An Interview with Warrior Poet Cameron Conaway: Part 1
By Mark Danowsky
Cameron Conaway is the author of 5 books, including Malaria, Poems (Michigan State University Press), which was named a “Best Book of 2014” by NPR, and Chittagong, Poems (Iris Press), which was praised by the Child Labor Coalition. His work as a journalist has appeared in Newsweek, The Guardian, Harvard Business Review and ESPN. Conaway is the 2015 Daniel Pearl Investigative Journalism Fellow. Connect with him on Twitter @CameronConaway.
Mark Danowsky: What is a normal day for you? How is this different from a decade ago?
Cameron Conaway: Right now, I write to you from Myanmar, thanks to being awarded the 2015 Daniel Pearl Investigative Journalism Fellowship from Moment Magazine. I like the idea of finding a rhythm, and I find myself always fighting to maintain one, but it seems that a few times a year I’m in Ethiopia or Thailand or somewhere else far from my home outside of Philadelphia. Still, my current full-time position at Flow, where I work on our publication The Modern Team, has granted me a kind of stability I’ve never known. A decade ago I was spending 8 hours a day training to fight other people, 4 hours a day studying poetry, and another 4 hours cutting cabbage and celery in a produce department. I’m not sure what normal is, but in relation to then I’ve definitely got a different kind of normal going on.
MD: What prompted your trip to Myanmar (aka. Burma)?
CC: The trip is to uncover the roots of the propaganda that fuels the discrimination and violence by some of the Buddhist population against the Muslims here. The result will be a few longform pieces.
MD: You mentioned that past interviews haven't delved deep into the fact that you come from an MFA background and managed to get into journalism. Let’s talk about longform pieces based on investigative journalism. As we know, this is so important and we seem to be losing an ability to bankroll investigative journalists. I'm sure you're familiar with Greg Campbell (author of Blood Diamonds). One of my favorite pieces of longform investigative journalism is this piece Campbell wrote called “Drone on the Range.”
CC: You're right. Journalism, for a variety of reasons, has certainly taken a hit, and with it goes the kind of nuance necessary to understand complexities. The alternative has been twofold: Increasingly shorter pieces for increasingly shorter attention spans that tout generalizations as truths, and “news” that blurs into entertainment in order for people to give it their attention. This deterioration in quality, especially in the mainstream media where the majority of us get what we think are various perspectives, creates the perfect foundation for a guy like Trump to come along and actually be taken seriously. It's no wonder we eat it up when he puts forth easy, yet entirely absurd, answers to complex problems -- for years now we've been subtly replacing our diet of in-depth with easy.
Don’t Do More, Be More
MD: I'm a longtime fan of the journalist/author Leonard Pitts, Jr. who writes a weekly column for the Miami Herald. (http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/).
When the world seems to be going to hell again and again I turn to Pitts' columns to regain a sense of stability. I'm thinking about Pitts now because he calls attention to issues that I think we should all be concerned about, but may not be well informed about. What are the issues you think we should be concerned about? What has been flying under our radar?
CC: Climate change and economic inequality will be under the radar no matter how much they are discussed. There is perhaps no better combination for potential destruction of our humanity than these two. Our shared humanities are increasingly interconnected, and if we’re not continuing to evolve our ways of being—to think about how best we can be with each other here and in the foreseeable future—I think there will continue to be massive social unrest, increased violence, and possibly a world of us that increasingly becomes uninhabitable for most of us.
MD: I'm also thinking about Pitts because someone wrote to him in response to “incident after incident of police violence against unarmed African-American men” and asked “What can I do?”
(http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article19840047.html). Since then, Pitts has been dedicating time in his columns to discuss this question. You go to great lengths to help others (like travelling overseas), but not everyone feels capable of doing what you do. What are some ways the rest of us can contribute to make the world a better place?
CC: Great question. Too often I find readers or audience members asking, “How can we do more?” or, “What can others do to curb some of the issues you address?” Most of us always have too much on our plates, so the thought of having to do more sets up a negative scenario from the get-go. Instead, I encourage people to be more. Not in the fluff mainstream sense of “zenning out” somewhere, but in the sense of being aware of the world around us, the messages we’re receiving from the mainstream media and from society in general, and the messages we’re giving out to others. Are we listening to others fully, and without judgement? Are we genuinely finding ways to learn about, understand and be interested in each other? Do we know there’s a reason why frozen shrimp at CostCo is so cheap? Rarely does this grand vision of making the world a better place involve doing more; it’s mostly about seeing what’s in front of us and being with it.
MD: So why is frozen shrimp at CostCo is so cheap? Ominous.
CC: My years in Asia, especially researching and writing about modern slavery, made me acutely aware of how there's a consumer cost and then an actual cost. Regarding CostCo: Here's more on that. (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-08-19/costco-sued-over-claims-shrimp-is-harvested-with-slave-labor)
Food Here, Food There
MD: Let’s talk about food. What were you eating during your travels?
