Sunday, September 1, 2019

Phil Fitzpatrick Talks About His New Book of Poems, Hawks on High: Everyday Miracles in a Hawk Ridge Season

Photo by Margie Menzies.
I've gotten to know Phil Fitzpatrick through our mutual affiliation with the Duluth Dylan Fest in recent years. A Harvard grad and career teacher, he's passionate about golf, poetry and life. His new book is titled Hawks on High: Everyday Miracles in a Hawk Ridge Season.

Hawk Ridge is a Nature Reserve here in Duluth, Minnesota. It is a book of poems inspired by this very special place, with pen-and-ink drawings by local artist Penny Perry.

It's exciting to see that the book is now in print, which makes it a good time to share Phil's story, learn more about his motivations and discover new insights regarding raptor watching.

EN: What prompted you to produce a book of poems about hawks and other raptors?

Phil Fitzpatrick: This book is a happy accident born of my fascination, if somewhat belated, with flight and migration introduced to me in the fall of 2017 by my friend and college classmate, Elizabeth Hunter, who has been watching raptors at Rockfish Gap in Virginia for years. But more specifically, the first poem came a few days after we had started watching. One poem followed another until I started thinking I could capture some of the more ineffable qualities not just of migration but of all the folks who work and who visit up at Hawk Ridge.

EN: What is it that makes Hawk’s Ridge such an unusual geographic/topographic place to watch migrating hawks?

PF: Raptors hate to fly over water, but they love catching thermal currents that rise up off the bluffs of Lake Superior's North Shore. The rock ridge is composed of a form of basalt called diabase, and it is a billion years old. The age of the location, the fantastic view of Lake Superior far below, and the always fascinating birds that fly overhead make it a spectacular raptor watching site, one of the most renowned in the country, if not the world.

Cover design, illustration by Penny Perry
EN: How many other such places do you think there are in the world?

PF: There are hundreds of such sites in the world, and I would hate to guess how many thousands of people watch, study, write about, band, and photograph these birds. Yet with all this attention year after year, there are so many mysteries and secrets the birds possess. We only know part of the story, and it is this mystery and this history that intrigue me. The poems that were hardest to write are the ones that make an attempt to imagine what goes on during migration and to imagine how far back such activity actually got started.

EN: The book is illustrated by local artist Penny Perry. How did you come to choose Penny for this project?

PF: I did not know Penny before we began our collaboration. I just knew she had a shop downtown, two doors west of the Zeitgeist Arts Cafe (where our book release party will be held). I was planning to use photographs to illustrate at least some of the poems, but I'm not a photographer which meant that I'd have to beg, borrow, steal, pay for the photos others have taken. That seemed like a huge, not to say sprawling, challenge and a big distraction. My friend and fellow poet Ellie Schoenfeld suggested I ask Penny if she'd illustrate the poems. I followed through on the suggestion, and to my surprise and delight, Penny said yes. That choice and the choice to ask Mike Savage to publish the book remain the two smartest choices I have made in this project. (You can read how I really feel about Penny's contributions in the Acknowledgments section of the book.)

Illustration by Penny Perry
EN: Can you name two or three poets who especially inspire you?

PF: I am inspired by more poets than you are permitting me, including several local poets. For this book alone, I am continually "guided" by Philip Larkin, John Ashbery, and Jane Hirshfield. I suppose there are a few poems that contain some of Mary Oliver's influence as well as a little bit of Robinson Jeffers. But even just naming these few masters here makes me feel like I am barely in the foothills of the true craft of poetry.

There was, and still remains so much work to do to cut through all the bullshit surrounding human existence to arrive at some small amount of truth that underlies the absolute miracle of avian flight and migration. Not just the science of it, either, but the quintessential nature and truth of it. If I come anywhere close to that in even just one poem, I will have achieved something extraordinary. And there is simply the "miracle" of Hawk Ridge itself, the fact of countless numbers of people--staff, volunteers, first time visitors and seasoned veterans--all regularly working to expand our collective knowledge of and familiarity with this miracle, this "everyday miracle" we have here in Duluth every autumn.

EN: What is the biggest surprise or most interesting lesson you’ve learned from watching the hawk migrations at Hawk Ridge?

PF: How little we really know, how little we really truly know about what migration can teach us about our planet, the birds that surround us, and believe it or not, about ourselves.

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The book launch will be at the Zeitgeist Atrium on Monday, September 9 from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. Ryan Frane will be playing during the reception and art show (5-6), and Woodblind will play from 7-9 after the poetry reading.

Books can be purchased at Hawk Ridge, at Zenith Bookstore, as well as directly from the author and the artist.

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