This is a pilot paper, and the beginning of a much larger exploration of the genre, which seeks to map fisherpoetry in three ways: first, performing a review of the literature on fisher-poets, and then taking up Han’s definition of the ‘hospitable listener’, and Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a ‘minor literature’, it works towards defining the genre. It then moves on to consider fisherpoetry as a mode of communication, that is a kind of functional tool used by fishermen to establish community via the ship radio. Developing this idea further I assess how women and queer fisherpeople have been able to use poetry to gain representation in an already under-represented culture and lifestyle.
Keywords: Fisherpoetry – ship radio – listening – spoken word – minor literature – poetry
My anxiety is that fisherpoetry will be dismissed as some big ‘yo, ho, ho fest’. But let us remember that the Berring sea ate a ninety foot Seattle based crabber last weekend, disappearing the sound boat and all six of her experienced crew, after only a blip on the E-PIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon) … Fishing stories are stories of immigration, of indigenous oppression, of indigenous wisdom, of horrific sexism, of wanton cruelty to creatures of earth, of balance and respect for all life. Our abortion stories, our love stories, our hate stories our death stories are funny, sad and stupid. Are timeless stories of the human experience played out on the ancient backdrop of pulling sustenance from the bountiful sea, and yes, some of them rhyme. Yo, fucking ho.
I first heard about fisherpoetry when I was sitting at Benny Simms’ kitchen table. We were eating fried eggs on white bread and drinking instant coffee from wide-based weighted mugs – the kinds you find on boats that will not tip or spill. It was the day after my grandad’s funeral and I was listening to Benny and my father reminiscing about their days out on the boats together. During the conversation they were shifting between registers of dialogue; in one moment they were speaking in colloquialisms and fishing jargon, and in the next they would recite lines of poems they or someone they knew had written.
The poems were mostly autobiographical. They were about things like the Copper Coast fishing industry, loneliness, sea-faring pets, sex, storms, drinking too much, and missing home. It brought to mind an interview between Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich where Lorde describes her relationship with poetry at a young age as becoming ‘functional’. She goes on to explain that even as a child she used poems conversationally to express emotions: ‘Whenever someone asked me, “how do you feel?” or “what do you think?” I would recite a poem’ she states, ‘and somewhere in that poem would be the feeling, the vital piece of information’ (1984: 82). Listening to Ben and my father, what became apparent to me was the way both men used poetry, and specifically fisherpoetry to communicate shared experience and shared loss, and not just the loss of my grandfather, but the general demise of the fishing industry and the changing conditions of the ocean.
This is a pilot paper, and the beginning of a much larger exploration of the genre, which seeks to map fisherpoetry in three ways: first, performing a review of the literature on fisher-poets and then taking up Han’s definition of the ‘hospitable listener’, and Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a ‘minor literature’, I work towards defining the genre. I then move on to consider fisherpoetry as a mode of communication, that is a kind of functional tool used by fishermen to establish community. Developing this idea further, I consider how fisherpoetry acts a representation of a community that has been historically colonised, spoken for by land dwelling writers. I then assess how women and queer fisherpeople have been able to use poetry to gain representation in an already under-represented culture and lifestyle.
In order to map the genre of fisherpoetry I am performing explorative and tentative research on self-published and recorded works and interviews. It is my intention to perform further empirical and ethnographic research in this area. In many ways this paper is a trawling expedition; a way of casting a wide net for collaborators who may wish to contribute to this unchartered area of research.
Working towards a definition of fisherpoetry
For the purposes of this paper it is necessary to differentiate between ‘writers’ who write about fishing and/or are hobby fisherpeople, and commercial fisherpeople who’s primary income comes from the fishing trade, and who also write poetry. Seafaring has long been associated with storytelling of adventure and epic. Homer’s Iliad, Melville’s Moby Dick, Hemmingway’s The old man and the sea and Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the ancient mariner’ all take up seascape and narratives of seafaring journey. However; the fishing trade is rarely accurately represented in the Western literary cannon. Writers often (and perhaps purposefully) get it wrong, or glamorise the trade to serve major narratives.
