·2015 Fellow, Thailand, International Reporting Project
·2015 Grantee, India, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
·2014 Social Good Fellow, United Nations Foundation
·2012-2014 History Maker, Rotary End Polio Now
·2011 Grantee, Wellcome Trust Arts Awards
Cameron Conaway is the author of five books, including Malaria, Poems, named by NPR as one of the Best Books of 2014. His work has appeared in publications such as Newsweek, The Guardian, Reuters and Harvard Business Review, and has been supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the International Reporting Project, the United Nations Foundation, Rotary International and the Wellcome Trust. In 2011 Conaway spearheaded the Social Justice section at the Good Men Project, where he would eventually serve as Executive Editor. He currently serves on the Editorial Board at Slavery Today and lives in Philadelphia.
As detailed in CAGED, Cameron endured the difficulties of living with an abusive father and being caught in the middle of his parents’ ugly divorce. Like so many other children who have experienced similar trauma, he adapted by becoming ultra-sensitive to the moods, gestures and words around him. With his father no longer in the house, he was told that he’d now be the “man of the house.” Having no idea what that meant, he stayed up long after his mother and sister went to bed so that he could guard the house. His self-confidence plummeted as he blamed himself for being the cause of a brutal tug-of-war that lasted for years. Though Cameron couldn’t have articulated it at the time, he was desperately in search of what it meant to “be a man.”
Around this same time, as curiosity and hormones drove him to walk back and see the RATED MATURE section at a local movie rental store, he stumbled upon a VHS tape of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The cover featured Ken Shamrock covered in blood.
He had to have it. The clerk called his mother for permission, she said yes, and for the next three days Cameron worked to arrange Band-Aids over the blisters on his right thumb due to repeatedly using the rewind and stop buttons on the remote. The complexity, barbarism and beauty of the sport of mixed martial arts enthralled him like nothing ever had before. The best fighters had to be well-rounded, and Shamrock, a premier fighter in the sport, filled the gap of desperation within him. Through Shamrock, Cameron saw a man who was physically strong but graceful, who could be both a brute and a technician depending on the situation, a man who carried himself with integrity and shook his opponent’s hand with sincerity whether he won or lost.
Weeks later, Cameron quit the basketball team and, after much research on how to enter into the world of combat sport, he signed up at the Altoona Boxing Club. As the years passed and problems from the divorce continued to gnaw at him, Cameron found solace and wisdom in a variety of martial arts. Shy to begin with, he became more drawn into his thoughts up to and throughout high school. It wasn’t until well into his studies at Penn State Altoona that he found a way to also train and express the sensitivity he’d developed over the years. Around the time he was gearing up for his first professional MMA bout, Cameron had to choose a few electives in order to fulfill requirements for the Criminal Justice major. The description of “Intro to Poetry” stood out. He thought back to how Shamrock carried himself, of how his new inspirations—people like Rickson Gracie and Bruce Lee—wrote and spoke with clarity and insight. He was already training his body to the absolute extreme. Perhaps he was missing the mental companion? Could poetry make him a better fighter? He thought so. And so the next chapter to his life began.
Under the tutelage of award-winning poet Lee Peterson, poetry enthralled Cameron with the same intensity that mixed martial arts had and still does. He studied the art form with an athlete’s intensity, sometimes spending ten straight hours dissecting how the masters of the genre worked their magic on the page. He then took classes with poets Todd Davis and Steve Sherrill, and they, along with his stepfather, served as shining examples of what he hoped he could become.
Conaway was now in a different tug-of-war. When he identified himself as a professional MMA fighter, he was called an “idiot” and a “typical dumb jock.” When he identified as a poet he was called “gay” and a “pussy.” Through contemplative practice and guidance from mentors he decided to continue his pursuit of both.
Shortly after he completed his third professional fight, a loss, he received word that the University of Arizona’s MFA Creative Writing Program wanted him to be their Poet-in-Residence. The position would enable him to earn a master’s degree without having to pay tuition and while earning a stipend to teach creative writing to at-risk populations throughout Arizona. He thought of those days when his mother encouraged him to be the first in the family to go to college. And he thought of that moment forever burned in his memory: The tears carrying his mother’s mascara down her face as she pleaded on the phone with the bill collector to not turn the heat off in the dead of winter. The way helplessness seared itself within him. The way she covered the phone’s receiver and, while trembling, whispered to him:
“This is why I want you to get an education.”
So it was. Cameron gave up his career in MMA to attend graduate school for poetry. At the end of his first year, shortly after he’d taught a class fusing MMA and poetry in the all-female pod of a juvenile detention center, “The Warrior Poet” moniker was given to him by social justice advocate Madeline Kiser. To this day it serves as a reminder for where he comes from, where he is and where he wants to be.
Note Regarding the Purchasing of Books: While Cameron’s books can be purchased on Amazon, he hopes you’ll consider purchasing directly through the publisher. Though it may be more expensive you’ll be supporting the renegade independent publishers and booksellers who value creativity and craft above profit.
Buy CAGED directly from Joseph Fox Bookshop
Buy BONEMEAL directly from Finishing Line Press
Buy UNTIL YOU MAKE THE SHORE directly from Salmon Poetry
Buy CHITTAGONG: POEMS & ESSAYS from Joseph Fox Bookshop
Buy MALARIA, POEMS directly from Michigan State University Press