PORTLAND, Maine — The maritime supply chain never sounded so good.
Those who live in coastal, fishing communities are quick to point out that the ocean’s fertile ground for music and poetry, but Maine Maritime Museum officials say it still may surprise some people that the prototypical commercial fishermen — grizzled and unsophisticated — are among the most lyrical Mainers.
Led by folk musician Gordon Bok, the museum held an event Thursday night titled “Voices of the Sea: The Poetry and Song of Maine’s Fishermen and Those Who Work on the Water.” The showcase of music and poetry by Maine fishermen and waterfront workers was held at DiMillo’s On the Water restaurant.
“I think people have preconceived notions of fishermen that may not be accurate at all,” Jason Morin, director of public programs for the Maine Maritime Museum, said Thursday. “The real [motivation] behind it is to shed light on the people working on the waterfront and what their life is like.
“When you go to the grocery store and buy your fish from the fish counter, you may not realize what has to happen to get that to your dinner plate,” Morin said. “We hope to change that through some of the stories they tell about their connections with nature and essentially risking their lives farming the sea.”
The Bath-based museum absorbed the collection of the fading Portland Harbor Museum in June 2010 and, with the acquisition, expanded its outreach focus to include Maine’s largest city. In that context, Portland landmark DiMillo’s made for a perfect site for the Maine Maritime Museum’s first poetry and music event, inspired by a trip Bok and Islesford lobsterman Jack Merrill took one year to Astoria, Ore., for its annual Fisher Poets Gathering.
“DiMillo’s is kind of the end product for the whole thing, yet you can sit there and see 50 yards out their window draggers, lobstermen and the whole working waterfront they’re talking about,” Morin said.
On the Thursday night itinerary alongside Bok and Merrill — who has been on the Maine Lobstermen’s Association board of directors for about 25 years and has been reading his poetry publicly for nearly 15 — were Frank Gotwals of Stonington, Stefanie Alley of Islesford and humorist Kendall Morse.
“In Astoria, it started out as something small, like what we’re doing here, but now they have 80 presenters, three days and six venues,” Merrill said. He thinks the Maine Maritime Museum event could snowball in future years as well: “I’m sure [Thursday night’s roster was] just the tip of the iceberg in terms of talented people who are commercial fishermen.”
Merrill said his overall body of poetry doesn’t include a high percentage of works specifically about fishing, but he said the environment and mindset of a fisherman informs his world view and his writing.
“The natural environment is a huge part of it,” he said. “I would also say there’s a certain philosophy of lifestyle, the freedom of the business that’s come through to me. There’s a reach back into the past — what we do doesn’t really fit into the modern world in many ways. One poem I’ve written this winter is [titled] ‘Here to stay.’ We use modern electronics to do what we do, but there is a huge connection to the history, the past, and all of that tradition.”