Further, fishermen are often portrayed as storytellers who engage with these kinds of exaggerated seafaring adventure narratives, that is, they are often portrayed as complicit in the simplification and fictionalising of identity and experience in the fishing industry. In the words of Blum and Rudy, ‘literary history has most often considered the sea from the vantage point of land’ (2013: 190). For this reason, it is possible to glean that many stories and poems about the sea and fishing are not written to serve fishing communities, or to reflect the reality of life as a fisherman. When Bowstern voices her concerns of fisherpoetry being labelled a ‘yo, ho, ho fest,’ she’s articulating the way the voices of fisher-writers may not have been taken seriously, listened to, or classified as ‘writers’.
Writing on the production of print newspapers on board ships during the 19th century, Blum and Rudy argue that ‘for all the vast literature about the sea from Homer onward, little attention has been paid to the surprising amount and variety of literature written at sea’ (2013: 189) by people in the industry, and not just land-dwelling writers who have taken up fishing as a hobby. In Oceanic Studies some attention has been given to Spanish sea-poetry written during the 16th century (Davis 2014) as a form of historical documentation, but poetry performed over the ship radio, from mid 1900s up until the present day is currently unchartered, as are fisherpoet gatherings and the first-person experiences of women in the fishing industry.
Reading fisherpoetry may help us think ‘more acutely about modes of being and exchange that are necessarily constituted by … fluidity, contingency and mutability’ (2013: 190), that is, reading poetry written from communities whose relationship to land and sea is significantly different to people who live their entire lives on land may feel different to reading poetry written about the sea, seafaring and fishing by non-fisherfolk. And while it is not requisite that seafaring fiction accurately represent life at sea, it is worth asking what life working as a commercial fisherman is actually like. It is also worth recognising the wealth of poetry and literature, often self-published or written for performance, that emerges from this trade, and represents a specific way of living a life divided between land and seascapes, and the cultures attached with these modes of living.
Due to the nature of the commercial fishing industry, whereby fishermen spend months on boats away from their families, fisher-people are often isolated and in small groups for significant amounts of time, cut off from family and friends, as well as land dwelling cultures. These conditions have enabled a specific kind of performance poetry to develop – poetry written to be performed over the ship radio. Further, because fisherpeople are often dispersed or scattered, gatherings such as the Fisherpoets Gathering in Astoria, Oregon, have become places of community, the foundation of which is listening and poetry.
Ship radio poetry: rechannelling voices
We are presented with the ear as a receptor for wisdom, suggesting a listening that is done with the whole body. The active listening implied in artistic practice and the way that it and its resultant artefacts form counter- spaces in the everyday can be seen as a powerful antidote to a late capitalist world marked by labour market collapse, destruction of social systems of solidarity, and increasingly precarious employment. (Rancière 2010: xi)
When Rancière writes about artistic practice, he refers to the practitioner as an active listener, whose artefacts are the product of that listening (2013). I am not the first person to subscribe to the idea that listening is the foundation of writing or to believe that the writer is first and foremost an active, or, to borrow Byung-Chul Han’s term, ‘hospitable listener’ (2018: 72). Han’s hospitable listener is able to demonstrate their listening without judgement. The act of listening is an ‘inhalation’ of the speaking Other that ‘harbours and preserves them,’ rather than absorbs them. In doing this, the hospitable listener becomes ‘no one’ and it is this emptiness that enables the listener to ‘assimilate all manner of things in order to preserve them’ (2018: 72). In other words, the hospitable listener forgets themselves through the act of listening and becomes a concave listening space, or ‘echo-chamber’ for the speaking Other. This kind of listening, Han argues, is the foundation of community and occurs prior to speaking, and enables the Other to speak.
Perhaps it is worth creating a distinction between ‘Ship Radio Poetry’ and fisherpoetry here, because the former is written specifically for the purpose of aural reception while the latter may not be. The performance of Ship Radio Poetry, that is poetry performed over the radio to other skippers on boats, is perhaps a site where hospitable listening occurs, because it is a mode for establishing and maintaining community and communication. At the time I learned about fisher poetry I noted that the exchanges my father and Benny Simms had did not follow a kind of normal conversational rhythm, poems and lines were recited, sometimes in the middle of sentences, followed by long pauses, and neither man seemed to care whose words he was speaking. It seemed as if they were following a kind of radio etiquette, even as we were sitting at the table. When fisherpoets compose poems, the first point of ‘publication’ or performance is often the ship radio. This was the case for Ben Simms and my father, and reportedly, as I will discuss in the subsequent section, for many fishermen who travel to Astoria for the Fisherpoets Gathering.
