between nostalgia and mainstream unease - "The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory" by Chris Banks

Panic Room - Chris Banks
It is seven in the morning and I can see the couple
     next door heading to work. People pull coats
around themselves, scrape frost from windshields. No
     one acknowledges anyone else, which makes it
hard to believe people are still making love, but I know
      they are, for their children are heading to school, too.
Perhaps it is like Chekhov said. When you are in love,
      it shows a person who he should be. But this world’s
day-to-day living makes mockery of such vulnerabilities
     so we stuff emotions with self-loathing, gastro pubs,
online shopping, pharmaceuticals, alcohol, social media,
     anything, really, so as not to feel human and alive. The
weather, of course, is not helping. The cold winter air
     steals our breath so we seal ourselves deeper in a living
slowly wearing people out. No one likes to talk about it,
      especially in poetry. Write about childhood or politics,
your dog or your ex, but not about the invisible fires
     of existence. When asked why he always wore black,
Chekhov said he was mourning his life. How many
     deny doing this? We watch cat videos and zombies
on television, or rail about the latest national scandal
     meant to keep us preoccupied and not thinking about
the world’s clock near midnight. A sliver of moon
     hangs like a silver scar in the morning sky. I can only
drink so much coffee before admitting I am trying
     to avoid panic attacks through apathy. Somewhere,
my children are smiling, going to school blissfully
     unaware of consciousness’s cold depths. What to do
with such thoughts? In California, a lake has fallen
     off a cliff, and still there are droughts. The Philippines
is sinking. I ask myself what am I going to do today?
     The answer is always the same: something is not right.
Time is out of joint so Prince Hamlet keeps cursing
     his wretched spoiled existence, while twenty years on,
I keep trying to celebrate all the varieties of experience
     through a few words that will break the wall grown up
between the subjective and the objective, the self
     and the other. I keep looking for release. The angels
in the high cradle we built for them mock me. So be it.
     Maybe all we are is random acts of kindness between
strangers. Maybe it is my job to hear the pain singing
     in every particle of my flesh. Maybe it means nothing.
I have probably said too much. Certainly the couple
     who smile at me when we chance meet at the mailbox
are not thinking about any of this. They are thinking
     about their ten-year anniversary and novelty lingerie
and perhaps what wine to pair with tonight’s dinner.
     Soon I will rouse myself, throw on clothes, then write
this all down. It will sound vaguely like a panic room.
     Like I have built a secret place out of my fears and joys
to linger in a while, biding what is left of my time until
     you who happen by, hearing me, throw open a door.

from The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory
(ECW Press, 2017).
Reprinted with permission.


I've been a fan of Chris Bank's work for some time now. In 2011, I stumbled on a copy of his 2003 debut Bonfires (Nightwood Editions) and thoroughly enjoyed it. I quickly bought his second and third books, The Cold Panes of Surfaces (Nightwood Editions, 2006) and Winter Cranes (ECW Press, 2011), and was happy to find his poems only kept getting better. A student of poets like Jack Gilbert and Larry Levis, Banks has mastered the art of carefully and artfully describing a short scene and then (or simultaneously) cracking it wide open to reveal the tender beating heart of the thing, the part of the poem most are too hesitant or cool or unaware to plunge into. I was hooked. Then I waited... and waited... and waited... for book number four.

To keep me occupied during what turned out to be a six year wait, Chris provided regular insights (in poems, in essays) on his Table Music blog. His subjects ranged from praise for poets he admired, to thoughts on poetry, to short personal essays and poems on mental health, loss and other topics. Table Music was one of the sites that gave me inspiration to keep Roll of Nickels going well past the expiry date of most blogs: I knew the impact his blogging had on me, and I hoped I could provide a fraction of the same for others.

So for more than one reason I was thrilled to see Chris' new book The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory (ECW Press, 2017) come out, and jumped at the opportunity to interview him here.

If you've read Banks' work before, you'll have noticed that the poem excerpted above ("Panic Room") differs from the poems in Banks' previous books. Unlike the shorter, meditative lyrics of his first three books, the poems that loom largest in TCVGUT sprawl, often wildly. They seem to be unraveling and gathering at once, bringing more and more of the world into them and spilling it back out, somehow transformed. They are unruly poems for our unruly moment.

The Sankofa Bird
And while this book is certainly "of our moment" it also is not. It is steeped in the past as much as the future. In reading it I was reminded of the West African Sankofa bird - the image of a bird pointed forward, but looking backward. Like the Sankofa bird this book presses always onward while stretching back for a past it can't quite reach. It makes for a an emotionally compelling, thought-provoking read.

Our interview touched on the major themes of the book: nostalgia, our current political and cultural "moment", mental health, modern poetics, Chris' writing role models, and more. I hope you enjoy it!

