Coast Chronicles: Fisher poets blanks and bridges

Carol Roh, Gordon Bok and Mary Garvey at the Fisher Poets' song-writing workshop.

Fisher poets, like fish, come in all shapes and sizes. The sturgeon types are steady, sturdy and deep. Coho glint in the sun. The smelt, fewer of them now, hang together in crowds. Some are all flash and no meat. Some look a bit worse for wear but keep comin’ back year after year.

But they’re all good-natured and ready to show their tales. 

This past weekend’s 14th annual Fisher Poets Gathering (FPG) was nothing if not diverse and raucous. 

Moe Bowstern, one of the few women fishermen on the docket, got us clapping along to a rowdy Scottish ballad. Jon Campbell, from Narragansett, R.I., had us counting flies on a garbage barge. John Eliott, from Saltspring Island in British Columbia, took us fish-dreaming on land, setting crab pots out behind the tractor, wearing a fishy smile.

But my favorite of all the fishers are the singer-songwriters.

A Bridge to Somewhere

Last Saturday morning a panel of fisher musicians gathered at the Columbia River Maritime Museum. Led by master of ceremonies Jon Campbell, the panel included Allen Estes from Gloucester, Mass.; John Palmes from Juneau, Alaska; and Gordon Bok from Camden, Maine. Local songwriters Mary Garvey and Hobe Kytr were also called up to participate.

They played it as a round robin, each one talking about how a song was written, its historical background and pedigree — then singing it.

Estes, accomplished songwriter, talked about working in the belly of the beast, “the hit-factory of Nashville.” He played a beautiful Martin DC Aura Dreadnought and played it well. Maybe too well. His songs didn’t make it to my heart, though I loved his chord progressions and watching his fingers flickering up and down the neck of his guitar. 

“You need a memorable bridge,” he said, “like the Megler Bridge, that will take you to a place in the song you haven’t been to before.”

“So lost, so lost at sea. Your lovin’ was the only thing that ever saved me,” he sang.

As Campbell said, “We know some songs are okay but some are goose-bumpers.” My goose-bumper came later.

Three Million Flies

Campbell gave us a window into his garbage song, written on request for NPR radio.

“You can’t always wait around until the muse strikes. That’s not particularly efficient,” said Campbell. “On this garbage barge deal, I didn’t know if there was a song in there or not.” So he started researching the story.

Actually we’re coming up to its 24th anniversary: on March 22, 1987, the barge named Mobro 4000, was pulled out of the New York harbour by the tugboat Break of Dawn, piloted by Duffy St. Pierre. St. Pierre pulled that load of garbage south from New York to Belize and back before he got permission to dump it.

“When I read that pilot’s name — Duffy St. Pierre — I knew I could hang the song on Duffy,” Campbell laughed. And it’s true — you just want to say Duffy’s name out loud, several times. It’s got a natural rhythm to it. 

“But from what point of view do I want to tell the story? Well, I took the tried and true — the poor hapless deckhand,” Campbell continued.

“Then you also need a ‘device.’” (An “incremental repetition” as Bok called it.) “Yup — those flies were the thing,” he said. 

Sure enough, on every verse, the flies keep multiplying as the barge gets smellier and smellier in its four months at sea. So St. Pierre, now 80 and living in New Orleans, is memorialized along with 3 million flies. 

Tie Her Up

Bok (his last name is pronounced “Bach”) is the real deal. He’s a wood carver, fisherman and singer-songwriter of the highest quality. In Paul Sullivan’s introduction to Bok’s 2001 songbook, “One to Sing, One to Haul,” he writes, “Like Bach’s music, Bok’s music is sturdy. Durable. Gordon’s songs are handcrafted out of water and wind, wire and words.

“I’ve sometimes heard Gordon speak about ‘making’ a song and ‘putting a song together.’ It’s the same terminology a Maine boat builder uses to describe the creation of a fine wooden yacht.”

Saturday, Bok said of his own process, “I’ve been fully present in very few of the songs I’ve written. When I get going, I’m not there at all. I look at a song again and I say to myself, ‘How did I come up with that chord progression?’”

Then, in the gentlemanly way that Bok stepped through the entire FPG, he sang not one of his tunes but one of Garvey’s — the most beautiful and haunting, “Tie Her Up,” about a boat let loose from a noble life and abandoned: 

Tie her up and let her rot, for the last fish that I caught

Never brought enough to buy the gas that day

When you’re going after salmon it is feast or it is famine

And it looks like Mr. Famine’s here to stay

Garvey said, “I saw that boat taking the ferry from Westport to Puget Island, I pictured the family. I can generally see the narrator in my mind: I saw the boat owner. He was short and wearing black and red. I saw his sons, taller than him.”

“I can’t understand the process of re-writing. When I write a song words circulate in my head — sometimes I leave blanks and drop words in later — like typesetting.”

“You mean, hours or days later?” asked Bok.

Garvey looked startled, “No, minutes.” Everyone laughed as Palmes had just spoken about a song that took him three years to write. Bowstern said to Garvey, “I think what we’re saying here is you’re something special.”

Bok praised Garvey for writing about local history. “Yes, I’m recording what’s going on in my place,” she said.

Garvey just finished a song about the December drowning of Luis Perez on the 29-foot FV Ella Ann, out of Bay Center, a crabbing boat piloted by Eric Petit in Willapa Bay. Petit, already in the water, survived by dialing 911 and amazingly the call went through. 

The last thing Petit remembered was looking up through the bay water to the Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk hovering above him. They brought him back with CPR. Garvey’s song, “Hold On,” a poignant cry to sailors waiting for rescue, had everyone in the room blending four-part harmony on the chorus. As Bok put it, “There’s a song that knows how to take care of itself.”

Hymn to the Sea

Fisher poets and singers have 15 minutes of fame; they pile on stage one on top of the other in fast succession — the mediocre, the downright awful, and the gifted. It’s not a lot of time to get the crowd on your side. 

Bok had his 15 minutes at the Wet Dog late Saturday night. The crowd at the bar was boisterous and rude. Earlier performers resorted to loud doggerel and dodgey tactics like taking their false teeth out.

I cringed as I made my way to the front to sit in an empty chair beside Bok’s wife and musician Carol Roh. I wondered if even a rowdy sea shanty with lurid lyrics would get the crowd’s attention. 

Bok took the stage, adjusted the microphone and, making no apologies to anyone, sang a hymn to the sea, softly, reverently. It ended with “Amen.” He sang to the 20 people at the front of the room who knew they were experiencing a master. Unconcerned about the chaos around him, his next piece was a complex and moving montage called “Pretty Today,” with melodic verses woven seamlessly with spoken word: a fisherman voicing concern over marine radio to a buddy having engine trouble across the water. 

The understated camaraderie, the telling details of the engine repair, sympathy for the “poor old boat, nothing but a flaming concept of the flaming mind,” and the simple joy of good weather came through as clear as love. 

“Pretty Today” captured everything I need to understand about a day out fishing. I walked into Astoria’s snowy evening straight away, not wanting to blur the moment with anything less miraculous.

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