Chris Banks was raised in the Ontario communities of Bancroft, Sioux Lookout and Stayner, where his father served postings as a small-town police officer. He took his BA at the University of Guelph, a Master’s in Creative Writing at Concordia and an education degree at Western. He currently works as an English and Creative Writing instructor at Bluevale Collegiate Institute in Waterloo, Ontario. His poetry has previously appeared in the Literary Review of Canada, Carousel and The Antigonish Review. His poetry books are Bonfires (2004) and The Cold Panes of Surfaces (2007).
Paul Vermeersch, editor and poet, author of Burn, The Fat Kid, and Between the Walls, interviewed Chris Banks in October 2007.
Your second collection of poems, The Cold Panes of Surfaces, is out now. Your first book, Bonfires, won the Canadian Authors Association Poetry Award in 2004. Did winning a national award for your first book bolster your artistic confidence while working on your second, or did you find it daunting, as though you had more to live up to than other poets working on a second collection?
I think it certainly gave me a boost of confidence and the permission I needed to do what I wanted to do artistically with the second book. I didn’t feel any outside pressure because of winning the CAA award, or feel that I had any expectations to live up to. Winning the award was terrific, and it was good publicity, but it was also an education on how fleeting such praise can be, and how it leaves your writing life virtually unchanged. It doesn’t help you write. I remember when I did express that I felt a twinge of such expectations, my friend Adam Getty told me, “No one cares about a second book from Chris Banks.” This was essentially true, and somewhat liberating. So no, any pressures I felt during the writing of The Cold Panes of Surfaces were my own, because I knew I didn’t want to write the same book again, but I also wanted to explore the same themes from the first book, to get beneath them, I suppose, so the poems connected on a larger scale with a shared human experience — those underlying archetypes that surround and animate our lives. I think I see the same sort of pattern emerging in your own work, Paul, from the first book to your more recent poems, a move away from the personal to more shared or communal themes.
Vermeersch: I think that’s true. These days I’m more interested in observation than introspection, at least when it comes to my own writing. The result has been not only an aesthetic change, but also a thematic one. But you say that you wanted to address the same themes in your second book that you did in your first, but on a deeper level, so that they have more universal resonance. If that’s true, and the differences between your first and second book are not thematic, then they must be different in another way. It seems to me there is noticeable aesthetic shift from your first book to the new one, and I think the titles of the books offer a clue as to how that shift manifests itself. Your first book is called Bonfires; the image is dynamic, warm, earthy, and social. The title of your second book, The Cold Panes of Surfaces, conjures a very different sensibility: one that is more static, austere, mechanical, and impersonal. One might say that you have moved from a position of reactivity to a position of meditation. Would you agree with such an assessment?
Like a lot of younger poets writing today, I wrote Bonfires predominantly in a narrative mode, using personal experiences as grist for the production of poems. Many of those early poems approach autobiography or memoir, but they don’t exactly work as either, because a narrative poem, at least a good one, forces the poet “off to the side,” as Richard Hugo once put it. I think the people who were most enthusiastic about my poems dealing with small-town life were not really responding to my specific experiences, which are really inconsequential, but to the imagery of the poems and how it relates to their own experiences. “Image is the memory of memory,” as Stanley Plumly once said.
I like what you said about your own poetry becoming more observant, Paul, because I see poetry as essentially a speculative art, and this is something I felt strongly while writing the second book. I began to write more objectively about my personal experiences, questioning certain feelings or memories, and looking for ways to make them more meaningful in general, to connect them with history, for instance, or to the lives of other people, or to the works of poets I admire. These poems are less concerned with subjective experiences and more concerned with imagery that generates a universal or collective human experience. I think this is what you are responding to when you say these poems are more meditative.
That’s possible, Chris, but it also seems to me that your first book was more visceral, more physical, more ominous in its imagery and mood. A poem like “Halloween” comes to mind, in which you describe, quite graphically, a neighbour’s suicide attempt, or “Domestic Wages” which begins with a ‘close-up’ of some dead snails lying in a saucer of beer. It was a more sensual approach, one that affected me as a reader on a very sensual level. In your new book, on the other hand, your approach strikes me as one that is more philosophical, more cerebral. I’m specifically thinking of poems like “Winter Is the Only Afterlife” with its angelic symbolism, or the poem “Waste” which is a meditation on craft using trash collection as a metaphor for the writing process. Of course, this is a generalization. Your new book still has visceral poems in it, poems like “Road Kill” and “Anonymous” which are every bit as sensual as the poems in Bonfires, but I do feel there is a general trend toward the cerebral in your new book. Is this a conscious change, or does it correspond to a change in your overall outlook on daily life? Or am I completely off base?
I think of it as a conscious change in my writing. With the first book, I was saying this is who I am because these things happened to me, or this is how I felt when I wrote this poem. This way of writing required highly visceral images to create the illusion of capturing these moments forever in time. While writing The Cold Panes of Surfaces, I was apprehensive of poetry’s ability to faithfully render the past or accurately capture my experience of the present. I think this is why I opted for a poetic voice, in many of the poems, that places at its center a seeking intelligence, one that questions my immediate experience of the world, as it does in the poem “Now, Then, Always,” or of my cobbled together memories of growing up in Northern Ontario, such as in the poem “Hoary Glass.” Still, not all of the poems are in this particular vein, and I’m glad you made note of these differences. I want to strike a balance in terms of the tone, voice and imagery used in my poems. I’m still quite interested in writing emotionally charged poems with strong visceral images, as in “Anonymous” and “Road Kill,” or even in “Seppuku” or “Down the Tracks.” Poetry is capable of many different things, and I wouldn’t want to limit myself to any one way of writing.
You mentioned that you were looking for ways to connect your poems to the work of other poets that you admire. Poetry has earned a reputation for being a solitary pursuit, but you seem to be suggesting there’s more to it than that, that as an art form, poetry is more like an on-going conversation in which all poets are invited to participate. Is this true? If so, who are the poets you most admire? Who are the poets who best inspire you to join the conversation, and why?
I am reminded of something Philip Levine once said, that we risk going nowhere if we do not take the time to make a community with other writers, both living and dead. I like this statement, and I use it often when teaching poetry to high school students. I have only to look at my friendships with other writers and publishers like Silas White, Carleton Wilson, Adam Getty (and you, too, Paul) to know how much they have impacted my writing. I love talking about other poets with my friends, or hearing about some new poet one of them has recently discovered. I would say I get momentum from such talks. The poets I most admire at the moment are the American poets Dave Smith, Larry Levis, and Philip Levine whose poems are among the best, to my mind, that I have ever read. They are good teachers.
And what about poets closer to home?
The Canadian poets whose work I follow most closely are poets like Al Moritz, Patrick Lane, Russell Thorton, Di Brandt, Tim Bowling, Don McKay, and the work of my close friends. I see this particular moment in our literature as a very fruitful time for Canadian poetry, and we are just now seeing other countries like Germany taking an interest in our poetry as a cultural export. I’m optimistic. Canadian poetry has increased its international profile quite a bit in the past ten or fifteen years, and I think even greater things are in store in the next ten or fifteen years, and I, for one, am glad that I will be here to see it happen.