Caged: Memoir of a Cage-Fighting Poet, a new book from Cameron Conaway, is forthcoming in August 2011 from Tuttle Publishing. The book’s opening essay “Across the Middle” was published in our Autumn & Winter 2010 issue, which you can read here.

We asked Cameron a few questions about his memoir.

Stymie: First off, congratulations! Great news. Can you tell us a little about Caged?

Cameron: First, thank you for interviewing me. I was honored to have “Across the Middle” published in Stymie and it’s great to come back to you with news of the publication.

Caged is a metaphor that spreads like roots to soak up lessons learned throughout my life. I was a mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter before I was the Poet-in-Residence at the University of Arizona, and MMA bouts take place inside a steel cage. I’m caged because I share my father’s name. I haven’t talked to him in fourteen years and most memories of him are painful. On a broader scope, humans are caged by many things – from our past experiences to the rectangular piece of paper where we try to fit words. Caged has been called the first piece of literary writing about the sport of mixed martial arts, but I see it as just a story of how to learn from pain and pasts and how to let it positively shape but not define who we are.

Stymie: The memoir opens with “Across the Middle,” a startling essay about a Super Bowl party that you attended as an eight-year-old boy. The events that took place left you seeking a safe space, a way to become invisible, as you put it. In what ways does this essay set the tone for the book?

Cameron: You nailed it with “safe space.” “Across the Middle” is the earliest memory I have of my father, and because Caged is a series of essays assembled by threads of violence, reflections and social connections rather than chronologically, I sought to control space at the beginning because control (or lack of) is a central theme throughout the book. Also, the essay sets the stage for the relationship with my father, the violence to come and my development into a self-conscious, borderline OCD, unconfident young man.

Stymie: When did you first discover a love of poetry, and how has your experience as an athlete influenced your writing?

Cameron: I discovered a love of poetry as a child when I would read or hear quotes by Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali, but I didn’t discover that I had discovered it until I was a Criminal Justice major at Penn State Altoona and took an intro-to-poetry class on a whim. It was taught by award-winning poet Lee Peterson, who soon became a mentor, and who introduced me to another poetry professor named Todd Davis. Todd quickly became a father figure to me. He’s an athlete-turned-poet and could not have come at a more perfect time in my life. Before I was ever published he told me, “You are going to be successful. You’ve got some raw talent as a writer, a story to tell and the drive of an athlete. There is no better recipe than a creative writer who has an athlete’s mindset.” I look back now and realize how much confidence his quote gave, how much truth there was in it. Athletes – particularly combat athletes like MMA fighters, boxers and wrestlers – are the most intensely driven individuals I’ve ever met. I had this quality, and when Todd recognized and showed me that I had some innate skill as a creative writer I embraced it fully. My days became essentially split in half. I’d either be engaged in hardcore physical training or deeply contemplating poets like Ted Kooser and Wallace Stevens. It wasn’t until graduate school that I realized this fusion of fighter and writer was a rarity, that the essays I’d written over the years through this lens could someday become a book.

Stymie: We usually learn about ourselves when we write. If you would, please talk about the process of writing a memoir. Was there anything in particular you learned that surprised you?

Cameron: You know, I’d always heard acclaimed writers say things like, “Writing is the deepest form of thinking” or “Writing is the greatest way to learn.” Honestly, I thought they were great quotes but I never understood them until the process of writing this memoir was nearing the end. The below paragraph is just one associative-leap example of how learning through writing can take place. You’ll notice the leaps take place simultaneously with editing so as to create the exact sentence from the clearest memory. The end result is the most truthful sentence that can possibly be evoked from deep reflection on memory. Memory is not simply sifting through your life and choosing what to share. It’s sifting through your memory reserve, organizing it in a way that not only makes sense, but that accurately captures the energy of what is being shown on the screen of the mind’s eye.

“Okay, my father beat me with ski poles. Where? Hmm. Blue Knob State Park. Yes. Okay, he hit me. Why? He was angry? Maybe. Why? He didn’t want his son to be a wimp because he was a wimp when he was younger and it still bothers him? Hmm…okay, but why did he act out so violently? His father beat him. Yes. This is how he learned to handle emotions. He didn’t develop the tools of communication. So what did he say when he beat me with the poles? I can’t remember right now. Oh, he called me a pussy. Over and over. And he didn’t so much as beat me with them as he did poke at me hard. Like I was a steak or something. Yes!”

Stymie: Your website mentions a warrior-poet spirit as it relates to your vision of the world. How would you describe this warrior-poet spirit, and what does it mean to you?

Cameron: A Warrior Poet:
(1) is on a lifelong mission to develop fitness of the body and fitness of the mind
(2) realizes that happiness is a skill that needs to be practiced daily
(3) is passionately empathetic and dedicated to improving humanity

Stymie: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

Cameron: My fiancĂ©e Maggie and I sold everything we own on Craigslist so we could afford to travel across the country for six weeks. We’ve been visiting museums, taking tours, trying new foods and just doing our best to fully absorb each new city we enter. We want to learn as much about life as possible, and travel felt like the step we needed to take in order to do this. Right now we’re in beautiful Santa Fe, New Mexico. On February 13, we fly from Los Angeles, California to Bangkok, Thailand where we will spend the next year of our lives. Maggie will teach English there. She too is dedicated to improving humanity. And thanks to a sponsorship from, I’ll be able to train in Muay Thai kickboxing while exploring the country and culture. I hope to volunteer at a children’s shelter as well.

My debut book of poems, Until You Make the Shore, will be released in January 2012 by Salmon Poetry, so my focus now will simply be on accruing the worldly experience necessary for me to have a large enough reservoir of images and ideas to begin the next book. A few ideas are already brewing.

Cameron Conaway was the 2007-2009 Poet-in-Residence at the University of Arizona’s MFA Creative Writing Program. He is 2-0 at 155lbs as an MMA fighter. He has trained with Renzo Gracie, the London Shootfighters and will soon study Muay Thai in Thailand thanks to the sponsorship of An MMA fighter and an award-winning poet; an MMA Trainer at Gold’s Gym and a creative writing instructor for Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth; a certified personal trainer through the NSCA and a dynamic anti-bully spokesperson, Cameron is known worldwide as the Warrior Poet. Tuttle Publishing will release his memoir, Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet, in August 2011. Salmon Poetry will release his book of poems, Until You Make the Shore, in January 2012. For more information visit: