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An Interview with Christian Bok

[POET]
“I FORESEE THAT I WILL BE ABLE TO WRITE TWO POEMS—I JUST DON’T KNOW YET WHETHER OR NOT THEY MIGHT MERIT PRESERVATION IN AN ORGANISM FOR THE NEXT 6 BILLION YEARS.”
How to create a work that survives humanity:
Write a poetic genetic sequence
Inject it into a resilient bacterium (say, Deinococcus radiodurans)
Wait for the sun to explode
by Jonathan Ball
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Christian Bok

[POET]
“I FORESEE THAT I WILL BE ABLE TO WRITE TWO POEMS—I JUST DON’T KNOW YET WHETHER OR NOT THEY MIGHT MERIT PRESERVATION IN AN ORGANISM FOR THE NEXT 6 BILLION YEARS.”
How to create a work that survives humanity:
Write a poetic genetic sequence
Inject it into a resilient bacterium (say, Deinococcus radiodurans)
Wait for the sun to explode
by Jonathan Ball
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Christian Bok

Jonathan Ball
12 Snaps

Christian Bök comes from a “long line of plumbers,” but broke with family tradition to become a controversial and internationally celebrated poet. He is a professor at the University of Calgary, and the author of two books of poetry, Crystallography and Eunoia, as well as a book of literary theory, Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science. A much-lauded performer of sound poetry, he has created conceptual artworks for gallery exhibitions and artificial languages for the television shows Gene Roddenberry’s Earth: Final Conflict and Peter Benchley’s Amazon. Bök is also the anonymous coauthor (with Darren Wershler-Henry) of the Virus 23 Meme, which circulated on the fledgling Internet in 1993. (The meme is a product warning that proclaims itself to be a self-replicating trap, triggered by the very act of reading the warning itself.) Douglas Rushkoff, in his 1994 book Media Virus!: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture, argued that the philosophy behind this meme/poem represented “the most subversive opinions that a person can hold.”

Bök is best known for Eunoia (published in 2001 by Coach House Books), a text that won the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize and brought the author international recognition. A series of univocalic lipograms, with each chapter utilizing only a single vowel, Eunoia became the first best-selling book of poetry in Canadian history, and he sparked a brief national debate about whether or not avant-garde poetry was entering the mainstream, heralding a new era of public acceptance of radical poetry. Alas, it did not. A UK edition of Eunoia was published by Canongate in 2008, and went on to become a national bestseller. For a time it was the eighth best-selling book on Amazon.co.uk and competed with Barack Obama’s and Nigella Lawson’s books for pole position on Christmas wish lists.

—Jonathan Ball

I. THE XENOTEXT EXPERIMENT

THE BELIEVER: In recent years you’ve published and performed work from The Cyborg Opera, a work-in-progress, and so readers might not know that your next planned poetry book isn’t actually The Cyborg Opera but The Xenotext Experiment. Could you describe this project?

CHRISTIAN BÖK: The Xenotext Experiment is responding to the millennial science of genetics. I’m trying to write a book of poetry in which I translate a  single poem, through a process of encipherment, into a  sequence of genetic nucleotides, and then, with the assistance of scientists, I plan to build this genetic sequence in a laboratory so that I can implant the gene into a bacterium, replacing a portion of its genome with my text.  The bacterium would, in effect, be the poem. I’ve selected an organism that is widely regarded to be the most unkillable bacterium on the planet, an organism called Deinococcus radiodurans. Its name quite literally means “strange berry that withstands radiation.”  The organism was discovered, I believe, in the 1950s,  when scientists were conducting experiments with radiation on foodstuff, primarily meat, doing so in order to see whether or not they could prolong the shelf life of tinned food. The irradiated meat, however, still rotted, despite receiving a dosage sufficient to kill all known pathogens, and, consequently, the scientists discovered that one pathogen had survived this experiment:  the bacterium now called Deinococcus radiodurans. A few scientists have even speculated that the organism may have evolved in outer space, just because the microbe is so resistant to extremes of heat and cold; it can survive in a  vacuum, and it can survive a thousand times the dosage of gamma radiation that would instantly kill a  human being. The microbe could probably survive a nuclear holocaust, and because it repairs its own DNA very quickly, it remains relatively resistant to evolutionary drift.  The microbe is basically so durable that, if I were to store a poem in the matrix of this organism, I would effectively be creating a literary artifact that (except perhaps for the Pioneer probes and the Voyager probes) would  be one of the few objects so far created by humans to outlast terrestrial civilization itself. I am hoping, in effect, to write a book that would still be on the planet Earth when the sun explodes. I guess that this project is a kind of ambitious attempt to think about art, quite literally, as an eternal endeavor.

