Clinch Conversation with James Lilley
This is a Q&A conversation with James Lilley, professional bareknuckle fighter and poet, which is published alongside James’s “Cognitive Function” poem that appears in Issue IV.
Clinch: Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions, James. I guess we’ll start with discussing how your two passions intersect. What got you into writing poetry? And how much of your writing has been influenced by your career in combat sports?
JL: I started writing when I was around eight or nine years old. In school one day we attended a poetry workshop, and all had to create our own poem. My poem was well received, and it kind of took off from there. I think being involved in combat sports has given me something new and different to write about. I try to be as raw as possible, and I explore a lot of the emotions that come with fighting.
Clinch: Yeah, that’s something we’ve noticed with your published writing. Could you tell us a bit about your writing process? For example, where and when you write, are you a plotter or a pantser, how many drafts you go through before you deem a piece finished, etc. Feel free to take this one wherever you want.
JL: I like to write fast and get as much down as possible in one sitting. I find writing poetry and short stories pretty easy, and I don’t change much from my first draft. For poetry, I like to be raw and unedited (as much as possible) to capture the thoughts or feelings I am experiencing. I never plan a poem or think I want to write about a specific subject ahead of time. Something will pop into my head, and I will get it down as quickly as possible. I’ve tried writing a few longer stories, but I seem to run out of steam. The dream is to get at least one novel out.
Clinch: That’s a great dream to have! And you certainly have some fascinating life experiences that you could pull from.
I’m curious how you juggle between writing and fighting as you go about your days. Do you find poetry to be therapeutic, in terms of taking your mind off of training?
JL: Honestly, I struggle to write during fight camp. I’ve reached new heights in my career with Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC) in the last 16 or so months, so I am finding it difficult to concentrate on writing as much as before. I still get poems down when they take hold but finding a space to write consistently is difficult at the moment. It eases me a little that the writing will be there when I finally decide to call it quits with fighting.
Clinch: Makes sense. Even in the two training camps I’ve had for Muay Thai, I’ve found that thinking about the fight commands all my mental energy during the lead up—and I’m much less invested in my fighting career than you are.
When you do find time and energy to write, do you notice any similarities between your writing process and your training process?
JL: The biggest similarity with the two is that I have to be totally committed. I won’t take a fight unless I know I can dedicate myself to it for 12 weeks or whatever. It’s the same with writing (poetry aside). I can’t start a piece unless I can find time—an hour, a day, or whatever—to write. Ideas pop in my head all the time and I make notes, but I just need to find a few moments to concentrate on the page.
Clinch: What do your teammates at the gym think about your writing? Or do you even share that side of you with them?
JL: I didn’t share it with them, family, or close friends for a long time. As more pieces were accepted for publication it became public knowledge, so I ultimately became comfortable enough to share. No one really bats an eye now. Its part and parcel of who I am. I did have some puzzled looks at the beginning, though.
Clinch: Yeah, I’ve found that the martial arts community is pretty welcoming toward just about everything.
Okay, let’s talk about the poem we’re publishing in Issue IV. ’Cognitive Function’ is a poem about the damage one’s head takes as a boxer/fighter, and the potential repercussions later in life from that. Do you often think about the impact that repeated head trauma might have on your writing career (not to mention your everyday life)? How do you grapple with that reality?
JL: This wasn’t something that really crossed my mind until I became a father and a husband, knowing there are other people who depend on me. Fighting is a very selfish sport and you do sacrifice a lot. I spoke at great length with another writer before about fighting and writing. He stopped boxing because he was worried of the effects it may have on its writing. Unfortunately that isn’t an option for myself. I have this drive in me, and I know I won’t be able to stop until that drive stops.
Clinch: As you know, bareknuckle boxing is generally viewed as one of (if not the) most brutal and gruesome martial arts that’s available for public consumption today. But I’m curious what, in your opinion, do people get wrong about bareknuckle boxing? In other words, where is there art and beauty in bareknuckle boxing that casuals like us wouldn’t understand, but that you’re privy to because you’re a practitioner of the sport?
JL: I think bareknuckle gets a bad reputation because of the characters involved and the gore you often see in the fights. Bareknuckle has had some studies where they have found there is less of impact on your brain (gloves make the fights last longer, which means repeated blows to the head, where a bareknuckle blow can break your hand—and good luck punching with a broken hand). For example, BKFC employs several medical professionals who are on hand before and after the fights, and they also require strict medicals and health checks. I think because of the ‘crazier’ fighters are involved in the sport, it can get a bad reputation. But honestly it is probably one of the safer sports in the world.
Clinch: There is some fantastic literature in the world boxing and martial arts. I recently read ‘The Professor in the Cage’ by Jonathan Gottschall, and was blown away by his insights. Do you have any favorite books or poems about the martial arts you’d like to put the Clinch community on to?
JL: My favourite boxing book is ‘Dark Trade’ by Donald McRae. He’s a journalist who spends time with some of my favourite fighters (Mike Tyson, James Toney, etc.) I read it as a teenager when I was in love with boxing, and I still return to it every now and then. It gives you an insight into fighters lives and boxing politics before the days of social media.
Clinch: That sounds fantastic! I’m always up for learning more about Mike Tyson, so I’ll have to check it out.
Okay, James two more questions. What’s next for you, both as a writer and fighter?
JL: As a fighter I am hoping to have a one more fight before the end of 2023. The we will sit down and plan out what’s next for 2024. I am turning 37 in November, so I haven’t got long left in the sport. The dream would be to come back at the end of 2023, get a win, then get a World Title in early 2024, win that, and then get a Swansea Arena homecoming fight in the middle of 2024.
As a writer. I’ve got several stories I have played with over the years. I have a really good idea for a novel involving an ex-fighter, but I just need to find the time to get it down.
Clinch: That sounds like a perfect plan! Finally, is there anything else you’d like to share, or any pieces of advice that you have for the Clinch community?
JL: Do what you love. Don’t chase money or fame. If you love something, do it for the love of it. Good things happen if you keep grinding away at something.
James Lilley is a professional bareknuckle fighter from Swansea, Wales. He is currently signed with BKFC and has had close to 100 poems published across various Zines including Versification, Punk Noir Magazine, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Skway Journal, Black Bough Poetry and many others. He currently has two collections available: ‘A Thousand Ghosts of You’ (Alien Buddha Press), and ‘The Blue Hour’ (Uncle B. Publications), with a third collection ‘The Warrior Poet’ due in early 2024.
A documentary about James’ life story, titled ‘THE WARRIOR POET’, is available on YouTube and has been selected for the 2023 Wales International Film Festival.