News and Interviews

"Delight & Surprise Have to Carry Through a Whole Poem" Chris Banks on His Process, the Poem He Reads Daily, & His Beautiful Losers

Chris Banks

Waterloo-based poet Chris Banks' fifth collection, Midlife Action Figure (ECW Press) is uncommonly fun, with Banks' playfulness on full display in lines like his comparison of time and memory to "a Fisher-Price View-Master of 'first kisses' and 'no return' policies". His wit and mischievous turns of phrase are the hook, and there's also a firm foundation of heart and keen intelligence throughout the collection as he explores the experience of living in our strange contemporary world. 

We're excited to welcome Chris to Open Book today to take part in our Poets in Profile series, where we ask poets not only about their newest collection but also about the path that led them to poetry. Chris tells us about encountering Al Purdy as his gateway drug to the CanLit poetic canon, the poem he still reads every single day, and the usefulness of maintaining a 'beautiful losers' file. 

Open Book:

Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?

Chris Banks:

I remember being a kind of artsy high school student, but without any real outlet for my creativity. I tried playing instruments, art classes, etc. but I never really found my creative niche until in an English classroom I was introduced to the poetry of Al Purdy. That had a big impact on me. Here was a guy writing about places where I had lived and visited in Canada. That was where it started. Soon I was reading Leonard Cohen and Margaret Atwood and Gwendolyn MacEwen. Those were the poets I found in my little country high-school’s library so those are the poets I read. 


What one poem—from any time period—do you wish you had been the one to write?


I love so many poems but one that I have framed and literally read every day is Jack Gilbert’s "The Great Fires". I have the line "Love is one of many great fires" tattooed on my forearm. I like Gilbert both for his poetry and his myth - the idea of giving up everything and running away to Greece to write poetry is so seductive. Who would not love to do that? His lyrical gifts are impressive. He was an original. One of a kind.


Do you write poems individually and begin assembling collections from stand-alone pieces, or do you write with a view to putting together a collection from the beginning?


I always write the next poem in front of me. I get an image, an idea, or even a title, and I work from there. Hopefully one line will lead me to the next one. I try to write very rapidly now after years of working very slowly. A book like Winter Cranes, for example, took a long time to write because whole portions of that book were written in strict syllabics (even though some reviewers at the time failed to notice!). My latest book, Midlife Action Figure, was written very quickly but I never really know what a manuscript is about until I write the last few poems.


What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?


It depends on whether I think the poem has "good bones" despite not really doing what I want it to do. If I feel the poem is simply terrible, I throw it out. Maybe I will salvage a line or two that will make an appearance in another poem. If I finish a poem, and I feel the poem is rather bad but I am hesitant to throw it away, I put it in my "beautiful losers" file of B sides which are failed poems that never quite make it into a collection. I sometimes go back and look at these poems later. Sometimes you can salvage a poem from the pile.


What's more important in your opinion: the way a poem opens or the way it ends?


"A poem should begin in delight and end in wisdom", said Frost. I think that delight and surprise have to carry through a whole poem. There is nothing more frustrating than really writing well and having no idea how to finish a poem, but if you are patient and do not try to force the issue to a crisis, the ending usually comes in its own time.


What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?


I really love Bob Hicok’s collection Hold out with Copper Canyon Press. I think he is one of the most interesting and versatile and surprising poets out there. I was very lucky to have him blurb Midlife Action Figure. 


What is the best thing about being a poet…and what is the worst?


The best thing about being a poet is writing poetry and meeting other poets! My poet friends have enriched my life beyond measure. I still get a little electric charge from writing a great poem or reading a brand new poet. The worst thing about being a poet is your brain telling you this is the thing you are meant to do with your time on Earth, and yet having to find other means to raise a family, financially support yourself, etc. I make my living as a high school teacher so I am confronted every day by people who are not just disinterested in poetry, but some of them actively dislike it. That can be hard.


Chris Banks is a Canadian poet and author of four previous collections of poems, most recently The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory (ECW Press 2017). His poetry has appeared in The New Quarterly, Arc Magazine, The Antigonish Review, Event, The Malahat Review, and Prism International, among other publications. He lives and writes in Waterloo, Ontario.

Buy the Book

Midlife Action Figure: Poems

Banks’s stunning new collection, exploring bold frontiers

“Poetry is an act of mischief,” Theodore Roethke famously once said, and Chris Banks takes this as his credo in Midlife Action Figure. His subject matter ranges from the familiar to the surreal, taking readers through poems that are both wondrous and strange, heartfelt and humorous, controlled and impatient. Whether calling a tree “an anthology of leaves” or describing time as “a Fisher-Price View-Master of ‘first kisses’ and ‘no return’ policies,” Banks approaches writing as if anything might make for alarming, strange, and dizzying verse.

Banks knits together wit with wildly inventive imagery as he follows his poems outside convention where they play with stolen matches. Capable of both deep introspection and the quick turn of phrase, he places his tongue firmly in his cheek as he looks for a measure of human wonder in this intermission between TED Talks and the apocalypse. Midlife Action Figure is a tour de force for anyone looking for that rare book that is as exciting as it is provocative, showcasing both pathos and humor, while it explores what it means to be alive in the early 21st century.