BLVR: Could you describe the actual, physical process of transforming this poem into a biological organism?

CB: I’m trying to write a poem that I would translate into a sequence of genetic nucleotides. That process of translation is pretty straightforward: I’d write a poem, and then I would arbitrarily assign, to each letter of the alphabet, a “triplet” of genetic nucleotides. There are four genetic nucleotides in DNA: they consist of adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, and they are represented typically by the letters A, C, G, T, respectively.  I could, for example, say that the triplet of letters ACT might represent the letter A, while the triplet of letters AGT might represent the letter B, etc. By assigning, say, a triplet of such letters to any arbitrary letter of the alphabet, I would construct a cipher that could be embodied in the genetic sequence of this organism. I’m ideally trying to design the code in such a way that the gene sequence I implant in the bacterium would actually cause it to produce a protein in response. A protein that, according to my original chemical cipher, would itself be yet another poem. The protein would be produced as a set of amino acids, but every amino acid could be correlated to a triplet of three genetic nucleotides as well, so that’s how it would transfer. I would not only be storing my poem in the organism, in its genetic  matrix, but I would also be high- jacking the organism and turning it into a machine for  writing a poem in response. Because these two poems are chemically correlated, they are actually biochemically constrained by each other. It’s tantamount to writing two poems that mutually encipher each other—that are correlated in a very rigorous way.  In the Sunday newspaper there are often crypto- grams—puzzles that consist of a couple of sentences of  what looks like gibberish, but by analyzing both the letter frequency and the letter patterns in such gibberish,  you can begin to decipher what the message might say.  I’ve always wondered why they have to be nonsensical gibberish. Why don’t the puzzle designers create a  meaningful sentence that could in turn be deciphered into yet another meaningful sentence? In effect, that’s what I’m trying to do, to write such a puzzle—one that  consists of a meaningful sentence that could be deciphered into yet another meaningful sentence.  Imagine writing a poem by assigning, to every letter of the alphabet, some other letter, so that they are  mutually assigned—so, for example, if I were to assign E to A, I’d have to assign A to E; if I were to assign D  to T, I’d have to assign T to D, and so on. Imagine enciphering the alphabet according to such a rule. There are  about 8 trillion different ways of enciphering the alphabet so that the letters are mutually encoded. Pick one of  those 8 trillion ciphers. Now write a poem that is beautiful, that makes sense, in such a way that if you were to  swap out every single letter of that poem and replace it  with its counterpart from the mutual cipher, you’d produce a new poem that still remains just as beautiful and  that still makes sense. So I’m trying to write two such poems. One of these poems is the one that I implant in  the bacterium. The other poem is the one that the organism writes in response.  The hardest part of the project is, in fact, writing these two poems that mutually encode each other. It’s a very challenging task. I’ve learned, for example, that if I want my poem to include the word language there are only a limited number of words that the organism could write in response. You would think that an eight-letter  word like language would probably have many counterparts. Out of the tens of thousands of eight- letter words  in the English language, surely there would be several that would match according to one of those 8 trillion  ciphers. But as it turns out, there are only three: fox- trots, toxicoid, and copyboys—each of which has its own  set of unique ciphers. What does this fact mean? Well, if I  write a poem that contains the word language, the organism will have to write a poem in response that contains  one of those three words, depending upon the cipher used. If I wanted, for example, to use the word language and the word virus in the poem, at the same time, then I couldn’t use either the word foxtrots or the word toxicoid  in place of the word language, because there is no correlated word for the word virus in any of these other ciphers. In fact, the only word I could use for language is the word copyboys, and then the word virus would encipher to the word tribe.  I haven’t committed myself yet to any fixed list of words. I’ve tried writing poems using a wide variety of ciphers to see what it might be possible to say under such constraints, and the results are, so far, discouraging. But I foresee that I will be able to write two poems— I just don’t know yet whether or not they might merit preservation in an organism for the next 6 billion years.

