Chris Banks is the author of four collections of poems: Bonfires, The Cold Panes of Surfaces, Winter Cranes, and most recently The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory. His first full-length collection, Bonfires, was awarded the Jack Chalmers Award for poetry by the Canadian Authors’ Association in 2004. Bonfires was also a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Award. His poetry has appeared in the New Quarterly, Arc Magazine, the Antigonish Review, and the Malahat Review, among other publications.

I see conscious links in these poems between time and identity: both personal details and larger world events are linked to identity. It’s as though people are going up an escalator, fixed in a set of memories, but aware of the present. Some poems are about getting older. Is this process of getting through life more complex than ever? 

You cannot escape identity is what I have discovered in poetry. As much as I wanted The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory to be about the cognitive dissonance created by a world of thirteen year old Youtube stars, a giant replica of Noah’s Ark, genetically engineered Glofish, climate change, parallel universes, and on and on, it all boomerangs back to how I feel about these topics. No matter how much wisdom I can squeeze out of a poem, I still have to deal with myself at some point.

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It’s hard to talk about identity for me as I am extremely introverted and suffer from dual disorders: major depression and alcoholism which I am recovering from. To say this makes my life challenging is an understatement. I have been accused of being too narrative, too honest in the past, not formal enough, which is hilarious when you think many poems in my last collection were written in perfect syllabics. However, I really wanted to try something different with this new book.

In the poem “Confessionalism”, for instance, I tell a myriad of rapid-fire lies and then one or two sincere things. I hint at this strategy in the the collection’s title poem when I say “I tell elaborate lies to ascertain the truth”. If the zeitgeist is a kind of information over-load, a newsfeed anarchy, then it seems to me this is only way to get that flavour into your poetry.

Because I am a depressive, my brain tells me the world is in bad shape. It is also easy to retreat into nostalgia, to revisit those ghost places which haunt your personal mythlogy, as it reminds you that life was much simpler at one time, or you felt a more Oceanic connection to the world as a child, the world before addiction or depression, but nostalgia itself will not save you. Only connections to living people will.

Identity is somewhat fractured in my new book as I stack my poems with lost things, replicas, viral videos, road rage, but I am still somewhere in the frame. I have a poem entitled “Selfie with Ten Thousand Things” which seems like an apt metaphor for the book. How much awkward bundling of images can I produce to replicate how we take in information without losing myself in the process?  Life may have become more complex but what I really want from poetry, those underpinnings, have stayed the same. “That sweetness in you starts talking to /  a sweetness in me. We infect each other.”     

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Coming in 2018

14Nov17

ArmyCover



The stars aligned so that I read a number of short, potent non-fiction books at the start of the year: Between the World and Me (Coates) is an articulate and powerful letter on growing up black in America. It offers no easy answers, nor should it. Men of Action (Howard Akler) is an intensely thoughtful and personal meditation on consciousness, memory and family, triggeredeck2016d by the death of his father, and a quietly remarkable book. The Nearest Thing to Life (James Wood) is a set of four essays largely covering the joys of fiction. Aside from giving you a number of ideas for books to read, it has coherent thoughts on fiction like this: “At the service, I was struck by the thought that death gives us the awful privilege of seeing a life whole; that a funeral or even an obituary is a liturgical home for that uneasy privilege; and that fiction is the literary genre that most powerfully offers a secular version of that liturgical hospitality.”

Nonfiction: With an opening chapter about a new, “unstoppable” fungus making its way around the world and killing nearly every species of frog, The Sixth Extinction (Elizabeth Kolbert) is articulate, accessible, well-informed and important. I found much to admire in The Danger Tree (David MacFarlane) which blends family history and the overall history of Newfoundland, including some of the most poignant writing I’ve seen on the First World War, written in a way that gets beyond the statistics into the loss to families and communities.

