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A poet works a fish boat — and gets it

By on April 26, 2017 in Arts with 0 Comments

“These guys have seen enough to know the difference between discomfort and danger. They’ve learned that laughing at discomfort is the only way to survive. When the weather went south the circle of eye contact between us was constant; I knew they were both professional and trustworthy on deck.

 On the beach, I consider them reckless and indecent, but I remember such judgment passed on my own behavior and it was easy to find myself sitting on a bed in their hotel room drinking cheap, thin beer. The ocean had knocked us around enough to skip the formalities and I was critiquing their shaving techniques and telling them which jeans to wear. Then, of course, we discussed the outlook for the season and everything irritating about the job.

 They find Cap’s constant nagging tiring, he acts as if they’ve never crabbed before. Joe says king crabbing would make Cap cry, ‘My buddy was cut in half on deck. We had to put him in the freezer and finish the trip. Everyday I climbed over him to get bait out.’ What Joe said sucked the oxygen out of the room. I managed to ask how it made him feel and there was a long pause. Preston was quiet and looked away. As the pause continued I regretted my question, fearing I’d get some canned answer about ‘that’s the way it is on a crab boat.’”

 —  Letter from the Coast

By Susan Lagsdin

One night about a decade ago at the end of crab season, 200 loud and garrulous fishermen jam-packed an Astoria bar to hear and tell sea stories as part of the town’s annual nationwide fisher poets gathering. Erin Fristad stepped up to the microphone to read a prose-poem piece, a letter to her friend and workmate Mike (excerpted above) previously published in Alaska Fisherman’s Journal.

The room dropped into silence. When she stepped off the stage, a stranger walked up, handed her a cold beer and said, “I didn’t know you could do that — put what we do into words like that. You actually get it.” She said she’ll never forget that fisherman or the taste of that beer.

On a bright and eye-squinting sunny early Spring day in her Wenatchee backyard, Erin Fristad gets ready to read her poetry about the lives of people who fish in Alaska.

Once from Port Townsend and now a Wenatchee resident, she harvests her personal, richly visceral recollections from 15 years in sometimes fearsome Northwest waters as a deckhand on crab boats, research vessels and purse seiners. Like cowboy poets and logger poets who’ve also labored hard in nature and lived to tell the tale, fisher poets congregate to share their love/hate/love of the life they’ve chosen, and Erin is one of them.

Comfortable and competent in a majority-male world, she’s gained a good reputation not only among fellow writers who celebrate the sea but among fishermen. “Women are increasingly being hired on fishing boats,” she said. “It’s not that we have similar strength (to men), but we have generally more endurance.”

That includes not just a tolerance for 20-hour shifts and very confined spaces where your quirkiest outriders and your most trusted companions are always at elbow’s length. It also means accepting the daily death-dealing hazards of weather and equipment.

Commercial fishing is not the only untypical occupation Erin has pursued in between college degrees (University of Oregon and Goddard) college administration (also at Goddard) and college teaching (currently at Wenatchee Valley College).

As a child in rural Redmond outside of Seattle, she raised dogs and learned to ride horses, and that ease with animals lead her to a two-year stint as an itinerant dog groomer, animal sitter and farm laborer. During that period, she happened upon Wenatchee and decided the cliffs, the river, the long dry slopes — and the sunshine — were much to her liking.

Her adjunct English teaching job keeps her hand in academics, and she’s recently delved more into photography. Though she travels to the Coast for readings at fishermen’s gatherings, her current writing life is centered on the completion of a memoir motivated by her mother’s death three years ago.

“That knocked down the walls around my authentic voice. It inspired me to speak the truths she never could. Her silence… caused her great suffering, and I don’t have to live like that.” Investigating her own childhood, parsing her parents’ marriage and dealing with the discovery of an unknown family have given her, she bluntly stated, “a kick in the butt to write.”

However, she said, “I know I can’t just write. I’m a restless spirit and I need to engage with the world in multiple ways.” She said of one period blessed with time to only write (and not go to a job) “It was like crossing a mountain ridge in a small plane – suddenly there’s nothing before you but wide-open territory.”

Town chosen, job assured, Erin arrived here last summer sans family encumbrances but with a childhood dream of a horse: Sapphire, a gray Andalusian-Percheron filly who’s just started her dressage training. Those breeds make her both very beautiful and very big, and her owner loves the challenges of raising her well.

Erin says of their relationship, “She has the ability to set me free and keep me grounded.” Notably, the horse has a starring role in the memoir, which is entitled The Road to Sapphire.

Although she holds that one simple moment in the Astoria bar from a decade ago as a literary life highlight, Erin continues to read her poetry in front of major audiences and has been published in 11 journals and anthologies.

The title of her first book, The Glass Jar, reflects the commonality of men and women in the maritime industries — fisherfolk — whose difficult truths are often hidden away from the world, held in tight, like the tales of war veterans.

Her storytelling in both prose and poetry helps to open that metaphorical jar, as she explains, “before it gets too full and shatters.”

She gets it, not just the traumatic moments but the wistful ones. These are the last lines from Untying:

…our chatter ends.

We coil lines,

Tie up buoy bags,

Tighten down the hatch covers.

Each one of us will pause

Standing near the rail,

Eyes closed, the salt air

Tingling our faces.

We’ll listen

To the slowing of our pulses,

Our bodies becoming lighter,

The noise of our lives

Growing distant behind us.

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