10 Questions for... Cameron Conaway

This is the inaugural post of my new interview series "10 Questions For..." and I'm extremely fortunate to start things off with Cameron Conaway.  Conaway is one of the most interesting writers I've ever had the pleasure of meeting, primarily because of the fascinating dichotomy he embodies, which he writes about in his new book: Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet. When Conway isn't busy training, you can catch him writing articles about mixed martial arts (MMA) or teaching Shakespeare. And he's also a heck of a nice guy. Conaway is currently studying Muay Thai in Bangkok and was kind enough to take out a little time for an interview. So, without further ado, here are 10 questions for Cameron Conaway:

1. Tell me about Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet.

It’s a book about the power of then. Much talk is made about how cool the present is, but I’ve learned so much more from the past than I ever could from now or now. Darnit, I can’t keep up! It’s the story of a young boy who struggled, became a professional MMA fighter, then an award-winning poet and somewhere in between blossomed into a simple man. Caged isn’t linear, contains information about MMA training and human performance, nutrition, poetry tactics, gogoplatas and iguanas with their tails ripped off. Melange is a weird word, but it’s a melange. Here’s what the renowned Dinty W. Moore thinks it is:

“Cameron Conaway’s fierce, fearless memoir offers a clear-eyed look at a brutal childhood, an angry father, and a son’s gathering demons. In the end, though, the author carves his way forward through an unlikely combination of mixed martial arts, poetry, and human connection. Brutal and relentless, this book never fails to surprise, and along the way Conaway gives voice and hope to all young men who must learn to grow up and out of their fathers’ footsteps or risk falling into the same hole.”

2. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Caged for anybody who hasn’t read it would probably be the unique juxtaposition of a cage-fighter who is also a poet. Is there any common ground between cage-fighting and writing?

Too many common grounds! At several points in the book I had to use ultra-tight prose poetry to get the extract of their juices and I found their juices to taste pretty damn similar. MMA is about controlling space, about efficiency of movement, about knowing when to turn it on. This is the same way I’d define poetry. For those MMA fans that think poetry is some sing-songy roses are red stuff – it is no longer. For those poets that think MMA is human cockfighting, actually, poets see details enough to know it’s not.

3. Who are some writers that have affected your storytelling sensibilities? 

The Beats played a huge role – Ginsberg’s tightness and courage, Kerouac’s uninhibited flow and stream-of-consciousness and Burroughs’s beautiful weirdness. Hemingway’s simplicity. Malcolm Gladwell’s way of thinking beyond the obvious.

4. Writing a book is such a complex exercise that I imagine no two authors do it exactly the same. Can you summarize your process for me?

Great question! Each book came together differently. Caged grew like some slow cancer over the course of five years through a series of essays with similar threads. Mentors pointed me in the direction of a book – I didn’t see it – but I trusted them and followed their intuition. Until You Make the Shore grew intensely over three months when I was teaching in a juvenile detention center. If I’d hear a story of a girl watching her dad get shot while she hid in the cupboards, I would go home, get in my cupboards with my notebook and imagine it. Bonemeal was primarily a burst as I was deep into Derrick Jensen’s Endgame and William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch.

5. While Caged is a book of non-fiction prose, you are also well versed as a poet. If you had to pick one form to write in for the rest of your life, which would it be: Prose or Poetry? Why? 

Wow. I’ve been sitting here for five minutes thinking on this one. Poetry. Prose is great but this ultra-clarity-readability thing often dictates it. Poetry is limitless, can cut straight to the truth of the matter without the extraneous. A single poem can contain pages of prose. Also, my mind dwells on/in small segments and struggles to, say, contain a novel all at once, so my writing tends to reflect this.

6. What inspired you to write Caged?

I was inspired to write Caged once I saw the way disciplined, focused writing was my way of finding understanding, awareness and forgiveness. Reading writing teaches, sure. But I think the lesson missed is how the act of writing teaches. When I write essays I’m often astonished at how much I learned while developing it. That’s what inspired me to write Caged. What inspired me to publish it was my belief (backed by mentors) that it was a unique contribution to the field and had the potential to help others.

7. You also write articles about nutrition and MMA for Sherdog.com, which is the top source for MMA news on the Internet. How did you get involved with that and how satisfying has it been?

I grew up in a small town so I didn’t have an MMA team to train with when I was having my fights. So I tried to control every variable I could in order to make up for it. One of these variables was nutrition.

After high school and college classes I’d go to the library or get online and read everything about human nutrition that I possibly could. I ended up getting pretty good at separating the crap that’s out there (there’s a lot) from the fact. Sherdog Nutrition was a natural fit and I feel honored to be running the column over there. It’s satisfying because I think our country is deep into a health crisis and I feel like I’m doing my part to break it.

8. So much of writing books involves having the foresight to plan for the future, while also having the ability to focus on the moment at hand. With this in mind, where do you see your writing career five years from now?

I think Ellen DeGeneres will bring me in once-a-month to read a poem on her show. Dreamers can dream, eh? In all seriousness, I have no idea. I just believe hard work pays off and usually in unexpected ways so I’m expecting the unexpected.

9. What are you currently working on?

Marketing Caged right now. Due to lawsuit threats from a stepmother I haven’t talked to since I was a little boy (see video here), Tuttle Publishing cancelled my contract for fear that it would take well over $10,000 to fend off her threats. Essentially, she believes any abuse I write about is a “fairy tale” and she also believes that my mother is racist against Chinese Americans and with Tuttle having roots in Asia it would be a discredit to their base to publish me (I guess, because [they imagine] I must be racist against Chinese Americans too). Along with the contract, of course, went the entire marketing team Tuttle had assigned to heavily push the book. So, I’m going grassroots now and that takes more work than I expected. Which is why I’m infinitely grateful for this interview!

10. What advice would you give to an aspiring author who hopes to see their work published one day?

(1) Read. You’ve got to know the field if you have hopes of contributing something worthwhile to it.

(2) Know your sensitivity. It makes you a writer, but it can also crush you. Be prepared for the latter.

And there you have it. I'd like to thank Cameron Conaway for being so generous with his time. If you want to learn more about him, you can visit Cameron Conaway: Warrior Poet. You can also check out Conaway's  Facebook Fan Page and follow him on Twitter.