From Fighting in Cages to Fighting for Social Justice:
An Interview with Warrior Poet Cameron Conaway (Part 2 of 2)
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: Tell me a little about your collection Chittagong, which you informed me takes place in the 2nd largest city in Bangladesh.
Cameron Conaway: In the city, malaria is virtually nonexistent. There’s a group of people who live in the Chittagong “hill tracts,” outside the city, and they still die from malaria. I was there to study malaria for the book, but then I learned about shipbreaking from a connection I’d made at YPSA, a nonprofit I had come in contact with. He said I had to go see the shipbreaking yards. That this was a place where they bring in child slaves, hand them blowtorches, and have them break down massive ships.
So of course I went.
When I was able to go see it for myself, I had a security guard pointing a machine gun into my back as he led me through the yards. There were little boys with missing arms and missing eyeballs because a piece of the ship fell on their face. The whole time I can feel the gun at my back. And looking up you can’t even see the sky [because the ships are so large]. Waves are rolling. These black waves—like oil waves…because all the oil and chemicals from the ship are drained right into the water. All the fish there are dead, fish the surrounding farmers have survived on for centuries…so those farmers are now starving. After that first day at the shipbreaking yards I went back to my hotel and posted about the experience on Facebook. When I woke up the next morning to head back to the yards, I saw my grandma liked my Facebook status. (Conaway mentioned in another instance that his grandma and his wife are the two imaginary readers for his poetry.) After I got back from the yards that day I learned that my grandma had died. I just locked myself in a room. I bought like 20 mango juice boxes from a vendor near my hotel and didn’t leave [the room] until I was finished making sense of her death and the lives of hell I had just encountered. Six days later I had written Chittagong.
The Mango Juice Boxes: http://madinahmarket.com/images/P/CAM00924.jpg
On the making of Malaria: Poems (2014)
In the foreword to Malaria: Poems, Leah Kaminsky writes, “These are poems of witness and social injustice.”
MD: You did an impressive job putting this book together. The text comes across as informative, but also instructive—a call to arms, yet meditative and academic. It brings to mind Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric.
CC: It took about 7 months of research to pull all of the science into the book. Putting science into the poems felt clunky, lost the lyric, so I tried to incorporate it in a way that didn’t destroy the poetry and wasn’t beating the reader over the head.
Citizen is one of the most important books of my generation, for the issues it’s addressing, and its ability to capture a moment in time, the heartbeat of a really serious injustice that is taking place in the United States right now and has been for ages. I loved it. That’s the kind of poetry I was introduced to when I first started as a poet. I read Citizen long after Malaria was published, and remember sitting back and watching the incredible attention Claudia’s book received. It was inspiring to see people seriously care about a book of poetry, and to see Claudia take the opportunity she’d created and been given and really run with it in important ways.
Curiosity Block, Pre-crastination & Zen
MD: You write in a number of mediums. How do you manage that?
CC: I just, a few months ago, published my first piece of fiction. With fiction, I have to live in that created world. Poetry, at least for me, is much more of a deep dive into a sliver of a moment. I can work on a poem for an hour; I don’t have too much trouble turning off that moment and entering into a different one. With fiction, I feel like I’m two sentences in and then… what do you mean I have to go to work and think about something else? It feels jarring and disruptive to leave the world of fiction and it’s difficult for me to continuously re-enter it days, weeks or months later.
MD: Do you have thoughts on the concept of Writer’s Block?
CC: Students at Penn State would always bring it up. It’s almost like because it’s so accepted to bring that up they just do, but really it’s an excuse for the far easier work of remaining distracted, or otherwise not focusing on the piece of writing. One day I went to class before they got there and I wrote WRITER’S BLOCK DOES NOT EXIST across the huge three-panel board. I opened up a discussion with them about it, told them it doesn’t exist but that curiosity block does exist. And that I had good news! There are ways we can break through that if it arises.
This is part of why I try to have a consistent meditation process. I believe the way to wake up, to both cultivate and sustain curiosity, is to slow down… not do more. I’d open every class with 5 to 10 minutes of meditation. And wouldn’t you know it, the topics they couldn’t find because of “Writer’s Block” just came to them. Slowing down is really the most radical act of the 21st century.
MD: I saw on twitter you read that pre-crastination piece in the The New York Times. I was pretty taken with it. I’ve always called it “reverse procrastination,” which doesn’t really make sense…pre-crastination is much better! What were your thoughts on the article?
