I met Moe last winter when a group of people wrapped in layers upon layers braved a freezing venue in scarves, mittens and sleeping bags to attend a zine reading event I had helped organised in benefit of Ladyfest Leeds.
I was previously unaware of Moe, or her radical-fishing zine Xtra Tuf before that day, so when she got up to read and started to sing an acapella sea shanty me and my friend Emily immediately shot glances at each other that conveyed the message of ‘what the hell?!”
After the reading, in a cosy front room back at a friend’s house, Moe told anecdote upon tale upon story to a captivated few, keen to hear her speak, to learn from her wisdom, and to engage with a really remarkable women, and storyteller.
I’ll be the first to admit that fishing has never been the top of my areas of interest but as this Portland native gently and passionately recalled and revealed details of her life and experiences, I was enraptured; the life of a woman working outside of expectations and ‘conventions’ and forging a unique life and lifestyle that she wished to share with others.
Moe’s first boat job was cooking on a salmon boat when she was 18. When her crewmates told her she'd never make it on a fishing boat, she swore she'd do it just to prove them wrong. After graduating from college, Moe spent the next 9 springs and summers working as a deckhand and skiff operator in the salmon, herring halibut and cod fisheries of Kodiak Island, Alaska.
Moe has published five issues of Xtra Tuf (available from Microcosm), was involved with the first Ladyfest in Olympia, is member of an all female choir, is involved with fisher poet events across the USA, and is still fishing.
I caught up with her this autumn (2007) after she returned from her latest fishing expedition.
What's the writing process been like over the course of writing Xtra Tuf zine, do you need to be in a certain frame of mind to write?
The first two issues of Xtra Tuf really were collections of written fishing-related ephemera. I don't think that there is a single piece that I wrote specifically for the publication of the zine. In #2 I think I did write "Saint Brad the Road" just for the zine, but it was also a story that was asking to be written. Also during those years I was very much living the life of a working migrant, and like many zine editors who traveled frequently, I had the "leaving town" deadline, as well as the challenge to find a physical space to work in during the period of zine creation. So I feel like the process for #1 and #2 was a little different than where I am now. That process, as I reflect on it now, was about creating a space for myself in the world of ideas, and filling it with the handful of experiences I had collected during my years as a deckhand. It was about learning how to make a zine, learning how to tune my antennae to pick up things that would translate well to a zine format.
Xtra Tuf #3 was an entirely different beast. In that issue I held to a consistent theme and edited for experiences that reflected that theme, and I have pretty much stuck to that format since. During that time I also wrote Xtra Tuf #4--I released the two zines at the same time, but #4 was actually finished first--which was its own sort of revelatory creature as well. I wrote Xtra Tuf #4 specifically to have something I could give to people when they asked me the inevitable question, How did you get into commercial fishing? So with that little zine I learned the delight in creating a short and perfect answer. It is a small zine, and contains only my story and a similar miserable deckhand/cook story that I received in the mail from a pen pal I lost touch with, who as far as I know has never seen the zine, though she gave me permission to publish it about 2 years before I finally did.
But as I was saying, #3 was different. It was the first time I wrote anything longer than 3 or 4 pages, the first time I wrote a meandering sort of essay with an uncertain final destination. I would just sit down at my typewriter (yes, typewriter. a manual Royal. good exercise for the pinkies, ain't gonna get no carpal tunnel with that thing) and write until I ran out of time or patience. I learned a few things about myself during that process:
I like treats about every two hours--tea or a bicky or both.
I get a sort of nervousness built up, I have to jump up from the chair and pace around, do a little yelling now and then.
It's better if I don't have any obligations scheduled, which really is sort of ridiculous, but I seem to need it so I allow myself this space. For example, I found that if I had an evening engagement, and got to my office to work as early as noon, I would piss the day away, worrying about not wanting to go too deeply into, for lack of a better phrase, 'the writing place' before I had to come out and be social.
I like to make a list of all the points I want to cover in an essay, like stepping stones.
I need huge amounts of time to myself for writing projects--my friend and fellow Ariel Gore reminds me that Gertrude Stein once said, "it takes a heap of loafing to write a book," and I find that to be true. My partner used to sometimes get frustrated when I mentioned that I'd gone to a movie alone in the middle of the day because that is an activity we often share, and I understand wanting to try and spend time together, and I would probably be just as frustrated and even sort of resentful and bitter if the situation were reversed--and yet I also understood that it is part of my process, I need to stay alone, in a bubble of sorts. Often when I write about fishing experiences I go back into my past--in the case of Xtra Tuf #3 I was going back about 4 years; with Xtra Tuf #5 it was about 8 years. It takes some effort to travel the back roads of my memory, and it's a round trip. Perhaps if I were more organized about writing things down immediately, I wouldn't need so much space, but I seem (so far) to like to let things cook. On the other hand, when I go fishing, I frequently spout writings, art, songs spontaneously, they just bubble up. I think it has to do with the hard work and the long hours--I HAVE no space, creative or otherwise, and so stuff just fits in where it can and I try to always have a notebook and pencil around. And making songs or funny stories definitely helps ease the reality of a 18-20 hour work day. Also the stuff that happens is really so very frequently ridiculous that I am compelled to archive it somehow.
And as far as space--I have rented some sort of office space here in Portland since 1999. Our city, like many modern cities is changing rapidly. I have been turned out of 2 different buildings in that time, and each time the price of renting has risen. The last place I rented was a no-heat basement space run by a shoestring-budget gallery and the fire inspector shut it down while I was out fishing this August. My new space--my stuff is still in boxes--is $45 American more per month, but it has heat, it's quiet, it's aboveground. Having my own space separate from my home has been a big part of my process for a long time now.
What is your history with zine making and self publishing? I know Xtra Tuf has been kicking since '96--how did your stories become a zine?
The first zine I ever saw was in the late 80s in Pittsburgh. It was a small local publication called The Pushcart War; a musician named Frank Bosco was its sole editor. Every issue contained a small, taped-on thing--a tiny plastic hammer is one I remember; another issue featured a fragment of slag from the slag heaps outside the Pittsburgh steel mills. The Pushcart War was a humble, forceful look at Pittsburgh life and history, full of love and interviews and old photographs and fire for the city that was never called beautiful, never on the "place to be" lists. I loved the zine as I loved first the children's book that inspired the name. I wrote a long, rambling essay-letter for Frank, but by the time I gave it to him, he had closed down the zine and moved to Albany, New York.
Back home in Chicago, where I spent my twenties, I encountered a group of anarchists and fell in with them for a few years. I wrote a few things for "Wind Chill Factor," a huge mess of a political zine that was edited by an always-falling-apart collective, so the zine would stagger towards publication and then the main zealot would get a lover or head off for greener pastures or winter would just paralyze everyone, and the zine would wait in the dark for resurrection. It was truly impossible to read both because of its tiny, tiny print and its confused layout. One issue actually came out with an accompanying sheet of instructions on how to read the zine! I wrote a few things for WCF, but then we opened an infoshop and that just sucked all of our energies into that particular vortex of activism. Last I remember a collective member vowed to publish the 10th issue, and what stymied them was the vast backlog of mail, much of it from prisoners that WCF supported. No one knew what to do with it--it was too much, they felt, for one person to take on, and no one felt good about throwing away prisoner mail. Someone came up with the idea of giving away five "free" pieces of mail with each copy of Wind Chill Factor, and we all loved that idea (does this give you a clue to why the collective was always falling apart? but hell, we had a lot of fun) and to this day, I don't know what happened.
The anarchists really introduced me to the world of zines and I got my hands on the classics--Scam!, Cometbus and Mudflap were some of my favorites. Also an obscure but hilarious zine called I, Yeastroll. I struck up correspondences and then friendships with zine editors and wrote a fishing story for Greta of Mudflap at her invitation, and that experience is where I believe my current relationship to zines began.
Mudflap is a beautiful zine. Greta usually had a loose theme, lots of drawings and photos, many by her friends, short quirky stories, some sort of how-to info (once it was how to steal electricity for your squat; another time it was how to navigate San Francisco's free health care system) and often a map for a bike ride to a "secret spot." It was look at the wild and sweet life of the Bay Area punk in the late 80s/early 90s, a look that made me feel like I belonged, and like I could do it too. And it was true--on a visit to the Bay Area anarchist scene one winter, I first met with the editors of my 3 favorite zines--Scam, Cometbus and Mudflap and even though I was just some infoshop schmo from Chicago, they totally hung out with me, showed me the town. Greta and I had the first of one of our many voluble, endless conversations sitting on a bed in a dim apartment, during one of the many What should we do now? pauses that grace the lives of the carefree & under employed.