More nonfiction: A. A. Gill is a smart, amusing travel guide in A.A. Gill is Away, describing Wildebeest as “God’s extras.” But he’s also interested to comment on the larger world through his specific observations. I Was Hitler’s Chauffeur (Kempka) has an awkward title but it’s a fascinating account from a man who was by his side from the beginning to the end. How does a man who remembers to bring treats for his chauffeur also become one of the most despised men in history? Letters to a Young Contrarian (Hitchens) is a worthy book, and Sixty (Ian Brown) is smart, honest and immensely readable, nor is it self-indulgent given that Brown relates his experiences to the wider world. The Hatred of Poetry (Lerner) is concise and insightful. I also read Mortality by Hitchens, and while excellent it is also quite sad for obvious reasons. I dearly wish we had his commentary on our current political climate, and events since his death.

More non-fiction: The Loss of the S. S. Titanic (Beesley) is not my favourite account but nonetheless it’s a very readable book by a survivor who reportedly tried to crash the set of the film A Night to Remember decades later, interested to go down with the ship this time. Boy: Tales of Childhood (Roald Dahl) is recommended as a charming memoir. It turns out Dahl and his childhood friends were used for product testing, which helped inspire Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Anyone with a passing interest in Oakville or for that matter anyone with aging  parents should read They Left Us Everything (Plum Johnson). Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (Wiman) is a fine, engaging memoir.

Fiction: Dept of Speculation (Jenny Offill) is a short novel, wonderfully concise in how it skips through to all the relevant moments, or just switches to a brief quote from Einstein if it damn well feels like it. And Offill is funny: “It’s true that I am feebleminded at the grocery store. I write lists that I forget, buy things we don’t need or already have. Later, my husband will say, did you get toilet paper, did you get ketchup, did you get garlic, and I will say, no, no, I forgot, sorry, here is some butterscotch pudding and some toothpicks and some whiskey sour mix.”

Honourable mentions for fiction: The Man Who Was Thursday (Chesterton), Whale Music (Quarrington), The Warden (Trollope), Outline (Rachel Cusk), Cassandra at the Wedding (Dorothy Baker), The Train Was On Time (Heinrich Boll), Sweetland (Michael Crummey).

Oh, and Shirley Jackson, Shirley Jackson, Shirley Jackson. I read both the short story The Lottery and the short novel The Haunting of Hill House and loved them both. A great writer who led a fascinating life. It’s writing with the same hard-hitting potency as a new writer I picked up: Debris is a collection of short stories by Kevin Hardcastle (new from Biblioasis).

Genre: Six-Gun Snow White (Catherynne M. Valente) is a thoroughly enjoyable, charged retelling of the fairy tale with great language: “Her hair was braided up nice. It had a color like good whiskey.” Neverwhere (Nail Gaiman) has creativity to spare: creativity as embroidery at the edge of the main body of creativity. The Paper Menagerie (Ken Liu) smoothly blends SF ideas, a graceful imagination and literary meaning for terrific stories. Skin and Bones (Thorne Smith) is depression-era fiction, and a curious tale of a man periodically turning into a skeleton. While longer than necessary, some of the language is great: “slop-fed thugs” comes to mind. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Becky Chambers) takes its time and creates real-feeling characters before involving them in an engaging plot.

Essays: Shame and Wonder (David Searcy) begins with a remarkable essay about a coyote so experienced it is only eventually fooled (and shot) by a farmer employing a recording of his infant daughter’s cry. Some of the other essays, while extremely worthy, enter such a meditative state loaded with digressions it may require a little patience from the reader. Eating the Dinosaur (Chuck Klosterman) is a quirky, intelligent collection of essays. On his distaste for laugh tracks “The voices recorded on modern laugh tracks were often the same original voices recorded by Douglas during pre-ancient radio shows like Burns and Allen, which would mean that the sound we hear on laugh tracks is the sound of dead people laughing.”

TV: The Crimson Field is a somewhat melodramatic by worthy BBC series about nurses behind the front lines of the First World War, cancelled too early, though more troubling is the BBC cancellation of The Hour, among the best TV dramas I’ve ever seen. It’s the year I finished Mad Men, Downton Abbey (both excellent historicals) and, well, Stargate SG1, which is entertaining and enjoys good camaraderie between the characters.