CC: When we [CC and his wife] first went to Thailand and walked through a really nice grocery store—the way we have an assortment of bread, they have it with rice. Growing up where we did in Pennsylvania, we just came to believe that rice is rice. But there are so many kinds!
Much of what you come across is spicy for Americans. In Thailand, there were times when our tears dripped into our food—there are peppers they’re cultivating in their backyard that will just, they just break your face in the greatest way possible. Streets vendors will ask if you want them to “tone it down.”
One of our favorite Thai dishes is Larb Gai with sticky rice, which is basically minced chicken, herbs, vegetables, chili peppers and a wedge of cabbage. Portions are so much smaller obviously. For my first 6 months in Thailand, I was on a kickboxing scholarship, and after an entire day of training, I’d be handed this little serving, like 150 calories, so I’d eat like five of them and they’d laugh like, “typical American—eating 7 servings.”
All throughout the states there are generic Asian buffets. This perpetuates the homogeneous Asian food culture in the US, but in Asia every region and sometimes every city and town has its own unique flavors. For the most part, however, they are linked by rice.
MD: Rice beats noodles?
CC: Rice beats noodles, but noodles are definitely #2.
Our corn here [in America] has been genetically altered to be so sweet…[in Asia] they view corn as a dessert and put it on ice cream. If you get an ice cream cone they put corn on it instead of sprinkles. Red bean paste is also a common dessert additive (one I’ve come to crave).
MD: Typical American eating 7 servings. Sounds about right. I gather obesity and diabetes are not quite as problematic overseas?
CC: True. But it’s creeping in. During the 3 years we were there [in Thailand] we watched the average, middleclass Thai get fatter. Right on the corner from where we lived we had a Dunkin Donuts, a Pizza Hut and a McDonalds—and the McDonalds had “McDelivery.” There were always about 15 motor bikes sitting outside, and all you have to do is give them a call and they’ll weave through traffic to bring it to your door. Such American fast food staples are often seen as a sign of progress, unfortunately.
MD: Are you a vegetarian? We don't have to go into this for the interview, I'm just curious. If you are or are not and why or why not is always interesting. I am...but I've wondered to what extent I'd be willing to offend people if, say, I traveled to someone's home in another country and they placed a plate with meat/seafood/etc. in front of me.
CC: I'm not a strict vegetarian, but I believe there's a meat consumption complex and that it's deeply harmful to our environment and the health of our bodies.
Side note: yes...imposing such views on cultures isn't something my wife and I could ever do. We've eaten meat every day for weeks when it was what was available or what a family offered to us. When we were in South Korea, for example, and all the locals suggested we try the restaurant around the corner that serves live octopus. Yup. We ate it. And she hunts with her dad when she's home and something's in season. However, we rarely intentionally seek out huge portions of meat, and we're certainly not going to grab a bowl of shark fin soup when there are so many ethical reasons not to.
Tales from The Good Men Project
MD: What were a few of your notable experiences while working as an editor for The Good Men Project?
CC: Enjoying a cup of tea with Maria Shriver was quite cool, especially when she complimented my work before I had a chance to compliment hers. The all-expenses paid trip to Ireland to tour the Jameson distillery certainly ranks as memorable. Truly though, I think the most memorable moment of my time at GMP was the first article I ever wrote.
I was living in Thailand, saw a 60-second CNN clip about boys that had been trafficked for sex and were now in a shelter in a northern part of the country. I knew I had to get there and meet them, bear witness, give a deeper glimpse into their story. After I spent the day with them, I realized the immense limits of poetry. I was filled with poems, but of what use were they? At most maybe a few people would read them, literary journals don’t have the resources to quickly publish them, let alone promote them. So began my foray into journalism. I wrote an essay about my experience, Never To Be Sold Again, submitted it to a bunch of places, but The Good Men Project, a publication I’d only recently heard about, was the first to take it. My career as a journalist started right then and there.
MD: Given your work with The Good Men Project, I'm assuming you're a self-described Feminist.
CC: Sure. I’m not into labels, but I see that attempts have been made by radicals to transform “feminist” into some kind of man-hating stereotype. It’s pathetic, and shows a lack of historical context. If people want to call me a feminist, and do so through the traditional label of one who believes wholeheartedly in the courageous movement of Feminism, I’ll wear that badge proudly.
MD: You write on the subject of masculinity. What is the interplay between your views on masculinity and being a male feminist?
