Interview - Mark Collings
Mailer. Sugar Ray. Rendall. Bruno. Kram. Frazier. Kimball. Haggler.
Boxers and Writers. Gods, and the men who make Gods. The divine divide. A thread that unites the two mediums? Rhythm, or a sense of rhythm, where a certain seamlessness occurs. The beautiful ballet. But how rare is it to meet somebody who's been on both side of the ropes? Knows the feel of the canvas as well as the smell of the press box?
Meet the writer/amateur boxer-turned-poet who hung out with Muhammad Ali, trained at the famous ‘Champs Camp’ gym in Moss Side, wrote a book about the underbelly of pigeon racing in the North, and interviewed Jake Lamotta for Esquire Magazine. Now, he’s a trainer/mentor at the Limehouse Boxing Academy in Tower Hamlets and has written a series of poems about his immediate surroundings. Meet Mark Collings.
Q: Why have you chosen now to write a collection of poetry? Are they autobiographical?
A: I used to write little poems in my 20’s but I found it a major struggle. I was too self-conscious, I would try too hard, and it was just all a bit painful. The feeling of embarrassment and fear. Strange really. Now I’m in my forties I don’t give a monkeys so they just blurt out at regular intervals – like a sort of form of creative Tourette's. I write them on my phone usually on a train or a bus or on a Friday night while my missus is watching ‘Gardner’s World’ and I’m sat in the dining room watching old music videos on ‘You Tube’. Between videos of Gerry Rafferty and Haircut 100, I’ll have a slurp of wine and stare out the window and I’ll just start putting odd words down. I’m not doing it for any reason other than to make the best of those moments when not very much is going on.
They are mainly just brief expressions of melancholia, or a passing thoughts of how ridiculous and sad life can be. I always think existence is very much like those Nick Roeg films. Images constantly flitting back and forward from the moment of now back to the past and back again to the moment. If these poems are anything then they are just those brief images flitting around in the head during a bit of down time.
Q: Your poems have an unapologetic sense of urgency. While they're not exclusively about boxing, do you think it informs your writing style?
A: If there is a style to them then it is shaped by the small screen on the phone that I write on, a lack of space on that screen and also a lack of time. The constant rush of the middle-aged working and family life in London, plus I also run a boxing club, so there is not much time. Just moments snatched here and there. The style is informed by an urgency. The clear fact that there is not enough time. That’s why the brevity and clipped style of them will probably get on people’s tits but that’s ok because I just like putting a few words together. It’s also about looking out of the window and making best use of the dreadful mobile phones, which are just baby’s dummy’s, comforters for grown ups.
Q: What were the first things that lit the fuse for you? As a kid, I mean, that period when something arrives out of the blue and splits your mind open.
A: There were many things as a kid that drew my attention to what was going on outside. Too many to mention. When I was around three years old, one of my earliest memories - I was living in Bolton at the time - was going to the window one summer’s night and seeing smoke in the sky from a church that was burning down on the main road, around the corner from where I lived. The smoke rising up and the sound of the fire engines. I remember standing at the window for what seemed like a long time. Listening to the fire engines and watching the smoke cover the sky. Maybe it created a strong feeling that outside all was not as it seemed and I had better pay attention and “keep my wits about me” as my dad would say.
Q: Your first book, A Very British Coop, explores the world of Pigeon Racing, specifically a team known as 'The Salford Mafia'. What drew you in?
A: What I liked about the pigeon fanciers and one in particular – Les Green from Salford - was their total obsession with this very marginal and quirky pastime and they were also very funny and good company. I tried to make the book funny, maybe tried too hard in some parts, but I enjoyed spending time with them. Les’ attention to detail and his seeming instinctive understanding that the world was a mad and ridiculous place, so he was going to enjoy himself, and do what he wanted to do, i.e. make a decent living out of flying and selling pigeons. He was and is very much a free spirit. As free as you can be in this life.
Q: You were a main consultant on the Muhammad Ali documentary ‘Through the Eyes of the World’. Did you spend a lot of time with Ali?