Film: I was impressed with many films in 2016 (really too many to mention here) but as I watch them I do tend to comment on them on Twitter, if you’d care to get in touch: @alexboydwriter

Graphic Novels: Dark Night: A True Batman Story (Paul Dini) tells a personal story by the talented writer behind some excellent Batman stories over the years. Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie (Martinetti) feels a bit brief but is nonetheless worthwhile. We Stand On Guard (Brian Vaughan) imagines a U.S. invasion of Canada in the future and while a bit nasty and heavy-handed it’s also engaging. Cruising Through the Louvre (David Prudhomme) is so inventive and charming it really should not be missed.

You can stop reading now if you don’t give a rat’s ass about Star Trek, but as it was the year the original show turned 50 I picked up a few books about it, including the BFI Classics book on the original series, Star Trek (Ina Rae Hark) which comes across as appreciative but unafraid to be critical: “One thinks of the typical cliques that form in high schools, their members rarely interacting. Kirk is the sports hero who is also president of the student council, Spock the brainy geek who runs the chess club and McCoy the regular guy with lots of friends who hangs out at the corner soda shop (or, now, the shopping centre). Probably more utopian that any of its social theory was Star Trek’s insistence that there was a community where all three types mattered and respected what each other could contribute.”

More Trekking: In his memoir The View from the Bridge, Nicholas Meyer is good company: “I am still absorbed by stories, which I thought would never go out of fashion, dating as they do back to Homer. But lately narrative has been replaced by rides. Endless action sequences, unrelated to character or plot, are just a different kind of pornography, one in which standalone episodes of violence are substituted for standalone episodes of sex. The stories that nominally link these episodes are of little interest because – at least to me – they are unconnected or unrelated to life, which is what appeals to me. I am interested in heroes, not superheroes. Caped crusaders and movies that end with the word “Man” strike me as rather pathetic attempts to dial out an encroaching reality that most Americans appear unwilling to confront. The movies I am interesting making – and watching – are all attempts to confront reality, however quirky, peculiar, hilarious, or unpleasant.”


I’ve read exactly one P.G. Wodehouse novel and found it amusing, but haven’t felt compelled (at least, not yet) to read others. But I’m glad I recently saw Wodehouse in Exile, a new BBC drama. The film has stayed with me for assorted reasons. First, it’s interesting to see the record set straight after all these years. Caught behind enemy lines during the Second World War, Wodehouse did a series of radio broadcasts meant to show the English spirit still survived, but it conveniently helped the Nazis try and portray themselves as gentlemen rulers. Questions, and accusations of traitorous behaviour followed Wodehouse for the rest of his life because British government reports that concluded he was innocent were not released for decades.

Also, it isn’t a flashy film, but it’s a good script, and solid performances portraying people caught up in the war (for a change, rather than the decision-makers behind the war). After the German army captures France, a soldier knocks on the front door of the Wodehouse home. “What does he want?” his wife asks, and Wodehouse lightly jokes, “World domination, I expect.” Even the German soldier knocking on his door seems flustered and slightly arrogant rather than hateful, and while we all know horrific things happened throughout the war, it’s a smart script that manages to give you people rather than caricatures. The war arrives like a sudden storm, complete with German soldiers on motorcycles driving through the garden, and some of the Germans seem as helplessly caught up in it as Wodehouse. Without giving away too much, the film portrays people on both sides only too happy to participate in the war, even as others on both sides are portrayed as people who’d be happier to go home and read a good book.

Finally, it has stayed in my thoughts because it’s a portrayal of a man doing his best to ignore the war, and when finally forced to acknowledge it, he greets it with humour, civility and even gentleness. Of course, it’s like lighting a candle in the wind, but there’s something noble in the attempt, and the viewer — something else intelligent about the script — is left to decide if Wodehouse was hopelessly  naive or a principled, remarkably rare individual. Link to a review here. Found at the Toronto library on DVD. When are you getting it, Netflix?