BLVR: So how precisely do you produce these alphabetic ciphers and determine potential lexicons?

CB: I taught myself some computer programming, and I wrote a piece of software that allows me to input one of the 8 trillion possible ciphers. I pick one according to some rules of thumb, some heuristic methods that  I hope might produce an interesting vocabulary. I input this cipher into my software and the program proceeds to go through the entire language, finding all the words that mutually encipher each other according to such a code. Then the program spits out this list of words that I might be able to use in a poem. I then look over the list very carefully to determine whether or not the vocabulary is sufficiently interesting for poetic use, and then I sort the pairs of words into subcategories: all the nouns that translate into nouns, all the nouns that translate into verbs, all the nouns that translate into adjectives, et cetera. I make a database of these transformations in an effort to determine what kinds of syntactical statements I might be able to construct. And then I sit down and try to write a poem.

II. “LANGUAGE REALLY IS A LIVING THING WITH A ROBUST VITALITY

BLVR: How is The Xenotext Experiment a logical successor to the Eunoia project?

CB: Eunoia is the shortest word in English to contain all five vowels, and the word means “beautiful thinking.” It ’s probably one of my favorite words in the English language. Eunoia, the book, consists of five chapters, each one of which uses only one vowel to tell a complete narrative. So in the first chapter, only A appears, and consequently I can only use words like abracadabra, banana, bat, and cat to tell a story. I do this task five times,  one for each of the five vowels. I wrote the book as an experiment, to determine whether or not it was possible to say anything intelligible with literary merit according to this Herculean constraint. The book is written in response to a French coterie called Oulipo (an acronym for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, “the workshop of potential literature”), a very famous coterie of mostly French writers. They wanted to write books according to very rigorous constraints so as to eliminate metaphors of inspiration from their own poetic practice. They were hoping to reduce writing to series of formal principles that might inspire other writers to work under difficult constraints. Because nobody had really put the idea of such an extended, univocalic lipogram to the test, I thought that the task afforded me an opportunity to make a unique,  innovative contribution to literary history by actually proving the viability of such a lipogram. So I read through Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, a three-volume tome that contains about a million and a half entries, doing so five times, once for each of the vowels, and I wrote out a list of univocalic words. I proceeded then to sort them into parts of speech (nouns,  verbs, adjectives, etc.), and then I sorted each of those parts of speech into topical categories (food, animals, professions, etc.) in order to determine what it might be possible to recount using this very fixed lexicon. It took about seven years to write the book. It was a very difficult task to abide by these rules, but in the end I demonstrated, I think, that it was possible to write something beautiful and interesting even under such conditions of extreme duress. I discovered that each of the five vowels seems to have its own idiosyncratic personality. A and E, for example, seem to be very elegiac and courtly by comparison to the letters O and U, which are very jocular and obscene. It seems to me that the emotional connotations of words may be contingent upon these vowel distributions, which somehow govern our emotional response to words themselves.

BLVR: What is your actual relationship with Oulipo?

