Yesterday was my book day. Let me explain. Yesterday, a large package arrived at my doorstep, and when I opened it there were thirty-five copies of my new collection of poetry, “Temporary Champions”. I called my kids over. I let them handle the two copies I had no intention of trying to sell, and we put on my two-year-old son’s favorite Katy Perry song (damn, that kid is cool) to dance in celebration. They celebrated my celebration, which was very sweet of them, and since “Roar” is a bit of a family anthem at this point they really got into it. They know that I write poems, that a couple of the books on our shelf have a picture of me on them, but it’s beyond them to understand what it took to enjoy that pop song fully.
This was the first time I had looked beyond myself for poetry, and it took two years of new effort to make it happen. Here are the re-worked notes I took on the process of research, of writing, of submission, and finally of the production of the book.
“As We Refer to Our Bodies” (my first collection) had been picked up in February. I had another finished manuscript “Not For Art Nor Prayer” (to be published July 2015), but I needed a new project to start working on. At the beginning of the summer I decided I wanted to write a collection of poetry with a new focus to it. Most of my poems at that point at been love poems, poems about Ohio, and poems about the sonograms of my daughter. I had never really looked completely beyond myself for material. I knew I wanted to keep a foot in Ohio, and I had started writing the 9-word poems after each Cleveland Indian’s game, so writing about sport was something that I was intrigued by. I knew about Ray Mancini from the Sun Kil Moon and Warren Zevon songs, I knew he had killed Duk Koo Kim in the ring, but that’s all I knew. I proceeded to request every book that mentioned Ray Mancini in them, including a new biography that was scheduled to come out that fall, and I started reading.
My family went on vacation, and I took every book about boxing I could carry with us. I knew boxing when I saw it, but I had no language I could use to accurately talk about it. I knew none of the vernacular, and had spent zero time reading anything written about boxing. I brought Pierce Egan’s book “Boxiana”, an anthology of poetry about boxing, called “Perfect in Their Art”, a collection of articles and essays written about boxing that spanned a couple hundred years, and a couple of old boxing guides that were put together to teach the newbies how to train themselves to become boxers. That kind of packing limited my clothing options for the trip, but I figured some clothes for dinner and a bathing suit was pretty much all I would need. Besides, I planned on starting to write some boxing poems on my return to Ohio, and I needed to have the beginnings mapped out before I did.
Back in Ohio. I returned still not ready to write. I found every account of the boxing match between Mancini and Kim. I read them all. I found a Youtube video of the entire fight that I could watch while I was writing the poems. After a couple of months of reading and studying what had happened leading up to the fight, what happened during the fight, and that complete breakdown that happened after the fight, I finally felt ready to outline a plan. I would write a poem for every round of the fight to get myself into the process. After that I would write poems about the men and their families leading up to the fight. Following those poems I would write some more abstract poems about the violence of boxing. To end what I would do was write as much as I could about the fallout, how Mancini took Kim’s death, what happened to Kim’s mom (suicide), the referee (either suicide or killed in a mob hit), and the truly weird time of Kim’s pregnant girlfriend who attempted to marry him after he had already died. I was ready.
September 2012-December 2012
My son, Thomas, is born September 19th. I had starting writing the poems three weeks before he was born. During these crazy, sleep-deprived months of work, adding a second child to the family, and trying to take care of my wife and house while she recovered from the process of childbirth, I found some time to start writing. I was able to produce the first two hundred of the poems in this time. I wrote about everything I could think of in every angle I could think of. I didn’t have a plan yet of how to put the poems together or if I could find any bigger pronouncements than that this had happened. I just wrote, constantly, about one thing, every little bit of it, over and over again. In these first three months I watched the fight roughly two hundred and fifty times. I fell behind on all of my television, not counting Browns games, but I felt like I was making real progress in terms of the project.
I start to have real fatigue on the project. I’m tired of watching the fight. I’m tired of writing about these awful things that happened. If you keep that much violence and terribleness in the active part of your mind and emotional center it wears you the fuck out. I had been successful, I thought, in writing the story of the fight. I had hit every part of my outline, and really had done a nice job I thought in weaving those together to complete the story from different perspectives. I really didn’t know what to do next. I wrote a poem in the first couple of days of that year called “Because I Tired to Like It Very Much”, and it was written more about my experience of writing the poems than it was about the fight itself. It was an angry poem. I was angry that I had done this work, put myself through the process, and was now fed up with it. I was pissed that the referee had let Kim come out for the fourteenth round. I was pissed that Bob Arum, the promoter, had not prepared Mancini better for what it was that Kim could do in the ring. I was pissed that instead of being a happy father of two beautiful children, I was thinking most of the time about a dead Korean boxer, and the Ohioan that had been forced to become a fighter, because his father needed him to be the champ. I really had come close to something good, but I was done. I knew better than to answer the proverbial writing bell on this project anymore.
I took two weeks off to write some “Emily As” love poems, and send out some of the boxing poems to magazines/journals. My anger never really went away. I was even pissed at the crowd that had cheered on what I was now considering to be an unneeded sacrifice, a spectacle for the bloodthirsty crowd, and that feeling was not going away. Bill Cosby was in the crowd, and I was pissed at Bill Cosby for being there. It wasn’t going to go away, so I started to write a sequence of poems about the crowd. I wrote forty-two more poems about the crowd. I unleashed every ugly, evil, haunting thought I had about the people that got dressed up in their finest to watch a man die for fun. Now, I had worked myself up into a frenzy on this one. I harbor no ill will towards the people that watched this horror happen, but that was what the project had been missing, the bigger picture. With every cheer for every punch landed, everyone had lost the ability to empathize with what these men were doing to each other. They were beating each other (even Mancini looked close to collapse) to death, literally, and this was a fun night for America.
