Rhyme or Cut Bait

When these fisher poets gather, nobody brags about the verse that got away

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Later that Saturday night in the Voodoo Room, folks in the audience are asking one another, "Do you think Geno will show up?" Wesley "Geno" Leech, 55, who has worked as a merchant seaman and a commercial fisherman, is the dean of fisher poetry. But the previous night he was too sick with pneumonia to read. Then, suddenly, applause erupts, heads swivel, and the crowd parts to let Leech through. Wearing black sweat pants and a weathered Navy peacoat, he strides to the microphone in an entrance worthy of Elvis. Leech doesn't just recite his poetry; he closes his eyes and bellows each stanza, rocking back and forth as if on a rolling deck in high seas.

They're clingin' to the cross trees
Plastered to the mast
Splattered on the flyin' bridge
Bakin' on the stack....
We're buckin' back to Naknek
Festooned with herring scales....
If the Japanese eat herring roe
And the French escargot snails
How come there ain't a gourmet market
For all them herring scales?

On Sunday morning, the fisher poets and about a hundred of the 700 people who paid $10 each to hear them, jam the Astoria Visual Arts Gallery for an open-mike session. Smitty Smith, recovering from injuries he suffered when a truck rammed his Harley, limps to the microphone. "I had a lot of time thinking about coming back here and I sure wasn't disappointed," he says.

Joanna Reichhold, a 29-year-old woman who has been fishing off the coast of Cordova, Alaska, for five seasons, dedicates her last song—"My lover was a banjo picker, and I'm a picker of fish"—to Moe Bowstern. Bowstern waves the airplane ticket that will take her to Alaska this very night, where she's hopping on a boat to fish for crab in Marmot Bay.

By noon people are spilling out onto the sidewalk under an overcast sky. "The last several years I thought it was just us old guys making poems, but now the younger people are coming up," says co-founder Jon Broderick. "Smitty staggering up and pulling out a poem. Three or four generations of people telling their stories. I about teared up. I tell you, I felt like I was at a wedding."


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