Some say the Grand Unification Theory is a model in particle physics in which the three gauge interactions of the Standard Model which define the electromagnetic, weak, and strong interactions, or forces, are merged into one single force. But I say it explains how Chris Banks can combine "flannel" and "pirate" so seamlessly.


Rob: The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory (TCVGUT) is steeped in youthful nostalgia, opening with an epigraph from Larry Levis' "Boy in Video Arcade", followed by your "All-Night Arcade" and moving out from there to cover corner stores, bush parties, punk bars, even the 1914 death of the last passenger pigeon. And yet TCVGUT is also very forward looking, concerned with suicide bombers and climate change and the world to come.

The title poem in TCVGUT opens "I am not asking for anything except a little wisdom / from this life." What role does nostalgia play in gaining that "little wisdom", for you? Or is it more of a pure escape than I am allowing it to be?

Chris: When I started writing this book, I thought it was going to be a book about the Eighties and nostalgia and youth. Nostalgia is an idealized version of the past. It appeals to our wish to return to a simpler time. An Edenic place. I think this is very seductive for writers. The idea you can revisit the past and change it. To make your personal history meaningful in the way a myth is meaningful. Nostalgia leads you to the gates of the sacred home. Perhaps you can’t live there, but you can see through to the strange terrain of the past even if the present moment bars the way.

Rob: "The strange terrain of the past" - yes! Your interest in navigating that nostalgic path feels like a through-line which strings together not just this book, but all of your books (Winter Cranes, for instance, opens with a reminiscence of driving home from a barn dance, "Stand by Me" on the radio). But in TCVGUT your memories seem fractured, disjointed, jumbled in with the cultural and political noise of the here and now. It's less a telling of linear stories than a piling on, and up, of everything.

In many ways this feels like a development in keeping with our times - both our internet age of endless-link-Wikipedia-wormholes, and our current poetry, where stacking and swirling many images and scenes into wild little diamonds is increasingly popular - but I don't want to presume the "why" of these developments in your own writing. Could you speak a bit about how your writing style, and your thinking behind it, changed in the six years between Winter Cranes and TCVGUT?

The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory
Chris: I wrote a third of the new book the way I always had, very meditative and narrative, but suddenly this other voice started to make demands which was exciting and a little frightening. Up to this point, I had honed my poetic voice by mining the past. However, new poems started coming out in this disjointed rapid-fire anxious stream of images and thoughts. We live in turbulent times. I guess I was wondering how do you make sense of art in a Youtube universe where climate change is a regular feature on television news? New poems embraced these challenges but I think nostalgia is still there as a buffer, as a way to retreat a little from our modern times. For me, my favorite poems ride that edge between nostalgia and mainstream unease.

Rob: Yes, I agree. The best poems in the book pull in and balance everything (the "then", the "now", the political, the personal). In "Reality Check" you write "Yes, I am leaving parts out of the frame" and throughout TCVGUT we get glimpses of your personal life amidst the nostalgia-and-politics-stacking. But they are only these little flashes. Lines like these, from "Selfie with 10,000 Things":

No one has ever told you this, but the self, the soul, 
burns brightest with a bomb strapped to its back -- 
   illness, say, or a doomed relationship. Alcoholism. 
The hell we made."

That very last "we", and all it opens up.

A subtler shift comes between books, with poems about "my wife" in Winter Cranes replaced by poems about "my ex-wife" in TCVGUT. Beyond the book, in 2014 on your wonderful blog, Table Music, you spoke very thoughtfully about your recurring struggles with depression. Not to go all Barbara Walters on you, but it doesn't feel like a stretch to say the book was written in, or out of, a very trying time in your life.

How much do you see that time, and the person you were, in these poems (how much are they "in the frame", for you)? Or were the poems a way to escape, or transcend, a very difficult period in your life?

Chris: I live with recurrent major depression and I am also recovering from alcohol dependence. I have been sober for a few years now. Both were factors in my marriage ending, but as painful as it can be to talk about such things, keeping secrets is far worse for someone living in recovery. I basically had a nervous breakdown during the writing of this book and I think my anxiety became far worse after I stop medicating with alcohol, which is one reason these new poems emerged. I am very friendly with my ex and she is proud of my progress. If I can help others through writing about such experiences, I am very happy to add what little I can to the conversation around mental health.

Rob: I really appreciate your saying, and doing that, both now and in the past on your blog. It makes a bigger difference than your know.

Shifting gears: very few of the poems in TCVGUT were published in traditional literary magazines (though a number did come out in your Anstruther Press chapbook Invaders). Most were published, slowly and steadily, on Table Music. Why did you make this decision, and would you recommend it to others? More generally, do you think your maintenance of Table Music has shaped your poems, and your thinking about poetry, in any way? If so, how?

