Moe Bowstern was born and raised in Upstate New York, the second and runtiest of four daughters born to a first generation German mother and second generation Irish father. Her grandfathers were both wanderers; the German farmed in the spring and summer and was part of a crew of traveling beer vat cleaners in the fall and winter. The Irish grandfather was a traveling salesman. Moe considers her migrations to various fishing grounds to be a continuation of a work-related wanderlust that is clearly in her blood.
At an early age Moe found she enjoyed writing stories, telling stories, and reading stories aloud in class. Her school years were balanced between the joy of learning, playing violin in the school orchestra, playing soccer and singing in the chorus, and miserably trying and always failing to fit into peer ideas of normalcy.
Moe entered Northwestern University in the fall of 1985. She began her relationship with the ocean in the summer of 1986 when she went to Kodiak, Alaska to replace her older sister as a deckhand and cook on the fishing vessel Sunrunner. The Sunrunner was a long lining boat that in the summer contracted with a cannery to tender for salmon—to pick up fish from smaller boats out on the fishing grounds, keep them cool and shuttle them to town.
Moe found being a greenhorn to be like high school, but better and worse. Alaska was beautiful, crazy and breathtaking; her crewmates were cruel and unhelpful. She learned hard lessons about isolation, work and cooking. After being taunted that she would never make it as a fishing deckhand, that all she was good for was cooking and she couldn’t even do that, Moe swore she’d return one day to Alaska and fish.
During her second year at Northwestern, Moe took a fiction writing course from Janet DeSaulniers and immediately switched from journalism to writing. She entered and completed a small competitive writing program modeled after the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Bowstern graduated in 1989 with a B.A. in English, concentration in writing, and continued to earn money as a waitress while living in Chicago.
One night while drinking after work with her fellows, Moe decided it was time to make good on her promise to herself. She got a second job at a coffee shop and made plans to head north to Alaska for the summer. After getting a few tips from her older sister, she hit the docks in Kodiak for three long weeks before landing a salmon job on the El Tigre. An underlying problem with alcohol came to a head after that first season and Moe quit drinking upon her return from Alaska at age 23.
Moe fished the next 8 seasons aboard Kodiak salmon seiners, graduating to skiff man her second season, and by 1995 she was fishing six months a year for herring, halibut, cod and salmon. She quit the salmon industry in 1998 after her skipper forbid her to read, write, play music or sing during the season.
In 1996 Moe left Chicago and after a year of geographical indecision that included nine months in Pittsburgh, she settled in Portland, Oregon. In 1997, Moe started a protest chorus called the Amalgamated Everlasting Union Chorus, which combined historical union and other radical songs with loud off-key singing and outrageous outfits. Moe and her many cohorts weighed in on social issues throughout the Northwest and appeared 50-strong at the 1999 WTO “Battle of Seattle;” 21 chorus members performed in 2001 at the first Ladyfest in Olympia, Washington, opening for Sleater-Kinney in front of an audience of 900 screaming women. The chorus had a fluid membership, and for seven years its mottoes “Subversion Through Friendliness” and “The Chorus That’s More Fun To Be In Than To Listen To” created a colorful and welcome alternative to the thankless doldrums of resisting fascism.
After a four-year break from Alaska, Moe returned to commercial fishing, and though she is pretty much semi-retired from full time deck handing she has tried to spend some time each year working on the water.
In 1996 Moe published the first issue of the zine Xtra Tuf. It grew from 30 to 192 pages with the 5th issue in 2005, and the newest issue, Xtra Tuf: the Greenhorn Issue weighs in at 160 pages, available March 2010. In addition to six issues of Xtra Tuf, Moe has published three other print zines and released two cds. Microcosm Publishing published Xtra Tuf #5 and North Sea fisherman George Wilson financed Xtra Tuf #6 but everything else was financed out of the meager scrapings from Moe’s itinerant wages as a deckhand, jobsite laborer, gardener and housecleaner.
In 1997 Moe was invited to read at the first Fisher Poets Gathering in Astoria, Oregon and immediately found a home there among the other people who wrote and sang about their lives in the commercial fishing industry. Being a Fisher Poet has opened many doors for Moe Bowstern and she credits the gathering with creating the space she has always needed to be who she is today.
Moe missed the second gathering because she was caring for her ill grandmother in Upstate New York, but she has returned every winter since. She is a regular Saturday night M.C. and a gathering favorite. She has also performed at the Seattle Folklife Festival, the Sea Music Festival in Mystic Connecticut, the Working Waterfront Festival, Kodiak Out Loud, the Cordova Salmon Jam, Fisher Poets On The Edge in Newport, Oregon, the Radar Reading Series in San Francisco and many other places, including Leeds, England and Aberdeen, Scotland. In April of 2009, thanks to the intervention of Fisher Poet Jon Campbell, Moe read at a gathering of Poets Laureate in Providence Rhode Island.
In 2008 Moe’s art show “Xtra Tuf 5.75: The Installation Zine” debuted during the Fisher Poets Gathering at the Astoria Visual Arts Gallery and traveled in the fall to Peacock Visual Arts in Aberdeen, Scotland.
Today Moe lives between Portland, Oregon and Portknockie, Scotland and works mainly as a writer and performer. If you buy her a plane ticket, she will sing and read on your stage, and probably work on your boat.