July 23, 2012

The poem meant to outlive you


Canadian experimental poet Christian Bök refuses to be bound by the natural world as we know it. He refuses to be held back by humility, or even by budget. The only limits on Christian Bök’s newest work are the rules of the Petrarchan sonnet, and—even more dreaded and harsh—the recent expiration of his sabbatical.

Bök’s latest project, on which he’s been working for four years, is a book and ongoing experiment called “The Xenotext.” Bok has been seeking to encode a poem into the genetic structure of a bacterium, such that even when the cell replicates itself, the RNA will also encode a second, mirroring poem. As Jeremy Colaneglo writes for Open Book Toronto:

In order for this experiment to work, the two sonnets need to be mutually transposable according to a “bijective” substitution-cipher, where each letter is mutually switched for another. So far, only the opening lines of these poems have been published — “any style of life / is prim…” for the first; and “the faery is rosy / of glow…” for the second. Even in these small sections you can see the substitution at work: for example, the letters E and Y are mutually correlated with each other across the two poems, so that wherever the letter E appears in one text, the letter Y appears in the other. In order to write these poems, Bök created a computer program which, when given one of the eight trillion-or-so possible ciphers, produced a list of words that were mutually transposable according to this scheme. In our interview, Bök said that the largest list produced by his program was “about 800” words long, and the list used for his poems was “slightly more than 100.”

Bök, author of the exquisitely oulipian and Griffin-winning Eunoia and equally popular Crystallography, has always inflected his work with the lattices and replications of the natural world. Stylistically,  the Xenotext is not such a departure.

Methodologically, however:

“In order to write this book,” he said, “I’ve had to teach myself a good deal of biochemistry and computer programming. My team of scientific consultants doesn’t do any of the design for me; they provide advice, and they test the results of my design in the lab — and if the experiment doesn’t work, I’m the one who has to figure out why.”

All that figuring out and redesigning seems to have taken time: the real hurdle for the project. On July first Bök wrote on twitter, “Alas, “The Xenotext” is still unfinished (at 150 pages…)—and today marks the end of my biennial vacation from the duties of school….”

That time should have proven a possible downfall of the project is of course irresistibly ironic considering Bök’s own longing for a more geologic timeframe for aesthetic works.

In a response to the Poetry Foundation blog, he wrote:

The Xenotext attempts to address such concerns about the untimeliness of art in an age, now anxious about the many potentials for our own anthropoid extinction. Even though poets may pay due homage to the “immortality” of art, no cultural artifact so far created (except perhaps for the Pioneer probes or the Voyager probes) has the power to endure for longer than a few million years—a mere scintilla of time, when measured against the cosmic scales of even one sidereal lifespan.


I believe that poetry needs to address itself to the longterm timeline of our aesthetic evolution—to think beyond the formal limits of our extinction in order to offer the future a cultural heritage more noble than our crimes against the environment.

While I suspect many might consider genetic tinkering for the sake of aesthetics to itself be a crime against the environment, I admire his ambition.

One of the most intriguing, if scientifically opaque, details is the incidence of what Bök is calling “the world’s first microbial critic.” Again, Colangelo:

 In 2011 the project seemed to have had a breakthrough, when Bök’s team was able to make an E. Coli bacterium glow red (meaning that the cell was responding to the implanted gene by building the poetic protein in response). However, the glow turned out to be the only part of the test that went right. Soon after announcing the breakthrough, Bök discovered that the bacterium was actually destroying much of the poem, leaving only the fluorescent tag intact.

“It’s actually censoring the poem,” Bök said.

Bök’s work seems similar in adventurousness, if antithetical in its goals, to the recent work of Christian Hawkey. For his book Ventrakl, Hawkey took the work of much-loved and maligned German poet Georg Trakl and altered it—by shooting it with buckshot, by leaving it to deliquesce in a jar of water in the sun, by translating each word phonetically rather than semantically. But whereas Bök prefers the jargon, and now methods, of science, Hawkey uses an edifice of translation or divination, a poetics with many adherents in this young decade, though not one without its own danger of failed experiment.

If you are particularly curious about the project I recommend this extensive interview with Bök by poet Ben Mirov.

If you are not only a curious reader but also happen to be an administrator at the University of Calgary, may I respectfully suggest giving this guy some more vacation time.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.