FIGHTS: a book of boxing poetry

Fights, published by Veer Books, is a book of modernist and experimental poems, broken into cycles, each celebrating / reflecting on the life of a 20th century boxer, from Jack Dempsey to Antonio Margarito, from Yuriorkis Gamboa to Edwin Valero. You can purchase the book here:

Originally published in 2011, a new 2nd edition, extensively revised and featuring an introductory essay, remarking on the changing nature of the sport of boxing, in light of studios into brain injury in the sport and on the changing fate of the boxers featured within, was published nearly five years from original publication, in October 2015.

Each cycle within Fights uses a methodology that somehow represents the character of the boxer in question. The book employs a significant use of concrete poetry, collage, sound poetry, typographical experimentation and found text.

Fights was launched at Birkbeck college, University of London, in 2011, alongside new readings and talks from Kasia Boddy, Lynda Nead, Patrick Coyle and Tim Atkins. In it's second edition, Fights was launched at Apiary Studios in November 2015 alongside new readings and talks from Don McRae, Sarah Victoria Turner, Oliver Goldstein, Anna Whitwham and others.

  • New functions for the jaw. Poetic histories from all possible angles, and then some. Its about time boxing - the basis of all sport - was understood from the viewpoint of the poetic mind. Slam it into your mouth and read it out LOUD. Sean Bonney

  • ‘... a new beginning and one that is so much the swiftest, the widest, balanced. One hesitates to use the word pure, but’ A dazzling, visceral, proficient, kinetic work. Fights runs its combinations in formal excitement and trenchgut force. Maggie O’Sullivan

  • Boxing, and boxing language, has inspired poets for hundreds of years and in all sorts of ways. Not daunted by this tradition, Steven Fowler has managed to push its boundaries in an impressively varied collection of poems that finds inspiration both from rhythm and style within the ring and from the wider world that leans on its ropes. Kasia Boddy (author of Boxing: a Cultural History)

  • SJ Fowler's Fights is a book of many, various, & rare excitements. At times I was reminded of Jack Spicer's Holy Grail poems, at others, of Reznikoff's Testimony: that's a strange & unusual combination. Much contemporary poetry can be accused of lacking ambition, but Fights--with its various forms & approaches-- reaches not for the single knockout punch, but for the variety & beauty of the stars. There are not many books of poetry where you turn the page not knowing what is coming next, but this is one of them. Tim Atkins

Excerpt from the 2nd edition introduction

For those who follow boxing, a quick note. In 2011, when the book was first published, many of the fighters I had chosen to write about were just coming into prominence. Looking back now, in 2015, one gets a true picture of how fleeting, and how brutal, boxing can be. This is why, I think, literature that concerns itself with boxing so often swims in metaphors, and those metaphors are almost extended to life in general, it also being essentially temporary, and merciless.

Edwin Valero remains dead and has been forgotten, by and large, despite his murder / suicide. Antonio Margarito, whom I wrote about because of the injustice of his continued repute and success at the time has actually received his storybook comeuppance, battered into defeat and retirement by his one-time victim, Miguel Cotto. Dmitry Pirog never really emerged, forever now a Russian enigma. Donaire, Cleverly, Gamboa, Abraham, Pavlik, Bute, Kessler, all full of heroic potential just four years ago, all killers, are now perceived as damaged goods, faded, fading or obsolete. 

Even the most well-meaning aficionado or boxing journalist, let alone the beered, porcine masses in the stands, peers down at these unbelievably courageous and wilful human beings with a shade of callousness and with an emperor’s leer. I have grown older, and sensitive to every thudding blow, every distant stare, every slur. What we have learned about brain trauma in boxing since 2011 has altered my feeling for the sport. Not lessened my love, but altered it. It can no longer be argued as a point, we must accept there is often killing in the ring, though a slow and randomised death it may be. Yet, it is the choice of those fighting despite this which keeps me enraptured, and powerfully aware that I do not possess any such will.

There is no eternal glory for any pugilist, there is only, if they are extremely fortunate, words. All glory is temporal, as are these poems ahead. That they are static in that transience might be their only value, that someday when I am older still, someone will see this book and ask me who Michael Katsidis is, and I will tell them.

Launching Fights: 2nd edition for Pugilistica at Apiary Studios - November 5, 2015

There are occasional nights when the feeling one might be seeking in writing and reading and organising comes together into one satisfying whole. This is one of the most distinct experiences of satisfaction I've had in sometime, in no small part because I was surrounded by many of my most generous friends but also because some of the most extraordinary boxing writers contributed and seemed genuinely enthused by the mixing of modes and forms towards the same goal - that is the celebration of the sport of boxing, in all its paradoxes and contradictions.

