005: Cameron Conaway
Cameron Conaway, also known as the Warrior Poet, is a former MMA fighter, an award-winning poet and the 2014 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Altoona. While serving as the Poet-in-Residence at the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Thailand, Conaway wrote Malaria, Poems, the first full-length book of contemporary poetry about malaria’s impact on the world. He’s a Rotary International End Polio Now “HistoryMaker” and a former Executive Editor at The Good Men Project. He currently serves on the Editorial Board at Slavery Today.
Skype Interview 10.12.14
How important is your work to who you are as an individual?
Cameron: Everything, my entire definition of who I am comes through in the creativity that I show on the page and in my belief that putting words together can inch our world toward justice, and that’s what I believe I’m here to do and that’s what I’m doing.
What’s the main difference between who you are now and who you were 10 years ago?
Cameron: Patience. I would just jump into things, head first and absorb the kinda first thought – best thought lessons you get from that – but in the past 5 years my study of meditation and the time that I spent with Thich Nhat Hanh just allowed me to sort of settle into myself and I don’t feel as rushed and I think as a result my work has been able to take on different layers that I didn’t have 10 years ago, for sure.
Name one man and one woman you would like to know more about?
Cameron: One man, Alan Ginsberg. I have a tattoo on my leg of a quote from him, there’s a continual fascination I have for trying to learn more about him based on the pieces we know. There’s a really great story where he sent the same book to the same reviewer who rejected it 67 straight times – I mean, there’s certain kind of toughness that he had and it sort of gave rise to the Beat generation and the protest movements that I think is so important and we need today. A woman I would like to learn more about is my fiancée Maggie Chesney, we’re getting married in a few weeks, we’ve been engaged for 5 years – we’ve travelled the world. I mean we’ve really travelled the world together and she is a huge part of my life, hopefully if I am able to, you know – see tomorrow is to learn what I can from her and about her.
-Okay. And the quote that you have on your leg – what does it say?
Cameron: I’m gonna have to look at it here! Yeah – it’s about – one minute I wanna make sure I get it right. ‘The only thing that can change the world is the reclaiming of the awareness of the world.’ And it’s important to me because I feel like in this age of, you know flashy tech and quick fixes – we’ve sort of lost a bit of our awareness with nature and ourselves.
Books or movies? Can kinda guess but..
Cameron: Except – I’m gonna drop this… Les Mis, the Le Mis book, is a hot mess in my opinion – it’s all over the place, so in that sense – I think the movie was able to tease out the best parts of it and do something really cool, so the movie in that sense.
Okay, so there’s exceptions?
What would you say is the difference between masculinity and femininity?
Cameron: Man, the roots are so similar, right? It’s the authenticity, I think it’s the stories we tell – really. It’s the stories that men are told as they grow up and the stories they naturally gravitate towards with other men and they shape their own idea of masculinity based on their stories.
-Okay, and the same for women you would say?
Cameron: Yeah, I would say it’s the same thing – there’s a natural Human tendency to sort of be drawn towards what we perceive is our team – and you know, I think when boys are 11, 12, 13 they recognise their manhood and they recognise sort of their team and they listen to the lessons that come from those who are older and, I think it’s through that process that they’re able to shape their masculinity.
If you had to choose between accomplishing your dreams – all of them – or living an extra 5 years with a few dreams outstanding – which would you choose and why?
Cameron: Let’s do the five years!
Cameron: Yeah! I mean, imagine how much more you would learn in 5 years more on the Earth, how your relationships would deepen, what you would see – I’ll take it, i’ll take the 5 years.
-Okay, so your willing to let some dreams go for the extra time?
Cameron: Yes – pending good health, can we put a little asterisk?!
Cameron: If it’s 5 years of dying then maybe not.
The worst job you’ve ever had?
Cameron: Flipping burgers at McDonalds, noooo doubt. The grease just hangs in the air and it fills your pores and your break out and it’s just a hot mess. McDonalds.
–Okay, and that was a long time ago I take it?
Cameron: Yeah, about a decade ago.
What’s the best professional decision you’ve ever made?
Cameron: Going to Thailand. It was a really tough decision, being from a small town in Altoona, Pennsylvania – where nobody really leaves, but it expanded my perspective on things that I didn’t feel like I needed expansion on. And to be able to do that with my best friend by my side was pretty awesome.
-And why did you go?
