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Rhymes of the mariners: Fishermen gather in Kenai to share poetry, inspiration

Posted: September 19, 2011 - 5:54am
Steve Schoonmaker, a commercial fisherman from Kasilof, recites a poem at the Kenai Fisher Poets 2011 gathering Sept. 9 at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.   Brian Smith / The Peninsula Clarion
Brian Smith / The Peninsula Clarion
Steve Schoonmaker, a commercial fisherman from Kasilof, recites a poem at the Kenai Fisher Poets 2011 gathering Sept. 9 at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.

KENAI — When commercial fishing is slow, or Rich King just has a spare moment during a slow day on the water, he reads his poems to other fisherman over the marine radio.

“I write this stuff on my boat and when fishing’s slow, I’m usually writing,” said the Kenai fisherman.

Often the listener is also the subject, getting a first taste of the words immortalizing the fisherman’s life and plight.

“...I write poetry in my log on the boat,” King said. At the end of the season, he transfers it to legal pads.

King was one of a handful of poets who read their work at the Kenai Fisher Poets 2011 gathering on Sept. 9 at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.

His poetry began as a way to entertain the kids on the boat. He’d write limericks and short verses for them. But on Friday evening, he recalled how fisherman responded to the first opening of the Cook Inlet Corridor in 1999, changes in the industry and also recited two poems that paid homage to another fisherman.

“The truth is, Drew’s my idol,” he said of those pieces, which both poked fun and made it clear that Drew was the fisherman he wanted to be.

King wasn’t the only fisherpoet to capture his idol or the industry’s changes. Meezie Hermansen, Steve Schoonmaker, Jen Pickett, Frank Mullen and Pat Dixon each read work in a variety of tones. Schoonmaker even pulled out his guitar for a song that expressed his gratitude for his daily catch. Dixon, who helped organize the event, also read a piece by Toby Sullivan, a fisher poet who was stuck in Kodiak due to weather.

That work was a fisherman’s response to 9/11.

Like King, Dixon was another long-time Alaskan fisherman.

“I fished Cook Inlet for 20 years,” Dixon said. He sold out of the business in 1997 and moved to Washington with his wife. Life without fishing wasn’t complete until a friend introduced him to the FisherPoets Gathering in Astoria, Ore.

It was the next best thing to being in an Alaskan bar surrounded by fellow fishermen, he said. Dixon’s work reflected that love of other fisherman as King’s did, gave his colleagues a weight nearly as great as the fish. He read work about conversations overheard via the marine radio and a setting sun during the line of boats waiting to sell their fish.

“This one is for all those folks who can’t be here,” he said before one of the last poems of the evening, a piece titled “Overboard.”

Dixon said he wanted to be a writer before he became a commercial fisherman, but fishing turned him into a poet.

His first poem was in response to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.

“I wrote what it felt like to be onshore,” he said.

He shared one of his spill-inspired poems at Friday’s event. The short piece reflected on his son’s response to hearing adult conversations about the animals dying from the slime. The son asks if their family will be OK. In the poem, Dixon grapples with how to tell his son that eventually something man has allowed to develop will become a problem. But his short-term answer is simple.

“Yes pumpkin,” Dixon said.

Dixon helped KVCC’s Laura Forbes organize the Kenai event, which was a second annual affair. Last year, they pulled together a less formal Fisher Poets reading when he came to town for a wedding, he said. He also organized the first such event in Olympia, Wash. earlier this month.

Dixon bought his first camera the year he moved to Alaska.

“Anytime I had free time, I was taking pictures,” he said.

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