Veer books did a great job with the 2nd edition of Fights, it's a far better book, slimmer and more powerful. Every speaker presented fantastic work, from fiction to journalism, poetry to art history. Everyone enjoyed the others contributions, in the contrast, in the varied specialisms, so the strength of each art came to the fore. I'm sure this won't be the last event celebrating boxing that we'll do. All the videos are here

Launching Fights at Birkbeck College & the Other Room - 2011

A note on: reading boxing poems at Cambridge University January 21, 2018

A resonant experience on multiple levels, I had the chance to read at Cambridge Uni thanks to Oliver Goldstein and his Sweet Science event in the Faculty of English. It was another entry in my experience of a small, welcoming community of writers and poets who care passionately about the sport and aim to reflect it in works as complex as the culture itself. Oliver is one of the world's leading boxing journalists and really fine poet, and as well he and I, there were multiple excellent readers and a really healthy and interested audience. Discerning you'd expect, but friendly with it too. I read some poems from an upcoming book, a sequel to my 2011 Fights, entitled Rematches, due out with Kingston University Press this year. I also got the chance to pop a balloon with a left hook. 

Perhaps the most unexpected highlight was meeting a cambridge english undergrad who told me they were doing their dissertation on my work. A first, as far as I know, and actually really warming and encouraging, it actually really touched me. It's very easy to feel one is wasting time, serving my own interests and no one gives a shit (which is true) but then a small thing like that happens, and you feel less in a bubble.

Fights cycles: 1 to 20

I began writing the Fights series in 2010, reading one at each monthly Writers Forum meetings, before publishing many of the cycles as individual chapbooks or ebooks before they were collected into Fights.

Arthur Abraham (a chapbook by Knives forks & spoons press)
III -  Yuriorkis Gamboa (an ebook by Red Ceilings press)
VI -  Antonio Margarito (a chapbook by Arthur Shilling press)
VIII - Klitschko (a poetry poster by ZimZalla)
XV -  Edwin Valero (an ebook by Blart books)
XVI - Salvador Sanchez (a chapbook by Red Ceilings press)
XIX - Johnny Tapia ( a chapbook by Oystercatcher press)


Pugilistica: a series of performances and talks: 2014 / 2015

More extensive information coming soon, and in the meantime, information and a blog on my performance for the Sydrome project in Liverpool in August 2014

Syndrome 2.1: Choros // 21st – 24th AUGUST 2014

A room-as-instrument devised by artist Jamie Gledhill with sound artist Stefan Kazassoglou, using an array of computers attached to X-box Kinect devices. This project brings together popularly available motion capture technology with 3D audio set up into a unique experiential and performative artwork. The work will allow for the dynamics and speed of a users movement within the space form a live illustrative mapping on the walls, and for sound to be literally ‘thrown’ across the 3D space by a performer – and members of the public as active participators in their own performative moment with the work. The CHOROS installation will be open for playing and viewing from 10 – 4pm on 22nd – 24th August. Entering the space, the movements of your limbs will be traced by light and sound across a 3D axis using projections and an ambisonic speaker array. Entry is free for all, and suitable for all ages. A launch event will feature a brand new movement work by SJ Fowler in which he explores the ritual and violence of martial arts:

The Book of Five Rings by SJ FOWLER
The Book of Five Rings is an unforgettable exploration of physicality and martial spirituality through cutting edge avant garde theatre and performance. And while each Ring will be decidedly different, each a unique, responsive production to its subject, as a whole, they will form an unforgettable tale of a universal human expression, battle without violence, war without war.
no. 1: Pugilistica UK / US (western boxing) A conceptual performance exploring the sport of Boxing. SJ Fowler takes the audience through a boxing workout with a different, shadow boxing with a complex, cutting edge technological rig, so that each movement has a responsive light and sound reaction. An exhausting, explosive performance of light and sound

performing for Syndrome : staying in Liverpool : august 2014

I had the chance to spend a near week in Liverpool developing a new piece for Nathan Jones intensely ambitious, Syndrome project {}. I got to stay in Toxteth, near where a fair bit of my family is from, though I've never lived there, walk into the city everyday, actually take time to develop the work for a performance, always with the knowledge it may very well grow into something bigger in the future. It's the 4th visit to Liverpool I've made in the last few years to work with Nathan, each time in a different venue with a different work for a different program - EVP, the Biennial, Liverpool music week and Syndrome.

I found the city to be an inspiring place to visit, perhaps precisely because it isn't my home and in visiting I was able to really enjoy that which London doesn't have. Space, in human terms as much as anything, and a different energy to the art and the artists, one that is more communal I'd side, closer, more hands on. It is a thriving place to visit, a lot of ideas concentrated together. And the city itself was beautiful, the people pleasant and more muted than I'd remembered. If you've time there, it is easily filled, and I got to catch up with friends from the north west like Tom Jenks and the like. That richness, in human terms, was somewhat complimented by the stark reality of the beautiful surroundings of Toxteth that were fringed with so many abandoned properties. A great wealth or dearth that seems unreal when struggling to find space in London.

The work I produced, {} the video of which will be available soon, is perhaps the most impactful martial arts based piece of performance art I've done, but feels so much owed to Nathan and Stefan and Jamie, those collaborators of mine, that I've yet to feel I own it. More I am part of it, I wore it. But always in our minds was the possibility of doing it again, and I have ambitions to create a program of performances and publications of my own that further my exploration of martial arts. This could be a breakthrough work in that regard.