CC: [reading from the article] “I can no longer wait in a grocery store line, or linger for a traffic light, or even pause long enough to let a bagel pop from the toaster, without reflexively reaching for my smartphone.” That’s where we’re heading, it’s like this fidgety, can’t sit still… and it all makes me wonder how much are we missing out on?
When we meditated each morning of that Penn State class, distractions (like smartphones) were less problematic as class progressed. Isn’t that something?
MD: I’m assuming this was different overseas.
CC: Well… Thailand is absolutely obsessed with Instagram. So, as with fast food, doing more and doing it faster and being distracted is creeping in.
MD: Are you familiar with the “ZenHabits” blog?
CC: I think what he’s [Leo Babauta] doing is making certain parts of the essence of Zen more accessible to people. Some of the ancient Zen texts are sort of hard to wrap your heads around. But this is what Ginsberg was doing – trying to make some of the basics more accessible. Ginsberg paired up with Chögyam Trungpa, a Buddhist meditation master to get Naropa going. At Naropa they meditate before every class, and have had some impressive results because of it.
I’m interested in the essence of being and simplicity, how in doing [multi-tasking] a little less you actually do more. This lesson, to slow down, was a takeaway from working with Thich Nhat Hahn. When I met him it was actually through his “Happy Teachers Change The World” retreat, where the focus was on how best to teach, how to engage students, and of course meditation—and that time with him was really profound for me – it opened a door for Zen that I had been staring at but didn’t have the keys to open.
When we moved to Thailand I thought I’d be really fascinated by Buddhist culture. Thai Buddhist culture is a form of Buddhism that often values superstition and devotes a lot of time to praying for things like good luck…so, for me that was a huge turn off. It was very formulaic. Many monks told me meditation wouldn’t work unless I had my right hand on top of my left—I just couldn’t incorporate those kind of entirely superstitious and arbitrary rules into my life. Buddhist patriarchy, as with most religions, was also troubling. A woman couldn’t enter a certain part of the temple or touch part of the kickboxing ring because it would negatively affect the energies. Again, this comes back to masculinity. Men essentially created religion for their own means, and then killed people or otherwise wielded their power over others in order to make it spread. And we’re still following this stuff without questioning it? Just when I think I’m starting to understanding why we don’t question the fantastical origins of organized religion, based on our fears and sufferings and wanting to connect with like-minded others, some massive act of violence occurs in the name of it and I return back to simply having my mind boggled.
Another takeaway from working from Thich Nhat Hahn was mindful eating. How to pay homage to your food as you eat it. You’re not just grabbing the celery stick and smashing it into your face. Everything that you are—cells, water, sun, growth, death, work—is in that piece of celery. This wasn’t just superficial stuff—it felt more real, this notion of appreciating what is around us.
I don’t like labels, I don’t like to be called a Buddhist, but when I sit each morning it’s hard to deny I practice the ways of modern Zen.
Frameworks for Belief
MD: You open your poem “Silence, Anopheles” (Anopheles is a mosquito genus) with an epigraph from the 14th Dalai Lama, the Laughing Lama if you will, a source of wisdom and humility, who as a monk does not shy away from engaging with the madness of the Western World (although he takes breathers). In what ways do you find the Dalai Lama an inspiration? And why should non-Buddhists look to him as a resource?
The 14th Dalai Lama, like Thich Nhat Hahn, suggests working within the [religious] framework you are raised with as opposed to making attempts to become a Buddhist monk. Why do you think that is?
CC: I don’t think the Dalai Lama is Buddhist (I mean of course he is, by label) – but I think he grew from a very traditional form of Buddhism and in a lot of ways he’s far more popular in the West’s mind for this kind of rational Buddhism than he is in the traditional form that he grew up in. He readily admits if science refutes something in the Buddhist text he throws out the Buddhist text. I’ve seen that in a lot of religious leaders—it seems like the wisest of them eventually come to a point when they’re able to maintain the religious framework that helped them learn while stripping out the nonsense and dogma. The result is that they just become incredibly wise secular people, secular people who everyone else sees as a “religious” figure.
Pope “Frank,” when he came to Philly, his message was like that of the Dalai Lama—his message was, stick to your religious faith: “go deep with it…you can [work] from the foundation that you have…” It’s the same framework I had for MMA…what I believe in with fighting (my area of expertise was Brazilian jiu-jitsu) be really really good at that and add the pieces as you go.
The Fight against Malaria & The Trouble with Faith-Based Groups
MD: The next question I have is if any headway has been made to combat new malaria infections since you published Malaria, Poems in 2014. But first let me elaborate on a few talking points.
