write a poem about the Salvage Chief,” he says, and adds a jab about the New Carissa, which, at the time, was still beached in Coos Bay. “Hell,” he says, if Chief were on the job, “that wreck wouldn’t be on there now, it’d be off!” Wild cheers.
“Well 6-ton salvage anchors/Adorn her fo’c’sle head . . . ” Geno charges into a recitation of the Chief‘s storied history, her back-breaking equipment, and the herculean labor of her crew. “Even coffee time’s hard work,” he says. “Hell, the cups weigh 50 pounds.” He recites this and four other poems from memory, eyes shut tight and fists punching the line breaks. His body sways with the rhythm of the poem, something I’ve seen only James Fenton carry off as well. The effect is something like Eddie Vedder at a poetry slam. The crowd calls for more. “Bring it home, baby!” “Gee-no! Gee-no!” For the second year running, Wesley “Geno” Leech is the fisher king.
GIVEN A CHOICE between listening to cowboy poetry and taking a hot poker in the eye, I’ll thank you kindly for the poker. But a family friend had raved about last year’s event—the first ever—so I drove to Astoria and subjected myself to three days of rhymed references to scuppers, draggers, bow pickers, Helly Hansen raingear, and Norwegian green paint. And it was splendid.
What the fishers have over the cowboys, I think, is less tolerance for romantic bullshit, and a language so rich it’d make an academic poet weep. Most of the writers at the conference steered wide of Hemingwayesque portraits of the seafaring life, preferring to poke fun at greenhorns and drunks, set tall tales to rhyme (Robert Service seemed to be the weekend’s patron saint), or wrap the fishing-life vernacular into free verse. The tone was captured by Erin Firnstad of Port Townsend, whose love poem began, “Wiping red jellyfish from your eyebrow . . . “
A weekend sampler: Retired salmon troller Harrison “Smitty” Smith went the Paul Bunyan route with his “Ballad of Rubber Hooks Devine.” John “Captain Caviar” Roe, America’s only Native American river pilot (and the only man in a suit I saw all weekend), read some of the work he’s posted on his poetry Web site. Holly Hughes, a former Alaska gillnetter, read a piece about the guilt she suffered after killing 50 king salmon. Katherine Johnson of Fairbanks, Alaska, exhibited the gathering’s biggest set of cojones by successfully airing a work of performance art before the boozy crowd.
Why do fisher poets write and gather? “When you’re fishing, you’re either working real hard or you’ve got a lot of time on your hands,” says Hughes, who now teaches poetry at Edmonds Community College. “They’ve got the great subjects,” adds Alaska Fisherman’s Journal editor John van Amerongen. “Love, separation, death, and dismemberment—all that great stuff, it’s right there.”
The writers are also aware that they may be documenting the final years of the millennium-old occupation of independent fisher. In the Columbia Basin the fish are going extinct and in Alaska, where salmon still thrive, they’re being snatched up by factory trawlers—enormous floating canneries that boast crews of 100 and more. “We risk being in the waning days of commercial fishing as a way to make a living,” says Jon Broderick, the Cannon Beach, Oregon, fisherman who created the festival last year mainly as an excuse to see some old friends. “We’re seeing and doing stuff that a lot of people don’t do anymore. And even when it’s cold and you’re wet, tired, hungry, and scared, you get the sense that you’re doing something good, something worth doing.” Perhaps the most telling participant of the weekend was Jens Lund, a folklorist for the Washington State Humanities Commission, whose video camera underscored the sense of a culture passing away.
AT THE SATURDAY-afternoon poetry workshop, Buck Meloy is having trouble with the opening lines of his poem “Winter.” Everybody loves the poem’s dominant metaphor—dreary days “plod past like soggy dogs”—but he may want to rethink his opening line. “A succession of dreary days / has muddled the sharp edge of optimism.” Can optimism have a sharp edge? someone asks. What about changing “optimism” to “hope”? another suggests.
Meloy, a gillnetter out of Bellingham, isn’t sure what the hell to do. “What do you think?” he asks me after class. “Change it? Leave it out?” Buck, I want to tell him, you don’t want my advice. Two hours ago I didn’t know the difference between a dragger and a tender.
Fisher poets come with a built-in advantage: the words and details of the boat. This is a culture in which “set” (as in set the net) is used twice in the same sentence as noun and verb. “Use those details,” Holly Hughes tells her workshop students. “Talk about the Marco power block. It’s OK to use the brand name.” Twenty heads nod knowingly while a 21st scribbles “Marco power block—what is??” (a hydraulic contraption that hoists a purse seine net into the boat, manufactured by the Seattle-based Marine Construction and Design Co.—Marco). All weekend, poets read work studded with references to the Elbow Room Tavern in Unalaska and the B&D bar in Del Vista, California. They wear their experience in dirty baseball caps and fisherman mullets and hooded Dutch Harbor sweatshirts.
Sometimes they don’t even need clothes at all. “This guy,” Geno Leech announces on Saturday, “he’s wrung more salt out of his socks than I ever sailed on. You want a commercial fisherman? Hell, this guy’s a poem just lookin’ at him.” With that, Dangerous Dave Densmoor, the fisherman’s fisherman, arrives stage left to read a few of his poems. One of them ends on the line, “the little shit just stole my tow.” Dangerous Dave has a wire-brush beard, eyebrows you could sow corn in, and something less than a full complement of teeth. He makes Geno look like Chandler on Friends. If you run out of chili on the boat, Dangerous Dave might eat you. You do not want to steal the man’s tow.
Saturday night, third round of beer at the corner table: Geno and Dangerous Dave are yakking with some friends. Dave’s polishing off a plate of fish and chips (though “I don’t eat much fish myself,” he says) and telling a story about surviving three days in a life raft on the Bering Sea. On stage somebody’s reading some overwritten prose full of crashing waves and frightening deep-throated rumbles. Sometimes the best stories are told straight and sharp, off stage and adjective-free.
“I laid down the ground rules right away,” Dave says. “No talking about wives, girlfriends, children, or food.” This was before the days of survival suits, he says, so to stay warm two crew members laid down in the raft and two others laid on top and held them. When the two on top got too cold, they switched places. “We drifted 150 miles in three days. The seas were so big we’d drop down in a trough and it’d go completely quiet. Then up top the wind would hit and we’d go skipping like a rock.”
They were rescued only when a Japanese dragger ran them over halfway to the Pribilof Islands. “We got tangled in their line. My one thought was: ‘This is a helluva time to drown now.’
“I had two guys who’d never been on a boat before,” Dave laughs. “I cured ’em of fishing real quick.”
His story ends just as Buck Meloy takes the stage. I’ve stayed until the bitter end to find out what he’ll do with his opening line. “A succession of dreary days,” he reads, “has muddled the sharp edge of optimism.” Buck sticks to his guns.
Buck ends with one of the poems he hadn’t had a chance to air at the afternoon workshop. “I am the skiff man!” he reads. “I am the sine qua non/the without which not/of the purse seine operation.” Members of the audience, most of whom have served duty on the lonely skiff, applaud loudly. And from the corner of the room, Dangerous Dave calls out: “Hey! Skiff man! You want a job?”