KENAI — Words are the thread Steve Schoonmaker weaves to stitch together the two fabrics of his world. Those fabrics are his reality and are as different as burlap and silk.
They are what compel him to write his unique poetry about nature, wildlife and fishing. They force him onto the stage in bars, conventions and gatherings to speak what’s on his heart and in his head about the land he loves.
Beauty and conflict.
Schoonmaker said he does his best to walk the middle line, letting his words pay tribute to the struggle between.
The beauty of the king salmon, the conflict of the creature in his net.
The beauty of Alaska, the conflict of developments he thinks threaten the land.
The beauty of a 55-year-old man finally finding the voice he’s been searching for, the conflict of having self-doubt about his abilities.
Poems Schoonmaker writes in hopes of navigating the duality of his beauty and conflict-driven life, he said, have landed him applause from packed crowds at the national FisherPoets Gathering in Astoria, Ore., gained him the respect of his fellow fishermen, and, most importantly, allowed him to express ideas Alaska has been seeding in his spirit.
After years of searching, Schoonmaker said he’s finally found his voice.
“I think a lot of guys are thinking what I’m saying and they wish they could say it,” Schoonmaker said. “They probably could say it, but they don’t know it.”
On a late April afternoon, Schoonmaker is busy buttoning up his off-the-grid Kasilof cabin and tying down loose ends before he heads east for his summer work as a drift gillnetter aboard his boat, the Saulteur, near Cordova.
He’ll be back to the Peninsula in the winter when the only sounds coming from his cabin are the occasional chirp of wind chimes, the buzz of his generator or the scratching of his pen on the notebook. For 23 years he’s sat in the same chair filling pages with his poems. He’s got a suitcase full.
“I’ve got a sanctuary here,” he said looking around. “These things just develop. Familiarity, like an old shirt or whatever. I can just come here and get in the mood.”
Roaming the Arizona desert in his youth, Schoonmaker said he watched untouched land be made into mini-malls, golf courses and housing developments.
“I loved the desert but I saw it getting chewed up and I knew I was a person living in a house like everybody else so all this was incubating, the beauty and the conflict,” he said.
His parents brought him north in 1973 after his dad retired from the U.S. Air Force. His folks settled in Kenai making earthenware wind chimes, mugs and pottery for a living.
“I remember we came up the AlCan and it was all so beautiful, the mountains and as a kid I loved Arizona, but Alaska was just, ‘Whoa,’” he said. “I was a desert rat and loved outdoor life.”
His parents stayed a few years but moved back south leaving Schoonmaker to find his way. He turned 20 trapping in the area now designated as Lake Clark National Park. He was hooked and for three more winters he made ends meet by trapping and squatting in an 11-foot-by-11-foot cabin.
In the silent woods he found some space between his ears to explore. He liked what he found, he said.
“I was out in the Bush and all this was speaking to me,” he said. “I was soaking it up.”
Later, he started hanging out with fishermen and the docks spoke to him, too. His romance with fishing had bloomed, but not yet his poetry.
“Most people understand that you smell the ocean and you get nervous,” he said. “All these memories and emotions and even though you swore you’d never go back, all this stuff that drug you through it is what makes life happen.
“The ocean is full of getting wet, and getting scared, and catching fish, and not catching fish, and being stressed or broke down — man, that’s a poem.”
It wasn’t until the mid-1990s he wrote and performed his first poem. “White King Roast,” detailed the delight of cooking up a winter king catch and he wrote it in the margins of the boat’s tide book.
His later poems started to draw from his experiences with nature, wildlife and Alaska as a fisherman and hunting guide. Poems were his way to pay tribute and slowly, gradually he started inking them down, building a fortress of words and pages.
“All this time it was speaking to me, now I found a way to speak back,” he said. “I found a way to say what I was thinking.”
A few years ago, Schoonmaker recorded 14 of his poems onto an album called “Give a Dollar to the Sea” with the help of a friend.
“I wrote these words because I belong as they belong — connected,” he narrates during the recording’s introduction. “Because it all belongs connected.”