Though I think 'carefree' is a deceptive term--we all cared so much, back then, and a big part of being OK with that was about engaging with each other fully. I still have friendships with those three people, but we are all so busy carrying out all of our plans, it's hard to remember us just wandering around Berkeley and the Mission, getting kicks on scoring free coffee just for being zine editors. Or for having blue hair and sparkly glasses, as I did then.
Everyone was starting a zine back then, to the point where people made snarky comments when someone was too effusive about a particular passion, "Why don't you make a zine about it?" The old light bulb joke was applied--How many riot grrrls does it take to change a light bulb? 10--one to change the light bulb, and the other 9 to make a zine about it. You know. You can't get too excited about something before other people start shooting it down.
I loved the zines I found, but I also saw that they were filled with mediocre writing. I had gone to university and ended up in a creative writing program, wrote fictional stories for 2 and a half years, and then when I graduated I was immobilized by, uh, post-graduate fear of my mundane existence, I guess. I cured this by embarking on my haphazard career as an Alaskan deckhand, but in the winters I still wanted to try and Be A Writer. I seized on zines as my solution.
It was perfect. Zines frequently asked for submissions and they also used themes. They really only rejected the insane and violent writings of real psychopaths, so anything I wrote, I figured, would surely see print. And for a time, that's what I did. There were plenty of zines out in the world; who needed another zine? I was going to be a freelance zine correspondent.
Well, then came the season of 1995. I went up to Kodiak earlier than usual. I got a herring job and the price of the silver darlings was high, $1600 a ton. I was planning on spending 6 months in Kodiak, I rented a house, lined up my salmon job and invited my boyfriend at the time and our 2 cats to move in. Of course by the time the boyfriend showed up I had two long, cold dark months to reflect on our relationship and how it wasn't going to work for me, so I broke up with him hours after he arrived on the ferry from Anchorage. Yep, ouch. I offered to buy him a plane ticket anywhere in the United States. but wouldn't you know he stayed on in Kodiak. We filled the house up with 2 other lady deckhands and he stayed in town and decorated the shack in the most magical, artistic way. Took care of the cats, and whenever we hit the docks the house was filled with art and poetry and music. I had an art box by the door and used to demand that visitors either take or leave some art. My July birthday fell on a closure for the first and only time in my fishing life, a birthday I shared with one of the lady deckhands, and we had a big art party, asked people to come make party hats. It was really great seeing all these fishermen making art together. I've never experienced it since.
All that summer I planned the first issue of my new fishing zine, an idea I came up with initially as a strategy for riding out six solid fishing months where I got 3 days off. I brainstormed the name, the songs, the recipe, the drawings with those people I lived with in the Leaky Hovel, the little shack I rented from my salmon skipper, who in turn rented it from my herring skipper. Post-season burnout and romance prevented the zine from taking shape that fall, but I plundered the art box and took everything home. The following March, in the dark last days of what was a long, depressing, horrible Saturn-return Chicago winter, I put Xtra Tuf together and with it fashioned a life line that pulled me out of my despair, out of Chicago and into the amazing life I now lead.
Having met you , and heard you speak at a zine reading here in Leeds, and having read your zines and letters to me, it is clear that you are a natural storyteller. Would you agree with this? Are there many stories within you bursting to get out? Stories that you feel the need to share and extend to others?
What role does storytelling play in your day-to-day life?
Geez, Melanie, you're kind of challenging my learned Alaskan behavior of understatement with this one. I feel a bit shy saying, 'why yes, I am so glad someone noticed what a wonderful storyteller I am.' Where I grew up, it was called "wanting all the attention," and where I live now it's called "lying" or "making things up as usual." Which is why travel is so wonderful.
But in the interests of responding to a sincere question and also in defiance of the culturally trained female impulse to demean my accomplishments--I like telling stories. And I don't know if I am a "natural'--I grew up listening to my dad's stories of Vietnam and going to a bullfight as a young soldier, and waiting tables, and my mom's stories of growing up on the farm with my German grandparents, of waiting tables, of what it was like to be courted by my dad. And I listened to my Uncle Ome's stories that he used to tell--it's what I have of him, you know? His stories. I was the kind of kid that liked to hang out and listen to the grownups talk when they played cards, hiding behind a book, trying to be invisible. I would linger on the top step after being sent off to bed, listening to the talk and laughter. I just thought, someday that will be me. Someday I will be the one in the chair telling the story.
But you know, times are different. Movies, dvds, video games. I mean, who plays cards all night anymore, except shut-faced gamblers? I don't know if it is so much that there are, as you say, "stories within me, bursting to get out" as that I can't answer a sentence with the short version of anything---this may be dawning on you as you read the answers to your questions for your interview! Sometimes it does happen that I think to myself, I should tell this or that person this story--but more often, I just use story as a way of addressing a situation. It's a way to answer a question.
Maybe you are asking me, where do you get the ideas for your stories, and to that I would say, I use my ear, as I experience things. I think, that would be a good story. You know, I had an abortion, a really, really crappy abortion. It super-sucked. But I never thought, oh, I will tell my abortion story and share it so others can learn, so I can heal. What happened was that Merrydeath was making a zine about abortion stories (Mine) and asked me to contribute, and I did. And in the course of that telling, I did heal, and I believe I connected to people I will never meet, but that was not the intention. It was a response to a situation--Merrydeath's zine, and the obvious assumption that I would probably contribute the only abortion-while-fishing story.
When I organize my zines by theme, the appropriate stories present themselves, and I then set to the task of shaping them to fit. I did have a story that I really wanted to tell, and I made it work for the Fisher Poets Gathering last year, even though it was mostly about my grandmother and only a little bit about fishing (there was one guy in the audience who kept saying, where's the fishing--and because it was the small town of Astoria, everyone else kept saying, Shut up, Liam!)--and ever since then so many people have just been like, oh, Moe, that story about your Oma, that was amazing! And maybe that's the direction I'm heading with all this, maybe stories like that will swim to the surface and knock on me until I tell them.
I wouldn't say that stories play a huge role in my everyday life--who's got time to listen to me going on? When I came home from fishing shrimp in Miami for 3 weeks my house mate who brought me home asked me, how was it, and I talked to him and another house mate for two hours! I paused once to drink some water and they both jumped up to go to the bathroom, imploring me not to continue until I returned. But really, I live in a big house with 6 busy people and we all try to let each other go about our business without too much interference.
My house hosts a weekly dinner, and at that dinner we frequently have a go-round of stories on topics that come up in conversation, which is really great, and one of the things that I think makes our house really special--but it's pretty informal, people comment a lot, and each story is usually just a few minutes long. I like to have some time--15, 20, 30 minutes--to really tell a story. Start at the beginning, you know. Go all the way to the end. There's not a lot of room for that, I find. I do find it some nights among fishermen---but it's rare for us to all get together during a fishing season, and rarer still on the off-season, so it's not what I would call "everyday life." It's part of the life, for sure, but a special occasion that I never know is going to happen.
I am half-Irish, ethnically, and there is a long tradition in Ireland of the sennachie,(sp?) the storyteller, and I like to think that I am carrying that along in my post-famine Diaspora don't-know-how-to-speak-Irish silver-tongued kind of way, but I also fear that if I ever met a REAL sennachie, (or even just an Irishwoman) she'd spit in my face for being a hokey half-breed American poser.
With all that, know that I have a deep belief in the power of story to carry the myth of the people, and the power of that myth is the secret of our transformation. The stories can change us, lead us places we may fear, places we thought we'd been a million times and yet here we are learning something new....At Northwestern University in 1987, my writing teacher Janet DeSaulnier said, "What is the job of the artist? The job of the artist is to move the people." And that is what I try to do.
What's it like bringing your work, your stories overseas and sharing your experiences with people who do not necessarily share or understand all of your reference points?
It's like anywhere, really--and that lack of common reference points, that lack of shared culture, has been a challenge for me since that first fishing story I wrote for Greta. I don't want to explain every little thing and lose the attention of the fishing audience and the rhythm of the story, but I like to keep enough detail to convey the strange world of commercial fishing. I read every year at the Fisher Poets Gathering in Astoria, Oregon to an audience of fisher folk and coastal people who understand the fishing life, and I recently read at the Working Waterfront Festival in New Bedford, Massachusetts--an historic whaling town and fishing port--but mostly I read to the rest of the people, who've never spent much time on boats, whose idea of fishing is maybe that American reality TV show, the Deadliest Catch or that Hollywood movie, The Perfect Storm. Bridging that gap is where storytelling comes in, or at least stage presence. I rarely read a story cold--there's an intro, there's a few jokes. I'm funny--more and more I seem to do some sort of stand-up--not true comedy, but funny stories. Somehow I've figured out how to pull the really ridiculous parts of this life together and make people laugh, and once I do that, once people have laughed in a room with me, I can tell them a story. If I get a chance. When I don't really get a chance, I just sing a sea song, and that works pretty well too.
As for bringing this stuff overseas--well it was surprisingly difficult. As you may recall, I came to England to visit my youngest sister, my brother-in-law and my new niece, and I thought it would be nice if I tried to get some readings while I was here, sell some books, do a little work. Joe Biel of Microcosm Publishing and Dave Roche of On Subbing zine gave me some contacts in London, Sheffield and Brighton.
I was pretty stunned when I was shut out of any possibility of reading in either Brighton or London at those contacts because of the content of my zine! I guess I shouldn't have been so shocked, but it had never happened before. Dave and Joe were both vegan at the time, and I guess they represented the right politics to be accepted in those places. I know that at least in London there was some debate, and one of the people most opposed later appreciated my views and my basic personhood (but this was something I learned from a third party), and I know also that I was operating on the fly, very last minute, but I really didn't grasp what a huge issue this would be for people. I respect the practice of standing up for one's beliefs and controlling one's space, but it would have been nice to know someone had read the zines before they rejected me. That was really what affected me--the summary dismissal. It seems like it was clear that they wanted me to know that I was being censored, or they would have said something like, oh, sorry we are completely booked--though given the culture gap, I may be entirely too sensitive. It's possible that I got the same treatment everyone gets in British infoshops, I don't know.
I don't have much respect for people who claim they want to change the world, but just replicate fascism when they create their safe spaces. I mean, what was I going to do? Inspire a bunch of vegans to run out on their infoshop duties to get deckhand jobs on trawler/processors? Or worse yet, eat fish? This kind of reaction completely ignores the complicated politics within global fisheries. It's reminds me of the kids in the 90s who hated the loggers for cutting down the trees while completely missing the point that the loggers themselves opposed the corporate policy that drove them into non-sustainable harvesting, but they were in their 40s and 50s and that's what they knew how to do to support their families. There's not a lot of industry in Northern California, it's logging and pot farming, very remote. I bet there is someone in London who has a people's history Judi Bari poster up on the wall--and historically her greatest work was uniting the 'save the redwoods' activists with the loggers to battle the real enemy, the corporations backed by the federal government who drive the timber industry.
Perhaps the thing to do would have been to say, well, maybe not a reading, but would you like to participate in a discussion where you tell us why we should care about someone involved in slaughtering innocent animals? Then the decision would be mine, as to whether or not I would want to participate, and there would be a move toward communication rather than away from it.
Though it was an unpleasant experience it served a purpose--when the magnificent Chella Quint of Adventures in Menstruating organized a zine reading in that blasted-out space in Leeds, I dragged myself there somewhat reluctantly. Having been rebuffed in Brighton and London, I had very low expectations of my reception. I thought, I already have a headache. I can do this thing and then run off on the late train and be back on the couch at my sister's in time to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fuck these people.
Well, of course that is not what happened. I am now completely a fan--a crushed-out fan--of Leeds and you and Colouring Outside the Lines and Reassess Your Weapons and Sailor Tongue and strong black tea, hot and sweet. I have never had a better host than Heather Crabsticks, and I have never had a sweeter reading than the one you hosted in Leeds. And it's coming up on our one-year anniversary, doncha know.
Is that part of the point, to form understandings and educations between cultures and communities via storytelling? What power do you feel storytelling can hold, in this sense?
This road I am on started with zines, and it has led to festival performances. It's getting pretty funny, as I performed last month for some cruise ships and for the philanthropic giant The Ford Foundation--but I am starting to see that it really is, as you say, about forming "understandings and educations between cultures and communities via storytelling." I never really thought of that as "part of the point"--I don't think I ever thought of "the point" at all, when I first started making zines and then telling stories and songs on stage. But it is becoming clear to me that it is definitely part of the point.
The Ford Foundation event included individuals from India, South Africa, Spain, and Japan--and probably other places too, but those were the people sitting around me at the dinner. They were all working to support or create sustainable industry for the desperately poor, and they were looking forward to meeting someone from the sustainable fisheries of the North Pacific. They were shocked that the fisher poet was a woman, and that I was funny. I have never seen anything like that audience, I mean really, I felt like a star, the way they looked at me. It was really trippy, like I sprouted wings and flew around the room while I recited my Original Work. And I was so touched by the women from South Africa who just wanted to shake my hand and tell me how important it was for young girls to be able to tell their stories.
I don't know who they were actually looking at--I mean, I'm forty! But they were coming from someplace really different, I guess, where women didn't do things like work on boats, catch fish, and then make art about it, sing and tell stories about it to international do-gooders. That was only a month ago, but it really struck me, how what I do can cross cultures and communities and still form an understanding. I don't really know what kind of understanding--but at the very least people got the point that I lived the life I was reading about, it was me. I hope this makes some kind of sense. I am only just trying to sort it out in response to your question.
The power that storytelling can hold--in the experience described above, and in the experience in Leeds--is the reason why humans tell stories, I guess. We as storytellers, we can transport each other. We can take people into the story so our experiences become the experiences of the people--to tell a story of the sea to inlanders, a story of the icy north to southerners. I think part of what was so exciting to those women from the Ford Foundation is that I reflected a part of themselves back at them, just because I am a woman. The deckhand experience was suddenly much closer because someone who was a woman like they were women was telling the story.
If every movie you ever saw had a pale-skinned, blue-eyed tall male hero, and then one day you see a movie with a lady hero you would suddenly get to be in the movie, instead of just having the option of being attracted to the hero (if pale-skinned, tall dudes are your thing). Does this make sense? I think this is part of the power of storytelling, the power to bring someone else the reality of relating to your story, the possibility of imagining that they could be part of your story.
I think another part is the power of translating experiences back to people. Like when you have a friend who can tell the story of their trip around the world and that's cool and everything, but another friend can talk about a bus ride to the next town, and it's way more absorbing, just because of they way they tell it, their observations and point of view. And this is what's entertaining to other humans, I think.
I have a few friends who are just learning how to talk, two-year-olds growing into language and communication, and I have found that the story they like to hear best is the story of themselves. "Once upon a time there was a girl named Lucia, and she lived in a red house with her mother and her father and her sister and her dog, and she did not like pepper." I told that story to Lucia a few times yesterday, and it averted distress each time.
As we grow and age and excel at talking and walking and all the other things we need to be good at, we still yearn for that one story, the story that is all about who we are. Good storytelling can do that for people, can reflect some part of who we are. And I don't know why, but that seems to be something that we humans need, judging from how a simple story of self can calm a two-year-old, or put a child to sleep. It just works on us. Maybe it is the power of connecting people to each other, the power of banishing alienation, is this what story does for us? You tell me. I just do what works. I can feel it when it's working, and I just follow where it takes me.
Does this idea of education and skills sharing and collective understandings frame any of your reasons for providing how-to guides within the zine (such as splicing and knot making) or simple glossaries of terms?
Well, I've always just liked glossaries and maps. I like it when I can read a story and reference places mentioned within without having to seek an outside source. Having a glossary also gives me a little leeway as a writer--if I know I have defined fo'c'sle somewhere and have provided a pronunciation guide, then I feel good about using it the body of the work without inserting some sort of bulky explanation. I read constantly as a kid, and even now love books, and I have to say I grew up saying "fo kuss ull" for fo'c'sle (among other butcheries of language) because I was an inlander and glossaries aren't automatic in books. And when I first started working on boats, no one defined any of this stuff for me. I didn't know the difference between a bay, a cove and an inlet until I started writing glossaries. They are kind of fun to write. I was sorry to see my glossary got a little cut off in Xtra Tuf #5 because I really had to work to track down definitions for "hoochies" and other terms from my friend Van Am's song, the Last Troller's Waltz.