My son’s arrival would obviously count as my favourite moment of the year, and I’ve tried to mentally photograph his endearing, nearly ongoing, fairly baffled expression. But I’m sure you’re here to read about something a little more applicable to your life, so let’s get to the books, film and TV.

Assorted bears, decades apart: Bear (Marian Engel) is something I finally picked up based on various recent recommendations, and it’s a brilliant short novel packed with meaning. It felt like it sits quite perfectly balanced between reality and fable. The Bear by Claire Cameron (this time the publishers could afford a definite article) has some very impressive writing considering the challenge of creating first-person narration by a five year-old girl telling the horrific story of her family attacked by a bear while camping. It’s certainly riveting stuff.

Assorted islands, decades apart: Mysterious Island (Jules Verne) serves as something of a follow-up to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, though this isn’t clear from glancing at the book. It hits the ground running (almost literally) then becomes a trifle dull when a band of survivors spends long chapters surveying the island before it picks up again by the end. Island (Aldous Huxley) is apparently meant to balance Brave New World, with a Western character washing up on the shores of a far more ideal civilization. But the events and characters serve as basic scaffolding for a series of lectures: worthy stuff, but also fairly dull a lot of the time. The best moment details “Peter Pan syndrome,” and the way some men never grow up emotionally (with the ultimate example being Hitler).

A unique voice: Swiss-born Robert Walser appears to have dedicated most of his life to wandering Europe and cultivating his unique and thoughtful way of looking at the world. I really enjoyed A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories (some of them shorter than a page) and I’m now reading his short novel Jakob von Gunten just because I enjoy his voice so much. I’m not sure I’ve ever found a writer so content with his own small role in the world, as we all must learn to be: “The railway trains thunder over the quivering bridges. Evenings, the fabulous rich and elegant shopwindows shine, and streams, serpents, and billows of people roll past the allures of industrial riches on display. Yes, that all seems grand and good to me. One profits from being in the midst of the whirling and bubbling. One has a good feeling in the legs, the arms, and the chest while making the effort to wriggle cleverly and without much fuss through all the living stuff. In the morning everything comes to life anew, and in the evening everything sinks into the wildly embracing arms of a new and unknown dream.”

More Fiction: Goodbye to Berlin (Isherwood) is probably my favourite novel of the year for its poignancy and detailed characters. Isherwood appears to have been right there on the street to see Nazi thugs in the early years, and a city in transition. I finally caught up with Crime and Punishment, which certainly lives up to its reputation as a classic, and I enjoyed Three Day Road (Joseph Boyden) for being so carefully crafted, though it didn’t seem to grab me, emotionally. Henderson the Rain King (Saul Bellow) is funny and an enjoyably exaggerated parody of a personal crisis even as the pacing is a little too leisurely for my taste. My Face for the World to See (Alfred Hayes) is the story of an affair set in Hollywood, and it’s among those concise and poignant novels I’m always very pleased to have read. Hayes apparently contributed to The Bicycle Thief (1948), which has long been a favourite film of mine. I admired the quirky and unique stories in Circus (Claire Battershill).

A Death in the Family (James Agee) is an 11 out of 10 for sadness, but more importantly it’s a remarkable accomplishment in terms of the reader really feeling the events of the book. After the death of his father, the young boy looks at his father’s body in the funeral home and feels it’s like “a very successfully disguised stranger.” A Meaningful Life (L.J. Davis) was vividly written but remorselessly bleak. Comfort cannot be found here, even in a book: “It smelled powerfully of mouse shit, and its pages were the color and consistency of stale Finnish flat bread. Mechanically it was not an easy book to read. In some cases, whole pages disintegrated as Lowell scanned them, as though the weight of his gaze was too much for them to bear.”

Nonfiction: The World of Yesterday (Stefan Zweig) is an endlessly fascinating memoir. Zweig grew up in Vienna before either of the world wars and travelled overseas without a passport before our heightened sense of nationalism. He knew Freud, watched Rodin sculpt, and finally even saw Germany transform under Hitler. Every Wolf’s Howl (Barry Grills) is an immensely human and readable account of owning a dog that turned out to be, well, basically a wolf. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (George Packer) should be required reading for our strange times. Titanic (Filson Young) is an excellent, sometimes almost poetic account of the disaster published a matter of weeks later by a journalist.

