Cap’n J Takes the Stage: Fisher Poets 2012 Onsite Poem Contest

29 02 2012

After my Saturday performance at the Fort George Showroom, Cap’n J, Ashley and I braced ourselves against the biting cold and hustled over to the Astoria Events Center. The 2012 Onsite Poem Contest would kick off at 10:30. Emceed by two of my lit star heroes, Erin Fristad and Moe Bowstern, I didn’t want to miss a minute of it.

We’d learned about the contest on Thursday night, when the programs were distributed. Page 6 issued this challenge:

During the pre-performance Saturday afternoon calm, I’d seen one Fisher Poet after another, studiously hunched over a tablet, scrawling possible verses. “Have you written your poem yet?” several asked, and I shook my head.  No, not this time. I wanted to learn how things are done and cheer everyone else on this year.

If you’re imagining the Events Center as a sterile behemoth of a convention hall, that’s not the place we shivered into. A single-story square in the midst of downtown, we were met by a bar on our left, low balcony seating on our right, and about 300 people squeezed into the folding tables and chairs between us and the stage.

Photo by Pat Dixon

The crowd was unyielding as Moe wrapped up the Saturday set, so we stood against the back wall to enjoy her performance. I glanced over at Cap’n J and saw he had his serious face on. I knew he’d been disappointed that we’d missed Ray Troll’s band, the Ratfish Wranglers, the night before. Now, scheduled opposite the poem contest that I wanted to see, we were going to miss them again.

I leaned into his frown. “Are you upset?”

“Do you have a pen?” he countered.

(Do I have a pen…Really, dude?)

I handed him the Murray Pacific ballpoint from my right hip pocket and he grabbed the loose paper on the table next to us, a single sheet torn from a yellow legal pad. Lips moving silently, he scribbled madly while Moe sang and the crowd cheered.

“Quick – what rhymes with ‘joy’?”

“Boy, toy… Wait – are you writing something for the poetry contest?”

Co-organizer Jay Speakman and I had tried to lure Cap’n J to the afternoon story circle, unsuccessfully. This was the first I’d heard of his desire to participate. As he stared at the paper before him, we heard Moe shifting gears, calling all of the contestants forward.

“Got it!” With a final scribble, and perhaps as much to his amazement as Ashley’s and mine, Cap’n J rushed to the stage.

About 15 participants lined up as Moe and Erin explained how this worked. Everyone would read their poem once. Audience applause would determine who made it into the second round, and, along with the MC’s, who was the final winner.

Astonished to see Cap’n J in the line-up, Ashley and I elbowed our way forward. One by one, the poets stepped up to the mic, introducing themselves by name and home port. Almost exclusively male, they spanned the coasts: Alaska, Washington, Oregon. New Hampshire, Rhode Island. Japan, too. Written from the perspectives of captains, deckhands, even a pair of deck gloves, each poet uniquely wove in the required line, “work is our joy.” All remarkable in their own way, the combined talent was impressive.

Some were especially clever. Nancy Cook’s poem gave a nod to the video games she hadn’t played since 1983: “Work is our joy…stick.” And Rich Bard summed up a clueless crewmate, “She’s a real piece of work, is our Joy.” Some rewarded by raucous laughs, others with appreciative murmurs, we roared and stomped the Center’s wooden planked floors for everyone who had the courage to get up there.

And there he was: Joel Brady-Power, Sitka, Alaska.

Photo by Pat Dixon

I was so stinking proud of my best buddy.

He claims he was terribly nervous, but we couldn’t tell. And the room went crazy for his poem, and it wasn’t just his sister and me making all that noise. After a winnowing that cut the contestants down by half, Cap’n J made it to the second round.

Things got tougher from there. Moe declared that all of the finalists would have to take off two pieces of clothing – “And hats don’t count!” she hollered at our token cowboy, Ron McDaniel. Once more, each contestant stood at the mic, and the crowd roared for their favorite.

So… maybe you’d like to hear Cap’n J’s second go at the mic?

Forgiving my shaky hands, it’s a great video. But if you’re somewhere you can’t play it right now, here’s the text:

It’s the days when the mountains speak

and the sun’s poetry paints the sky

When the fish are thick and the ocean’s flat

and there’s not another boat in sight

And sure there’s days when the storms crash and thrash

and toss our boats around like toys

But thanks to a fisherman’s selective memory

our work is still our joy.

Not bad for 10 minutes before showtime, huh?