I found the quote you included from Bill Shore shocking. The one about how HIV is said to have 9 genes compared to 5300 for malaria. HIV gets far greater attention in the West. There’s an NPR article from January 17th, 2016 entitled “Obama's Upbeat Message About Ending Malaria Omits Discouraging Signs.”
One of my favorite poems in the collection is “Store (v.)”. The imagery in this poem is vivid and the scene you paint is surreal. It’s hard to believe this actually took place.
In your poem “Store (v.)” it is suggested the price of mosquito netting treated with insecticides are prohibitively expensive. “The store sells insecticide-treated nets, but it has never sold any because each net costs as much as two years of work.” Following “Store (v.)”, you include a quote from Matt McGrath (from 2011) in which he states, “Mosquitoes can rapidly develop resistance to bed nets treated with insecticide.” The aforementioned NPR article (from 2016) states, “Even malaria's heartland, sub-Saharan Africa, has seen a 66 percent decrease in malaria deaths since 2000, thanks largely to a combination of effective drugs and widespread use of insecticide-treated bed nets to keep malaria-carrying mosquitoes at bay.”
Are we to believe that there have been developments resulting in more effective bed nets?
CC: Great question. There have certainly been great developments in the fight against malaria – this includes through the use of bed nets. However, they aren’t sustainable, they aren’t actually combatting malaria for the long-term, and research continues to indicate both that the mosquitoes can develop resistance to the pesticides on them and that many people who receive the nets actually find more value by using the nets to catch fish instead.
“Store (v.)” is a composite of several experiences. A lot of faith-based groups (by that I mean Christians) will move into areas decimated by malaria. I’ve seen it enough times. I’m skeptical when they set up a global health group…or even just a cubicle, a little porta-potty in a field filled with mosquito nets and bibles—since, you have to wonder, which one are they really trying to distribute? Religion doesn’t spontaneously erupt in different places; it starts in one place and then people metastasize it.
MD: Do you identify with any particular faith or organized religion?
CC: No. I really believe particular faith traditions are just different stories, the same as Harry Potter. And the religion component is when people rally around those stories and make a practice of it. I’m not an atheist because I don’t have the arrogance to categorically deny the stories people believe are true, so I’m fine with not knowing… and sometimes wish more of us could find a way to be as well.
I think of it like this: if humans were all wiped off the earth and then put back, we’d find something to pray to. But would it be Jesus or Allah or Buddha? Absolutely not. We’d make up a story about why we’re here, and we’d worship it.
Maybe it’d be…the Banana God.
The Perks of National Acknowledgement
MD: What’s changed since Malaria received attention on the national level?
CC: The opportunity to get back into universities and talk to students. I missed working with them so much, but the universities are more about football and profits than about education… so I was forced to get out of the system. It’s funny… a university asks me to give a talk for an hour, then meet with students and talk with them for an hour, and they’ll pay me more money to do that than if I taught an entire class for a semester. That’s what our higher ed system has come to – a system as much about education as it is about devaluing passionate teachers. So yes… the perk is that the book has allowed me to keep working with students, though in a different and certainly more superficial kind of way.
Science in Malaria
MD: In your poem “Vaccine”, about time spent in a laboratory, the speaker is about to enter what sounds like a biocontainment area as we are presented with the line: “and this door I’m told costs fifteen dollars Every. Single. Time.” Can you talk a little about the context?
CC: That was another struggle. If all these scientists came together and shared what they knew we’d probably have a malaria vaccine in 3 weeks, but they’re all competing for particular grants. Their entire business model is held up by whether or not they receive these grants, but I came in as out an outsider thinking… lives are at stake, why is there this culture of absolute secrecy? I think we saw this break down a bit with the Ebola scare. What did we do? We rallied and within weeks we were trialing Ebola cures. No doubt about it – if malaria was a serious threat to the US we’d pull resources and fuel the kind of innovation that would lead to a vaccine.
It [the laboratory] felt so distant and removed from the people that, I think, it’s supposed to be trying to help.
So much of the humanity has just been ripped out of many of the sciences… and it’s all to turn a profit. I get it but also probably never will.
I met so many scientists who had never spent time with the people to see their struggles. When I spent time with people, like Doctors Without Borders, who valued field time, that was inspiring, those kinds of people kept me going.
I wrote about one company, Sanaria, for Newsweek. They have the closest product to a malaria vaccine, and their competitor has a shitty 50% efficacy rate but it’s through GSK [GlaxoSmithKline] so they’re the ones that get the funding and the attention. I saw the way that carries over into the media industry. The Guardian runs sponsored posts from companies like GSK, so when I searched to see if their global health team had actually ever mentioned Sanaria on the site… nope. Not really. Why not? I can’t say there’s a link between the two, sponsored content and who gets a voice, but come on?