CB: I’m not a member of Oulipo—and I only know a  small handful of poets from this coterie. Because their group is a kind of private club, I doubt that I would ever be invited to participate, and I would probably not want to become a member, since I don’t want to define my practice too categorically. I do lots of  other kinds of work outside the purview of Oulipian constraint. At the  same time, I’m very impressed by the work of Oulipo—but like any writer hoping to make a contribution to literary history, I also have some misgivings about this historic practice. My friends and I have sometimes questioned the political viability of constraint, and we have often suggested that new forms of Oulipian writing might characterize more explicitly this political investment. Such forms might exploit, for example, the technological innovations of the  Internet, or such forms might engage more explicitly with questions of subaltern identity. Such options seem like obvious contributions that a younger coterie might make to a historic coterie, which has had a profound influence on contemporary, experimental practice.

BLVR: When you were writing Eunoia, how did you find working within the constraints of that lexicon? Did the constraints actually help you to write the text in some way, or were they simply obstructions?

CB: Well, the constraints were certainly Herculean, but I  would say that, in the end, they were enabling obstructions. They were difficult obstacles to overcome. I found the project very difficult. It was discouraging. I didn’t think that I was actually going to finish it. My friends thought that I had squandered what momentum I had already earned in my career with the release of my first book, Crystallography. They thought that, by wading too deeply into this swamp, I was never going to be able to extricate myself from it. They worried that I had made an exorbitant commitment to a fool’s errand. I worked from eleven o’clock at night until four or five in the morning, six days a week, while holding down two jobs, working sixty hours a week, all the while trying to complete my PhD dissertation. The book constituted a stressful experience in my life, but its publication has resulted in all kinds of support for my practice, and I’ve received a  great deal of attention, so I think that the task was probably worth the effort. The project also underlined the versatility of language itself, showing that despite any set of constraints upon it, despite censorship, for example, language can always find a way to prevail against these obstacles. Language really is a living thing with a robust vitality. Language is like a weed that cannot only endure but also thrive under all kinds of difficult conditions. This robustness of language has encouraged me to try even more ambitious projects that might push language to its limits.

BLVR: So how do you go from that project to The Xenotext Experiment?

CB: I’ve done my best to imagine writing a work that’s even more ambitious than my last one. I want to write a work that indulges in a dialogue with the actual language of life itself—the genetic code with all of its biochemical structures and constraints. I’m trying to write a work that is truly experimental. I’m hoping that, by writing a work that responds directly to biotechnology, I’ll be producing a work of literature which constitutes a timely comment about our social milieu at the dawn of a new millennium.

BLVR: Have you thought extensively about the future, potential audience for this book? Is there any logistical reason to want a poem to survive humanity, or is it more of a conceptual concern?

CB: I think that this project is a more conceptual concern. I have been inspired, for example, by the work  of Pak Chung Wong, a scientist working at an atomic physics lab in the United States. He is trying to find ways to protect our informational infrastructure from planetary disasters. The military is probably very concerned about preserving its data in the event of some horrific catastrophe, like atomic warfare or asteroid impact.  How might we preserve our cultural heritage against the threat of our own extinction? How might we transmit our legacy across epochal time? I think that the answer lies in the fact that there is probably no more robust way of preserving information than in the form of living things that can evolve and survivee, that can actually preserve and transmit their genetic codes over billions of years. I suppose that this idea has gotten me thinking about the future of literature in the twenty-first century, especially when genetics is increasingly becoming a domesticated technology, made avail- able to nonspecialists in biology for aesthetic purposes.

III. TRANSGENETICISM

BLVR: That domesticization of genetics has already occurred, to a degree, with transgenic art. The obvious reference point for The Xenotext Experiment is Eduardo Kac’s Genesis, where Kac implanted an excerpt from the book of Genesis into the genetic coding of E. coli. In what ways do you see this project as influenced by, yet distinct from, Kac’s work?