In this sense much of the fisherpoetry that is written can be classified as Radio Poetry: ‘poetry that is intended to be received via broadcast’ (Ladd 2011: 165). Much like the fishing industry, poetry read over the ship radio occupies an ephemeral and peripheral space. The commercial fishing industry, and especially those in it working independently and on smaller vessels, face the constant threat of low fish stock from overfishing, environmental damage from oversized trawlers, climate change and pollution. It is an industry that is affected by and able to observe the impacts of neo-liberal capitalism while its workers remain in many ways isolated from technological advances and popular culture because they are routinely absent, isolated and living their lives in vastly different conditions.
Returning to Ranciere’s idea that listening may be an antidote to a late capitalist world marked by labour market collapse, precarious employment, and the destruction of social systems of solidarity, Ship Radio Poetry occupies an interesting space in that it reflects the nature of the fishing industry in both its form and content, while also resisting the destruction of community by commandeering a tool designed for communication between vessels, and using it in artistic practice. Co-opting a machine designed for efficient and functional communication for the purpose of reading poetry, and implicating it in the poem as an aural performance demonstrates an artistic practice that is both functional in that it uses the only tool at hand to produce art, and interruptive because it takes up a means of communication and uses it for artistic (read non-instrumentalist) purposes. This aligns with Rancière’s definition of artistic practice as a ‘way of doing and making that intervenes in the general distribution of doing and making’ (2013: 8). The doing and making in this context is the fishing and communication between vessels, and the intervention is using language and the ship radio to establish literature that engages with the industry. The forms of poetry performed, which rely on oral storytelling traditions, formal poetic forms and parody, are written to be performed for the temporary community of a particular season in a particular moment.
While this kind of poetry might not fit conventionally into genres of radiophonic art, with a recorded or performed soundscape and non-verbal as well as verbal sounds (Milutis 2001: 58), the conditions of sound, voice and setting are inextricable – they cannot be separated from the poetry and are conditional to its performance. It fits the rhythm of the work and is written with the shared score of sea sounds, wind and people moving around on deck or gathered around the radio. The work of fisherpoets who are reading across the ship radio can be performed quickly and remembered readily. It is written to be read out loud, over radio static and waves and this is what gets lost when ship-radio poetry is translated onto the page. The ocean soundscape also implies a shared space or atmosphere. The lapping of water against a boat might be compared to Han’s ‘hospitable listener’ who’s silence is ‘punctuated by short, hardly perceptible breaths, which show not only that one has been listened to, but that what once has said has also been welcomed’ (2018: 72). I question whether it is possible to think of the sound of the ocean as this ‘breath’ when performing over the ship radio, to an implied audience of peers within a community united by waves (sound and water) and geographically isolated by the sea.
It is perhaps useful to think of this writing in Deleuze and Guattari’s definition of a ‘minor literature’ in the sense that a minor literature takes on ‘collective value’, in other words, it is not a ‘literature of masters’. Due to the relative scarcity of fisherpoets, and fisherpoetry’s absence from any recognised literary cannon, ‘what each author says individually already constitutes a common action, and what he or she says or does is necessarily political, even if others aren’t in agreement’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1986: 17). As Blum and Rudy note, literary production on boats and ships during the 19th century was necessarily collective, consisting of small bodies of interest that in and of themselves ‘constituted, for a set interval, the totality of a community’ (2013: 190). While this paper is interested in current writing trends in fisherpoetry, their research contributes to the long history of publishing and performing writing while at sea. Writing on the politics of literature, Ranciere states ‘what really deserves the name of politics is the cluster of perceptions and practices that shape this common world. Politics is first of all a way of framing, among sensory data, a specific sphere of experience’ (2010: 152). Considering this, I argue that fisherpoetry is political precisely because it seeks to frame a sphere of experience, through the collective act of listening. To unpack this further: the lives of fishermen and women, their relationship to the environment, to each other, to the industry and to living on land are complex and underrepresented in literature. Thinking of fisherpoetry as a mode of writing that seeks to represent the complexities of seafaring life, necessarily reframes the genre as relevant and important for the identities of fisherpeople, and constitutes it as a literature in its own right.