I spent two days hanging around Muhammad Ali in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky in Feb 2000. It was an incredible few days. Almost dreamlike when I think of it now. He still looked like Ali at that point. He did some magic tricks for us and he wasn’t bothered that everyone could see that his hands were shaking. He was still looking pretty good despite the Parkinson’s, although his voice was barely a whisper, but that also made it strangely beautiful because he pulled you in so you could hear him speak. My mate asked him if he ever found the kid who stole his bike. That was why he started boxing because he went into the Police Athletic gym in Louisville when he was around 10 looking for the kid who stole his brand new bike. Ali said to us in his whisper: “I never found him, but I started to fight, and I forgot about the bike and I turned that bike into a Rolls Royce."
Q: One of my favourite passages of writing is from Leonard Gardner's boxing novel Fat City:
"That period had been the peak of his life, though
he had not realized it then. It had gone by without
time for reflection, ending while he was still thinking
things were going to get better."
You must go through all the emotions with the people you train- success, glory, the acceptance of injury, of loss. Do these kind of moments compel you to write?
A: Boxing is life in a capitalist society stripped down, literally, to the basics. A fight in front of an audience. There are a few rules, codes of conduct, but it’s a fight. Survival of the fittest and strongest and cleverest. You are half naked, both physically and also in terms of your soul being bared to the audience. In fact your soul is fully naked and on show. Sometimes when a fighter begins to fold you can see their soul. As mad as that sounds it’s true. It’s painful to watch on many levels. I saw that happen to Mike Tyson when he fought Lennox Lewis in Memphis in 2002. I went out there to watch it and quickly you could see that Tyson did not want it any more. The fight was no longer there. He was squealing in the corner when the corner men were trying to mend a cut. I swear the last two rounds he was taking the beating from Lewis to alleviate some sort of guilt. After the beating he kissed Lewis on the cheek. Almost thanking him for it. He seemed so relieved it was all over. I always remember that. I felt like I’d witnessed something strange and profound about the human spirit when I left the arena that night. That was the feeling I got.
Q: A few writers/ poets you admire ...
A: I like Raymond Carver’s poems, obviously Bukowski is a favourite, writers like John Fante, William Burroughs, Phillip Roth, Beckett. I like some Auden and Betjemen poems, some Dylan Thomas, Ee Cummings, Mark E Smith I like very much and Stephen Spender. I saw Spender once in the ‘French House’ in Soho in 1992. He must have been in his 80’s, he was wearing a rain mac, drinking half a bitter, he looked cool. He had a calmness and an elegance about him that I liked.
Q: In your poem 'The Edge of Times Square', you observe New York's peripheral streets almost as a ghost; the off-avenues that tourists are diverted from, a hidden America. Are these the kind of places, or moods that you like to shed light on?
A: I like abstractions. Light and noise and movement. Sometimes here now, sometimes in the past. Like those images in Nick Roeg films. Fleeting moments that constantly move in and out of our lives. Constantly living with the past and present and an imagined, sometimes with fear, future. The bird that dives into the sea at the end of ‘Barton Fink’ I like. James Stewart sat in that chair in ‘Rear Window’ watching the apartments in front of him. Flitting from one image and one story to another. A snatched bit of conversation, a dark cloud one minute and a glorious sunshine the next. That’s what generally comes out during the creative Tourette's moments.
Q: What would you like to see happen with this batch of poems?
A: I’m happy for a few people to just like the poems, not thinking of anything else, although I would like to write a book of poems about boxing and boxers.
Q: A parting shot: you've met and/or worked with some of the true greats: Roberto Duran, Jake Lamotta, Muhammed Ali, Chuck Wepner. From any walk of life, who do you consider to be 'the greatest'?
A: Muhammad Ali was the greatest in terms of boxing as he transcended the sport. Was a genuine genius. Genius to me is transcendence. He did that. His first fight with Sonny Liston is a masterpiece. It’s art and no one can tell me that it isn’t. He dances around fear and mocks it, sticks his chin out and sways gracefully out of the way of fear. On that night he was a mixture of a ballet dancer and a bullfighter and it was all put together with extreme instinctive intelligence and with the face of an angel. Beautiful to watch.
'Edge of Times square' By Mark Collings
An off tune trumpet
An iron furnace
like a horror
In bars, bus stops,
grocery shops and
No escape from
The radio from
A red block with
announces The death of a teenager.
A street Cleaner
with a film star
Of bright green
I don't have,
Says his daughter
Does 3 jobs and is on
The edge of
insanity. It makes no difference
There is no money
In the place where he
Of the Impossibility
And a heat
Sucks the life