Rhonda Lott and Darren C. Demaree
An Intereview with Darren C. Demaree about his book, Temporary Champions
Rhonda Lott: I have to confess that before I read Temporary Champions, I didn't know much at all about the famous fight it's based on beyond the names of the fighters, Ray Mancini and Kim Duk-Koo, but I realized pretty quickly I didn't need to be a boxing aficionado to appreciate the insight into human nature you have to offer here. I would like to know a little more about the title of the book from your perspective, though, if you'd like to talk about that. How did you choose that one?
Darren C. Demaree: One of Mancini's managers was interviewed before the fight took place, and when he was pushed a bit about Mancini's chances to be a historically good fighter he responded that Mancini "would not be a temporary champion". He meant to say that Mancini would beat Kim and any challenger that came after Kim for the foreseeable future, but like a lot of the pre-fight quotes it took on a completely different meaning after Kim died.
RL: Oh, I see. It certainly does. After I'd read this collection, I felt like I needed to watch the footage, of course, even though I didn't especially want to. As someone who knows very little about boxing, the most disconcerting thing about it to me was that it just looked like any other fight I've seen even though I knew one of the punches would be a deathblow. Do you remember what you thought after the first time you watched the fight?
DCD: Well, ultimately, I watched the fight more than two hundred and fifty times. I would have the fight on constantly while I researched and while I did the actual writing of the poems. I actually stopped writing the poems a little prematurely because the fight itself had worn down my taste for the project. The first time I watched the whole fight, the overwhelming thought I had was how well Kim was fighting. He was ferocious during that whole fight. I expected to see a fight where Mancini just beat a guy to death, but it wasn't like that. It was a pretty evenly matched bout. Both men took a tremendous beating during the fight, and even Mancini (who won) looks like he's been tortured directly afterwards.
RL: Yes, it did look like an even match, which I think makes the story of it all even more compelling. What do you think it was about the fight that led you to write the first poem you ever wrote about it?
DCD: I felt a connection to Mancini because he was from Ohio, and that led me to do the research I did. What got the writing started was when I learned everything about Kim. I wanted to read enough and write enough to feel one way or another about Kim's death. I wanted to blame Mancini or blame Kim or at the very least find a resting place for the anger I felt about what had happened to both of them because of this fight. It took me a long time to get to that place.
RL: What do you think it was that kept you writing?
DCD: There were so many angles to this fight, to the men involved in the fight, what turned them into fighters, that it took me a long time to understand why they did the things they did. Also, I had no background in boxing, so it took me a long time to learn the vernacular of it. Once I read pretty much every poem that had ever been written about boxing, and a lot of sportswriting books on it, I felt like I could spend as much time as I did. What really opened it up for me was the crowd sequence in the book. I kept wanting to introduce the outside elements into the book, and that sequence allowed me broaden the scope out of the ring. Without the crowd this fight is too quiet and too raw to participate in.
RL: The rawness you mention brings up some other questions for me. Several of these poems contain elements of violence and explore the instinctive human attraction to it (as in my urge to watch the video in spite of my aversion to it). The poems in and of themselves, though, are not what I would call gratuitous. Is maintaining a balance between explicitness and subtlety something you're consciously concerned about? If so, how do you decide when to give readers more and when to pull back? Were there poems or lines that didn't make it into the book because you thought they pushed the limits of taste too far?
DCD: There are some graphic moments in the book, but the anatomy of the violence felt like too much of a distraction to include all of it. The more I looked at the physical damage of the fight, the less I felt comfortable exploring the men before and after the fight. The violence involved in a sporting death is the driving force of anything written about it, but I wanted the book to be more nuanced than that. There is no way to avoid how Kim was killed, and I included poems about what the doctors said about his body after the fight, because that answered questions about how he died and alluded to the culpability of it. I didn't want it too feel like Kim's lifeless body was playing as much of a role as the living man was, so I cut out some of the poems that spent more time with those parts of the scene.
On a somewhat related note, in one of the early poems in the book, you pose the question, "would that lessen / the lesions / if we could tell a story that ended / without a feeling / of contagion?" Could you talk a little bit about what "contagion" means for you in the context of this collection? Is it something you tried to avoid in your own retelling of the story, or do you think that feeling of contagion is intrinsic to and inseparable from an event like this one?
This is for me where the crowd sequence did a lot of the heavy lifting. Boxing is a terrible, brutal sport, and one we should have abandoned a hundred years ago. However, there is too much money available for the (mostly poor) men willing to fight to ever let it simply disappear. Those that pay to see the fights, live or on television, have a hand in keeping such a barbaric display alive. So, the night of the Mancini/Kim fight thousands of people got dressed up in their best, they had some cocktails and smoked cigars and got to watch a man be killed for sport. They didn't kill him, but they enjoyed watching it. Ultimately, the motivating factors matter here. It's socio-economical in nature, what leads young men to fight each other for prize money, but once it becomes a public event the crowd that shows up have joined in the act.
RL: Yes, the way the crowd poems comment on the darker side of human nature is one of the most interesting things to me about the collection. Just as interesting is the way the poems that are written in first person gradually move from reflecting on the differences between the speaker and the fighters to their similarities. In your words, the poems go from "knowing that my vision / of what a man really is / can be found in round thirteen, / but learning that I am / not much of an enthusiast / for what it is men can do" in an early poem to the realization or admission in a later poem that "one of them could be / me." Is that narrative progression something you set out to accomplish from the beginning of the project, did the change in perspective happen organically as an effect of spending a lot of time thinking about this event, or was there some other process at work there?
DCD: That was something that happened to me while the writing was taking place. I started out with a very different opinion on the fight than what I ended up having. So the "I" in the book changed right along with it. I think I had hopes of lifting the guilt away from Mancini when I started writing. It was the wrong intention for a project like this, and one that it would have doomed it if I hadn't grown during the process of writing it. I ended writing these poems about a month before I had planned on it, and I did so because I just couldn't take it anymore. I was disgusted by the whole thing. I couldn't watch the fight anymore. I couldn't write poems about it anymore. It was three months before I was able to return and edit the book. I needed time to be able to be objective again. After the first edit I was incredibly proud of what I had been able to accomplish with this book, that I had stuck it out as long as I did felt great. The writing really went through many stages and I think that helped the book become more than I thought it could be.
RL: That evolution of the first person speaker adds to the pathos to the collection in a powerful way. Since he has such a nuanced view of traditional masculinity and since you mentioned reading every boxing poem you could find, I'm curious about your thoughts on the tradition of literary machismo. You allude to it in that wonderful line about "the things Bukowski wrote to calm himself down from his real anger" and how "these fighters had no words to defuse their wrapping, the tightness of their art." To what extent do you think the poems in Temporary Champions are a departure from this tradition? To what extent do you think they're influenced by it?
DCD: Poems about sport, boxing in particular, always address what it is that men do to each other for fun or for money or just because we can. They're always verging on war poetry, and that always felt false to me. The physical act of sport creates a scene where men are always on the attack, that much is true, but what part of the man is left when the adrenaline dies down? That mattered to me a great deal in this book. Kim was dead, Mancini was still the champion, but what happened to Mancini after the fight mattered a lot. The guilt he dealt with was tremendous. He was never the same after that fight. You can't bury Mancini right next to Kim, because if you do that then you're missing the actual ending of the story.
RL: That's an excellent question. On that note, thanks for letting me ask you all these questions. I've enjoyed getting to take a peek into your process.