Cameron Conaway is a 22-year-old cage fighter and poet originally from Altoona, Penn. Currently a graduate student in the UA Creative Writing Program, he's taking a break from mixed martial arts to write and serve as the UA Poetry Center's high school poet-in-residence, getting students at local high schools excited about poetry. He has fought in three bouts, has won prizes for his writing and has been selected to judge the 2008 Tucson River of Words Youth Poetry and Art Contest. At 10 a.m., Saturday, Feb. 23, at the UA Poetry Center, 1508 E. Helen St., he'll lead a session of Poetry Joeys, a reading and activity group for children ages 4 to 8. For more information, visit the Poetry Joeys Web site.
How did you first get turned on to poetry?
It started when I took (an) introduction to poetry (class) as an undergraduate about two years ago, when I was a criminal-justice major and wanted to join the FBI. After that class, I fell in love with poetry and stuck with it.
What about fighting?
I started boxing when I was 14. ... It was during the divorce of my parents--my dad left, and I haven't seen him since. I was in the video store one day and rented Ultimate Fighting, and that was it--I just became hooked. These athletes carried themselves with confidence; they weren't the barbarians people thought they were. ... I wanted to try everything, and in my small town, all we had was the Altoona Boxing Club. From there, I realized I needed to learn grappling as well, so I drove to Manhattan once a month to train, and soon, I started teaching. Once I felt solid in myself, I started signing up for fights.
How do you think mixed martial arts and writing are related?
I guess there's just something very primal with both fighting and language--since the beginning of time, we've always been trying to communicate with each other, and we've always been fighting each other. And I think it's rewarding to study things that began so long ago in their evolved forms today.
Has your background in fighting helped your writing in any way?
Marital arts is about pushing yourself to your limits; whatever you think (your limits) are, you can always surpass them. I always felt like I was behind in poetry, but martial arts gave me the confidence to apply to the Creative Writing Program here, and the poet-in-residence position. I did a lot by myself. From fighting, I got that no matter what, you just don't give up; you just keep pushing forward.
What's it like being a young person teaching slightly younger people about poetry?
This is cliché, but it's been honestly the experience of a lifetime. Being in front of a classroom is absolutely exhilarating. Taking the students' energy, even if they're quiet, and manipulating and engaging it, eventually, you have a class where everybody is engaged; everybody has laughed; and people feel comfortable in sharing.
Do you have any specific strategies for getting students into it?
I share my own work right at the beginning, tell them about myself--"Yes, I have fought in cages." Some of my writing has a rap feel to it, and some of it's funny, and that usually breaks the ice real quick. People think, "Oh man, I could do that." Also, while I have a great respect for classic poetry--my birthday is the same day as Shakespeare's, so I have plenty of respect for him--I realize that times have changed, and I always introduce contemporary poetry. It carries more relevance for today's crowd. There needs to be energy and exposure to what's being written today.
What's your favorite piece of your own writing?
I'm most proud of a piece called "Caged," a nonfiction piece that I'm hoping to turn into a book some day. Many parts of it are poetic--I kind of infused my nonfiction with the poetic skills I've picked up. Aside from being the best piece of writing I've done, it was a process that helped me learn about myself--why I'm fighting; how fighting and writing are related; the importance of my stepdad. That piece got published in Aethlon: The Journal of Sports Literature, the first time they've published something about mixed martial arts as a sport.
How does writing play a role in your personal life?
It's a release for everybody. ... My girlfriend's going to Uganda for 26 months, and our only communication will be in writing. If it wasn't for the power of words, we wouldn't be able to maintain the love we have for each other. So I'm looking forward to that.