As far as 'how to' stuff goes--I think initially I had a kind of outline in mind when I made the zine--some art, a few songs, some drawings, intro page, thank you page, poem or two, recipe, and 'how to.' I've stuck with that throughout the 5 issues--I like to include a knot and a recipe in every issue--and I'd have to say it's partly in homage to Greta and other zines that have influenced me, the idea that zines are a place to share skills, not just blog out my thoughts. There are certain knots every deckhand just needs to know, and you can always find someone to show you how to tie a clove hitch, a bowline (that's pronounced bo-lin, accent on the first syllable)--but knot tying is a tricky kind of learning. I can tie a knot when someone shows me, but I can't always tie it the next day cold turkey. I have to do it over and over, and most fishermen (self included) aren't really patient enough to demonstrate the same knot over and over. It's kind of a legendary asshole skipper behavior, to order someone to tie 50 bowlines or 50 clove hitches to the rail before you can knock off work for the day, but that's really how to learn a knot. So I put the knots in the zine, to help with that. Also to reinforce the idea that Xtra Tuf is trying to be a deckhand's zine, with information that is useful to deckhands. Corny as it sounds, tying a reliable knot can really count in a pinch, which might be easy to dismiss while you are sitting on the toilet reading my zine, but when you have to tie the skiff up for the night and it's supposed to blow 35 knots, that's the livelihood of the entire crew you are tying up in that one knot.
There seems to be a rich history of folklore, myth, secrets and superstition within the fishing world--all things you have touched upon within your zines and storytelling. It almost seems an ancient tradition. Is it important to you to preserve and document these understandings and beliefs of past and current generations?
That's a roger, Melanie. The people of the world have been pulling food out of the sea since they crawled out of it to begin life on land. And I guess part of crawling out of it, of leaving it behind is losing touch with its mysteries and meanings. Since we fishermen depend on the sea for our food and our livelihood and our very lives, and the sea is so very much bigger and more powerful than we are, we have all these funny little things we do to try and seem less puny and vulnerable. I collect superstitions and stories, since they can be a little bit different from place to place. Some cultures paint eyes on their boats, you know, and one that is local to Kodiak is not talking about farm animals--no pigs, no chickens, no horses--on the boats. Don't eat chicken your first night out on a fishing trip. No whistling seems to be universal--I didn't learn to whistle properly until I cut back to one fishing month per year and started working construction.
So yes, it's important to me, especially as coastal communities around the world are going extinct. (Ha! You asked a yes/no question!)
As well as folklore (you wrote folk law, but I am assuming you meant lore-otherwise, what is folk law?) there appears to be a strong tradition of singing and song writing associated with the fishing world and your experiences of it. What are your thoughts on the relationship between singing and community? For example, to what degree do you also see boat songs (and your subsequent involvement in feminist choruses) as a form of storytelling, tradition and bonding?
First to respond to your observation of the strong tradition between singing and fishing. There is certainly a strong tradition between singing and a nautical life. Song as a work tool was integral in the Age of Sail, when sailors performed strenuous, tedious tasks in time to a song of many verses--pulled a mile of chain when hauling in the anchor with the capstan, for example, with a chorus set to the strains of their labor. Some of the songs I sing are songs from that age. But I think with fishing, songs are a lot about fear and loneliness, and perhaps more recently, about the kind of person who works on a boat.
Most people think of fishing as a great adventure, and that it is, surely, but it is also more boring than you can possibly imagine. When I was a deckhand on salmon seiners, I was the skiffman. Or skiff woman. Or, my favorite, skiffman-woman. This job put me out in a little open boat attached to one end of a 250-fathom net--a bit less than a kilometer in length. The other end was attached to the boat we all lived on, which was usually somewhere around 9-12 meters long. I drove one end of the net away from the boat to set the net, and stayed out there about 30 minutes as we lured the fish in, then the big boat and I would drive toward each other, I'd hand off my end of the net to the deckhands, and release from the net, then drive around and attach to the other side of the boat to hold it safe and steady while it brought the net on board. This process took about an hour, more or less, and we repeated it as many as 12 times a day. I might come aboard for a few minutes here and there throughout the day, and I got some brief radio instructions, but I was pretty much cut off from communication most of the time. And I'm a talker.
I started singing along with the motor for something to do, to try and stay awake, to banish my isolation, and because no matter how loud I belted, no one could really hear me. And on days when the weather was crappy, I sang in time to the waves that slammed me up and down on deck so I wouldn't think about all the awful 'what ifs' that can really stop a person in their tracks. I sang to steady my nerves, to be thinking about the next verse instead of the next wave.
I think this is a fine place to mention that in this day and age when most ways of making a living keep a person indoors, warm and fed, deckhanding attracts a particular kind of person. A lot of these people wandered up to Alaska in the '70s with their guitars and their dreams, and they are still wandering up there. This is a totally unresearched stretch on my part, but it seems like the commercial fishing industry--maybe more specifically, salmon fishing, since it is a fairly safe summer endeavor--calls to the wandering soul, the kind of person who might already be a singer/artist/musician, for whom boat songs become another way of participating in the culture they adopt. And since commercial fishing depends so heavily on "unskilled" migrant/temporary labor, it accepts the wandering soul, even as that soul may infuriate and confuse the practical, life/death, money grubbing soul of the industry. They make room for each other, at least in the fisheries I've been part of and observed. (There's also room for homicidal alcoholics, addicts and psychopathic misogynists, and it's really fun when we all get together on a small boat for four months.)
All that time I was deckhanding, about 9 years total, I thought I was just trying to stay awake and not lose my mind or my heart, but what I was doing was singing for a few hours every day. I was a fool to think I could do something like that and leave it behind with my stinky fishing clothes! So there I am, the roving deckhand, and there I am with the punks, and who knew the punks were such suckers for the old songs? By the time I made my way to Portland, it was something I was known for, and though its origin is another story altogether, I did end up assembling a chorus of misfits--the Amalgamated Everlasting Union Chorus. We sang originally as a sort of history-in-song kind of thing, but then the WTO business happened in Seattle in '99, and the chorus had by that time dwindled to two members. The two of us were thinking this WTO thing might be kind of interesting to attend, and I was not interested in going alone, so the other guy--who is my partner of 8+ years now--and I got the word out that we were going to protest the WTO as a chorus. We were familiar with the history of union choruses and protest choruses from our research over the 2 years we had been singing our historical stuff and we thought, why not now? Why not still? We printed up songbooks featuring songs by Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, Tom Lehrer, Joe Hill, Utah Phillips and others (all men, --so much the feminist chorus you mentioned) had a bunch of rehearsals, and we were 50 strong at the WTO. Many of those people joined us just for the day--I am just realizing that today is the 8th anniversary, N3099--but we settled into a group of about 10-15 regulars.
We became a protest chorus. We wanted to participate in the endless marches and rallies we stage against Empire, but wanted to negotiate the boredom and futility one can feel marching around in the cold trying to get the Man to listen to the beating heart of the world. We printed songbooks for different occasions--an anti-prison rally, a mom's gathering, a friend celebrating a successful operation, a science fair, a midwife support rally, stop the FTAA, the original Ladyfest, to name a few--we even had a songbook that featured odd songs we knew that didn't fit into any other songbook. We routinely dressed up in funny outfits. (After too many unpleasant clashes with the police, I find that I feel much safer attending rallies dressed as a Second Wave feminist Baby Boomer community radio volunteer named Marge.) And we became a community. Due to the inevitable internal shenanigans that seem to plague many close-knit groups, the chorus ceased to exist about 2 years ago (ironically, our last show was opening for a British writer whose book was about the WTO!) but those are my people. We eat together, keep track of each other and make art together. We don't sing together anymore, and we miss that.
So that's one aspect of singing and community. I believe that singing together is really healthy--not in a "positive outlook blah blah blah" kind of way, but in the way that making music with your body with other people, having those sound waves travel through you in a room with others--that it is good for your organs, for your heart, for your skin, for the insides of you. I remember doing some research on depression and one of the things I came away with was listen to music, and another was exercise. Singing is both.
I have very strong ideas about music and perfection. It really bugs me that people don't feel free to sing because of ideas about sounding good enough. The fear of having someone hear you make a mistake has silenced so many people, and I really blame the modern recording industry for that. Because we hold a standard of perfection that is pretty much unattainable--who has that many effects pedals lying around while you're hanging out the wash?--we've created this idea that all singers have to sound good. It used to be that all humans sang, it was part of being human. Sure, some human voices were more beautiful, and I feel like those voices got recognition for that, but not to the extent that no one else sang, to the extent that when people sang, other people asked them to shut up and then put on some recorded music instead. But geez, now no one will sing. The only consistent exception I see is that people sing to babies and very young children to calm them and put them to bed--because it works, and it's fun, and somehow people still think it's important for babies and children to learn how to sing. My mother used to sing to us, and my sisters and I all know one lullaby in German, because my mother sang it to each of us, and her mother sang it to her and her sister. But I can't get my mother to sing it to me now--she's not a singer, she says. How sad is that?