This poetry, which is situational, always appearing and disappearing and only available in a particular moment is a fairly stark contrast from the culture of publication that surrounds the reading and writing of poetry as an intensely intellectual activity. There is something to be said about the activity of sharing autobiographical poetry conversationally – which shouldn’t be analysed based on scholarly conventions of quality – we might even say the content is less important than the act of using poetry in conventional forms of communication because it interrupts the language of conversation. However, while there may be some interesting and experimental qualities to performing ship radio poetry, it is also a form of performance poetry dominated by the majority of fishermen. The voices and stories of women and of queer fisherpeople aren’t always welcomed, especially when speaking about inequalities or experiences specific to those situations.
Given my experience as the daughter and granddaughter of fishermen, raised for most of my life in the Dandenong Ranges, far from fishing communities, it would be easy for me to romanticise the industry and imagine a crew of fishers waxing poetic and trawling for prawns under a full moon. But as Bowstern demonstrates in her poem ‘Things That Will Be Difficult’ (2013) and essay ‘What it’s Like’ (2018), in reality, and especially on big commercial trawlers, they are more likely watching action movies or pornography. The truth is that fisher-poet communities exist, but they are rare, and are often populated by cultures of exclusion and fixed gender roles. As Bowstern states, there are plenty of men who become fishermen ‘because they don’t like being around women’ (2018). The exclusion of women from the trade often comes under the guise of protection, and my own mother, also a fisherwoman for many years, has spoken about how difficult it was to find safe work, without the threat of sexual violence in the Northern Queensland fishing industry in the eighties. You only have to read a handful of poems from the Kodiak region, and Berring Sea fisherwomen to realise little has changed. So it is impossible to write about this industry and this genre of writing as a woman, without noting the prejudices and inequalities women and queer people experience within the trade.
I began this paper with an anecdote about my own family and the community I have knowledge about but remain on the peripheries of. As I write this I recognise my need to map this sea-space via poetry, having been excluded – partially because I am female – from the fishing trade. I recognise that I have, in a sense, self-selected out based on an entrenched belief that there was no place for me in that trade. So when I listen to fisherpoetry now I recognise my preference for poetry written by women who did not hear that resounding, excluding ‘no’ as law, and have infiltrated deep behind the lines of such a male dominated space, where being female is constantly on your mind and masculinity is still a clear yardstick for success. As I write this I think that it is worth asking why I need to write myself into this community, and why I need to write about this community and mark out a space. I constantly doubt whether I can, and I am inclined to acknowledge my privilege as a tertiary educated person writing about a community I am on the peripheries of, and to question how qualified I am to write about an industry I don’t work in. But then I remind myself of the words of female fisherpoet, Tele Aadsen, that ‘some self-examination veers dangerously close to the apologist behaviours women are so socialised to perform’ (2012). In questioning whether I can speak to this research, I tend towards self-selecting out again. So, I move tentatively when performing this research, and seek to use this specific position to look at how women are able to inhabit fishing communities through poetry.
Community and diversity at the fisher poets gathering
In Astoria the poetry ‘began in the dead of the night among lonely fishermen talking by radio on the open sea. Now commercial fishermen from all over the Pacific Coast go to the old port town each year to hear their fellow anglers' tales in a more formal setting on stage at the Fisher Poets' Gathering. (Frazier 2005: n.p.)
While the ship radio provides a communal space to perform work while out at sea, fisherpoet gatherings, provide alternative spaces for under-represented groups in fishing communities, as well as a space to perform more experimental and long form works of poetry, story and lyric essay. This second part of the paper will use the poetry of female fisherpoets, Moe Bowstern, Tele Aadsen, and Erin Fristad to discuss representation and community in fisherpoetry.