We celebrated everyone who’d made it to the second round, clapping as a line of gifted wordsmiths stepped down. “It’s never enjoyable sending people off-stage,” Moe lamented, and then two poets remained before us.

One was Hillel Wright, a writer who’d come all the way from Okinawa. (In addition to traveling the greatest distance, Hillel had triumphed over the most adversity to attend FPG. After making it to the States, he was in a car accident in Oregon. Thanks to the organizers’ quick rallying, FP Tom Hilton brought Hillel to Astoria.)

And Hillel’s co-finalist was… Cap’n J.

Ashley and I exchanged looks of stunned pride, as Moe announced, “Okay, Joel, I’m gonna send you out on the runway.” With an embarrassed smile, Cap’n J shuffled to the front of the stage, arms swinging at his sides. “All right, those of you who loved the poem of Joel, stand up!”

And that was where I watched an awesome event shift into something near-sacred. My sweetheart had never before experienced that kind of all-about-you public praising from a roomful of strangers – people who didn’t “have” to say they liked his words. Few of us have experienced such ceremony, and fewer still know how to receive it.

Joel managed to hold his ground for 8 seconds (I know, I’ve got it on video) before stepping away. But Moe was having none of that. As the crowd continued to cheer, she shook her head, pointed a finger at him, and boomed, “You GET BACK out there, Joel! You stand there, and you TAKE what they’re giving you. Take that in, Joel – OPEN your arms wide! That’s right, everybody, GIVE it to him.”

For the next 22 seconds, I watched my partner stand prouder than I’d seen in our almost 8 years together. He stood taller, his back straightened as if he’d never gone crabbing, and glowed. I wondered what could be achieved in this world, if every one of us experienced that wild public approval just once in our lives.

This time, when he stepped back, Moe acknowledged the challenge. “Thank you, Joel. That’s a hard thing to do in this culture.” That stage might as well have been covered in shiny paper and ribbons, as great of a gift as she gave him that night.

Hillel replaced Joel on the runway. With snowy hair combed back from dark eyebrows, a red flannel shirt and wrist brace, this gentleman exuded panache. The crowd went wild as soon as he stepped forward, and he twirled his gray sweater overhead like a professorial Chippendale dancer.

“Hillel Wright, you are the winner!”

And with Hillel’s blessing, here it is, the 2012 FPG Onsite Poem champion, “Cod Cheeks and Fried Baloney.”

A Yankee once fetched up in old Newfoundland

Where the beach is grey rock instead of white


Where rain falls in April and snow falls in May

And dories and islanders cover the


Where oldtimers cringe at the scent of a phony

And breakfast is perfumed with frying baloney

*          *          *          *          *

Where fiddlers always play the tune and dancers clog the beat

And cod cheeks make the gourmet dish and squid inks spice the meat

The Yankee thought the Newfies crude, but they said “Well me b’y

“Ye may think that we ‘aves no fun, but eh – work is our j’y!”

Friends, please join me in an Alaska-sized cheer for Hillel Wright, Cap’n J, and all of the 2012 Onsite Poem contestants! Immense talent, creativity, and courage; I feel privileged to have heard each of them.


Gifts from the Sea: Fisher Poets 2012, part 1

24 02 2012

When I was a teenager, there were a lot more boat kids running the docks than I see nowadays. Fishing time, of course, always came first, and we never knew when – or if – we’d see a dockside friend again. The August coho closure was the one moment of the season that we counted on all our friends being in town, and as one of my oldest friends recently remembered, we looked forward to that time as if it were Christmas.

The processing plant we sold to held an annual beach picnic during the closure. Salmon on the grill, a chance to visit with everyone you’d missed so far that season; this was a big deal, and the boat kids ran all over Halibut Point, wild with delight.

I remember riding the shuttle back to the harbor at the end of one of those picnics, sharing the van with another family. The mom observed that her son had made a new friend that day. About 8 years old, he was matter-of-fact as he replied, “I’ll probably never see him again.”

His response has stayed with me for the past 20-some years. I’ve chosen to interpret his words not as unbearably sad, but as a telling comment on one of the unforeseen gifts of our profession, a lesson that mariners absorb from a very young age.  Long before the world embraced Thict Naht Hahn’s teachings, fisherfolks practiced being present. With coastlines bursting with so many possible ports, one never knows when you’ll tie up with the same friend. We learn to accept good memories and perhaps an occasional radio conversation – mindful that it’s open listening for anyone in range – in place of real-time sit-downs. We learn that though our relationships may be fleeting, they’re no less valuable.