Our chorus challenged that unfortunate societal development. We had two mottoes--"Subversion Through Friendliness" and "The Chorus That Is More Fun To Be In Than To Listen To." We distributed songbooks at as many events as we could, and encouraged everyone in the audience to sing along. You may recall that the first thing I did at the reading in Leeds was to get everyone up and singing. I frequently encourage people to sing along with me on my songs--then the experience becomes less of a me, more of an us. And people like it. Often that's what people say to me afterwards, "thanks for getting us to sing."
I think that perhaps sufficiently addresses the "bonding" aspect of your question. As far as boat songs as a form of storytelling & tradition....hmmm. Singing itself, in the Western non-Native tradition, is a lot about storytelling, it seems to me. I'm no ethnomusicologist but there are a lot of songs that record historical events that continue to be remembered in song. Ballads of lost boats and lost loves, you know.
The chorus used to present a few songs in a historical context as representing a sort of snapshot of an era rather than espousing a belief we endorsed. Loretta Lynn's "The Pill" (written by Shel Silverstein) and Wanda Jackson's "Big Iron Skillet" were examples of this. We didn't want to encourage all women to use pharmaceutical contraception or bludgeon their asshole husbands with cookware, but we wanted to present and preserve songs of liberation from a particular viewpoint that we felt was historically valid. We wanted to remind people that Loretta Lynn was censored on many radio stations in the southern United States because of that song. We wanted to share one woman's way out of an abusive marriage. That's all storytelling of a sort. (I also personally wanted to counter all those murder ballads out there.)
It's an old thing, the idea of honoring a shared experience by preserving it in song and passing it down. Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd, (gangster song) Hiram Hubbard (wrongful death), Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (shipwreck), Rising of the Mary Ellen Carter (ship raising after a sinking). We do a puppet show to an old American folk song from the mid 1700s--when this nation was still a colony of dear old Engelonde--called the Fox Went Out On A Chilly Night. Simple story and the punks all love it--fox goes out, raids the duckpen, gets away even though the farmer chases him, and has a feast with his family. Great song.
I guess one of the things that I'm really interested in talking to you about, especially having met you, is male hegemony within fishing culture and aboard the boats, and your place within that; your commitment to challenging that hegemony by telling your stories & experiences as a woman within this culture and industry. In the first issue of Xtra Tuf you wrote, "What is it with boys who think I got my job because I'm nice, or a woman or something? I got my job the same way everyone else did, walking the docks and accumulating skills."
Obviously as a successful crew member, your skills as a fisher were later based upon your hard work, not gender. But how do you think the dominant male hegemony of the fishing world impacted you (and other women) working within this field before your talents were known and respected? Was it a tough world to crack as a woman due to the historical male dominance?
First of all Melanie, let me say that a fisher is a little brown weasel. I know that you are trying to be sensitive to the idea that "fisherman" is a gendered term and you are trying to include women. I don't mind being called a fisherman, a fishing woman, a fisherwoman, a deckhand, a crew member--but for some reason, I'm not quite OK with being called a weasel.
Now that I'm done being obnoxious....you know, I spent about the first 5 years of my fishing life being outraged by all the ways that my experience was so much harder because I was a woman. I was pretty hotheaded, and probably a little bit shrill--and then one day I went on a skiff-visit to a sweetheart on the boat where he worked. Now my sweetheart at that time was a man, a young, strong man who was friendly and open and outgoing, and he just couldn't get a job that summer. Luck was not on his side. He played the fiddle--he was actually one of those people who just could play any instrument--he liked poetry and art. He was one of the people who hung out with us at the Leaky Hovel--actually drew the portrait of me in the skiff with a crown in the back pages of Xtra Tuf #1.
So I stopped by to see him on the boat. This kind of thing is pretty sweet, a skiff visit. I used to spend all this time on boats, fishing around other boats, but it was rare that I could visit anyone--my sister, friends or sweethearts--because we were either too busy fishing, or our friends were too busy fishing, or we might have to dash off to a hot fishing spot at any minute and I couldn't be let off the leash. It's a little excruciating to see your sweetheart's boat pass by and maybe he or she would run out on deck and wave, and you'd wave, but both you and your sweetheart would be conscious that you were providing the sole subject of that day's gossip so you wouldn't be doing anything people could talk about. And what could you do anyway, going in opposite directions at 7 knots? Maybe if your skipper is cool about it you can call your sweetheart's boat on the radio, and if your sweetheart's skipper is cool aobut it, you can have a conversation that can be overheard by not only your crew and your sweetheart's crew, but anyone within radio range who might be listening on that particular channel. So what are you going to talk about? How much you miss each other? How sick of fishing you are? (probably not with both the bosses listening.) Well, radio talk--it's an art form to be discussed in forthcoming issues of Xtra Tuf.
But every now and then circumstances line up that make a skiff visit possible. For me that summer those circumstances were that my skipper was fond of my sweetheart, thought he was a good egg, and since my skipper was himself in love and having to pine for his own skiffwoman sweetheart, in unprecedented and never-seen-since displays of generosity he encouraged visits with my sweetheart whenever possible. That day we were all waiting in line for the same set, anchored up with a few hours before we'd have to fish and he granted me some precious free time.
OK, are you with me still? I am answering your question about how hard it is to be a woman in the fishing industry. So I visit my sweetheart, and all the guys are in the cabin watching a movie and he comes out kind of sheepishly to see me. I don't remember a lot of details, but what really struck me about visiting him on his boat was how restricted he was in what he could do as a man on that boat. If he played his fiddle, he was a pussy. Or a fag. If he read a book instead of watching some stupid movie, same thing. Basically, he was hemmed in by some rigid construct of what those other boneheads on the boat thought was manly or not. And sure, maybe he should have stood up to them and done what he wanted, but he was a short-timer, just filling in for someone, and then he was out of a job again. He was trying to make a good impression, trying to get a job, any job. I know what that's like, and when I'm in that space, it changes me too. Plus the boat was small--maybe 11 meters, and most of that was deck space. It's really horrible when 3 people gang up on you and you are in arm's reach of them 24/7. A fiddle is suprisingly loud in a small space, a galley table has almost no room to spread a notebook and write or draw.
After that visit I saw my situation, my years as a lady deckhand in a completely different way. Yeah, there were a lot of things that were hard about it, but at least when I got the dang job I could do whatever I wanted on my off time without getting any shit for it. I never realized it--all those years I scribbled in my notebook, sang, played fiddle or mandolin, made little watercolor paintings, wrote countless letters and always had a book going--no one ever made me feel like there was something wrong with me for doing any of those things. And that is what my sweetheart had to deal with because he was a man. I couldn't imagine how hard that must be.
And I think being a woman made it so I could do those things. Like it was part of the unfathomable mystery of womanhood, part of being fundamentally insane. When you are the only one of something, everything you do and are, whether you like it or not, becomes representative of what you are. I was really grateful that I finally saw that aspect of being a woman in a male-dominated industry and culture. It made me appreciate the things I had, instead of resent the things I did not, which is a perspective that always affords a much better view of things.
That said, I would say that the world of Alaskan commercial fishing is a tough world to crack for anyone--man or woman--who comes from outside the culture. People in Kodiak are suspicious and skeptical; a Norwegian mindset dominates. The northern people who came to Alaska were fleeing famine. The squarehead, as they are jokingly called, is not a person prone to warmth and praise. They've lived through disaster after disaster and don't want to hear about your tiny life. They see you as a liability that they mostly doubt will be converted to some sort of useful crew person. They probably won't waste words explaining how things work--they will save those for saying things like, "Why in the heck would you do it THAT way?"
That's certainly not everybody, but it's a mentality that prevails. Maybe they started out eager and warm, ready to show the ropes to everyone who asked, passing skills on the their carefully selected deckhands--who, year after year, quit just when they are needed most, or have costly injuries, or don't come back after one season, or sink skiffs or lose anchors or run boats aground. You know, whenever a boat runs aground in Kodiak, nobody remembers the deckhand who was driving it, but they all know the skipper. I'm just trying to say, maybe I can see what hardens these guys. It's a big reason why I never wanted to get into skippering--I never wanted to be those guys.
So, breaking in as a Lower 48 greenhorn is just plain hard, no matter who you are. It helps if you have a thick skin (not me, nope.) and a strong back (finally grew one of them) and know how to work for hours or even days in shit weather without complaining (had to learn that too). But special rules do apply to women.
First off, you learn pretty quick which boats hire women. There's always been women on boats in Alaska, but usually that's been wives or daughters. In the 70s women started coming up to work as deckhands, and it was into that legacy that I stepped. Those women for the most part are raising families now, but their husbands hired women and their wives supported that. Let's be generous and say that out of a fleet of 300 boats, 30 hired women. Generous. Counting the wives and daughters and cousins and nieces. So of course the first thing you face as a woman is a severley limited job pool--no different than being say, a lawyer or a construction worker, actually.