Fundamental to fisherpoetry is an enduring love of the ocean, and of seafaring life, even when it is mundane, brutal, boring or prejudicial. Rather than using a seascape as the backdrop for an adventure narrative, works about the sea by commercial fisher-writers aim to salvage the reputation or critique some part of the trade. They are engaged politically with what it means to be a fisherperson, and how this identity might endure even as the industry struggles. It is perhaps important to consider whether these poetry gatherings will outlive the industry they emerge from.
In Astoria for example, there were over forty salmon canneries (conducive to the amount of salmon that was in the area) – now they are all gone, but the Fisherpoets Gathering continues to increase in popularity. For Densmore, among others, accurate representation of the fishing industry, grounded in poetry and storytelling is of fundamental importance and a way of defending the reputation of the fishing industry as ‘as harvesters of the resource, not greedy marauders’ (2013) and influencing those who regulate the industry. In other words, gatherings such as the Fisherpoets Gathering give the fishing industry a political voice, and also something that endures beyond the actual industry, in the form of storytelling, poetry and shared mythologies.
Sharing writing is a social and community-building activity, as much as writing it may be a solitary act. For female fisherpoets this may be the only time they come together with other fisherwomen. In the Kodiak region, there might only be six or seven women in a community of five hundred crew (Bowstern, 2007). In these conditions, gender roles become more defined and the lifestyle available to fishermen may never really be experienced by a woman at sea. Here poetry becomes a space to tease out the politics of gender, sexuality and power in fishing industries, and a space where communities of fisherpeople who would not otherwise meet during the season, can come together. Writing on the political importance of poetry to women, Audrey Lorde states:
For women then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity to our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language and then into idea, then into more tangible action…The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives. (1984: 32)
When analysing the representation of women within fishing communities it appears even more necessary that the words of actual female sea-faring workers are heard because these words are often written to challenge inequalities within the industry. They become a way of establishing solidarity, and imagining alternative realities where fisherwomen are able to work without fearing for their safety, or feeling forced into domestic duties. Writing on the expectations and responsibilities of being a woman in the fishing industry, Fristad’s poem ‘Advice to Female Deckhands’, excerpted here, reveals the gender roles still enforced within the industry:
As a woman and cook
you will be expected to have a special bond
with the skipper’s daughter
and you will. Have art supplies in a shoebox in the galley,
a drawing tablet under a cushion, collect starfish,
decorator crab, and Spiny Lump Suckers in a deck bucket.
Teach her what you know can kill her. When she cries
put your arm around her, kiss her
on the top of the head and let her cry.
Allow her to use your cell phone to call friends
in exchange for making salads, pots of coffee,
washing lunch dishes, carrying groceries to the boat.
Develop sign language for communicating
when she stands in the galley door
peering out at you on deck.
This isn’t what I intended.
I set out to give you advice for taking care
of yourself, now it’s about taking care of a girl
you're related to by circumstance.
This is exactly what will happen.
You’ll notice a hum
more penetrating than the engine.
Fristad addresses other female ‘greenhorn’ (first or second season) fisherwomen and captures the mundane domestic and childrearing duties allocated to women on boats. The line ‘this isn’t what I intended’ reveals not only a shift in the intent of the poem, but the hard reality that women rarely experience the fishing life they expect to or that male deckhands do. This question of what it’s like to be a woman on a fishing boat is constant and frustrating according to Moe Bowstern, a prolific publisher and writer or fisherpoetry. In her untitled poem she attempts to address the question, which she asks herself and is routinely asked by others:
My halibut skipper told me about a pet he had as a boy in Arkansas. A snapping turtle. He hated snapping turtles he said – drilled a hole through this one’s shell – threaded a dog chain through it. Every day he went down to the pond, hauled on the chain and dragged the turtle out. So he could tease it. Make it snap sticks in half. Poke it. Until it grew too exhausted to respond. He’d let it crawl back in and sulk he’d say. Until the next day. And do it again. He told me that story for the same reason. To get a rise out of me. Poking. Prometheus the snapping turtle was all I said. Hiding the soft flesh of my outrage. People ask me: what’s it like to be a woman in the fishing industry. People tell me or any female deckhand or any woman anywhere to smile. The work’s not so bad out on the boats. It’s cold. It’s wet. Sometimes I sulk. I think a lot about that snapping turtle, and I don’t smile on command. (Bowstern 2018; transcribed from the audio by Elliott-Ryan).