Last night, Cap’n J and I stepped into a new-yet-so-familiar world, when we entered Clemente’s restaurant for the Fisher Poets welcome dinner. I have to admit, we felt a little out of our element, walking into the buoyant crowd, but Fisher Poets Pat Dixon and Rob Seitz welcomed us on in. (I’d been awed by Pat’s reading at Fish Expo about 4 years earlier, and would be a new fan of Rob’s, too, by the end of the evening.)

We bumbled our way to the bar for a beer and a Pepsi, then found seats next to Buck Meloy and his delightful partner Ingrid. She filled us in on her favorite performers and the low-down on each venue; we couldn’t have picked a better table-mate to make us feel welcome.

One of the evening’s early highlights: I finally got to meet Jen Pickett, author of Pick Fish Tales. Since pulling on this fisherman blogger hat almost a year ago, I’ve often felt like a toddler trailing around after Jen. From her diligent posts on her own blog, to her involvement with Alaska Waypoints, this is a woman who knows how to get shit done. I’m paying attention to her work, and suggest you do, too.

As we talked, the one and only cowboy poet, Ron McDaniel, stepped up with some awfully complementary thoughts on our efforts to increase awareness of our fisheries. Then he peered over my shoulder and boomed, “Is that Cap’n J? Ah wahnta meet him!”

After Clemente’s excellent albacore poke and Bristol Bay sockeye fish and chips, I was starting to feel pretty comfortable. And then co-organizer Jay Speakman kicked off the welcome mic. He surveyed the room of about 60, and the most genuine smile spread across his face. “God, it’s good to see everyone. Some of my best friends, I only get to see once a year at this 3 day weekend.”

Following performers made similar declarations. Pat Dixon said he’d updated his Facebook status 15 minutes before hitting the road: “Heading to Astoria for Fisher Poets, the best weekend of the winter.” Another, Fred Bailey, said, “The idea of coming here kept me going all winter.”

With that, I sat a little easier in my seat, and cheered a little louder. Oh – of course, I realized. These are our people.  Among this collection of gifted writers, musicians, and storytellers, we’re all bound by that common thread, the ability to create immediate connection out of our relationship with the sea. We might never see each other again – but thanks to Fisher Poets, we do.


After last night’s initial open mic, I can’t rave enough about the talent here. Amazing writers, poets, and musicians here – and thanks to Coast Community Radio, you have the chance to enjoy them from wherever you are tonight! KMUN FM will be livestreaming the main stage performances tonight and tomorrow, starting at 6 pm PST.  I’ll be reading at the Baked Alaska at 7 tonight and the Fort George Showroom at 9 tomorrow, so I’ll miss some of the main stage performances. If you tune in, I’d love to know who you heard and what you thought.

Equality on My Mind; Elizabeth Peratrovich Day

16 02 2012

You know this story:

Mr. & Mrs. P were eager for their move into a new community.                  A nice house, conveniently located near Mr. P’s workplace.                    The deal was abruptly revoked when the property owner met his buyers.

Though Mr & Mrs. P’s taxes paid for the local public schools, their children weren’t allowed to attend.

Walking down Main Street, they saw sign after sign posted on businesses, explicitly stating that “their kind” wasn’t welcome.

You know this story, but perhaps it’s not the one you’re expecting.

The year was 1941. Alaska was still a territory. Mr. and Mrs. P were Roy and Elizabeth Peratrovich, a Tlingit family with two children. They had just moved to Juneau, where they discovered the extent of inequality facing Alaska Natives.

Alaskan playwright Diane Benson as Elizabeth Peratrovich. Photo by Bill Hess.

As presidents of the Alaska Native Sisterhood/Brotherhood, she and her husband approached Governor Gruening. They began a two year battle to bring an anti-discrimination bill before the Alaska Legislature.

The Governor was supportive; many senators were not. Opponents talked out of both sides of their mouths, dismissing the bill as unnecessary while arguing  it wouldn’t stop discrimination. Racial tension would escalate in response – as would intermarriage, increasing the “mixed race problem.”

Senator Allen Shattuck demanded, “Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites, with 5000 years of recorded civilization behind us?”

When the floor opened for public testimony, Elizabeth Peratrovich stepped to the podium.  A composed woman in the most heated discussions, she began, “I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with 5000 years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights.”

