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.
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.
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.