Fisher Poets keeps up annual tradition from afar

Fisher Poets Clark Whitney, Meezie Hermansen and Steve Schoonmaker at Salmonfest 2021. (Photo by Sabine Poux/KDLL)

Commercial fishermen from Alaska to Maine have been gathering in Astoria, Oregon since the late 1990s to share spoken-word poems and shanties about life at sea.

Like many performances, the gathering has been on pause during the pandemic.

But this year and last, Fisher Poets has continued over Zoom. Two fishermen from the central Kenai Peninsula performed at this year’s gathering, held the last weekend in February.

They had some technical difficulties. But Steve Schoonmaker and Clark Whitney joined the virtual gathering just in the nick of time last Friday to deliver a poem and a song to a remote audience.

Schoonmaker, who lives in Kasilof, has been going to Fisher Poets in Astoria for over a decade.

He said he’s appreciative of the chance to meet up virtually, even if it’s not quite the same as being altogether. He says there’s a different kind of feedback when he’s in the same room as his audience.

“I can look at people, I can feel the energy in the room,” he said. “Then it becomes a performance.”

Here’s Schoonmaker reading his poem, “Reflecting the Sun.”

He’s kept up the in-person performances locally, including at open mics in Homer.

But he said he’s looking forward to getting back to the in-person Astoria gatherings next year.

“It becomes like a family down there, when you run into everybody,” he said “So that’s a huge part of it. We all get together again, we all bring back something and we do it again. Then the fans you meet, you get a relationship with them. So it’s a reunion. And 15 years go by just like that.”

Amanda Gladics agrees. She works with the Coastal Fisheries Extension at Oregon State University in Astoria and is on the Fisher Poets planning committee.

“You start to see people show up in town on Thursday night. And it starts with kind of a gathering of performers on Thursday night for a welcome gathering,” she said. “There’s just this real sense of community and camaraderie and respect, for both the work that those people do in their fishing seasons and the respect for the artistry and the writing.”

She’s been helping pull the gathering together since 2016. And she says year after year, it’s been an important time for the community that hosts.

“There’s a really strong support for fisher poetry and the Fisher Poets gathering here in Astoria, as well,” Gladics said. “So I love that there’s this really wide geographic connection and also this very local component to the gathering.

This year, she said the planning committee worked hard to maintain the sense of community at the gathering with rehearsals and virtual communal meeting spaces.

Clark Whitney, of Soldotna, said it’s amazing knowing how many fishermen are tuned in from around the country.

“I just want to stay a part of it,” he said. “So every chance I get I want to try to perform with them.”

Whitney has been writing poems since his early days on the water. And he said his poems would often turn into songs.

During the pandemic, he picked up the guitar. He incorporated the guitar into his performance at Fisher Poets this year, of a song he wrote called “I Wanna Be a Fisherman.” It’s from when he started fishing with his dad in Bristol Bay.

KDLL - Kenai

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