The Fisher Poets have been on my mind lately. Less than two weeks until a performance at Seattle’s Fish Expo (Thursday the 29th, 11:30 – 1:00), and organizing’s already underway for the main event festivities in Astoria, Oregon. (Mark your calendars: Feb 22 – 24, 2013!) A phone conversation with fisherman writer/photographer Pat Dixon got me all sentimental for the men and women who’ve turned our profession into art. So many of us have picked up pens, guitars, paintbrushes, anything to externalize our conflicted love/hate/fear/craving for boats and the sea. More of us than you’d think: there’s a tremendous wealth of artistic talent in the fleet, of every fishery and region. During night wheel watches, while the halibut sets soak, when the fish aren’t biting… We have some excellent opportunities for venturing into our creative selves, and are surrounded by a treasure trove of characters.
With all this on my mind, last week was the perfect time to receive an unexpected email from Rich Bard. A Southeast Alaskan troller in the 1980′s and 90′s, Rich stands out in my childhood memories as a kind man who exuded thoughtful confidence, a comfort with himself, others, and going his own path. Rich was also one of my earliest role models of a fisherman who sought the grace of written words. When carbon monoxide killed one of our fleet’s most beloved members, Rich memorialized him with a poem that turned our collective grief into something heartbreakingly beautiful. (My friend Marlin and I, teenagers at the time, carefully cut the poem from the pages of the Alaska Fisherman’s Journal. Years later, we could still recite it.)
Rich’s boat stood out, too. The Anna was a lovely forest green sailboat, a sleek aft-house ketch rigged as a salmon troller. Though the Anna is still trolling out of Sitka, Rich is not. He sold her about ten years ago, leaving the troll fishery to deliver boats throughout the Pacific and Caribbean instead. The troll fleet has something of a revolving door (says she who had her own walk-away period) and I’m always fascinated to see how folks who’ve left will deal with their new, non-fishing life. Apparently Hooked has provided Rich both vicarious thrills and mixed feelings. In his email, he wrote, “The trolling addiction remains strong, and your engaging view of the all-encompassing joys and frustrations of a lifestyle that’s very hard to replicate in any other profession also dangerously reinforce the ever present urge that I should get back in.”
(You’d be welcome back on the drag, Rich. Many thanks for the kind words.)
Though we were both at last year’s Fisher Poets Gathering, I didn’t get a chance to thank Rich for his great reading – an excerpt from a novel he was working on. I’m thrilled to share that he’s finished that novel, West of Spencer, and has published it as an e-book, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
Here’s the overview:
Bo, a salmon troller in Sitka, has been drinking steadily through the long dark Alaska winter trying to get over a broken heart. The tactic’s not working out too well. Spring and the need to get his boat ready for a new season offer some distraction, and Bo’s love for women keeps him above the poverty level on that front, but he just can’t put the past behind him. The only time Bo feels really free of regret is when he’s out on the water, wholly involved in his work, trolling for salmon. After some radical swings of fortune during the short spring openings, the main king salmon season starts out west, and a weird chain of events puts Bo in jeopardy of losing everything.
West of Spencer nails the hard-working, hard-playing lives of fishermen who ply the Gulf of Alaska waters. The novel doesn’t shrink from the grit of the fishing life: in the stinging spray and the blood on the deck, we get the true feel of life onboard, from a wild ride in a near-gale to the pensive calm of the quiet coves. The nature of a tight-knit community comes through on the boat radios, on the docks, and at the Quixote Club, a favorite watering hole. Throughout, Bo and his friends look, however erratically, for a deeper understanding: who is God, really…what are we supposed to be doing here…why is love so elusive…and, where the hell have the fish gotten off to now?
Trollers happily spend every spare moment talking about gear – what we’re running, what we’re catching on, what worked last season but isn’t doing shit this year. That’s the fun part of our obsession, but the bottom line remains: you can’t catch fish if your hooks aren’t in the water. There’s a similar hunger among writers to fill up on workshops, retreats, exercises, groups, any opportunity to compare literary practices. As trollers talk hoochies, writers tirelessly discuss our latest work in progress, how it’s going, what’s working, what’s not. And just like keeping one’s hooks in the water, in the end the only thing that will result in a finished book is the sheer discipline of keeping your butt in the chair. I get that, but still couldn’t resist asking Rich how West of Spencer came to fruition.
“I’d had a rather vague idea of a novel I could write about Sitka for some time, but like many (most?) writers, motivation’s the big issue,” he explained. “Journalism, with its deadlines, can be relatively easy, but a long speculative work needs its own motivation. I finally got started through a desperate urge to produce something (anything!) out of a particularly gloomy Northwest mid-winter. Continuing it provided an outlet when I was hired as captain to help an owner who didn’t handle the tropic heat very well get his boat from Florida through the Canal and north (as one of my crew remarked after a temper flare-up, “Yep, every day the boat gets a foot shorter.”) By the time I finished that trip, the book had gathered its own momentum and it was a comparative coast to the finish. Not sure if the urge to get outside oneself during time of frustration is the best source of motivation, but it’s worked for me.”
As delighted as I am by my fellow troller’s accomplishment, I’m less delighted to admit that I haven’t yet ventured into e-reader territory. (E-reader? Please. I’m still clinging to my dumb flip phone, no matter how overtly the Verizon staff sneer.) So I’m turning to you, sweet Hooked friends. Those more technologically advanced among you who crave a well crafted, utterly authentic nautical tale, please do check out West of Spencer. Thanks for showing your support for a fellow fisher-writer, friends, and many congratulations on your work, Rich!
Longtime Hooked readers may remember last year’s poetry competition, challenging Fisher Poets to use the line “work is our joy.” Rich’s piece, shared in the video below, was one of my favorite entries for sheer cleverness.