CB: My project is certainly informed by the precedents set by Kac, but I do have some aesthetic misgivings about his otherwise brilliant concept for an artwork.  First, I think that he selects a very overdetermined text for implantation in an organism, since the story of Genesis now constitutes a hackneyed, religious document when referring to the potential of genetics. Second, he has not written the text himself, and consequently the quality of the artwork now depends upon the authority of the original document, reducing the work to the kitsch milieu of the readymade. Third, he does subject the bacteria to mutagenic radiation in order to see what changes he might induce in the genetically preserved text, but none of these aleatory results seem especially uncanny. I think that the project is inspiring in  its implications—but it does not seem radically different from the act of inserting a copy of the Bible into the saddlebag of a donkey, and then letting the donkey wander on its own through a minefield. I think that, if possible, the inserted text must change the behavior of the donkey in some profound way, perhaps converting it to Christianity, if you like.

BLVR: Paul Virilio is a prominent critic of transgenic art, and in his book Art and Fear, he condemns such projects as “counter-nature,” a form of what he calls “Extreme arts [that] aim at nothing less than to embark BIOLOGY on the road to a kind of ‘expressionism’ whereby teratology will no longer be content just to study malformations,  but will resolutely set off in quest of their chimeric reproduction.”

CB: Virilio is an amazing critic, and I love his work, but I think that his complaint must condemn the entirety of human culture for its teratism. We have been indulging in all forms of transgenic manipulation for aesthetic purposes throughout the whole of human history, since the very dawn of agrarian practice. We have domesticated both vegetal life and animal life so that they can take on numerous, aesthetic functions within our own lives, and we still do not understand fully the effects of our experiment for the last ten millennia.  I think that, for purely pragmatic purposes, we may have no choice but to engineer organisms in order to  sustain the world that we are in the process of creating for the future, and this act may be necessary to put  us in harmony with the nature that is already arising in response to our own existence on the planet. I ask myself—what uses would I prefer for these technologies during their experimental phases? When Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, for example, he made it possible, of course, for nighttime illumination, thereby producing something as beautiful as a Ferris wheel at midnight— but he also made possible the horrific drudgery of the night shift. Which purpose would I prefer for such innovation: aesthetic purposes or pragmatic purposes? I think that, if they are speculative, if they are experimental— if they are probative—the aesthetic function of these technologies might help us to figure out the circumstances under which we might exploit these technologies without doing harm to others.

BLVR: Stuart Kauffman, a theoretical biologist, best known for his arguments concerning the role of self- organization in biological systems, has become involved in The Xenotext Experiment. What is his involvement, exactly, and from where does his interest stem?

CB: He is involved in this project because he himself is a  systems biologist. He is renowned for providing mathematical models that might help to explain some of the sources of evolutionary processes during the origins of life. He is curious to know why, among the virtually infinite number of potential chemical combinations, evolution has quickly zeroed in on those combinations that are self-organizing— and he suspects that there is some emergent property of organization in all of these systems—a property not reducible to the effects of Darwinian selection.  Kauffman majored in philosophy at Oxford, with the intention of becoming a playwright, but he abandoned these ambitions in order to enter medical school, where he became an oncological specialist. He went on to become a systems biologist, studying genetic algorithms and genetic networking. He is a MacArthur Fellow who has written several books explaining his ideas very eloquently to a lay readership. He has enthusiastically endorsed the project, realizing that it constitutes a prescient, aesthetic exercise that might also offer him an opportunity to do some science. He is curious about the kind of protein that  I might end up generating as a side effect of this endeavor. He has offered to model the resultant molecule, and he is willing to lend his name to my queries for both support or funding.

IV. “TO WRITE A POEM IS TO KNIT A DOILY FOR A CANDY DISH”

BLVR: Have you been pitching this project as a literary work, as visual art, or as a conceptual art project?

