Writing it as it is
By J.V. Houlihan Jr.
“They use to haul home up the wind/carrying dories and the oars, they sailed/out, of the Port of Gloucester, converted to the nets and doors/ they cut the masts a few years back, leaving just these two short twigs, but/you’ll know her by her lines, the last of the/ Eastern Rigs”
A few decades ago local artist and song writer named Jon Campbell wrote a song titled, “The Last of the Eastern Rigs.” It was an observation of a changing time in the Port of Galilee. Back in the 60s and the 70s, this was a type of boat that fished out of that harbor. The wheelhouse was aft on these wooden draggers. Today, these boats are almost non-existent in Point Judith. Campbell pays attention and writes about what he sees.
While performing at a waterfront festival in New Bedford several years ago, Campbell ran into a guy named Geno Leech; also a writer who began writing poetry while working on a dragger called the Columbian Star while fishing off the coast of Washington state. In his poem “Every Boat has a Wave,” Leech writes:
“She sprung off a paint-scarred cannery fender pile/A steel hulled insomniac/Rer main engine rumbled and cleared its throat/Exhaust billowed from her sooted rust-pocked stack/In the sad shadows beneath dim deck lights/A Choreographed routine/A curse, a clang a rattle of chain/The crew secures for sea.”
What Campbell and Leech have in common is a bond based on verbs and nouns which are awash in the ebb and flow of the maritime industry, which is slowly disappearing on both the east and west coasts of the continental United States.
The Fisher Poet’s Gathering began in 1998 in Astoria Oregon. Jon Broderick, a commercial fisherman and former teacher started the event. The first year it featured forty contributors who had a connection with the fishing industry and wrote poetry. Deckhands, skippers, cannery workers et al, were invited to read their work. Today “The Fisher Poet Gathering,” has grown to eighty performers. This year’s event—over a four day period— drew about seventeen hundred people, who could hear these poets read their work in six different venues around Astoria. Jon Campbell fit right in with this gang of writers. “When Geno and I heard each other in New Bedford, we connected right away,” says Campbell. Leech recommended Campbell to the panel which greenlights people into this gathering of poets and musicians who will share their work at the mouth of the Columbia River.
Jon Campbell is a multi-instrumentalist who played in some Irish and American traditional groups. “I was never interested in playing other people’s songs, so I started writing my own,” says Campbell. He is funny in the tradition of Mark Twain and writes about what he knows; what he knows about is coastal culture and maritime traditions, which he presents in a sometimes provocative and sometimes comic context. For example, “Winnebecome , Winnebago,” his song of the travails of a crowded coastline, he says “And it’s Winnebecome, Winnebago, clam cakes and chowdah and stuffies to go, there’s a red tide today, and a slick on the Bay and Labor Day Weekend seems light years away.” It is no surprise that he was embraced by these like-minded writers out on the other coast. He and a singer and songwriter from Camden Maine named Gordon Bok, tried to get something similar going on the east coast. “Bok has been out at to Astoria twice as a performer and scouting the thing,” says Campbell, “we tried something up at the Portland Library in Maine called ‘Voices of the Sea,’ sponsored by the Main Maritime Museum, but it’s just not the same.” Where the gathering is held has a substantial commercial waterfront. “Astoria is like what Newport was thirty years ago,” says Campbell.
The Fisher Poet evolved from the oral tradition of Mark Twain and Will Rogers. It is observational humor which informs as well as entertains. It can also be caustic and very political. Poet and fisherman, Dave Densmore, a.k.a. “Dangerous Dave” is very clear with his attitudes about governmental regulation of the fishery. “I’ve been a commercial fisherman all my life, this is the only industry in the United states that’s patrolled by armed guards, when we get boarded by the Coastguard or State Police they are fully armed. We’ are losing our freedoms,” says Denesmore. However, within Denesmore there is a poetic heartbeat. “One day I wrote something and read it to my crew, and they thought it was funny. So I just kept doing it.”(I met Densmore in Galilee with Campbell one night down at the ferry dock, he was a salty character and I could see the wheels turning in his head as he scanned the Point Judith fishing fleet.) His writing may be casual in some instances, but he also feels that someone needs to speak up for fishermen—this concerned salmon and albacore fisherman does just that. (google him)
In addition to this gathering out west, Jon Campbell has participated —Where Beach Meets Ocean— at the Block Island Poetry Project. Lisa Starr has had Jon perform, but also maybe have him pick up visiting poets at the train station or the airport. He told me once, “I’m the Poet Whisperer,” as he was picking up Poet Robert Bly at the airport. Campbell will be performing at the Common Ground Coffee House on April 24th. Also, he will be joining three Rhode Island Poet Laureates: Rick Benjamin, Lisa Starr, and Tom Chandler at the Mixed Magic Theatre on Friday, April 10th at 7:00 pm. Finally, whether Jon Campbell is on the east coast, west coast or Block Island, he will be working the language to the bone in order to make the audience think, and perhaps learn something new. Perhaps to look at something differently, whether it’s the girls of Point Judith or overfishing the ocean’s whale populations.