Teenagers and the Sea: Fisher Poet Tales (with Video!)

7 12 2012

National Fisherman did a nice write-up on last week’s Fisher Poets “On the Road” performance at Fish Expo, where Dano Quinn, Patrick Dixon, Abigail Culkin and I each had 20 minutes to perform. For the second post in a row: thanks, NF!

I swear Pat and I didn’t plan this, but with back-to-back readings, you couldn’t miss our shared theme: adolescence. Rough for any parent/spawn relationship, this is a particularly rocky period for those trapped together aboard a small fishing boat. Forced not only to co-exist, but to cooperate – the family’s livelihood depends on it. So does physical safety. As their parents’ crew, boat kids develop a ferocious work ethic, endurance, and responsibility. Transferable skills, whether they continue fishing or not. And it seems to be about a fifty-fifty split: of the boat kids I grew up with, maybe half are like Joel and me – salt-stained lifers who aren’t fully themselves away from the sea. The other half couldn’t jump ship fast enough.

Photo thanks to F/V Kathleen Jo

Photo thanks to F/V Kathleen Jo

The story Pat read, “The Connection,” is one of my favorites. It’s how I met Pat, and first learned about Fisher Poets, at Fish Expo four or five years ago. The audience packed the room – it was right next the beer garden – and I wedged into the back. When this tall gillnetter took the stage, I didn’t know what to expect – but it surely wasn’t this tear-jerking story of a reluctant killer, reflecting on what it meant to build one’s life by taking life. I’d never heard another fisherman so perfectly express my own inner conflict. Watch “The Connection” here.

And the story I read? Years ago, one of our fleet elders said something that stuck with me. He said, “Everybody has a rock up here with their name on it. If you fish long enough, you’ll find it.” As it happened, six years was all it took for this sleepy mariner. A story of drama, danger, romance, and triumph, watch “The Rock With My Name ” here.

This is a great warm-up, friends… Mark your calendars: the 16th annual Fisher Poets Gathering is less than three months away! This year’s dates are February 22-24, hosted in Astoria, Oregon. Check out their brand-new website – which includes a sneak peek at the performers signing up! (Between the veteran and first-time names, it’s already a great line-up, with many more yet to come.) I’d love to see you there.

Thanks again to National Fisherman for supporting this Fisher Poets “On the Road” performance, and to Pat Dixon for making it happen. Also, thanks to the delightful Betsy Delph, whose video may not have turned out as well, but her efforts were much appreciated. 





Fisher-Readers, Please Meet Fisher-Writer Rich Bard

17 11 2012

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. 





On Writing, Then and Now

18 10 2012

Happy National Day on Writing, friends!

Yeah, that’s little me. Some things haven’t changed much since 1980, parked at a desk in my parents’ Wasilla, Alaska, veterinary clinic. I still keep a stash of animal crackers nearby as motivation, and still absentmindedly tug my lower lip when the words aren’t coming as quickly as I’d like. I still believe written words are worth spending the afternoon with.

(From a slightly comfier chair now, though, and without the red pants.)

You, sweet friends, have shown your own belief that words are worth spending time with. Last week included a big day here: on October 11, Hooked crossed 50,000 views. That’s an achievement that I wouldn’t have dared dream of when I launched this blog a year and a half ago, and one wholly thanks to you. I’m grateful for such generous readers, commenters, and promoters.

Off the boat for three weeks now, Cap’n J and I have fully settled back into land life. Joel’s taken this month to do as much photography as he can, getting up into the mountains before the winter weather hits.  (Here’s a shot from his recent trip to Mt. Rainer.) I’ve jumped back into the Red Wheelbarrow Writers community, thrilled to have weekly writing dates and a fantastic critique group.  Meanwhile, Bear’s reclaimed her favorite rotation of daily napping spots, and is making up for all the meals she didn’t eat while at sea.

National Day on Writing offers a moment to give thanks for the magic and salvation of words recorded and read. A day is a good start… but my goal is to practice literary zealotry for the coming months. While Joel shoulders another winter of boat projects, my job will be to write the memoir that doesn’t seem to be writing itself, no matter how many attractive outlines and wall-sprawling charts I make.

I’m a lazy, distractible writer. You’d think that the head-down, teeth-gritted endurance that makes me a good fisherman would translate, but I haven’t figured out how to channel that ocean-based work ethic to the page/screen. Having a team helps keep me honest – accountable – so in addition to the local writing meets and critique groups, I’ve signed up for this year’s National Novel Writing Month.