And to Nathan's focus and erudition, and hospitality, again I am left feeling very proud to work with him so often and to be part of the impact he is having in a place that really needs him, not because of a lack, but because of the precise opposite - because of potential. Nathan is unflappable and driven and considerate at the same time, such rare qualities, and he's definitely a peer I draw much from.

Dearest Steve,

I would have loved to be there to see your performance last night...You would have blown my socks off! ... took some documentation and I am not surprised how impactful your ... was to everyone. I got a little taste by touching up your blood stains with white paint this morning; part of the aftermath:)

Hope you have a beautiful day.


Sent from my iPhone

If I'm doing what might be seen as art performance, and I'm happy for it to be seen as that, then it needs to be something that I feel is authentic to me. I need to feel an absolute internal assurance that the work is genuine, whatever that means. It might have heavy conceptual ideas behind it, but it can't be founded on them. Otherwise I feel I risk pretentiousness in a way I am not comfortable with, and this because I always feel a sense of exposure and a combative relationship to audiences. This performance, 666 blows one break, is another that calls out my martial arts background, looking to transpose a life practice into a new context in order to make it performative. The piece is supposed to be about a faux vedic ritualism, guttural voice, masculinity turning into emasculinity because of exhaustion and the dance like movement of muay thai pad repetition. All things wither, lose their lustre and decay in one form of another. Hopefully what begins here as shiny, blood covered, pad booming manliness devolves into emptied, failing, exhausted humanity. 

I enjoyed the experience very much, though so much of it was actualised very late in the day and we had to stay simple to make it work. I owe a huge debt to those I collaborated with on the piece. Chris Page, who trained with me for quite awhile and is a great musician and old friend, was amazing holding the pads, bringing back my mcguffin dragon mask and generally taking the power with aplomb. David Kelly, my best friend and oft collaborator, who created the fundament of the piece with his buddha box soundscape. Robert Hitzeman, who is rapidly becoming someone close to me who I admire very much as an artist and a person, who curated the show along with Mohammad Namazi and Emily Purser

Moreover, those in attendance were uniformly warm and qualified with their opinions, offering many different interpretations of the piece but all sensing that the work was just a process of transference from the practise of my life into the practise of my artwork, if it is that at all. The work featured in the show was also of a fine quality, a real interesting mix, and the space, at the very end of Kilburn Lane, quite close to my west london homestead, was a unique slightly emptied old leisure centre turned artspace. I was able to walk there and back, enjoying a night in the city with my pads and warpaintbloodbag and little incense elephant. Check out this is the first of a proposed series of shows.

It's the first time I've ever performed at Cafe Oto, though I have attended shows there often. It was really pleasing to do so with Ben Morris, whose practise has been extremely influential to my own for many years. When we met, and still to this day, his understanding and control of his medium is far more advanced than my own, due to both his sense of patience, subtlety and experience, and he has been generous in offering me a new avenue into sonic conceptualism, an organic offshoot from my own work in avant garde poetry

It was also a great pleasure to perform for Mercy. Nathan Jones is one of a few remarkable figures in poetry and sonic art I am fortunate enough to call my contemporary who is genuinely enthused by complex and intense performance, and who will do the hard work it takes to get that performance a proper stage and reception. He feels a stringent sense of responsibility to promote the work of others and this kind of selflessness is integral to the building of a scene of dynamic poetry and sound performance. I know I speak for Ben when I say to have the opportunity to work with Mercy producing these new commissions is a privilege.

The evening was a really engaging but sadly I was ill and not really able to comprehend properly what was going on around me. I had been dragging some sick around for awhile and then rehearsing for this piece, in the mask, which really boiled me, a few days ago in a tiny studio under a railway bridge in Bermondsey, it really sent me over the edge. We nearly had to cancel the performance in fact, I had been yakking two days up to this night and had stomach cramps and sweats even on the way over to Dalston

In the end, the performance was something I am pleased with, of course never wholly, but conceptually. I had really hoped it would explore avenues of delirium, confusion, kineticism - that it would not just be about violence and force, as some of my other pieces have been. I deliberately made the format of my punching non combative, so I stood still, used 'James Toney' type hands, with sloppy angles and no power form, and would emphasise my breathing and noise and would create motion blurs, using speed, rather than some dumb platform for the force of my punching.

It was gratifying to find an offshoot of my thematic interests, where energy and intensity are fundamental but do not become intimidating, and it was really pleasing that many were kind enough to say they did not experience repulsion but confusion and intrigue. The piece was found strange rather than aggressive I think, and it will be a memory for me, it was torture in the mask, I felt so ill! 

The piece is called "We're getting married tomorrow" and is described as "A piece of conceptual sonic art in collaboration that explores notions of exhaustion, suffocation, exertion & kineticism, drawing together a specific mode of bodily, as well as vocal, experimental expression and innovative performance."

Massive thanks to Alexander Kell, who held the pads for me and is a loyal friend and great training partner, to David Kelly, Tiphaine Mancaux and Catherine Carncross who came to support and film and photo, and of course Nathan and Ben. I have a good feeling more work will emerge from this relationship.