Archive for the ‘Fighters & Writers’ Category

Those in the know have long recognized the rich literary raw material in Jack Johnson’s life story in particular and in boxing generally. Mining this vein, however, risks alienating potential readers ignorant of or averse to the sport. That’s their loss, one might say, accurately enough. It’s a loss, because readers might miss fine, insightful, moving, shocking, revealing, intelligent and stylish writing because of prejudices about the purported subject. If the writing is any good, it shouldn’t matter if the reader previously gave a damn about pugilism or even disliked it thoroughly.

It’s a loss for writers too, who could end up unread because of associations with a marginal or unpopular topic. It could happen to Adrian Matejka, for instance. The drawing of Johnson in trunks and gloves on the cover of The Big Smoke could cause many timorous poetry consumers to look elsewhere. (I suspect something similar happened with my Fighter’s & Writers, which at least some people mistook for a sports book, despite the second half of the title…) By becoming the first black heavyweight champion of the world in the early twentieth century, and by flouting all conventions relating to interracial sexual relationships, Johnson challenged mores in multiple ways and exposed racism in its rawest form. He overcame adversity only to confront more adversity. Heroics and humiliation always intertwined. In his personal life, he could be a brute and a heel. Matejka imaginatively explores these aspects of Johnson’s biography and persona in his brisk poems. One can and should appreciate them regardless of his or her attitude toward boxing.

Big Smoke


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Since Mongrel Empire Press published Fighters & Writers in 2010, I’ve come across a couple unexpected references to Norman, Oklahoma – the publisher’s base – in novels (by writers interested in fighters, as it happens). In Harlot’s Ghost Norman Mailer gives the narrator’s wife a professional rival from the city. In Tabloid City Pete Hamill has a damaged Iraq war veteran hail from the same town.

Both Mailer and Hamill were friends of José Torres, and they both dedicated books to the boxer. (I dedicated Fighters & Writers to Torres well after Mailer wrote Why Are We in Vietnam? but before Hamill’s Tabloid City came out in 2011). Hamill not only pledges Tabloid City to the memory of the former light heavyweight champion; he also describes a character donning “a robe from the 1957 Golden Gloves tournament, where his friend José won the middleweight championship.” (Torres was indeed a Golden Gloves champ, but in 1958… Artistic license on Hamill’s part, I guess.)

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Mongrel Empire Press, publisher of Fighters & Writers, posted a couple videos of me reading from the book on its YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/mongrelempirepress. One shows me at the Detroit’s Scarab Club earlier this year; the other is from the 2011 Scissortail Creative Writing Festival in Ada, Oklahoma.

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Poet Anca Vlasopolos and I will be reading at Leopold’s Books on the Friday before Mother’s Day. Last-minute gift-buyers could stop by to learn if her new collection, Walking Toward Solstice, or my Fighter’s & Writers, or both, would go well with a bouquet of flowers on Sunday.

The specifics:

Mongrel Empire Press authors Anca Vlasopolos and John G. Rodwan, Jr.

Leopold’s Books

The Park Shelton

15 E. Kirby Street

Detroit, MI 48202

Friday, May 11, 7 pm

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At the end of March, I read at the Scarab Club along with Anca Vlasopolos, Patricia Abbott, Caroline Maun and Olivia Ambrogio. M.L. Liebler served as master of ceremonies. Here I am reading excerpts from Fighters & Writers and Christmas Things.

P.S. I’ll be reading with Anca again on May 11 at Leopold’s Books in Detroit.

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Recently I learned that soon I will no longer be Detroit’s sole Mongrel Empire Press author. The Norman, Oklahoma-based publisher, which issued my essay collection Fighters & Writers in 2010, plans to issue Walking into Solstice, poems by Anca Vlasopolos, this year.


As it happens, Vlasopolos was teaching at Wayne State University during my graduate studies days there, though I didn’t know her then. But since we have a city, a university and a publisher in common, we’ve discussed the obviously appropriate idea of holding joint readings. Some of her poems posted at The Stone Hobo and Beasts in a Populous City, with their images of bruises from punches and 24-caliber fists, suggest we have some thematic commonalities as well.


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Since Fighters & Writers was published, I’ve continued to come across items reaffirming ideas I explore in the book: that boxing’s implicit philosophy rests on qualities, like discipline and tenacity, which writers require and that this results in an ongoing productive relationship between the sport and literature. The January 16, 2012, issue of The New Yorker, for example, includes a profile of Alaa Al Aswany in which the Egyptian novelist likens himself to a boxer:

“I have to feel myself a fighter,” he said, hunching his shoulders, lowering his head, and bringing his fists up to his face…. “I am fighting for my career, for my writing, and for my success,” he went on. “Every day, I wake up early. And often I am tired, and my wife says ‘No, no.’ And I think, ‘I must get up and work.’” It is this determination that keeps him moving: “I tell my wife, ‘I am a boxer.’”

One can imagine Norman Mailer or Ernest Hemingway, some of the authors I discuss in Fighters & Writers, having similar conversations with their spouses.

Although the magazine might not carry as much boxing coverage as it did when A.J. Liebling was on the staff, the same edition of The New Yorker does include several more references to the sport. In a review of Jodi Kantor’s The Obamas, editor (and Muhammad Ali biographer) David Remnick writes that “in many black communities the celebrations surrounding the Obama election victory and the Inauguration were on a par with Joe Louis’s one-round knockout of Max Schmeling, in 1938.” Remnick also invokes “the Italian-American philosopher Rocky Balboa.” An article about efforts to build a football stadium in Los Angeles notes that the planned structure could also stage boxing matches and other events. Demonstrating that scribblers aren’t alone in their pugilistic interests, the magazine’s “Goings on about Town” section decorates its list of art gallery shows with an image created by Jeff Wall showing two gloved boys sparring in a living room. It’s titled “Boxing.”

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