When one imagines a gathering of poets, the most common image is the smoky coffee shop full of angry and isolated geeks taking out their angst on the world with poetry which never, as a matter of principle, rhymes. But upon entering the Wet Dog Cafe in Astoria, Oregon, on the last weekend of February, one might be forgiven a little confusion.
The sign outside says something about a $5 charge to hear poetry, but everybody in the Wet Dog is drinking beer and having fun. And there're a lot of big, burly guys with beards hanging around. Which ones might be the poets? Well, in some cases, the burliest and scariest of the lot. For this is the Fisher Poets Gathering.
For four years people who write poetry of, by, and for the sea have gathered in Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River. And if the sight of the Wet Dog Cafe (actually a large bar) confuses the poetry seeker, the sounds, at first, won't. That's because 80 percent of the poetry is the old- fashioned kind -- remember the words "iambic pentameter"? -- and so much of it rhymes that you might feel as if you're being rocked to sleep.
Just inside the door, by the stack of crab pots, sit the books of the Fisher Poets: Song for the Blue Ocean, In the Heart of the Sea, Hungry Ocean, As a Sailor Loves the Sea. I confess that I cringed when I saw these titles. I worked as a cook and deckhand for three seasons in the Alaska fishing industry, and if I was to conjure 10,000 adjectives to describe the experience, "romantic" would not make the list. It was beautiful and inspiring, in its own way, but it was also maddening, punishing, berserk, insane, intoxicated, and soaked with the smells of diesel and dead fish.
So to walk into the Wet Dog and see somebody up on the stage reading poetry that sounds like "da dum da dum da dum da dee, da dum da dum da dum da dee," and most of it talking about the good old days, and the long sunsets, and the big loads of fish ... well, I started writing down the last word of each line, just to make my point. One poem's lines ended with "life/wife, above/dove, way/day, step/set, there/care, bliss/fish." You get the idea.
But, remember, I'm much less a poet than a former deckhand. The 400 or so people in the Wet Dog were having a great time, and there were some genuinely precious moments. Even the not-so-great poets deserve praise just for getting up there. One hard-bitten guy walked on stage, his stack of poems fluttering in his trembling hand, and said, "Shit, this is harder than going up Shelikoff Strait when it's blowin' 50."
Another guy read one called "Broke Down at the Dock," which he introduced by saying, "This'n I wrote right'n the middle of what it's all about." It was somewhat angry. There were, in addition to the "ain't fishing grand" rhymes, poems about boneheaded government regulators, calls for fishermen to band together against the forces of the market, lots of boat wrecks, much yearning for the better days of old, plenty of pitching decks plugged with fish, years worth of foul weather, and more than a few hoots and hollers from the crowd.
Then, around 10, a sheepish-looking guy they call Smitty took the stage. Smitty looks the poet part better than the fisher part -- somewhat stooped, with a gray beard and a manner that suggests friendly old uncle rather than crusty old fisherman. He was the old-style humorist of the bunch. He had one called "The Fisher Poets Gathering," with lines like, "The Wet Dog has been zeroed in/from whistle-stops and houses of sin" and "On and on these tales were told/of disaster and triumph and days of old." He had one about a guy from Warrenton (Astoria's West Memphis) who went out fishing; the poem turned the whole rhyming thing inside- out, with dozens of items, many of them dear to everybody who's worked on a boat, and all of them rhyming. I was laughing too hard to write any down, but I do remember "duct tape and 40-weight/gaff hooks and girlie books." As Smitty said, "Many a boat has sunk/while carrying all this junk."
But there is, among these Fisher Poets, a true genius. They save Geno Leech for last because nobody would follow him onto the stage. He writes, as my poet friend puts it, "real poetry." He took the stage amid a buzzing crowd, holding not one piece of paper. For the next 20 or 30 minutes he regaled us with poems a poet could love, telling fishing stories a fisherman could love, all from memory, swaying back and forth with both hands clasped to the microphone and both eyes firmly shut. His characters were John Prine, his delivery Hunter S. Thompson, his voice a little bit Elvis.
He told stories of diesel, bad coffee, puking, and pipesmoke; of craziness, fear, and love in the cannery; of dull endless days, steep green seas, "and weather of flat-out smokin' shit." People were yelling out requests -- one imagines Geno gets a lot of free beers for this sort of thing -- and a couple of times the waves of laughter even got to the poet himself. He closed with, as he called it, "an Alaska herring fishing bodily function poem," an ode to taking a crap on a tiny fishing boat. A sample: "Geno, I've fished for 35 years, and you're the first man/to make me want to install an aft-deck ventilation fan." It was one of the sickest and funniest things I have ever heard.
I walked out of the Wet Dog that night remembering two things I had managed somehow to forget: that fishing the ocean, with all its drawbacks, is one of the fundamental human adventures, and that poetry can be pretty damn cool.