CC: Everything I know about masculinity I learned through the lens of feminism. When I speak about masculinity, most recently at James Madison University, I tell the men in attendance to please, please study feminism, and that we as men have so much to learn from the historic roots of the movement. The man box, toxic masculinity, media representations of men, the way advertising tries to get us to buy (literally) the dangerous stereotypes of who we are, how it plays on our vulnerabilities… feminists have been unpacking this shit for years and it’s about time that we do as well. This isn’t just something men should do, it’s something we must do for the sake of creating more peaceful relationships and communities.
The Warrior Poet
MD: I'd like to discuss your position on social justice / social issue poetry as a medium.
CC: It’s where I started as a poet—my first poetry instructor was Lee Peterson, author of Rooms & Fields: Dramatic Monologues From the War in Bosnia. This was my introduction to poetry. It wasn’t Shakespeare or Plath or Langston Hughes; it was a soft-spoken, gentle woman writing fierce, bold poems about a war I knew nothing about. There was a part deep in my bones that knew what helplessness felt like—the little boy in me that experienced abuse, that helplessness—so I was naturally drawn to that kind of writing. Her class (and that book) is ultimately where my thinking as a poet emerged, and it’s in her style of impact poetry—poetry as an empathic act of bearing witness—that I will continue to pursue until I am unable.
MD: I saw you were a graduate of Penn State Altoona and wondered if you studied with the poet Todd Davis. Then I discovered that indeed you did. Can you tell me about your experience working with him?
CC: Under Lee Peterson I realized poets could be badass change agents. Under Todd Davis, who I had the following semester, I realized I could be one of those poets.
Todd is an athlete. He played college basketball, and he’s a guy, like me, who lives in his body before he lives in his brain. It was an instant connection; here was a dude who I’d later come to see as undoubtedly the most underrated nature poet in the country…and he was just as excited talking about the science of bench pressing as he was about a Ted Kooser poem. I was fighting professionally as an MMA fighter during this time, and competing in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournaments throughout Pennsylvania and Maryland, so Todd and I hit it off and have been great friends ever since. I continue to learn from his poetry on the page, and from the authenticity of the life behind his poetry. For Todd, poetry isn’t just some cerebral exercise. He lives it long before he writes it.
(Other early poetic influences on Conaway include Allen Ginsberg and Poet Laureate Juan Filipe Herrera. Conaway says he first started reading Herrera while in Bangkok in 2011. Conaway lived in Bangkok for 3 years and described it in the following way: “No green. It’s not like New York City where it’s set up on a grid—it’s just madness. A charming kind of madness that I fell in love with. You can walk everywhere, and there are a million ways to get everywhere. You’d talk to a street vendor on one block and then talk to a vendor on another and they’d both tell you a wildly different way to get to the same place.”)
MD: I absolutely loved the part when you said Todd Davis is “a guy, like me, who lives in his body before he lives in his brain." This is incredibly interesting territory. Please elaborate.
CC: So many poets I've met live their lives in their brain. It's almost as if their body is secondary; just a vehicle that carries around their thoughts. There is of course nothing wrong with that, but I value the way Todd lives the link. The body isn't just a vehicle for him; it's a home, a place of being and a way of being kinesthetically engaged. For Todd, the life of a poem is far more about a hike in the woods than the thinking about a hike in the woods.
MD: Tell me about Ken Shamrock. He seems to have been your entrance into the world of mixed martial arts (MMA), and then I noted that he blurbed your memoir, Caged. How did that feel?
CC: Ken sent that blurb via email, and I actually wept at my computer as I read it.
When my father left my life, I found myself searching not so much for the proverbial father figure but for a man I could strive to become. This led me, as I tell in CAGED, to a VHS tape I rented that had Ken Shamrock on the cover. He was a champion mixed martial artist at the time, a man built not for show, but to fight other men, a man who could end a fight with the science of a heel hook (a type of leg lock) and without throwing a single punch, a man who carried himself with a humble, but confident, kind of integrity. In essence, he exuded everything my tiny, insecure self did not. Through Ken’s fights and later his memoir, Inside the Lion’s Den, I found a role model and I fell in love with mixed martial arts.
MD: Was there a particular experience that moved you from physical fights to fighting on behalf of others?
CC: Damn. Great question. I come from a single parent home, where mom was the warrior who kept everything going. Injustices always bothered me, the underdog always appealed to me, and I think deep down I’ve always wanted to fight for others in some way. But this pivot was in many ways thrust upon me. Even when I’d win a fight I’d be given $50 and tickets to a strip club, and leading up to my third fight (a loss via a heel hook) I felt my passion for the sport slipping. I didn’t have a team to train with, so most of my training was solitary and came to be fueled not by the fire for learning I once had, but for the anger I carried about what my father put me and my family through. So when 16 MFA programs rejected me, but the University of Arizona accepted me and named me their 2007-2009 Poet-in-Residence (which meant tuition remission plus a stipend in exchange for teaching at-risk youth), it wasn’t a choice. The fighter in me still burns, but that Arizona saw something in me gave me the confidence to realize it could burn in a different and certainly more significant way.