Cameron: I was sort of a burn out teacher – my fiancée was too and we, every Sunday we would meet at a Thai restaurant and you know she was working 24 hours a day at a school for kids with learning disabilities – and yeah we were just kinda burned out. We were living in Virginia and I looked up at her during our lunch and her eyes filled with tears, and I said “Honey what’s going on, are you okay?” and she said “I know what my next step is, I wanna – I wanna teach abroad” and looked around and you know – there’s the Buddha, the elephants and she said “Thailand?” and then she looked at me – you know, this beautiful blank stare and said “Are you coming with me?” and I had wanted to go to Thailand since I was a little boy. Their kickboxing is something I’ve wanted to study forever and we researched for a year, sold everything we owned on Craigslist and went for it. It was a huge decision for both of us, professionally.
-And how long were you there for?
Cameron: Almost 3 years, and that’s when I was able to cover modern slavery and trafficking and see what that looks like in Cambodia and Vietnam and it really gave – it changed my sense of self and my sense of what’s really important to actually write about.
Can you grow a house plant?
Cameron: Hell yeah!
Cameron: Maybe not! No – I’ll defer to Maggie on that one, she worked on an organic farm in the Summer, so I’ll take lessons from her.
Finish these sentences:
I feel like my mind, body and life are perfectly aligned when…
Cameron: When I’m sitting on my meditation mat and stilling this world that’s going on around me.
In myself I most value…
-Oh, that’s a new one!
Cameron: You know, it was probably 15 years ago, Evander Holyfield – they asked him “Evander how did you win that last fight, what special training did you take?” and he just said “Consistency is King” – and that’s all he said and he kinda just dropped the mic and walked out! And it’s stuck with me ever since then. It’s not about the new gizmos, it’s not about Eat, Pray, Love and sort of going off on these extremes. It’s about I think, coming back to who you are and just believing that it’s a practice to do that.
My biggest teacher has been…
Cameron: Whoa! So many words to go with on that… Life itself – right? Totally, totally cliche but – the shit that I’ve seen and the shit that I’ve endured and the – the beauty that has sort of unfolded itself – like the lotus – no mud no lotus right? And life is one hell of a teacher.
If you could have one meal, sitting across the table from your 6 year old self, what would you eat and what would you tell him that you know he absolutely needs to hear?
Cameron: Peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a glass of Richie’s local milk – and that it’s gonna be okay. Six was a tough time for little Cameron – just that, it’s gonna be okay and there are gonna be people that come into your life and support you in unimaginable ways.
So this relates to your childhood and how it’s affected you, the question is: How does being ultra sensitive to moods and gestures and what people are doing around you, help you in your life or your work?
Cameron: Yeah for me it’s what I teach – there’s a big discussion of can you teach someone to be a poet? I believe you absolutely can – you can teach the receptivity, the sensitivity to moods. How it affects my life? I think it – I think it exhausts me a lot. It’s sort of this heightened awareness but it’s also the reason why I’ve been able to have such deep and close friendships – so of course I wouldn’t trade it. As a writer, it’s where detail comes from, it’s where the idea of ‘show don’t tell’ comes from. And so it’s, it’s a muscle to flex and empathy is hard! We talk about it like oh it’s great! and we make videos about it and show how awesome it is – but it’s actually hard to keep on entering into the lives of others and being attuned to that. But I don’t think there’s any other way, I think that’s sort of what we’re here to do is, be with each other… so that’s the best way to do it.
-And when you say it exhausts you – have you found a way to balance that out and to re-gain that energy?
Cameron: Yeah I mean for me it’s always been sort of balancing out my own physicality. There’s a kind of exhaustion that I’ll feel mentally and emotionally, that I can work out physically on the yoga mat or in the woods or wherever – and if I have some sort of equilibrium with that – it seems, it seems like I can survive better, and I can carry more weight, yeah.
Silence or noise?
Cameron: Yeah! ‘Cos it’s so loud sometimes right? You know with silence you can have voices, you can have images and memory and it’s hard to find that at a Starbucks coffee shop sometimes.
-So what would you say to someone that is uncomfortable or afraid of silence?
Cameron: This is what I talk about with my students, they hate silence! It’s something they view as awkward, they are there scrambling for their phones. It’s, it’s one of the best teachers I think and I don’t think there’s any more radical act than to take silence seriously in the 21st century. We’re sort of the masters of distraction these days and there’s something about silence that shuts that off and allows us to come back into ourselves and be consistent I think with that process – like I mentioned earlier. So you know, every class that I teach at Penn State we start off with ringing the mindfulness bell and we sit in silence! So, I don’t think you have to do it hours a day, but a few minutes a day and you come back into your breath, and you realise wow I actually breathe every day! Yeah, it’s really important.
Your biggest contribution to society so far?
Cameron: I love hard and I work hard to receive love. Yeah, regardless of what I do as a writer I think that’s my biggest contribution.
