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Northumbrian poet Katrina Porteous takes fishing tales to America

Beadnell poet Katrina Porteous spreads heritage of fishing communities on the Northumberland coast at a US gathering

Poet Katrina Porteous who is to perform a reading in the planetarium of the Centre for Life
Poet Katrina Porteous who is to perform a reading in the planetarium of the Centre for Life

The heritage of fishing communities on the Northumberland coast has been shared with their counterparts from across the United States at an unusual literary festival.

The message was spread by poet, historian and broadcaster Katrina Porteous, whose interests include the inshore fishing communities of the Northumbrian coast, particularly around her home in Beadnell.

She travelled to Astoria in Oregon in the United States to take part in the 17th Fisher Poets’ Gathering.

The event takes place annually over three days, bringing together about 80 commercial fishermen and women from 14 states, to perform their own poetry, songs and stories about the fishing life.

The live audience totals around a thousand, and many more listen on the local community radio station KMUN.

Katrina was accompanied by British radio producer Julian May, and the pair’s programme about the Gathering will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 tomorrow at 4.30pm, with a repeat on May 10 at 11.30pm.

The Gathering heard some of Katrina’ s poetry about Beadnell and fishing, including Northumbrian dialect.

They went down so well with the American fishermen that they borrowed one of her lines – “come wi’ the wund an’ gan wi’ the wetter” - as the theme for the Gathering’s annual poetry competition.

Katrina Porteous against an Oregon backdrop
Katrina Porteous against an Oregon backdrop

“The Gathering was fantastic. These were working fishing people performing poetry, story-telling and music and there was a great sense of community,” said Katrina, who is president of the Northumbrian Language Society.

“Most of the fishermen work around Alaska catching salmon and crab, but some were from as far afield as the Gulf of Mexico, Hawaii and the East Coast.

“In the Western USA it’s not uncommon for women to work as commercial fishermen, and it was great to see so many women among the fisher poets. The poetry and songs, most of them specially written for the Gathering, were all about celebrating this tough, difficult, dangerous way of life.

“American and Northumberland fishermen have many things in common.

“On the Columbia River, commercial salmon fishermen compete with leisure fishing interests, and now face a gill net ban, similar to the Net Limitation Order imposed on Northumberland salmon netsmen. “Grass roots organisations including commercial fishermen have been set up to protect salmon stocks on the Columbia River and in Alaska, where the mining industry threatens the salmon’s spawning habitat.

“On the American East Coast, small fishing communities have been struggling, for many of the same reasons as Northumberland fishing villages. But they have found a sustainable solution in community-supported fisheries, an alternative business model where members pay in advance for a share of seafood to be delivered weekly.

Katrina Porteous with fisher poet Dave Densmore from Alasaka on his boat Cold Stream
Katrina Porteous with fisher poet Dave Densmore from Alasaka on his boat Cold Stream

“Fishermen often get a bad press. People hear about overfishing and disasters like the closure of the Grand Banks cod fishery.

“TV programmes like The Deadliest Catch depict fishermen as warriors battling against nature. Of course fishermen want to make money, but this Gathering is great because it shows fishing as a way of life. Small scale, community-based fishermen know more about their own area of the sea than anyone, and care about its preservation and future. The Fisher Poets’ Gathering is about commercial fishermen celebrating a sense of identity, that places human beings at the heart of nature, not at odds with it.”

The Fisher Poets’ Gathering was not Katrina’s first poetic exchange with the United States.

In 1999 she accompanied Coquetdale poet Allan Wood and singer Graham Dick to the Cowboy Poetry Festival in Elko, Nevada.

After that event, the Mid-Northumberland Arts Group and the UK Poetry Society sponsored one of the Cowboy Poets, Joel Nelson, to visit Coquetdale for a month.

Katrina hopes that it might eventually be possible to arrange a similar exchange between the American fisher poets and fishing communities on the Northumberland coast.


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