MD: Do you keep up a workout routine?
CC: Yeah, I was up at like 4:30 doing yoga this morning. It’s necessary to keep up, especially because the tech and writing life requires so much sitting. As a poet, journalist, and content marketer, I feel like I’m sitting all day. There’s a definite need for me to consistently work to counterbalance that. I think better when I do.
I hold a personal training certification from the National Strength and Conditioning Association, and used to work at Gold’s Gym as a personal trainer [while living in Charlottesville, VA], well, I taught MMA—I was actually teaching people to fight and calling it exercise. At the same time I was working at the gym, I was also teaching Shakespeare for Ottawa University. Both gigs helped us pay for the Thailand trip, and certainly helped me feel balanced.
MD: Do you have thoughts on the CrossFit trend?
CC: I’m convinced it’s just a pretty horrible form of exercise. I like the community component, but so many people are wrecking their bodies. There are tons of horror stories about blowing out shoulders, knees. They’re doing what they call “Olympic lifting”, except Olympic lifting is more about leverage and technique and a single perfect maximum repetition. CrossFit tries to do those lifts for reps, and so many times I see CrossFitters haphazardly just throwing the weight over their head, then their form breaking, and then something in their body breaking. It’s fine to do a bicep curl until your form breaks down, but a whole different thing to do a clean and jerk until failure. Maybe I’m an exercise purist, but if we’re going to throw hundreds of pounds of steel over our heads, I think we should first master the technique before seeing how many times we can do it.
MD: When you hear someone did MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) you expect that they probably had anger issues at one point. But talking to you now you sound like such a relaxed, patient guy.
CC: I trained to be patient. I would be in prison if it wasn’t for my ability to practice patience. I grew up in a household where my Dad would just go off… I had a lot of anger stored in me and didn’t realize the importance of communicating that anger until it boiled over. For years, MMA allowed me to channel that anger, but it was still there. Through that (MMA) physicality, I could get it out, but not rid myself of it…I would exhaust myself to be too tired to be angry, but was not addressing why I was angry in the first place. There was a time, I was probably in my early teens, and the heating company came and turned the heat off. I watched the guy climbing the pole, he turned it off, and my mom’s crying on the phone with the bill collectors, and I thought I could at least go outside and turn the hot water back on—but they had put a huge metal lock on it. I just kind of blacked out at the injustice of it all, went into the basement and got a hammer and just starting pounding on the lock until it broke off…and later learned it’s a felony to do that… I really could be in prison. I don’t think there’s any question. I would’ve really hurt somebody in order to help somebody else.
MD: Where did your interest in meditation come from? It sounds like you work well with a lot on your plate. How do you manage your time? Does meditation play a role?
CC: In 2010 my wife and I moved to Thailand and remained there for a few years. While the Buddhist culture certainly interested me, it wasn’t until I attended a retreat with Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh that meditation and, more generally speaking, mindfulness, became a regular part of my life.
The dogma of all religions I’ve studied always turned me off, but Zen, especially the progressive style of Bernie Glassman and Joan Halifax, captured my attention and continues to do so to this day. Like Lee Peterson, they are grounded, not in dogma, but in what is happening in the world around us, in being aware of our own ignorance and of the suffering inside us and beyond.
I try to sit zazen daily, but truly it’s those initial fundamental lessons I learned from Thich Nhat Hanh (mindful ways of eating, of walking, of listening, of coming back to the breath) that help shape the course of my days.
MD: I recall hearing Thich Nhat Hahn speak in the On Being podcast. Cool guy. Engaged Buddhism sounds right up your alley. Also (and I only heard the term mentioned without substantial detail) the notion of a “Fierce Bodhisattva.” I remember your emails with the tag “No mud, No lotus”, which I understand is one of his ideas. I'd also like to hear more about your experience with TNH. I was taken by his idea of (tell me if I'm wrong) mindfulness in a world of violence.
CC: Thay, as Thich Nhat Hanh is called by his students, embodies the kind of peaceful ferocity the world needs. Consider that as his country and people were being destroyed, he had the courage not to ridicule or side with the US or his native Vietnam, but to stand bravely in the center, that place where so few were willing to be, and call for both sides to engage in a civil dialogue. To watch him drink a cup of tea is unlike anything I've ever seen. Every sip is gratitude -- to the earth, the farmers, the transportation workers who brought the leaves...I strive each day to give one act that kind of mindful appreciation. Through Thay's teachings, I'm convinced that meditation is the most radical act in the 21st century—that we wake up to the realities of the world not by doing more, but by slowing down, and that the practice of mindfulness, especially when implemented in the schools, has the potential to disrupt the cyclical nature of violence.