Calm and deliberate, Mrs. Peratrovich described the legal exclusions Alaska Natives experienced. She told the senators, “There are three kinds of persons who practice discrimination. First, the politician who wants to maintain an inferior minority group so he can always promise them something. Second, the Mr. and Mrs. Jones who aren’t quite sure of their social position and who are nice to you on one occasion and can’t see you on others, depending on who they are with. Third, the great superman who believes in the superiority of the white race.”

When Shattuck asked if she believed a law would eliminate discrimination, she replied, “Do your laws against larceny and even murder prevent those crimes? No law will eliminate crimes but at least you as legislators can assert to the world that you recognize the evil of the present situation and speak your intent to help us overcome discrimination.”

The room erupted in applause, and the bill passed, 11-5. On February 16, 1945, the territory of Alaska signed America’s first anti-discrimination legislation.


That may have been the last time that my home state was ahead of the social justice curve. Though Alaska’s Jim Crow laws were formally abolished in 1945, the explicit signage on storefronts has been replaced by coded shorthand, sotto voce commentary by those who believe they’re in like-minded company. These conversations have a lot to do with my deckhand decision-making these days – when Hate and Fear are your primary shipmates, the crewshare is never worth the price of the show.

Alaskans are still trudging a long, heavily rutted road towards equality.  The battle Elizabeth Peratrovich led over 70 years ago wages on, now for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents. While Cap’n J and I spent Monday night celebrating Washington State’s long-awaited Marriage Equality, Anchorage still battles for the most basic of civil rights, housing and employment protections for LGBT citizens. As if quoting directly from the wrong side of Alaskan history, Mayor Sullivan vetoed the 2009 ordinance, denying any such protections are necessary.

I find myself wondering who will stand up as this movement’s Elizabeth.

Thanks to Bill Hess for sharing his photo with Hooked. His blog, Logbook Wasilla, is here; you can also read his powerful story of Diane Benson’s one-woman play, “When My Spirit Raised Its Hands,” here.  Also, thanks to Dave Kiffer for his excellent 2008 article, “Alaska Celebrates Civil Rights Pioneer,” available here.

Coming Soon: Fisher Poets 2012!

8 02 2012

Hey, you guys – it’s almost time for the Fisher Poets Gathering!

Not familiar with FPG? Every February, men and women connected to the fishing industry flood into Astoria, Oregon, to share poems, songs, memoir, and visual art in celebration of this unique livelihood. People come from around the country to take part in this event (from around the globe, in fact: one of this year’s FisherPoets is from Japan) Now in their 15th year, more than 70 artists will be performing this February 24-26.

(Having a hard time imagining a fisherman/woman poet? Veteran FisherPoet and photographer Pat Dixon put together this gorgeous site of past performers and their work.)

Fishin’ folks, writers, storytellers, nestled into bars and restaurants in a seaside town… Some of my favorite things, right there.  So it’s more than a little shameful that I’ve never been to a FPG. Astoria is only about 5 hours south of Bellingham, but somehow, the timing just never worked out. I’ve been a long-distance, wanna-be groupie for an embarrassing number of years now, swooning over various highliner performers from afar. (Yes, I’m lookin’ at you two, Moe Bowstern and Jen Pickett!)

But no more! When, at the end of last season, Cap’n J and I discussed our winter goals, I announced, “I want to finally make it to Fisher Poets this February.” He’s always game for a road trip, especially to the Oregon Coast. (One of his favorite photography destinations, as you can see here.) And just like that, the room’s rented, we’re going, and I’m a quivery mess of excitement.

That quivery mess? Not just about excitement, but nerves, too. As it turns out, sweet readers, this won’t just be my first time in the Fisher Poets audience, but on the stage, too. The organizers generously gave this greenhorn two slots on the schedule (7 pm Friday at the Baked Alaska, and 9 pm Saturday at the Fort George Showroom. Just, you know, if you’re in the area and wanted to stop by.) I’m grateful to be on board, and am eager to learn from the pros.

Between the thrill of hearing some of my FisherPoet idols in person, and the anxiety of filling my 15 minute slots with worthy pieces, I expect the weekend will fly by in a blur of shanties and salt-tinged stories. I can’t wait.

If you’re within range and looking for a fantastic weekend, please join us in Astoria, February 24-26. All of the information is here – admission, scheduling, etc. Info on lodging in Astoria is here. Can’t make it and want to enjoy vicariously? NPR-affiliate KMUN 91.9 FM will be livestreaming the Astoria Events Center performances on Friday and Saturday nights, beginning at 6 pm. Wherever you are, you can listen here.


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