And what’s the most priceless gift you have ever given yourself?
Cameron: Wow! I would say time to not blame the younger 12 year old me for the abuse that he endured. It took me a while to realise that I needed to gift myself that, but when I did it opened up a whole new part of me and gave me a whole new confidence. Yeah, that would be it.
Name one business or corporation you would take over if you could and what you would do with it?
Cameron: Take over?!
Cameron: At first I’m thinking of the ethical companies but they are already ethical so I wouldn’t take them over. So I would take over Walmart and just radicalise it and make sure that their supply chain does not endorse slavery the way it does right now. So, yeah – we’re going big or we’re going home with that one.
Vegetarian or meat eater?
Cameron: Veg, though I will eat meat on occasion. I’m not the strict vegan.
-Okay, red meat and white meat, or?
Cameron: Sure – yes.
For you, what’s the single most important trait in a potential love match?
Cameron: I would say authenticity again, otherwise you enter into – potential love match that’s an interesting phrasing! Yeah, I think otherwise you enter into that match on a kinda ghostly playing ground, where there’s shapeshifting and uncertainty and possibly lies. I think if you enter into the love match with total realness, as much realness as you can bring to it, it sort of sets the stage for trust and love and respect, and the things that make a long term love match.
And the single most important trait in a potential business partner?
Cameron: That they value the connections of everybody else and everything else around them. That they realise they are not doing it alone, they’re not doing anything alone, nobody has ever done anything alone. Everything is connected and everything matters – the chairs that we sit in that were made by somebody, the roads that we drove on to get to work. And we’re all part of that swirl.
How important is it to keep balance between the mental and the physical parts of yourself?
Cameron: Yeah for me it’s incredibly important. I’m coming from a background as a professional fighter and the reason I was fighting in large part – sure I loved the science of the sport, I really do and I think about it all the time – but I was also fighting to sort of cast off the abuse that I had suffered. So I was entering into the sport with so much anger and I think of sort of trained myself to be better at being angry. So for me personally that balance is huge and if I’m not giving myself silence, if I’m not giving myself space to just feel my feelings, I start to feel those old feelings of anger start to rise up because I think for 10 years I’ve trained them to do so. So for me it’s incredibly important.
-And do you ever think those feelings will disappear completely or is it something that you need to continuously work on?
Cameron: Yeah, I mean you know I’ve sat in on AA meetings and so many of the addicts have told me that they still feel it, even 20 years later. They haven’t used, but they still feel that pull and I think I had trained myself you know – 12 /14 hours a day, to sort of be addicted to anger and use anger and it was my drug. So yeah, I think the seed of that’s always gonna be in me, it’s just how much do I nurture it, or not.
Alcohol or a soft drink?
Cameron: Alcohol – no doubt!
-Okay, any particular tipple?
Cameron: The Craft Beer movement I think is shaping our country in really cool ways. It’s localising some of our food supplies and I think it has so many more health benefits also than – than a soft drink so – I mean beer helped shape our country. Beer – all the way!
Okay, so this question is not on the list but I have a lot of people talk to me about wanting to become more spiritual or more self-aware. A lot of the teachers when you approach them about that sort of thing, they’ll say you need to cut out meat, you need to stop drinking alcohol, you need to meditate X amount of times a day. What would you say to the people that want to hold on to a beer of an evening, or who still want to have a steak, what advice would you give them?
Cameron: Yeah, that’s such a good question. I think, you know Tori, what I was able to learn when I travelled was how Americans rely on prescriptions, we’re obsessed with it. Our education is filled with it, our medical system lives by it and I think it’s infested our religion and our spiritual practices – where we feel the best way too help somebody is to prescribe something for them. So I don’t think you need to cut out meat, I don’t think you need to cut out alcohol. Will you be healthier if you cut out meat? Absolutely. Will the world be better? Absolutely. But I think that’s something to inch towards on your own terms and on your own time. And I think ultimately with awareness you start to piece together the things that are good for the planet and good for the body and – you know, stopping what you’re doing full on and transitioning into something else isn’t typically what works for most people. It’s the consistency of – sort of whittling the log into something that you can hand to a child, into some little toy that you take pride in. It’s the daily decrease I think, as Bruce Lee said
And you spoke about training 12/14 hours a day when you were a fighter – is your discipline when you’re writing similar or are you more at ease with the process?