People don't hire women for different reasons, but maybe they are all the same reason. They don't want to deal with their fears of the other. They don't want the crew to fight or be weird. The skipper's wife won't let him. The skipper doesn't trust himself. They had a bad experience with a female deckhand once and they want to avoid that. They think women on boats bring bad luck. Whatever. Who cares. You don't want to work for them anyway.
Some men go into male-dominated fields because they don't like women, and they don't want to be around them, and believe me, you don't want to work with these people. My friend Kathy Arkansas Doyle was working in the boatyard--hadn't even gotten to the fishing part of the season, was just in the getting ready part--when her crew mate pulled a knife on her in the yard during an argument. She was just making a point, you know, she thought she was right about whatever it was they were talking about. And the guy starts waving a Victorinox under her nose. When she told the skipper, he fired her, apologizing for his best friend's behavior but saying he had to let her go because the homicidal guy was a good skiff man and one of his oldest buddies.
It's shitty, it really sucked, and I can still remember her telling me about it, and I can remember thinking, I'm so glad you found out about it in the boat yard and you didn't go out fishing with those assholes. But I think that sort of thing happens to anyone who is 'other' in a male-dominated industry, or at least within our white supremacist patriarchy. She had the temerity to argue with him, the man, and he couldn't make a point so he shut her down with the threat of physicl violence.
Also being a woman means you get to deal with men who can't quite control their desires, shall we say. You know, the lonely crew mate or skipper who falls in love with you just because you are female and present. What's extra weird is when they can't stand you because they are totally attracted to you and can't deal. And who wants to be that person? I've been stuck in the "object of desire" part a few times, and honestly, it was nothing worse than annoying, where it seems like it was agony for the afflicted crew mate. I've had friends (who are more beautiful for sure) who have endured the discomfort of an admiring skipper, and that really seems like a drag. I don't quite know how to handle that kind of thing, and frequently end up getting pissed off because I just want to be seen as a competent deckhand, but I think if I knew how to negotiate that kind of situation, things might have been easier. I'm still sort of stuck in third grade, where if a boy I don't care about liked me, I punched him or knocked him off his bicycle and then ignored him in shame. But again, this sort of thing seems to happen everywhere. Every job. It's just a bit easier when a person can punch out and go home after a shift.
The thing I hate the most about working with men is the whole, "I know more than you do because I have a penis" thing. Just drives me nuts. I've worked with greenhorns when I've had years of experience who couldn't believe I was the skiffman, even after I'd done the job for years. One guy threw my thermos overboard because I refused to put the groceries away, saying that as cook, it was his job. There was even a visiting manly man who was cook on his boat backing me up, saying, "yeah man, you don't want anyone else to put the groceries away. You gotta know where everything is." And as usual throughout my career as a worker in male-dominated industries, my less-than-graceful responses haven't made things easier.
And this is another aspect of being a woman that I've never really talked about. I think I was always just too outraged that there wasn't really room for the guys I worked with to overcome their socialization and training. They'd get the job, they'd say yeah, I love working with women--boy have I heard that over and over--and then they'd respond to a situation with typical dudeliness and I would just be all over them, and get resentful and stony--not the kind of thing that either makes space for them to be who they are OR makes the situation easier. I mean, they didn't make the patriarchy either, and it sucks for them too, just in a different way.
At the time I couldn't see past it, and it's been a while since I've been in that intensive experience, working all the time and really short on sleep. It deeply affects the way I can respond to people and to what I perceive as foolishness in tense or stressful situations. My temper really flares.
I think if I was going to tell someone about this, if a woman wanted advice on how to handle working in a male-dominated industry, I think I would encourage her to think about the fact, the absolute fact, that she is in a male-dominated industry, and therefore she might try to apply some sort of underlying understanding of that to her experience. Like instead of getting outraged like I did over and over, I would suggest that she ask herself what her goals are in the situation. What is the goal? Is the goal to personally attack every man for upholding the patriarchy whether he is doing it consciously or not? If so, plenty of opportunities will present themselves. Is the goal to have a rich experience despite the challenges the patriarchy presents us all? To make money? To fall in love? To be closer to the wild--both inner and outer--than she's ever been? I think part of being a woman in a male-dominated industry is that knowing yourself--knowing your boundaries and being able to keep them--is excellent self defense. As I write that, I feel like I have to say that it is good stuff for anyone stuck in the belly of the patriarchy. How to do that? Well, I am a bit chagrined to say that I am finally learning how to do these things, so maybe you should ask someone else.
It would have been nice to know, back in my twenties, that I would spend my thirties and presumably my forties writing about fishing. Maybe I could have coasted a little better, knowing I was going to eventually have the validation of people like you and Reassess Your Weapons, so that I could address the difficulties of being a woman on a boat by operating from a place of observation rather than hopping around in the frying pan all the time. I think I would have gotten along with some of my crew mates a little better.
One aspect of being a woman in a man's world that I didn't really think about as much when I was working 6 months a year was how it affected my relationship with women. In Kodiak I was always on the lookout for other women working on boats, and when I met them there was almost always an instant sisterhood. Other fisherwomen reached out to me, and fishermen's wives as well. When we were in town, I always had a place to go, a home where I could shower and do laundry and make phone calls, and just hang out with a family and visit. Canneries often provide a place for workers to shower that is open to fishermen, but they often don't have a women's shower or locker room, and everyone in town pretty much knew that, so that's part of why I would get invitations. Also, many fisherman's wives were once deckhands, and they were happy to provide some comfort to a fishing woman, since they knew from their own experiences how hard and lonely living in the harbor can be. My male crewmates didn't really have that, since the general fishing society provided for them--so they had to get showers at the cannery and do laundry at Ernie's.
Also, like it or not, I learned how to deal with pretty much constant male attention whenever we were in town with the rest of the fleet. Salmon season in Kodiak is a bit different than the other fisheries. It's a long season, four months about, and it's a lot of people on a small boat. There are usually four to a crew, sometimes five, including the skipper. Often that means that 3 of the crew on a boat are from the Lower 48 or elsewhere Outside, as Alaskans refer to places that are not Alaska. In a fleet of about almost 300 boats when I was fishing, (it's about 80 now--hard times hit the industry around the beginning of the new century) that means there were about 900 people in Kodiak who were accustomed to being around women, having access to women, being able to talk to or look at or in any way interact with women--900 men who now had to compete to hang out with the 30 of us who worked on boats. Less, actually, since many of the women lived in town and worked for family, as I mentioned above. They used to say in Kodiak that the ratio in the summertime was about 4 men to every woman, and it is an odd thing to experience. We were like celebrities. Never had to buy a drink, always had someone to talk to, buy you a meal, stop by the boat to see if you wanted to hang out--anything. Those poor boys were starving! And it really takes some getting used to. It's easy to be foolish, for sure, and it's easy to be cruel. It's hard to balance this weird attention and get some kind of meaningful interaction with someone who just wants to be next to you because of what you are not (a guy) and not what you are (an individual as precious and unique as a snowflake.) I remember having a conversation with a guy at Tony's (the fisherman bar where the deckhands hang out) and all he wanted to do was talk about his wife and ideas, and books and other stuff. He was older than I was, and it was really clear to me that he wasn't hitting on me, I was just sitting there thinking, wow, he just wants to talk to a woman. And those are the men who like women, you know? It's not about getting laid, they just appreciated women, and that was kind of a revelation to me, and really taught me how to see that in people. So that's a weird thing I learned in this all male environment--a lot of insight into men.
Which brings me to an aspect of being a woman in a man's world that is kind of rough for me. There's an isolation from other women that happens sometimes. I worked so hard and took my lumps and really went after this thing I wanted--the deckhand's life--and I kind of lost an ablility to relate to how women do things. Like I don't really know how to teach anybody how to do things in a way that I would like to have been taught, because when people say, oh, I'm cold, or tired, or it's too hard or I can't do it, I don't really know how to respond other than to say, Suck it up. Stick it out. Suffer as I did. That's the way that I know. I complain a lot about not having things properly explained, about impatient men who can't teach, and now I have absorbed that a little bit, and I am more like that than I want to be. Though I do think that a lot of that is about the particular experiences I had and the particular skippers I had. Unfortunately, it has gone deep and settled. I try not to be an asshole, but that's who taught me.