CB: Well, obviously I would be producing a book that would showcase the original poem, the cognate poem, plus the cipher, et cetera—so the work is literary in that sense. The book would contain various appendices about the experiment, followed by an actual sample of the organism on a slide for public scrutiny. I foresee developing an artistic exhibit in which I would display not only aesthetic images of the genetic sequence, but also molecular models of the genetic sequence, showcasing, both in paintings and in sculptures, the structure of the poem itself.

BLVR: Your work here and elsewhere bears the influence of visual and conceptual arts, and given the conservative nature of the literary world—particularly the poetry world, which is still very much chained to the artistic concerns of the nineteenth century— you might be better off in the company of visual and conceptual artists. Why aren’t more poets influenced by visual and conceptual art?

CB: Such a question remains of crucial concern to me.  Early in the last century, when we referred to an artistic movement, we referred simultaneously to both a radical, artistic school and a cognate, literary school, so that, for example, if you referred to surrealism, you would be referring to both a style of painting and a  style of writing. In the latter half of the twentieth century, there have been far fewer cases where writers and artists learn much from each other, collaborating with each other, inspiring innovation that might apply to every art form. As Brion Gysin famously notes, writing is now fifty years behind painting. To write a poem nowadays is tantamount to visiting a pioneer village, where you watch someone hammer out a horseshoe. To write a poem is to knit a doily for a candy dish. I think that all such artisanal activities are viable, but poetry used to be among the highest of the art forms, second perhaps only to music—when now poetry is among the lowest of the art forms. I think that poets are no longer encouraged to range very far outside the catechism of their own, now very limited, literary training.  Many poets believe that they can write without actually having a very thorough immersion in the history of literature. Many of my students, in fact, believe that    they have important insights that they need to communicate to the world, and I always respond, somewhat jokingly, that if they truly had earth-shattering    epistemological contributions to make to the world,  the proper genre for communicating these insights  would, in fact, be a press conference, not a poem. Poetry is not necessarily the best medium for conveying the news.

BLVR: How has poetry gone from this state of walking lockstep with art, if not being one of the highest forms of art, to becoming this thing that you write in your bedroom, as a teenager, when you’re sad and girls don’t like you?

CB: I think that poetry has suffered a state of waning significance ever since the Romantic period, in part because science has usurped the discourses of truth, otherwise reserved for the rhapsodies of poets. I think that before science, poetry might have been one of the primary methods by which people might have acquired knowledge about their culture and their society. If you wanted to gain knowledge of significance, you would read the  Bible, or you would read Homer, and thus you would come thereby to understand the rationale for existence—but science has come to replace these discourses of truth within our own society.  Science is now perhaps the most important cultural activity that we conduct as a species. No other activity is more crucial to the future of our evolution. I am always dismayed by the fact that, despite the increasing    significance of science in our daily lives, few poets address the language of science with much aptitude, since    many poets continue to regard science as one of the    most unpoetic lexicons, when in fact the most imaginative speculations now occur not in poetry by balladeers,    but in essays by physicists. I often joke with my students by asking them to identify their favorite poem about the moon landing—and of course nobody can name one. I find this fact very strange, since this event is probably the most important collective achievement in the history of our species—to set foot on an extraterrestrial world—and despite its epic size, such an event has yet to warrant one poem of memorable literary merit.

BLVR: Well, why do you insist on working within the writing industry, instead of the more lucrative visual arts industry?

CB: True, I have always fantasized about being a visual artist, but alas, during my training as a kid, I had very uninspiring instructors in art. I was more inspired by the instruction that I received in literature, so I decided to pursue this art form as my vocation, despite having superior aptitude in the sciences, where I received far higher grades. I suppose that I’ve still retained this interest in the sciences, hoping to exploit my knowledge of them for artistic purposes. I definitely want to make discoveries about language, and I think that poets are like the technicians at Area 51, reverse-engineering alien tools for use in the human world. I doubt that I’m going to get to work with cool toys from outer space if I do nothing more than write emotive, lyrical poems about my intimate, personal life. I think that poets need to be more ambitious.

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