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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Personal Thoughts

Fisher Poets Gathering, Astoria

December 2020

My husband, Robert, remains very cautious about COVID-19. He didn’t want to return to Alaska from Oregon because he didn’t want to be in a city, an airport, or on a plane. He had a negative result on the required, free to Alaska residents first test when landing in Juneau. He now awaits the results of the second test, which he took eight days later. He asked, “Will there be a Fisher Poets Gathering in Astoria the end of February?” No, it’s virtual in 2021, I replied.

We will miss this trip to Astoria the last weekend in February. In 2020, we, all of us who read and performed at Fisher Poets, were very lucky. We attended multiple events and were very close to multiple people. No one became ill. Truth be told, however, we shouldn’t have been there. It was the beginning of the pandemic, but we didn’t know that yet. We gathered, we hugged, sat next to many one anothers. We ate together, hugged more, and departed after our four or five days together.

I am a newcomer. I’ve only been presenting there for ten years, welcomed with open arms, not because I’m a commercial fisherman who has fished for a living. No, I am welcomed because I write about commercial fishing and the sea. The Night Orion Fell brought me here, the book I wrote about the disastrous accident that Larry Hills had when one of his three crew sliced his palm with a broken glass in the kitchen sink and, thus, couldn’t make the trip. His sole other crew was a greenhorn. It was a 1982 tragedy in one of the 20th century’s worst, labeled by most as the worst, fall and winter weathers the Pacific Coast had seen in the century. Deckhand dead, skipper wrapped on deck in the trawl lines for two and a half days. This accident involved one of 33 deaths by mid-February of the commercial fishing season with more fishing boats yet to go to sea and more deaths to occur. How Larry managed to survive still remains beyond the ken of those who know the story.

What was it that had the leaders of Fisher Poets Gathering invite me back for two more years till the book came out? Gripping story, gripping writing. Life saved, life lost. When the book came out, it sold 24 copies at FPG, more than any other book the Gear Shack had sold up till that time. Accepted into the group as if I were one of them, I felt pleased, happy, yes contented like a boat cat by the oil stove.

I remember the question Jon Broderick asked me the third year I was there, the year the book came out. Did I have anything else about the sea other than The Night Orion Fell? I knew whether they’d invite me back the next year depended on my answer. Yes. I said while thinking that I have poems, a growing collection of stories that will become a book, and also am writing a book about my family of Nova Scotia seamen, probably a historical novel, but I didn’t give him any details. I just said yes.

Last evening Robert and I talked about all we’ll miss this year. The trip to Seattle and the drive down to Portland for the mini-FPG event I sometimes go to there. Having lunch or supper at the Bosnian restaurant in Astoria, Drina Daisy, going to Finn Ware, the Scandinavian store owned and run be Saara. I buy or order my farmer’s cheese from there, something I eat for my petit, petit déjeuner every early morning with my first pot of Darjeeling tea. I’ll miss my walks along Commercial or Marine whether in rain, sun, or attempts at snow. I’ll miss the town’s clam chowder, tea at Godfather’s Books, more books at Lucy’s Books, and of course, the Gear Shack at Fisher Poets Gathering, and walks along the Columbia River. Last time I was there I found a music store, Bach n’ Rock with instruments, CDs, a couple of dogs, a garden’s worth of indoor plants, and a lovely, helpful owner. I bought a wooden recorder, a Hohner, and a Russian music harp.

Robert likes the breakfasts at the motel, the gathering of many of the people. He and Ingrid like talking to one another. I like seeing Pat and Veronica there, Cary, or Jon Campbell from my home country of the New England coast, and so many other friends. Or Clem because he lives in Falls City where I occasionally worked 50 years ago—beautiful country in the woods of the Willamette Valley. I like knowing where people are from. I like seeing their roots, dirt beneath the fingernails, and the blend of poetry and personalities. I like listening to Steve and Meezie who recite their poetry so finely I feel the motion of their created rhythm as waves from the ocean. Rob and Tiffany Seitz used to be there for breakfast but now they live in Astoria and own their seafood company and restaurant, South Bay Wilds, with no need for a motel stay. So many more people, so many more stories wander my thoughts like an ocean’s divisible swells.

Even though I’m a newcomer, it all has a feeling of a family gathering to it. I don’t come from a family of reunions. My first husband did; he hated them, I loved them and still gather with his family. Robert’s family has no need for a family reunion as so many of them still live and ranch in the same county in the high mountain desert of eastern Oregon. As I left Astoria this year to drive to the opposite corner of the state, I missed the people as I said goodbye and left the town. People connected by similar work and often have a closer connection than families do. This is one such event because what we share is from our souls bared to the pain of loss, the freedom of the open sea, and the beauty of the written word or composed song. One of the Coast Guardsmen who attends wrote of one boot he saw floating among flotsam as he piloted his helicopter. Another pilot, choking back emotions, told me of the tragedies of lives he could not save. They, too, are a part of souls laid bare.

I shall miss my friends this February. Yes, we’ll gather virtually, but having been to two virtual conferences already this year with many people I’ve known for ten or fifty years, a virtual meeting, while good, lacks the excellence of standing next to someone. We are, after all, social creatures. I miss the hugs, the laughter, sitting shoulder to shoulder with someone I know or don’t know well while enjoying a poem, story, or song.

Robert likes going to Steven’s Park and its many locations along the shore and inland while I gather with old and new friends to talk about poetry, books, writing, and listen to music, poems, and stories of fishing and the sea. I told him the next time we go to FPG in Astoria, we’ll stay an extra day or two and he can show me Stevens Park. Then, as usual, we go on to a little place, a motel at Little Creek Cove. We found that because we missed the turn to a big chain motel and took the next hidden road. A deserted place along the wintry coast, shielded from the highway and open to the sea, it has the feel of one’s own apartment by the Pacific. When we leave there, we wend our way to eastern Oregon, talk of the things we did in Astoria, the pleasures we had and how fulfilled we felt.

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