Cameron: There is no ease I wish there was! I wish I had some ease! No, I think it’s why I’ve – if you could say that I’ve had success as a writer – I think it comes from that athlete mentality. I’ve met so many writers who I feel are light years ahead of me in terms of talent, but they just never developed that gritty, tough work ethic that I developed as a fighter. So, yeah mean I certainly transferred that over to writing – but yeah I don’t feel the ease. Writing for me is still very hard and when I sit down and look at the blank page I think – do I know what the hell I’m doing here? And it’s humbling every time I sit down to write.
When you talk about writing, I get a very strong sense from you that you’re all about justice and making changes to the world. How do you feel you can accomplish that by what you’re doing now?
Cameron: Yeah, so I often think of Dr Martin Luther King who said ‘The arc of the moral of the Universe is long but it bends toward justice’ and I believe and feel that through my study of the history of writing, the history of even just story telling in general which dates back way before writing that, that bend is in large part due to writers. And I think that throughout history writing has been about this idea of waking up by slowing down and returning to the craft on a daily basis, and so I feel like just as a writer I’m contributing towards that bend. And I study writers like Juan Felipe Herrera, Lee Peterson and Ginsberg and Maya Angelou and Galway Kinnell – writers who I think believed in something similar even if they didn’t articulate it in that way. I love protest poetry. Whether it’s a beautiful poem on the page or whether it’s you know – workers striking for better rights and they come up with a little poem about it as they’re marching…
What would you say to someone who is very interested in helping to change the world and learning about new forms of thought and what’s going on culturally – but they’re not too keen on sitting down and reading a book?
Cameron: Yeah, there are a million other ways I think. You just reminded me of a story – there’s a group in Tucson, Arizona called Bens Bells and it was started by this mum who lost her son I believe he was 2 at the time – and she went into this absolute depression for years. And she was at a gas station and – you know that time where you could hold the door for somebody but their kinda far away and you’re like Should I hold it…?! it’s like this awkward kinda moment! – this guy held the door for her during that sort of she was a little bit too far away and he stood there and held the door for her. And she had total break, she just had an absolute breakdown about the, the beauty of humanity and that little moment of holding the door sparked this whole Bens Bells NGO that she has started that is doing beautiful work throughout Arizona. So every step we take is an act of activism, it doesn’t have to be writing it can simply be holding a door. I think the trick however is finding what you’re good at and finding how best to apply that. Whether that’s writing, whether you’re the cashier with the smile on her face all the time or, whatever it is you’re creating the world that you want. The zen master Thich Nhat Hanh calls it continuation body – so even when we leave this body – they don’t believe so much that there’s an afterlife – but, you continue on in the afterlife in the energy that you gave to other people, your friendship, your smiles, your love, your open heart those things all are part of your continuation body. So, how are people fostering that I think and what skills do you have that you can do that in the best way possible.
Well thank you for that!
Cameron: Tori thank you, that was rapid fire I loved it!
Your answers were different, different to what I expected – so many thanks and I’m sure this will help lots of people who, like I said want to get on the path to making a change – not just for themselves but for the people around them – and I think it’s really key what you say about it doesn’t have to be prescriptive – do what you need to, go at your own pace. So, yeah thank you again.
Cameron: Thank you, Tori do you find that same idea prescription in your own practice as a coach – I mean, I’m just curious about you.
-Yeah, I do. I find a lot of people – they expect a coach to do certain things. So for example, a lot of coaches that I have worked alongside with or spoken to will have sessions that are an hour long, because it’s kinda the done thing. Whereas I’ll have sessions that can be up to 4 / 5 hours long because my belief is that if someone needs help and they have a problem – why is everybody sticking to this one hour time slot? You know?
Cameron: Wow! Yes
-So I try to analyse every stage of my coaching. What does this person need, what can we do differently to help that person? As opposed to, this is how I work and you need to fit in with that.
Cameron: I think it’s so brilliant even that you had the insight to question that. You know I think there’s probably counsellors and coaches that have worked 60 years and they’ve just always clocked in – in one hour increments and never really thought about why – you know?!
-Yeah for me, I think when I interviewed Preston Smiles one of the things he said was “question everything”. I really believe that if you are going to change the world, you have to start by questioning what you’re doing every single day. It might be why am I buying this brand of milk? Why am I buying this brand of bread? It can be really small things but once you become aware of different movements and the decisions that you’re making on a daily basis – that’s when the bigger changes are allowed to happen.
Cameron: Wow that is beautiful. Well let me know how I best can help you of course and I’m glad this happened. I’m glad we circled back and made this happen.
-Yeah – and thank you – thank you so much – and I will send you the link once it’s live – and hopefully we will talk again, soon.
Cameron: Okay, Tori have a great day thank you
–You too, take care, bye
Cameron: Bye bye.