“Chrome” is a poem he wrote during a storm about fishing for kings in the Copper River flats. The sight of the squirming fish in his net reminded him of when he was trapping lynx — that he had just killed a beautiful creature, but was strangely happy about it, he said. Beauty and conflict, same with the king flopping on his deck.
“He’s like me,” he said of the salmon. “He’s trying to find his way back and I’m trying to find them. We are caught in this dance.”
Slappin’ tails to vapor trails, so nearly home
Killed for the buyer, grilled on the fire, chrome
So juicy with fat, stopped where you’re at
Listenin’ for which way to roam, chrome.
Schoonmaker took “Chrome” and a handful of other poems with him to Astoria, Ore., for the FisherPoets gathering. He’s been back four times since. Even though the poets there are “feathers of the same bird” as he puts it, they identify with the threads he weaves about Alaska.
Back in Cordova’s bars and taverns the tough and salty fishermen there get it, too, he said.
It’s a connection with the ocean, with the fish and “with this whole thing,” Schoonmaker said. That sentiment is perhaps best illustrated in his poem “Symbiotic not Separate.”
... Where the cast of a rack becomes parka squirrel scat
Nourishing the earth so that plant life comes back
So calf momma’s milk is so calcium-packed
Like clouds and shape-shifting cycling back
Symbiotic not separate ...
He recently wrote a poem that has produced the most impact of any he’s written, he said. It is one he unveiled at the most recent FisherPoets gathering called “Illusions of Separateness.”
Originally he toyed with it, wondering if it was too serious, he said. But, he threw his shoulders back and let it fly.
... Those illusions of separateness that we exist on our own
Contained in our bodies outside all we’ve known
Dividing up nature until we’re divided alone
At the top of some food chain that we’ll conquer and own
It’s an illusion of separateness ...
Many of his poems have a similar theme. When fishermen hear it, they cheer it, he said.
“I know that if you are moved by something it is because you probably have thought about it before,” he said.
Commercial fishing is a physical act with little time to focus on words and poetry, Schoonmaker said. For that reason he doesn’t write in the summer. He tries to absorb it when the weather is nice and then ring it out when the snow falls. He wishes he had more discipline, he said. Sometimes what he thought about all summer is lost when he puts his pen to the page.
“I’m lucky because I got all this winter,” he said. “All this time, right here. You can see how wore out this chair is from me sitting here. This is where I do my thinking and writing.”
Some poems he hurls on the page without a second thought. Other poems have to be wrenched out. But, he learned a trick about how to feel his way through from a monk he met while working as a bear guard on a seismic crew.
“I got experience, it is in there, but if I think too hard about it, it clouds my sky,” he said.
Schoonmaker said he doesn’t have much formal education. He realizes that sometimes he breaks the rules of modern poetry. Sometimes he worries about that, or the reaction he’ll get on stage. He can forget his words, feel stupid, goofy, not confident. He shoots for the middle ground between stage fright and “super ham,” he said with a laugh.
“I’m starting to understand more and more about this,” he said. “If you are not afraid of not being perfect ... if you can kind of dissolve your ego enough to where you are not a target, it is not going to be no big deal if you go up there and you forget your words or look stupid or whatever.”
The positive response has been growing each time he performs, he said. But he does a head check often — he wants to do poetry for the right reason.
“Are you trying to grow, or are you trying to be famous?” he said.
He has found poetry can move people. Advocacy is now a part of his repertoire. He was once filmed on his boat in Cordova reciting a poem against Pebble Mine called “Unlearned.” It was later posted on YouTube and has more than 2,800 views.
... Down with our rivers and down with our streams
Fish are going to get killed for an economic means
The faster the bucks boys the bigger the dreams
Take salmon for granted, our bread and our beans
Like the lessons unlearned from the bison, it seems ...
“I have a certain responsibility,” he said leaning back in his chair. “Here I’m sitting in my own world with my own heart and I say, ‘Beauty and conflict.’
“I feel these things and I have the floor and people are listening and it may not change nothing, but I have to do this now.”