Chris: I wrote a third of the book over the course of several years. The next two-thirds I wrote in an anxious rush over four manic months. I think you write the poem that is in front of you and sometimes that takes time to figure out. Other times it is necessary to write even if you don’t have a subject in mind. For me, the time had come for me to write poems very quickly to help reduce the anxiety affecting me. The blog is helpful in that I can put poems up on it and I can immediately see their flaws. It makes for very rapid editing. I am trying to get more poems out to magazines lately but the blog has always been important in helping me to share my ideas about imagery, or time, in poetry, or any other topic of interest that catches my fancy.

Rob: Sticking with the blog, one of my favourite things about Table Music has been how it's introduced me to new writers, most notably Larry Levis, and how it's deepened my appreciation of others, most notably Jack Gilbert. Then I open this book and those two poets are everywhere, from TCVGUT's aforementioned Levis epigraph, to the book's third poem ("I was / pen pals with Jack Gilbert. Larry Levis too."), to the excerpted poem above ("Panic Room"), which notes that we avoid writing about "the invisible fires of existence" (which feels, to me, like a nod to Gilbert's The Great Fires, and everything he aimed to do in that book). Could you speak about the role of these two writers in your life, in general, and specifically how they helped you shape and think about the poems in this book?

Chris: One of the things I wanted to do with my blog was to pay homage to those poets who have been great teachers for me. I think anyone who has come across the poetry of Jack Gilbert or Larry Levis knows their work is truly remarkable. Their poetry has been an incredible gift in my life. Both were very serious poets who did not worry about their critical reception and, in the case of Gilbert, actively stayed out of poetry circles. I live in Waterloo, Ontario, so I only have a very marginal relationship with the larger poetry communities in Toronto and Hamilton. It has helped me reading both of these gentlemen to know one can write fine poetry without being immediately dropped into a large literary community. Gilbert was a master lyric poet. Levis’s grand vision elevated every place he grew up or visited. Both have taught me more than I can say.

Rob: Speaking of relating to the larger literary community, those "invisible fires" lines in "Panic Room" also serve as a good example of how you directly inject your opinions on modern poetry into these poems ("Write about childhood or politics, / your dog or your ex, but not about the invisible fires / of existence."). Another favourite of mine, from the title poem: "Maybe I'm being / greedy wanting art to be more than a bowl of fruit, / wanting there to be answers."

Reading lines like these reminded me of a quote by Zach Wells, from a Maisonneuve interview many moons ago:

"There’s a way in which just about any poem a person writes can be interpreted as a statement of poetics. Ideally, I think, that’s actually the way it should be: i.e. poems should be the means by which a person — whether poet or reader — arrives at poetics, as opposed to poetics being the way one arrives at poems."

I was wondering about your thoughts on this quote; on poetics coming out of poems and not vice-versa. When you come to an opinion about poetry, do you usually desire first to channel it into a poem, or a blog post, or a conversation with a friend (in Toronto or Hamilton or otherwise), or?

Chris: I think I come to ideas about poetics very slowly but then, yes, they filter through my practise in the ways you have suggested above. I absolutely love the nostalgic poems in Winter Cranes but then with this new book I am also saying nostalgia is not enough. It won’t save you. In fact, in “All Night Arcade” I mention “Nostalgia is a verdict for not living well” which ghostly echoes Leonard Cohen who said poetry was a verdict. So yes, poems are about poetics and vice-versa.

Rob: On a more practical level, with all the stacking going on in these poems (of political events, personal anecdotes, one-liner observations on society, poetics, etc.), how do you gather the individual bits together? Do you have a notebook where you keep smaller thoughts before collaging them together, or do you pull them from the ether as you write a new poem?

Chris: Sometimes I will keep lines that didn’t work in a previous poem but mainly I try to write my poems very quickly and not edit too much when I am writing. I think because I wrote so slowly for five years, I had this reservoir of images, things I needed to say, just under the surface which is why, when I “broke free”, the rest of the book was finished so quickly.

Rob: Are you writing now (and at a similar clip?), or are you going to make us wait another six years for the next book?

Chris: I have finished another manuscript already called The Book Of The Dead For Dummies which should come out with ECW Press in about two years. Again, I am writing very quickly for whatever reason. I am just following where the poems lead me.


Buy The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory quick, or Chris will go and write five more books while you dawdle. You can do so at your local bookstore, or from the comfort of your home via the ECW Press website. Or, if you want to burn in the invisible fires for eternity, from Amazon.

1 comment:

Seaweed Books said...

Precious dialogue!!