Prior to starting research for the book, I had this idea that scientists working for cures were really some kind of social justice warrior scientists. That just wasn’t the reality I was found. Some are, and those fired me up, but I found that breed of scientist to be quite rare.
The Privileged Outsider & Witness to Atrocity
MD: Here comes another multi-part question. At the end of your poem “I Want To Go” you write, “and I run / capfuls of absence through my fingers.”
I’m wondering how much of your experience was “hands on” and how much was research oriented? Did you reach points where you felt on the inside or were you an outsider at all times? To further elaborate let’s look at your poem “Landscape”…
[from] Landscape: “I am here, but I am not / really here as the locals are, and as much as I try I never will be.”
This makes me think of David Foster Wallace’s line (well, it’s a note) from his essay Consider the Lobster (Gourmet magazine, 2004, p.56), “I confess that I have never understood why so many people’s idea of a fun vacation is to don flip-flops and sunglasses and crawl through maddening traffic to loud hot crowded tourist venues in order to sample “local flavor” that is by definition ruined by the presence of tourists.”
DFW goes on, “To be a mass tourists is […] to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you.”
Now, I’m not at all saying your presence overseas is negative; rather, my question is about DFW’s thoughts on the dilemma of trying to have an authentic experience as an outsider. All this keeping in mind that your lines in Landscape are addressing literal dangers that you, in many ways, felt exempt from.
CC: That was the most difficult part of writing the entire book. I went to a temple and sat for weeks mulling that question over. Because no matter how close I could get to what I had to address I could never get what I needed to. I was always an outsider. And as an outsider I was manipulating the environment. I would sit on the mediation cushion and think, “Am I the person to write this book?”
I’ve had such privileges… malaria has never impacted my life directly. I had good chunks of the book already written and a big part of me didn’t want to send it out in the world before I answered that question, resolved it in some way. So I just kept digging through the history.
Ronald Ross, when he discovered malaria was in the gut of the mosquito, he didn’t run to the pub, he got up and wrote a poem about it—he was really the first malaria poet. But then I wondered has a real malaria survivor done such a thing? I’m certain they have, but in that search I was led to Dr. Seuss. During the war Germany blocked access to malaria meds for US soldiers and the army wanted a way through entertainment to educate about malaria. Again, an absolute outsider. So Ross, then Seuss, then it just fell off—nobody took it [malaria] seriously enough to put a literary but researched book together, or had the privilege to do so, and so ultimately I came to a conclusion that if I tried to tread as gently as I could and respect the people I met the best I could, I could use my privilege to illuminate their voices, illuminate their struggle. And so I felt I had to put the book into the world, but knowing in a lot of ways it will always be incomplete, imperfect.
MD: Bearing witness right?
CC: Yup. Front and center. I wasn’t trying to sit with the mom with the dead kid in her arms as journalist-poet trying to pry the experience out. I just wanted to be there with her and for her, and listen to her story fully without trying to work in my brain how the poem was going to unfold. A lot of times I didn’t have a notebook with me, didn’t have a pen. I didn’t want to carry the writer with me, I just wanted to carry the person with me.
Language & Place
MD: Do you speak other languages?
CC: Spoke Thai. Lost words every day that I’ve been out of the country. I was able to read, write and speak Thai.
MD: Does it carry over to other languages?
CC: Not really, it’s a tonal language so…But learning Thai changed the experience. Especially learning how to read it. Traveling around the country, [previously] random symbols suddenly started to have meaning. It gives a sense of place—when things around you are instructive rather than some foreign symbol that looks to your mind more like art than message.
MD: Let’s talk about poetry of place.
CC: Displaced. I think it was through travel that I learned that sprinting wasn’t the only way to absorption. We have to put ourselves in places. We have to be in those places. And I think it’s certainly an easy cure for curiosity block. You can get caught up and numb to the fascinating world that’s around you. And places are fascinating even if you’ve been there your whole life. When you travel, with intention, you consciously open up all of your senses and are ready to take everything in. And so through the process of repeating that, really flexing that muscle, I’ve come to a point where I no longer have to travel to travel. It’s important to practice walking into newness, but we can do that in so many ways. As much as I study poetry, and read, I don’t think I’d have this ability to be fascinated by everything around me unless I had traveled and realized I don’t have to travel to consciously open up to what’s right in front of me.
MD: Like The Matrix?
CC: Yeah (laughs)