Students at the Tisbury School this week had the opportunity to hear the poetry of a fisherman.
Dave Densmore, of Kodiak, Alas., and Astoria, Ore., was a featured speaker for fifth and sixth graders. He came as a guest in the middle of a whirlwind tour on the East Coast.
On Wednesday evening Mr. Densmore was a featured speaker at a forum on fishing at the Chilmark Public Library.
“I think of the Vineyard as a kindred home. I feel it is a home,” he told the Gazette prior to meeting with the students in the school library.
Mr. Densmore is no stranger to the Vineyard. He first came in March of 2006 as a featured guest at the showing of the 2005 documentary Fisher Poets in the Martha’s Vineyard Independent Film Festival. While he was here he got to meet and know Capt. Jimmy Morgan, 84, of Menemsha, his son in law John Armstrong and his wife Barbara. Mrs. Armstrong works at the Tisbury School.
Mr. Densmore said he is now close friends with the Morgan family. Mr. Morgan no longer fishes, but the two have plenty to share, including the struggles of fishermen and their disdain for government management of fish stocks. Mr. Densmore fishes the waters of the Pacific, while Mr. Morgan knows the Atlantic; he used to fish Vineyard Sound in a small wooden dragger.
Last weekend Mr. Densmore and his wife Pat participated in the Working Waterfront Festival in New Bedford. The annual September festival celebrates the commercial fishing industry. He joined other fishermen to tell stories. This week Mr. Densmore will make an appearance at CafÃ© Arpeggio in New Bedford. He will also appear in Newport and in Providence.
While Mr. Densmore has written poetry since the 1970s, his career as a storyteller and poet took off with the release of Fisher Poets, a documentary by Jennifer Brett Winston. He also got a boost from The Discovery Channel’s popular television series Deadliest Catch.
Fisher Poets is a documentary about the creative lives of fishermen from the Northwest who gather and read their poetry. Mr. Densmore is featured, along with fishermen from Portland, Ore., Chinook, Wash., Alaska and other places.
Mr. Densmore captains a 47-foot fishing boat called Dreamer. This summer he fished for salmon. He fishes using a seine net that measures 1,500 feet long and drops 90 feet deep. His last day of fishing was Sept. 5. The salmon fishery is now closed for the season and his boat will be hauled in Kodiak.
The children had just watched the 42-minute movie Fisher Poets when Mr. Densmore walked into the library with Mr. Morgan and Mr. Armstrong. Sitting before the children, Mr. Densmore held a black notebook with handwritten notes and printed poems.
He spoke of his life as a fisherman, and said he had begun fishing at the age of 12, taught by his hardworking father. He told of how he bought his first boat from the income.
He spoke of losing his son, Skeeter, at the age of 14, about 23 years ago.
He read two poems. The children asked him about Deadliest Catch on The Discovery Channel.
Mr. Densmore said when he was 23 years old he was the youngest fishing captain in the Bering Sea hunting for king crabs.
They asked him about his troubles at sea.
He told them about losing his fishing boat in a fire. He recalled watching the cook sit down to dinner, followed by a huge explosion in the engine room. In a short time the whole boat was on fire. He spoke about the incident as though it were a week ago. He recalled taking steps to make sure his crew was safe on a raft and his unsuccessful effort to call for help on the radio from the pilot house, engulfed in flames.
The story is also recounted in a poem called The Ride, which the poet did not read to the children. The long poem ends with the rescue of the captain by a passing Japanese fishing boat:
Those men on there were fishermen,
Fish and sea, were our ties.
The sympathy and solicitude
Showed plainly in their eyes.
Well, they did all they could,
As though we were their very own.
I’ll be forever grateful
To those men who brought us home.
Now you can draw your own
I know I sure have mine.
I thank God, every day,
For this life so sweet and fine.
The children sat quietly as Mr. Densmore talked about other aspects of his hard life. Wearing a thick leather jacket over a red and black checkered mackinaw, he turned to look at each child that asked a question. One student asked Mr. Densmore how he learned how to swim.
“I don’t know how to swim,” he replied, explaining that the water is so cold in Alaska it doesn’t do much good to know how to swim.
Another asked him how he got a license to be a captain. “I don’t have a license,” he said. He said he learned from doing, explaining that he has a fishing permit that allows him to fish, but no captain’s license.
Mr. Morgan offered his own thoughts about fishing. Holding the sword of a swordfish and the dart from a swordfish harpoon, he told the wide-eyed students, “Fishing gets into your blood.”
He also said that when he was growing up fishing was a good life. “A guy could make more of a living than on shore,” he said.