The Chris Banks interview

Deepfake Serenade (Nightwood Editions) is Chris Banks’s sixth poetry collection, irreverent charm, emotional distance and surprising hot takes leap off every page. He writes in the title poem, “Inside every one of us is a deepfake. A holy ghost,” suggesting people have a choice to feel either like sad imposters or, if they’re brave, like survivors staring down a world both utterly familiar and strange.

Raised in the Ontario communities of Bancroft, Sioux Lookout and Stayner, where his father served postings as a small-town police officer, Chris Banks 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.

What is Deepfake Serenade saying about our current culture with social influencers, and where our social media profiles become advertisements that hide, rather than illuminate, ourselves? If we are not selling ourselves, what are we selling?

I think we are selling little “packets”— ourselves, the world, cute animal videos, human feelings— things that become toyed down and easily digested in a culture obsessed with consumption. We live in an accelerated society. We want the quick opinion piece, or rapid Covid test, or even fast food conjured from pressing a few buttons on our smartphones. Now even our news is boiled down to the essence of a story on Twitter so it can be easily shared. I think the new book reflects that kind of quick energy.

Why the change in poetic voice in recent books? You went from a lyrical, deeply meditational approach to poetry, ground in verisimilitude, i.e. real-life things, to a more loose associational, surreal “scatter-gun” approach to writing?

I think I ran out of things to say about my life and this can become a crisis of voice for a poet. I was in my Forties and I had run out of things to say about my childhood and my worldview was changing. When I was writing my book The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory, my marriage was ending and I was a single father to young children.

I was also not having much fun writing anymore, and I noticed some American poets like Dean Young and Bob Hicok and Kim Addonizio seemed to be having much more of a good time in their poems. Their poems seemed more mischievous, more daring, more reckless, and in a word, more interesting than lots of what I was reading so I started to write much more quickly, more aphoristically, and so my poetic approach and overall voice changed. Deepfake Serenade is the product of opening myself up more to word-play and being less intentional, less calculated, and more spontaneous in my poems.

“I think the title Deepfake Serenade refers to how each of us is and is not ourselves online. We have become avatars for the way we wish to be seen.”

In the poem “Avatar, Sweet Avatar”, you write that you “smashed / all the lamps inside words but still connections shine through”. What do you mean by this or are you just having a bit of fun with the reader?

I think what I mean by that line is that you have to let go of this idea that you know where a poem is going to go. For my first three books say, I would think of an idea for a poem, mull it around for a while, and then slowly construct the stanzas, the images, the lines. It was agonizing work. I did not want to do that anymore. I felt in a hurry to start saying lots of things, even if I was not sure exactly what it was I wanted to say. But I still knew I wished to be surprised by what I wrote, and you cannot be surprised if you sit and think too much about your subject matter. The element of surprise, of just sitting at a table in the morning and seeing if a poem shows up or not, has become very important to me. And I think that kind of improvisational energy runs through all of the poems in Deepfake Serenade.   

As much as this book is a rich inventory of playful associations and images, some real-life things still find their way into the poems — your recovery from alcohol dependence, vasectomies, teenage concerts, new love, on and on—so what is the connection, the divine glue, holding those real-life subjects, the good, the bad, to the more imaginative word-play in your poems?

I think of what Richard Hugo says about triggering subjects and the need for a stable base in a poem. “The more stable the base, the freer you are to fly from it in a poem,” he writes in one essay. I like to keep real-life memories and events in the periphery of my poetic vision. I rarely approach them head-on anymore. But I do believe that life experiences need to find their way into a poem as they can often make a bridge to some other off-the-wall image or connection that you might not have imagined otherwise. “All things belong in a poem,” says Richard Hugo, and my book is a product of that kind of thinking.

You talk in your poem “Escapism is Fabulous”, about the importance of epiphany in your poems. Could you elaborate on its significance when putting together a poem or a manuscript?

This goes back to what I was saying about the element of surprise, but surprise can not be just for surprise’s sake. Surprise has to be attached to new knowledge, to wisdom, for instance, which is when hopefully epiphany enters into a piece you are working on. This is what I mean when I write in that poem, “I am trying to sieve a few epiphanies / from palatial glass skyscrapers, sunspots, / microwave ovens, fake antiques, honeybees /nuzzling yellow stamens, daily clickbait, / a thousand poetry books, a blurry future, / old debts, new intuitions, as if it all adds up, / composes a self hiding inside a lumpy body.” Epiphany generates that little electric shock or zap! people feel when they read a really good poem, and that is certainly why I write and still read poetry. New knowledge, new ways of thinking, new uses of language are what remind me I am alive.

So what do we really learn about Chris Banks the poet from Deepfake Serenade? And what do you think the audience will come away learning about themselves?

Well, they will learn a version of who I am, but the speaker in my poems is far more wise, far more silly, far more risk-taking than I am in real life. As for what people will learn about themselves, I think the poems capture that accelerated, frenetic energy of modern life. It holds a mirror up to the World Wide Web, and to ourselves as consumers, whether we are consuming a cute Cat video, or the latest celebrity scandal, or rain slicking the windshield of our car on a morning drive to work. I want to create the illusion that all things can find their way into my work, and in so doing, the invisible rivets, what holds all things together, are stamped into my poetry.

Why is the title Deepfake Serenade?

I think the title Deepfake Serenade refers to how each of us is and is not ourselves online. We have become avatars for the way we wish to be seen. I say in the title poem “inside each of us is a Deepfake. A holy ghost” and I think I am trying to get at this idea that to simply exist now is to wear a disguise, or that we make of ourselves a disguise, we take to our places of work or into online spaces. We are selling that disguise to the world. 

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Nightwood Editions (Oct. 30 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 80 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 088971410X
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0889714106

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