On its 13th year, NaNoWriMo challenges folks to pound out 50,000 words in November – the equivalent of a 175 page novel. Quality work? Eh, not so much; the point is to get the words out, producing a first draft you can then work with. For writers like me, hesitant folks who stutter over every keystroke and hit the backspace more than any vowel, this is a terrifying endeavor.

All the more reason to take the leap.

(NaNoWriMo purists, I’m cheating at the most fundamental levels. Not writing a novel. Not starting from scratch on November 1. Totally hijacking this opportunity to work madly on memoir chapters, hoping to steal strength and perseverance from the collective energy of tens of thousands of writers all rolling the same rock up the same hill at the same time. I know NaNoWriMo has very few rules, and I’m breaking several of them. Can we be buddies anyway?)

So if Hooked seems a bit quiet over the next six weeks, you’ll know why. After all, as Sherman Alexie chided in his recent  “Top 10 Pieces of Advice for Writers”, “Every word on your blog is a word not in your book.”

Ouch – bull’s eye, sir.

But ours is a connected age. Even if I’m not blogging as frequently, we have lots of other ways to keep in touch.

On Facebook? You can “like” my writer’s page to see periodic updates on how it’s going.

In Oklahoma? Check out FISH and listen to a recording of “The Sisterhood,” an essay exploring what it means to be a woman in the oh-so-masculine world of commercial fishing. (That’s take two you’ll hear. Take one was carefully recorded when no one else was home, amidst very premeditated quiet. I’d made it to the concluding paragraphs, thrilled not to have stumbled over my tongue over the previous six pages. Then Bear started throwing up at my feet. Loudly. I tried not to take this personally.)

In Sitka for Whalefest? Come to the maritime-themed Grind on Friday, November 2. The Monthly Grind is an amazing demonstration of local talent; I’m excited to hear everyone’s performances and thankful for the invitation to read.

Attending Seattle’s Fish Expo? Be sure to check out the Fisher Poets on the main stage, 11:30 – 1:00, Thursday, November 29. Get there early to grab a seat: Abigail Calkin, Dano Quinn, Dave Densmore, Patrick Dixon, Thomas Alan Hilton, and I will each have 15 minute performances. (Free expo registration until November 26!)

That’s what the next month holds, friends. If our paths should cross anywhere along the line, please do stop and say hello – I’d love to thank you in person for sharing your time with these words, and contributing your own. Until then, my good thoughts to you, and best wishes for a rich, rewarding Day on Writing.

Are any of you gearing up to be fellow WriMo’ers? If so, good on you brave souls!  Look me up next time you’re on the site (username Tele) and we’ll support each other in this crazy courageous literary marathon. I hope to see you there.





Hooked on Oregon Public Broadcasting

7 03 2012

I told you about my first scheduled performance at Fisher Poets Gathering 2012, but I didn’t tell you what happened next.

During the break, a tall, kind-eyed man introduced himself. Ifanyi Bell, digital producer with Oregon Public Broadcasting. He wanted to do a story about a greenhorn performer, someone brand-new to the Fisher Poets scene. Would I be interested?

I recalled the fall course I’d taken with editor Brooke Warner. She’d rejected proposals based on the author’s nonexistent platform, and urged us to start building our online presence before shopping our books. Would I be interested? Ah, yes.

We met up Saturday afternoon in the Fort George Showroom, the same venue that I’d perform in later that night. Good for his filming goals, and a welcome opportunity for me to get comfortable with the acoustics while rehearsing that evening’s piece. (If you were in the audience that night, you’ll notice that what I rehearsed isn’t what you heard. Abrupt change of plans a few hours before show time… But that’s another story.)

With floor to ceiling windows and brick walls, the former car showroom was cold, but the company was warm. We bonded over our unique names, both familiar with using their mispronunciation to weed out telemarketers. (If-ahn-ee and Tell-ah, BTW.) Delightfully personable, he asked insightful questions about the culture of commercial fishing, storytelling, and where they intersect. Our interview re-routed into an almost two hour conversation.

Ifanyi’s story went live on OPB this afternoon. Watching the finished video, I felt like I’d stepped into one of my favorite storytelling podcasts. His gifts as an interviewer had been apparent, but seeing the way that he pulled it all together was astonishing. Take a look, and keep an eye out for this man’s work. You can follow @ifanyi on Twitter.

Serious skills you have, sir… Much gratitude for promoting my work with such generous artfulness.








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