On the Water

Button, Fisher Poets Gathering

Each February since 1998, poets, musicians, and tellers of tall tales descend upon Astoria, Oregon, for the Fisher Poets Gathering, a weekend filled with stories, songs, camaraderie, and reverence for the fishing way of life. Inspired by the National Cowboy Poetry Festival in Elko, Nevada, a group of poets and teachers, all tied in some way to the commercial fishing industry, founded the event. The gathering has grown every year, attracting fisher poets from California to Cape Cod, and Alaska to Florida. It has also been designated as a Local Legacies Project by the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center. This button is from the 2005 Fisher Poets Gathering, held at the Wet Dog Café on the Astoria waterfront.

People have created stories, songs, and poems about their working lives for millennia, and American folklore is awash in tales of people working the water. Fishermen’s narratives often reveal a profound sensory awareness, reflecting their close relationship with the natural world. Likewise, the inherent dangers of fishing typically inspire stories and poems featuring strong spiritual elements. Although the aesthetic and spiritual sophistication of fishermen’s narratives often come as a surprise to outsiders, they are celebrated during performances at the Fisher Poets Gathering.

Astoria, established near the mouth of the Columbia River, was the hub of commercial salmon fishing in the 19th and early 20th centuries. With thousands of resident fishermen and scores of canneries lining the river, the town’s identity was wrapped up in the salmon industry. As salmon populations in the river declined, many in the industry relocated, at least seasonally, to Alaska. The Fisher Poets Gathering honors the history of Pacific Coast fishing, as well as the men and women who still live the fishing life. With odes to herring scales, dirges about those lost at sea, and tales of fishers remarkably attuned to nature, the tradition of fisher poets continues to thrive in Astoria.

ID Number:
Place Made:
Astoria, Oregon
2 1/4 in.; 5.715 cm
Gift of Columbia River Maritime Museum