In the mid-nineties I met this amazing collection of women when I helped organize a women's gathering--I had a hernia and took the summer off after my surgery, so I was available for the first time in 6 years. I had never met such badass women--and many of them only worked with women. I was just so impressed by that and started to feel like a real jerk because I only knew the man's way--like maybe I had been on the wrong track the whole time. One day this person that I really admired told me how awesome and brave I was and I was like, what do you mean? And she said, "you go out there and live and work with all those men! I could never do that." And then I had some over-arching realization that it's all about perspective and I should stop questioning myself. I had valuable things to bring to the women's gathering and I had valuable things to take away. I am still friends with that person, and many of the women I met during that time are still very much in my life.
Oh well, it is what it is, as my wonderful crew mate Dave Roe used to say, after we discussed some problem or another. I yam what I yam, as Popeye used to say, and in the end I'm OK with that.
In donating your zine free to other commercial fisherwomen, are you further attempting to bond solidarity of minority female workers withingthe industry?
Yes! Whenever a skipper or deckhand gives me flak about it I just ask them when was the last time they hired or worked alongside a lady deckhand. People don't harass me about this very often.
How does your feminism relate to your work?
Well, obviously I get all pointy-headed when I discuss the patriarchy. Lately I just like to bring up The Patriarchy like other people bring up global warming. When you ask about "my work," by the way, I'm just going to assume it's in reference to everything I do--labor, fishing, writing, performing, owning a house with a bunch of people, being a partner, living in community, being a daughter and an aunt....my work.
One way that it affects my performance stuff is that I feel obligated to participate in a lot of things I don't particularly feel super excited about or get paid for, because without my presence no women will be represented. I feel a real sense of duty around that, which sometimes I fear is received as me really wanting to be on stage all the time. I just attended the Seattle Fish Expo, which is a commercial fishing/workboat industry trade show. I've never been to a trade show before--have you been? and I wasn't all that interested when I got invited, but I saw that they didn't have any women who worked on boats represented in the Author's Corner, and I was the only woman who performed with the Fisher Poets at this happy hour thing we did. None of us got paid, and frankly I would rather have stayed home but you know, I believe it makes a difference when people see a woman telling her experience alongside the guys. Also I was the only deckhand among skippers, which is frequently the case as well.
And I guess it affects me in ways where I just try to think about who's speaking, who's not speaking, who's listening, who's cleaning up or not, stuff like that. I think that feminism brought me to a place where I could learn to look at oppression, and try to speak out in some way about it. And try to not participate in furthering it. I like to try and make art about it, you know? I try to articulate my experience and in so doing, make connections with other people, try and shine a light in the darkness. Responding to your interview, that's a form of my feminism. Responding when a woman asks me for something.
For the 9 years when I was salmon fishing my July birthday was just another work day--usually a crap day, since it fell at a time during the season between the pink and the red runs, so we were usually just looking for fish and not catching much. So now I like to have a big party and do something really fun. For the past couple of years I've heard the same thing from really different sources--a friend who came just kept repeating, there's so many women here! And last year this old folk musician--in his 60s maybe--commented to someone on their way out, why would you leave a party that had so many women! And the fact that I have a life filled with really amazing women is a huge way that I am a feminist.
I would rather ask you this question, about me. How do you see that I am a feminist?
What are your thoughts on 'community?' What does community mean to you, given that as far as I can see, you intersect with many communities; zine communities, feminist communities, fishing communities, fisher poet communities, local communities, communities in Alaska, etc. I guess someething Iwas thinking about as I wrote the above question is how it feels to have two homes (for whatever 'home' means anyway) when you are on the boats--your temporary home in Alaska (though in truth it's not very temporary when you spent months at a time living there,) and your home back in Portland (or wherever you were living at the time.)
This is all kinda liked in my head too to your discussions of the transition between sea life and civilization once the fishing season is over. In particular, this sentence from one issue of your zine stands out for me, when discussing being back on dry land, civilisation: "Tim Robb started to talk then, the kind of talk that nothing can stop, that isn't about conversation but is more a speech to convince yourself that you exist after being on a boat buttoning yourself up and keeping your opinions to yourself for too long."How does this transition affect you?
You really know how to ask some whoppers, Melanie.
It deeply affects me, to the degree that I believe it is a big reason I quit fishing for more than 4-6 weeks a year. I used to really drift when I got cut loose from the salmon season, and it's a hard way to live when you are a deckhand. I lived out of Chicago for most of my time as a salmon crew member, and those nice Midwesterners never really got why I had to take off every year just when the winter loosed its stranglehold on the city. It's like I had a disease or something. "You're leaving aGAIN? But you just got back!" It was hard to involve myself in projects with others because I was just going to leave again. I had a cafe job for about 4 years that I could leave and return to, with a nice bunch of people, but then my legs just couldn't take it anymore, standing all summer in a skiff, and pounding all winter on the restaurant floor. So that aspect was a little hard and lonesomeifying. Coastal people--at least on the Pacific coast--are much closer to their migratory histories, which is why, I think, I never got the same treatment out here. And in Alaska, I was a sign of spring, just like the greening hills or the return of the puffins.
The transition from urban to fishing life went a little like this--come March or April, I'd get a little restless. Impatient. April in Chicago is kind of crazy-making--the weather is wild. It can be hot and sunny, rainy and snowy all in the same day. By the time May came around and the first hot day, I'd be growling at everyone who said, "Aren't you going fishing?" Finally I'd pelt out of there and have a fine couple of weeks in the harbor getting ready to fish.
The return was a lot bumpier. I used to just show up at my friend Charlotte's house in Seattle, I'd call her from the airport. Got so she would see the weather start to turn and wonder where I was. Bad manners. I should have called.
I'd sit around Seattle a few weeks til that city bugged me and my life in Chicago started pulling on me, but not before I'd had a bunch of alienating experiences. Cars freaked me out. People freaked me out. All I wanted to do was drink coffee and ride around on a borrowed bike. One time I emptied my coffee cup on someone's living room floor out of habit, out of 4 months of dumping a cup overboard as a signal that it was time to get back to work! It was only a couple of tablespoons, but still. I used to have a real reluctance to peeing indoors, too. I'd wander the city in the night and when the time came, I could not see the sense of going into a little room inside a building when a bush or a tree would provide plenty of cover. And then I'd get all paranoid about police and ordinances and nosy neighbors and got stuck in that loop. How does one come in from the wild? I don't know, I don't believe I ever really got it figured out. Or not so much the wild, as a regimented life. I bet this happens to people who come out of the military, too. Everything I did for four months was determined by first the ocean and the weather, then the fish, then the boat, then the skipper. And when the season ended, and I got my freedom back, I got a little lost. It's really hard to give that up, you know--willingly put myself in a position where everything I do is overseen and permitted--but it's also hard to recreate that kind of thing on my own, since my winter life was so much about flowing.
My older sister started working on boats in high school, and for years her routine was this: finish school, pack up for a few days--less than a week, usually--go fishing, pack up, return to school. She did that for 2 years of high school and 4 years of college. The first non-school winter that she had was so rough that she came out of that with a determination to go to law school, so she did that for 3 more years. When she got done with law school, she quit fishing.
I quit drinking alcohol after my first fishing season, and I know now that a lot of those crippling feelings I experienced were related to my struggle to have a different relationship to the world, living without the buffer of alcohol. I created some personas for myself--or at least I recognized and named them--and the freaked-out one was Crystal White Octagon, the name of an inexpensive washing-up soap. (Moe Bowstern actually used to be one of those personas, but in the end she took over and runs the show most of the time.)
In Kodiak they go from salmon fishing into halibut, then they go get their deer or elk for winter meat, then it's time for subsistence crab fishing, Christmas, commercial crab, cod, herring and then salmon again. That's the year for many of my friends. But for me it was salmon fish, flounder around in an unfriendly city being a mess in a friend's life, back to Chicago, try and lock into some sort of winter life, stay warm, find comfort, then it's time to go back. I suppose my difficulty with transition was just representative of a general difficulty finding out what my life was actually about. I can't stress the importance my zine has had in that role. I didn't put it together until I left Chicago, and since then it has provided me with a real portable identity and purpose. It didn't matter where I was, there were libraries everywhere--I could live anywhere and still make my zine. That was really a balm, it really eased my life just having something to do that didn't involve specific people or places.
As far as having more than one home, well yeah, that's just something I need to make room for. I'm not much of a visitor, I really like to live somewhere. Don't want to take a trip unless I'm going for a month, and then I like to get a little work while I'm there to both help pay for the trip and also to settle into what it's like to be there.