Thankfully, I was done writing the poems. Towards the end of January and the beginning of February I started to show the rough cut of things to my writing friends. The reviews were pretty mixed. First of all, boxing has a history in poetry, but it’s a tough needle to thread in terms of an audience. Several friends had some encouraging things to say, and a lot of notes on how I could make them better. I moved on to writing other things. I kept the notes and the poems, and starting writing some more palate cleansing “Emily As” poems. I also started sending out the boxing poems in earnest, and after the first couple got picked up, I started to feel better about the work I had done.
March 2013 – August 2013
During this time I wrote two book-length sequences, “A Violent Sound In Almost Every Place” and “We Are Arrows”. After the very difficult writing of the boxing poems, it was very easy to outline a long sequence and just rip it. Those were free and easy poems to write. The context of the boxing poems experience made everything seem easier. After the excitement of having a few of the boxing poems picked up, the rest of the them were met by a deafening silence. I got rejection after rejection, some of them with very nice notes about the poems, but that they weren’t interested in poems about boxing. Normally, if I write for four to five months on something, there will be ten to twelve of the poems picked up pretty quickly. That did not happen with these. I thought the poems were good, and I had started to feel quite proud of what I had come up with. “The Crowd” sequence had served as a proper backbone to the other poems, and now they moved with an agility and force that would have made either of the fighters proud. I assumed, rightly, that they would function much better as a completed manuscript, so after “We Are Arrows” was done, I began to edit it as such.
“As We Refer to Our Bodies” is released. I get to participate in the launch of the book in New York at the famous Bowery Poetry Club. It was simulcast, so my daughter, Belle, got to watch me on the television at my mom’s house. One of my good friends, Christopher Michel and his lovely family came with Emily and I to the launch. My sister flew in from South Carolina for the event. 8th House Publishing and I had agreed at that point to do a second book together, “Not For Art Nor Prayer”, in 2014 or 2015. It was a great weekend. I had what I considered to be a good draft of the manuscript, and I started to send it out to presses. I was feeling pretty confident with my first book out and already the second contract signed. This confidence was rewarded by five quick rejections to what I was now calling “Temporary Champions”. I approached M. Scott Douglass from Main Street Rag about submitting to their open reading period in November. One of the boxing poems, “Say It’s A Red Berry” had been published in Main Street’s Rag literary journal earlier in the year, so if they were willing to read it, that’s what I would send to them.
“Temporary Champions” went unnoticed in two book contests. I submitted it to Main Street Rag for consideration. I was told it would be under review. I moved on to other things. This book was getting very little interest, and though some more of the poems had been selected for publication, not the amount that I was used to. I loved the book at this point, was fiercely proud of it, and just assumed like every other part of its creation I would need to take some lumps before anything good would happen with it. I sincerely thought that “A Violent Sound…” was going to be my third book. Thirty or so of those poems had been picked up already, the sequence was finding a good place editing-wise, and it seemed promising that there might be real interest in that as a book.
December 2013-January 2014
I wrote another humanist sequence, “All the Birds Are Leaving”. I got to listen to nothing but Nina Simone for a few months, so that was a lot of fun. There was radio silence on “Temporary Champions” at this point. I submitted it to one other press, and got some nice notes on it, but ultimately a rejection. Towards the end of the month, I got a curious email from M. Scott. I assumed it would be another rejection as the text of the email was pretty limited. There wasn’t a lot to it, but what it said was the reader had advised him to publish it, and that’s what he was going to do. Giant hugs all the way around, texts to my friends, and I finally deleted the video of the fight from my bookmarks. I was out of breath and that didn’t matter. I would find new, calm air in my lungs on another day.
February 2014 – September 2014
Belle turns five. Thomas turns two. I do research on vacation again, but this time about the bombing of Cleveland’s The Thinker in 1970. Same amount of books and articles, but this time I packed several shirts to choose from for dinner’s out. I’ve become quite saucy in my old age. Thirty-three is old in my house. I re-read the book dozens of times. I caught two typos. I worked with M. Scott to find a cover that we both loved. I tried to lobby an artist who had done paintings of both of the fighters to do a cover for free, but it turns out that successful artists rarely do anything for free. She was a sweetheart, and was very encouraging though. It ended up being a blessing, because the cover art worked out really well. I approached different people about blurbing the book, and the people that agreed wrote some incredibly nice things for us to use. Blurbs are an odd thing, but you never get tired of anyone saying anything nice about something that begins in hiding. It’s out and free and accepted by the following authors…Anyway, they were very kind to me.
I chose to dedicate the book to my son, Thomas. My last wave of thoughts about what happened in Reno, when Kim and Mancini destroyed each other for money and fame, was that it had as much to do about fathers and sons, as it had to do with boxing. Those two men were pushed into the life of a fighter. Kim’s father was gone. Mancini’s father was a bully. Men do these things when it appears they have no other options. Rational choices don’t lead to human sacrifice. So, twenty years from now, when Thomas has his good blood up, and maybe he feels actual strength for the first time, I hope he reads this book. I hope I’ve given him options. I hope he can experience what happened to these two champions, and know that though it is his choice to make, choosing construction over destruction is his path. I don’t know, the book is out now, and those that ordered their copies should get theirs next week. It’s exciting, sincerely exciting, but I’ve got other things to work on now.