I am aware that in writing about the representation of women in the fishing industry I am creating a kind of sub-category of fisherpoets: women fisherpoets. Perhaps this is problematic because I am analysing the poetry based on the question Bowstern eloquently addresses and also rages against In her lyric essay, ‘What It’s Like’ (2018). Bowstern addresses the question ‘what is it like to be a woman on a fishing boat,’ while critiquing the way women are treated within the industry, before offering a vision of what it might be like to be a woman on a fishing boat where she can establish her own way of being at sea. It is this example to an (almost) all female fishing crew that challenges the nature of the industry and puts forward an alternative fishing culture. Describing the moment when she and her sister were driving the boat while singing and encountered a whale Bowstern writes:
Humpbacks can see quite well both above and below the water. She looked at us. She looked at us. If it had been a movie or my imagination she would have winked. It wasn’t a movie. It was a fishing boat. Our lives were mostly drudgery in a sweep of wonder and our everyday discomfort was hardly cinematic. The humpback rolled over seaward. My hammering heart almost stopped and then nothing. She was gone…We never saw the whale again. Was she headed south on her migration and just waited to say goodbye to the other singing mammals? When I think about the kind of world I most want to inhabit I believe that our singing called her and that we had a shared song. I never told this story to other male fishing folk. What would I say? We saw a whale. Every one of us has seen whales. We caught them accidentally, we’ve cursed them, we hope they stay out of our way, they’ve torn our nets. They’ve chased fish away. Nobody talks about singing. This too is what it’s like to be a woman on a fishing boat (Transcribed from the audio by Elliott-Ryan, 2018).
What poetry performance, like the performances at the Fisherpoets Gathering might do is enable us to listen together, and to listen hospitably, without the expectation of a response or reply. As Michael Ladd claims, paraphrasing French producer Rene Farabet: ‘to listen is to become porous. Sound is in us, not just perceived outside’ (2011: 164). When we listen to an Other, their voice is not outside; the voice, through listening is heard inside. Listening enables poetry to inhabit us. This inhabitation does not occur through functional exchanges of information, as Han argues. A Poetry reading is not a practical or efficient ‘exchange of information.’ It is not an exchange in that it does not require a response. The only thing poetry requires is a listener.
This is the difference Berstein establishes between the convex acoustic space of silent reading, and the concave acoustic space of listening. And the ‘reading aloud’ of poetry, Bernstein argues, is different from music or theatre specifically because of its ‘anti-expressivist’ or ‘anti-performist’ mode, ‘which is a performance choice just like any other’ (1998: 11), but one that foregrounds language and the aural rather than visual. Whether it is worthwhile maintaining this opposition or not, Bernstein makes strong claims for the relationship between listening and spoken poetry that invites a certain kind of attentiveness, and a collective forgetting of the self in the wake of language that may validate diverse representation within a traditionally hegemonically masculine community and profession.
When I think about the future of fisherpoetry I can’t help thinking about it as a genre that is destined to disappear before it makes any significant change to the industry, because the industry itself is disappearing. Of course, the politics around this are complicated, and far more could be written on the relationship between fisherpoetry and the Anthropocene, which extends beyond the scope of this paper. I feel some urgency around writing about the genre while it still exists, if only to acknowledge the complexity and difficulties of cultures that aren’t ‘land-dwelling’. When Benny Simms recites his poetry it is mostly light-hearted. It is another way to have a joke with his friends when he’s out at sea – a bit crass and a bit nostalgic. But when it’s about the industry, it is elegiac and melancholic. It has become a way to collectively mourn a life that is no longer sustainable. Laughing, Ben tells me that he has become a kind of unofficial keeper of Copper Coast fisherpoetry. He writes so much that he forgets what’s his and what’s not, he says. Sometimes he publishes other people’s poems and thinks that he’s written them. And as he reads a poem my dad interrupts him: ‘That’s mine. I wrote that one,’ he says. ‘I wrote it to read over the radio’, and he finishes reciting it. It rhymes, and it recounts the destruction of the Copper Coast prawning industry. When he is done, he and Ben sit in sombre silence.
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