One of my close friends here is a punk rocker, she started out organizing shows in her home town when she was 15 or something and even though she is a vegetarian, she really can relate to a lot of what I experience as a fisherman (woman). Tour is an experience kind of like fishing--small van, lots of people, somewhere different every day, but in the end what you do is the same. The friends and places you stay, but never long enough, the friendships you sustain forever through phone calls and letters after you go through some crazy experience together. The friends you make because you recognize each other as punks in some place where you are the only punks there, when everyone around you is just waiting for you to 'get over it'. The boredom of the road, of driving and being around not-your-best-friends or lovers and yet ever the impending dangers of van wrecks or bar fights or cops or unfriendly locals or just your own sloppy behaviors. And as she's gotten older and become a "grown up" she has the same double life situation--she works at the community radio station teaching kids how to produce their own radio shows and the other employees and volunteers at the station all know that she is a punk rocker--but they don't quite know what that means in terms of how it drives her, shapes her day and her life.
So I have that. Sometimes as I cross the Willamette River on my bicycle, a longing for the ocean wells up and hits me in that spot between my heart and my stomach, and I don't know how I can stand one more day of land life. But the longer I live in one place, the more I am tied into the natural rhythms of the land. Watching the willow tree we planted tower over the street, developing our house and garden, watching the baby I met when she was in utero turn 10 years old.
I don't just miss Alaska. I don't have a complete life anywhere. When I am in Alaska I really miss my queer community, it's really what I miss the most. It's what has kept me in Portland, instead of Pittsburgh or Kodiak, I really feel that. Now I am beginning a relationship with England, with Leeds, and most of the time I'll just miss you all, but some of the time we'll be together. Sometimes that makes things a bit sweeter, sometimes it's an ache like a punch in the gut. That's how it is. Maybe that's where the art comes from.
There was a piece in Xtra Tuf #3 about the fact that fish are not an inexhaustible resource. the zine highlights facts and truths, such as the level of waste in some fishing practices (like the fact that each pound of salmon requires one and a half pounds of wild-caught fish, so the farmed fish add to the operall depletion of other species (alongside their own depletion?)).
Working in an industry that has such strong ties to, and such dependence on the environment, the ocean, wildlife, the elements, and the world, to what degree did fishing increase your environmental awareness?
To respond directly to the question posed--the "level of waste in some fishing practices" is actually a level of waste in FARMING practices--which may seem like a petty correction but fishing and fish farming are worlds apart. Fish farming is a situation where businesses build pens where they raise Atlantic salmon--a different fish than the Pacific salmon--where they feed them brown pellets while the fish swim in a tiny area. The farmed fish genetically pollute our wild fish when storms destroy the pens and they escape, and breed with the wild fish, and there's also regular old pollution like you'd get from any farm. Sea lice plague the farmed fish--all salmon have a few sea lice, small parasites about the size of a pencil eraser, with suckers that attach them to the fish and a little whip of a tail--but the farmed fish, being stuck in a little area, are covered with them. The November 2007 issue of Pacific Fishing magazine has letter to the editor from 18 scientists (16 Ph.D.'s!) alerting the public to a sea lice infestation in British Columbia's wild salmon juvenile populations. Other farmed fish weirdnesses include dyeing the flesh pink so it looks like wild Pacific salmon, and the pretty much undisputed fact that among fish eaters, wild salmon tastes better.
Sorry to go on and on, but I don't want your readers to confuse fishing and farming, and it's easy to be confused. That said, I'd have to say that fishing has definitely raised my awareness of the environment. At times we fishermen are called upon to answer to environmental crimes--which I really can't get too worked up about. It's kind of like harassing anyone who lives in a municipality for litter on the street, or blaming L.A. bus drivers for smog.
Fishing and working on boats in Alaska has brought me into close contact with nature and the sea. It's taught me how to see, smell and hear the world around me. Last year a group of us went out to the Oregon coast to witness the annual gray whale migration, as the pods travel south to Baja. As we stood there among the throngs of watchers, it struck me that I was probably the only person in my group who knew what to look for, and as I explained whale sign to my friends, I saw other people paying close attention. The crazy thing about that migration is the fact that those whales were traveling down from Kodiak, where they spend the summer feeding! Possibly whales I knew from up North!
When my older sister first started working on boats she was just 17, and went up as a cook for the summer on a tender, a boat that buys fish out on the grounds on behalf of the cannery and then brings them to town. She was shocked to learn that all the salmon seiners threw their bagged-up trash directly into Shelikof Strait. Well, no boat in that cannery's fleet ever did that again. She appointed herself garbage captain-- collected the trash from every boat and made sure it went into a Dumpster in town--to which my partner Dwayne would say, into a landfill instead of the Strait. That was in 1983 or 82, and today it is common practice among the fleet to save the trash. I think that like anywhere, small contributions can ripple out and make big changes. I don't mean to say that my sister was the first or only person to do what she did--I don't know, and I certainly hope not. I just know what she told me, and what I see from my years fishing.
Many of the fishing people I know are woefully aware of their impact, and I see it very much among the setnetters, people who live in remote cabins and pick 2 or 3 anchored nets several times a day. They live in arm's reach of the otters and seals, their kids play in the tidepools, they patrol the overlap of land and sea. From them I have learned to put language to my awareness--name the kelp and the creatures--but I have also heard gnarly crabbers go on at length about the difference between bairdi and opilio crab, and even those Bering Sea guys feel a sense of wonder when they rescue a storm-tossed seabird.
Those of us who fish, we are on the inner circles of the web of life, from proximity alone. I have raised my voice in defense of the fish and the fisher folk, both endangered. Fishing populations storehouse local knowledge about the weather, the land, the sea and the populations that inhabit those realms, and we are routinely ignored by governments, scientists and the general public, since we are often viewed as part of the "problem" in this age where all things must be cast in the role of 'good' or 'evil.'
I gather that you are no longer currently working as a fisherwoman. What are you currently doing, and do you ever long to be back on the ocean--or do you have new dreams to chase and follow in your life?
Well it's true that I quit salmon fishing. In 1998, I think it was late August out at Rocky Point on the West side, in the middle of yet another tongue thrashing by my skipper, I up and quit. I finished out the season for sure, but something in my heart just turned over and I stopped. Got a bad case of the fuckits. I cleared out every basement and attic where I had fishing gear stored in Kodiak and left that town, good bye. I was nursing my poor broken heart with that old blues phrase, "you gon' miss me when I'm gone.” And I heard they did.
Well it took about 4 years. I got a phone call one summer that my brother-in-lawlessness needed a skiff operator and a leadman to finish out a season. Walk on, walk off, as we say. No gear work, just fish till the fat lady sings, put everything away, wash the boat, get a check. I took a construction buddy up with me and it was like stepping back into the shoes I had left under the bed the night before.
Since then I've spent part of my year fishing somewhere. Shad fished on the Hudson River in New York state down the road from where my grandparents are buried. Shrimp fished a few weeks in Miami with a punk rocker. Crab and cod fished in Kodiak. Setnetted last August and September in Kodiak. Got a friend in Rhode Island bugging me to come lobster fishing with her for a month--I'll probably go one of these autumns.
Other dreams? Well, I am really living the dream in a lot of ways. I live in a fine house I own with fine people, most of whom I've lived with for the last 7 or 8 years. We've got cats and chickens--buried our dogs last summer, waiting now for the right ones to come along. We've got a fleet of diesel vehicles we run on grease, nice garden, a helluva peach tree, apples, grapes raspberries, herbs. Live in a fine city by a couple of rivers, up on a hill. Play music--been playing trombone and singing with the Elephants. Working on Xtra Tuf #6, plus I'm writing stuff for Pacific Fishing magazine now and then, and working on 40 short short pieces for a friend's art book. I won the Lilla Jewel Award this year from the McKenzie River Foundation--they gave me a bunch of cash and asked me to please mention it for a year.
I'd really like to fish in England or Ireland somewhere, that's a dream I have. I'd like to check out coastal communities from a deckhand's perspective, see as many as I can before I'm too creaky to work. Hard to juggle that dream with how I am changing into a stay at home person--I really like it here. But I have that London goddaughter, so I figure I'll be migrating pretty regularly to England as long as she is there.
My father and I took a trip to Ireland in 1996 and I got to hang out with a fisherman at the Quilty Tavern in Clare. I was so bummed that I didn't have any Xtra Tufs along because there were these guys in Dingle who didn't believe me that I had fished, they just looked in my face and told me I was lying. "No, you didn't." That's what they said! Well I don't want to fish in Dingle, that's for sure, but I'd like to fish somewhere in Ireland. Complete the circle, you know? There's gotta be somebody in my line who pulled a net.