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Christian Bök

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Christian Bök: the mad scientist of Canadian poetry

Xenotext instalment at the Power Plant, 2013

Xenotext instalment at the Power Plant, 2013

Never let it be said that Christian Bök lacks ambition. If the only feather the Calgary-based writer had in his cap was his 2001 volume of univocalics, Eunoia, he’d still be considered one of Canada’s most groundbreaking contemporary poets. That collection won the Griffin Poetry Prize and has gone on to achieve something virtually unheard of in the world of Canadian versification: bestsellerdom.

For any other writer, the success of Eunoia might have given licence to coast for a bit, to rest on some well-earned laurels. Bök, however, is not just any writer, and his latest project makes Eunoia look like a children’s nursery rhyme. As a follow-up, the most famous Canadian conceptual poet of his day decided to teach a bacterium to read poetry. Literally.

Inspired by the work of Pak Chung-Wong and his team of scientists at the Pacific Northwestern National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, who managed to encipher the lyrics to the Walt Disney ditty “It’s a Small World” into a bacterium and then recuperate the message after several generations of reproduction, Bök decided to try something similar with an original poem. Then, he took his notion one step further.

“What I was hoping to be able to do,” says Bök, “is to advance those projects a little bit by trying to get the organism to actually read the message and do something in response…. I’ve designed a poem in such a way that when it is implanted into this organism, the organism can actually read the gene sequence and interpret it as a set of instructions for building a protein.”

In so doing, Bök hypothesized, the organism should be able to encipher a second poem. “In effect, I have to write one poem such that it can be translated by the organism into another poem.”

The impetus for this grand experiment came from someplace extraordinarily quotidian: the daily newspaper’s puzzle page. Bök wondered, when looking at the cryptograms, in which a person analyzes the order and frequency of letters to decode a discernable sentence, why the puzzle makers never thought to make the original, coded message itself discernable. Why not create a puzzle capable of coding one grammatically correct sentence inside another? Thus, The Xenotext was born.

Like the poem encoded in the bacterium itself, The Xenotext consists of two parts. The first volume, appearing this fall from Coach House Books, is described by the poet as “a kind of movie trailer” for what will appear in the second volume, which will detail the results of the ongoing experiment. “The actual poems of the xenotext, the data, all of the crazy science-fiction material: all of that stuff will appear in the second book.”

What the first book provides is a kind of “infernal grimoire” informing the project. “It’s taken a rather dark turn,” Bök says of the material in the first volume. “It’s turned into a kind of nocturne about the meaning of life and poetry in an otherwise large universe that seems indifferent to our existence.” What began as an experiment in teaching a bacterium to read, Bök says, has transmogrified into a meditation on extinction. “It’s kind of a hellish meditation on the value of poetry.”

And in case all that weren’t enough, did we mention that the bacterium the poet is using is meant to be unkillable? Meaning that, should the experiment ultimately prove successful, Bök’s poems, like the proverbial cockroaches following the nuclear holocaust, stand to live on well after the rest of us have been snuffed from existence. “People ask me what’s at stake in this,” Bök says. “I think it’s ethically incumbent upon us to have some means by which we can preserve our cultural heritage against planetary disasters so that some future readers, some potential civilization might nevertheless be able to find evidence of our culture and reconstitute some of it, maybe.”

“Poets, I think have not been very good at dealing with the language and discourse of science,” Bök says, adding that he hopes this project will give other poets permission to be “a bit more extravagant” in the way they approach their work. “I’m doing my best to respond to the new set of skills required of artists as we continue to experiment with self-expression. I’m hoping that my friends and foes will be impressed or scared or delighted with me.”