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– Denise Hank

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Updated: December 25, 2011

May 2004 Satellite

By Shamrock McShane

When Jimmy Nil Fishhawk moved to Gainesville in 1993, he had visions of a punk rock band in his head. That vision melted in the heat of what he calls grassroots activism. Now, more than a decade later, a bard has risen in place of the band.

Gone, the inaugural publication of Ghost Dog Press, is a new chapbook of Jimmy Nil Fishhawk's poetry.

"Part punk screed, part Wobbly recruiting song, part horror story, part hobo romance, part Sunday sermon, part pagan nature rite," is the way poet and dramatist Sheila Bishop describes Fishhawk's work. "Some of his work is joyous," Bishop goes on, "but Fishhawk is at his best when he taps into deep springs of melancholy and anger."

"I'm a Florida boy, born and raised, multi–generational cracker on my dad's side," Fishhawk confesses.

You don't have to dig too deep in the Florida dirt to find the source of his discontent. What's eating at him?

"The whole suburban Florida sprawl zone phenomenon that's eating small towns from the inside out all over the state. Florida's commons, from water resources to forests and swamps to public spaces such as plazas and parks, bike lanes and roadways, are being gobbled up by greedy corporate bastards that don't give a rat's ass about the future or quality of life for working people at present either, unless they can make a buck off of it."

With an attitude like that, Jimmy Nil Fishhawk was a perfect fit for the Civic Media Center, home of counter–culture, where he was coordinator in the late nineties. His special province remains the CMC Poetry Jam, the long–running celebration of spoken word.

In the beginning there was the word. Fishhawk's is sensory and yearning and psychical. In "Gone" it aches:

"I remember how long it's been since I've been touched, someone's fingers wriggling through the brainfences we erect that stand like ribbons of razor wire invisible inside our skin."

"While Fishhawk often writes of his travels elsewhere, his images and concerns are rooted in the landscape and community of North Central Florida," Sheila Bishop muses. "He reminds us that this part of Florida is full of wet decadence as well as fire and brimstone preachers. He inheirts fully from both. He stands on his soapbox; he does preach. But in his sermons lush–to–the–point–of–decayed natural images struggle against heartless petro–chemical giants of rusted metals. The combination creates a fierce keening for the loss of wild spaces– literal and metaphorical."

There is a connection in Fishhawk's work to the folk tradition of Woody Guthrie. His "Rant for Lovers" borrows proudly from early Bob Dylan.

The poems are Whitmanesque in their peripatetic free verse, with echoes of Baudelaire, whose task it was to make the ugly beautiful.

"Into the twisting phantoms of mist over the pond out there by the tracks,/ Into the moon hanging, half of itself, orange and huge like/ the tongue of a black dog that comes to eat the world/ When it's all over and the stink goes up to the stars."

Then the word became spoken. Jake Kaida, co–founder of the Ghost Dog Press, was involved in the Poetry Jam with Fishhawk before leaving Gainesville to attend New College in San Francisco, where he discovered a hotbed of poetic creativity still kicking fifty years after the Beats. Following his bliss to Ann Arbor led to the founding of Ghost Dog Press.

"So that kind of post–beat, revolutionary counterculture sense of the possibilities of poetry is very much inherent in the Ghost Dog Press mission and practice," Fishhawk explains. "Ghost Dog has a core of writers whose work will be the primary publishing focus, and these folks, myself included, will be working to promote each others' work by any means available. We're scattered from San Francisco to Gainesville to Toronto to Ann Arbor."

Notes from the Wasteland by Michael Murphy is Ghost Dog's second publication. "Notes" is a travelogue of Murphy's journey across North America in an "art car" built by San Fran artists.

As for Fishhawk, he lives in Waldo on the Circle A Ranch in a community of artist–activists, and continues the life of the bard, ear to the rail.

"On the opposite bank Union Pacific trains charge through the night, their cyclops eyelights ablaze,/ making the trees leap out in silhouette like startled skeletons with a spark put to their asses —/ they pass, waving weak lights in the wake of their own echoing rumbles,/ their leaving remarked by the steel–teeth complaint of the wheels on the long, wailing rails."