Essay collections: Cultural Amnesia (Clive James) is simply a great collection of essays. Intended as something of a time capsule and covering a range of subjects, they’re both accessible and highly perceptive. Farther Away (Jonathan Franzen) is a lucid collection. Here’s Franzen on why he likes short stories: “They leave the writer no place to hide. There’s no yakking your way out of trouble; I’m going to be reaching the last page in a matter of minutes, and if you’ve got nothing to say I’m going to know it.” I blogged about how much I enjoyed Loitering (Charles D’Ambrosio) below. Men Explain Things To Me (Rebecca Solnit) was also terrific, and felt like something that should be required reading. The Crow Who Tampered With Time (Lloyd Ratzlaff) is a meditative essay collection, well worth picking up.

Genre: Casino Royale (Fleming) is inexcusably sexist, but it can at least be said to be staggeringly obvious about it. Leaving aside the chapter Bond details the rules of the game at length, it is also pretty much a riveting spy novel with the occasional memorable moment of dialogue: “Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles.” Among Others (Jo Walton) is a leisurely but engaging story of magic and struggle in daily life, and it’s infused with a love of books thanks to a slightly obsessive narrator. It was nice to have a love of books validated in this way. Dying Inside (Robert Silverberg) is a poignant novel about a man losing his ability to read minds. Well written, captivating and unique, but it suffers from some severe stereotypes, which is a trifle ironic for a novel about our ability to connect.

More Genre: The Dreaming Jewels (Theodore Sturgeon) is inventive and compelling. For years, I’ve known Sturgeon only as the writer of one of the better original Star Trek episodes. We’ve had so many dinosaur shenanigans in various forms over the years that The Lost World (Arthur Conan Doyle) is a book you can read for the first time with a certain familiarity, but it’s nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable.

Graphic novels: The Sculptor (Scott McCloud) is a lengthy graphic novel at 488 pages, but it also manages to be an engrossing read about a young artist gaining the ability to manipulate stone or any other material with his hands. The plot may belong to The Twilight Zone, but McCloud manages an impressive meditation on the challenges of trying to make art, particularly in an age of instant gratification. Starling (Sage Stossel) is a fun, charming female-superhero graphic novel. Here (Richard McGuire) which takes one location throughout time as its focus, is really not to be missed.

Poetry: Among others, I enjoyed The Lease (Matthew Henderson), Inheritance (Kerry-Lee Powell), For Your Safety Please Hold On (Kayla Czaga) The Cold Panes of Surfaces (Chris Banks), Leaving the Island (Talya Rubin) and Kingdom (Elizabeth Ross). All very fine poetry books.

Film and TV: The Music Room (1958) is an Indian drama I just happened to pick up at the Toronto library, but as a poignant tale of a rich man’s life declining, it was among my favourite films of the year. I took some time to explore Chaplin this year, also to be found at the library or even on YouTube: Modern Times, The Gold Rush and City Lights are all absolute masterpieces and a joy to watch. At a time film was cranked out and wasn’t considered an art form, Chaplin insisted on perfection. I watched the new Daredevil series on Netflix and enjoyed it, though I think it confuses darkness with maturity in going unnecessarily bleak at times. Longmire is a police drama that’s essentially a modern Western, worth it for some of the relationships. And I’d go on about enjoying the elegance porn of Downton Abbey, the drama of Mad Men and the escapism of Game of Thrones, but are there people who don’t know anything about these shows?


Partisan

10Sep15

There’s an impressive new arts IMG_0831and culture site called Partisan I’ve been enjoying, and they’ve recently accepted a couple of things from me: Toppled Buildings is a poem that begins with Godzilla as a starting point, and I went to a few friends and colleagues for their thoughts on juggling poetry and parenthood in order to write an article called Planned Poethood. Julie Cameron Gray, Zachariah Wells and Alexandra Oliver provided thoughtful comments.