When my first book came out, I was suddenly thrust into the spotlight as “an up and coming young Canadian poet to watch out for” simply by having the good luck to land on a few awards lists. My book Bonfires, published by Nightwood Editions, was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award and won the CAA poetry award in 2004.
This was a strange time for me because my apprenticeship compared to many of my poetry friends was long and tumultuous. Only a few years before, I had written a failed poetry collection for my Masters Thesis in Creative Writing at Concordia, and almost gave up writing altogether at the age of twenty-six.
When I returned to writing and rewrote the lion’s share of that first poetry collection eighteen months later, it still sat on slush-piles across the country until Silas White at Nightwood Editions decided he would make a project of me. Silas invited me to Toronto and told me unequivocally that my poetry was still not very good but showed promise.
Sometimes that is all you need to hear and I believed him. I began writing harder and more deeply than ever before. My aesthetics became more refined and I met many people including Paul Vermeersch, Carleton Wilson, and Autumn Getty who would shape how I looked at poetry.Flash-forward a few years later, and my book Bonfires was published. It was very much a collaborative affair with my editors. Over-night, it felt like my life changed immediately. Bonfires became a best-seller and an award-winner. I was suddenly invited to many literary evenings as a special guest, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Douglas Coupland and Stuart McLean, Michael Winter and Russell Smith. In a word, I had arrived.
The problem with winning an award so young is you begin to believe it has something to do with you, and it does not. People like to give out awards, but most often it has more to do with the judges’ tastes and less to do with the quality of one’s work.
I really thought I had accomplished something huge, and in a way, I had, as writing a book is not an easy task by any means; however, other aspects of my life had not changed at all. I was still teaching high-school, and I kept hearing my own voice in my head telling me “real poets don’t teach high-school kids”.
I thought about moving to Toronto where I could be at the epicentre of the literary community. I haunted Toronto’s bars on weekends, drinking deeply into the night, and dreamed of the books I had yet to write while teaching all week. I began to resent high-school teaching and wondered aloud why I was not being offered a creative writing position at a university. Turns out those jobs are as rare as unicorns.
The other strange thing about winning an award is some fellow poets look at you with undisguised jealousy as they begin to introduce you “as a guy who has been on a lot of award lists.” As much as I enjoyed the attention of many who loved my first book, and the few publishers trying to steer me away from Nightwood Editions, I began to feel like maybe I didn’t deserve the adulation.
When writing my second book The Cold Panes of Surfaces, a much better book than my first one, in my opinion, I opined to my friend Autumn Getty that I was having trouble writing. I felt like my next book would have to be better than Bonfires. My good friend looked at me with pity and tenderness and said as gently as possible: “No one is waiting for another book by Chris Banks”.
It shocked me at the time but it was the best writing advice I have ever been given.
Soon the magic pixie dust of winning a poetry award wore off, and I was simply another poet with a second book that was not selling as well I would like. I wrote a third book Winter Cranes a few years later, most of the poems in syllabic verse, and again it was ignored by award lists. I began to drink more and eventually had to give it up.
It was a hard thing to realize the attention Bonfires received was a gift that perhaps I would never experience again, and I made my peace with that.
In the last six years, I have written more poems than at any other time of my life. I now look for the few appreciative readers who reach out to me to tell me how much they enjoy my poetry. These days I try to nurture my friendships with other poets, and I am genuinely happy for those poets who find their books thrust into the awards spotlight, especially first-time authors. It is a delight.
But awards do not make one happy. And they do not help you write another book. That comes from inside.
I have seen poets come and go, and the ones that stick around are those who make writing its own reward. They place the individual poem over the prize. When the next awards list is announced, you will find me doing what I always do. Chasing down a line or image or metaphor. The electric shock I get from doing that is better than anything in the world. Even an award.