- Christian Bök was born on 10 August 1966 in Toronto, Canada. He began writing
seriously in his early twenties, while earning his B.A. and M.A. degrees at Carleton University
in Ottawa. He returned to Toronto in the early 1990s to study for a Ph.D. in English
literature at York University, where he encountered a burgeoning literary community that
included Steve McCaffery, Christopher Dewdney, and his good friend Darren Wershler-Henry.
Bök's published work includes two collections of poetry: Crystallography (Coach House,
1994) and the best-selling Eunoia (Coach House, 2001), the latter of which earned
the Griffin Prize for Poetry in 2002. He has also authored a critical study entitled
'Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science (Northwestern UP, 2002).
Well regarded for his reading of Kurt Schwitters's
Ursonata, Bök has performed his sound poetry all over the world. His conceptual artworks include Bibliomechanics, a set of poems
constructed out of Rubik's Cubes, and Ten Maps of Sardonic Wit, a book created
entirely from Lego bricks. His artistic endeavors have showcased at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in
New York and with the traveling text art exhibition, Metalogos.
Bök has also produced two artificial languages for
science-fiction television shows: Gene Roddenberry's Earth: Final Conflict and
Peter Benchley's Amazon. He currently resides in Calgary, Alberta, where he
teaches in the Department of English at the University of Calgary.
- Bök's second collection of poems, Eunoia, has garnered
considerable attention for the author. The purpose of this interview is to address the wider
scope of his artistic practice and to discuss his current project, The Xenotext
Experiment, which explores the intersection between poetry and biotechnology. Between
11 May and 15 July 2006, Dr. Bök and I corresponded via email.
- Stephen Voyce: When did you first begin to write poetry? How would you describe those initial efforts
at writing verse?
- Christian Bök: I began writing poetry in my late adolescence, producing work
inspired mostly by the likes of Michael Ondaatje, Leonard Cohen, and Gwendolyn MacEwan. I
published some of this juvenilia, but I became convinced late in my undergraduate career that,
if I continued writing emotive, lyrical anecdotes, then I was unlikely to make any important,
epistemic contributions to the history of poetry. I decided to become more experimental in my
practice only after I encountered the work of Steve McCaffery during my graduate studies. I
was surprised to discover that, despite my literary training, none of my professors had ever
deigned to expose me to the "secret history" of the avant-garde (what with its wonderful zoo
of conceptual novelties and linguistic anomalies). I realized then that, by trying to write
emotional anecdotes, I was striving to become the kind of poet that I "should be" rather than
the kind of poet that I "could be." I decided then that I would dedicate my complete,
literary practice to nothing but a whole array of formalistic innovations.
- SV: This assumption about what a poem "should be"--can you elaborate on this statement?
Why has the emotive lyric become almost synonymous with poetry as such?
- CB: Unlike other artists in other domains where avant-garde practice is normative,
poets have little incentive to range very distantly outside the catechism of their own
training--and because they know very little of epistemological noteworthiness (since they do
not often specialize in other more challenging disciplines beyond the field of the
humanities), they tend to write about what they do know: themselves, their own subjectivity.
The idea that a writer might conduct an analytical experiment with literature in order to make
unprecedented discoveries about the nature of language itself seems largely foreign to most
- SV: That said, has the concept of formal innovation changed since high modernism?
- CB: Postmodern life has utterly recoded the avant-garde demand for radical newness.
Innovation in art no longer differs from the kind of manufactured obsolescence that has come
to justify advertisements for "improved" products; nevertheless, we have to find a new way to
contribute by generating a "surprise" (a term that almost conforms to the cybernetic
definition of "information"). The future of poetry may no longer reside in the standard
lyricism of emotional anecdotes, but in other exploratory procedures, some of which may seem
entirely unpoetic, because they work, not by expressing subjective thoughts, but by exploiting
unthinking machines, by colonizing unfamiliar lexicons, or by simulating unliterary art forms.
- SV: Many readers of contemporary poetry are familiar with Eunoia, given
its critical and commercial success. Your first collection of poems,
Crystallography, is a quite different book in many ways. Comprised of odes, sound
poems, anagrams, quasi-scientific diagrams and indexes, the book demonstrates your interest in
combining poetic and non-poetic art forms. You describe it as a "'pataphysical encyclopedia."
Could you elaborate?
- CB: Crystallography (my first book of poetry) attempts to put into
practice some of my theoretical suppositions about 'pataphysics. Inspired by the etymology of
the word "crystallography," such a work represents an act of "lucid writing," which uses the
lexicon of geological science to misread the poetics of rhetorical figures. Such lucid writing
does not concern itself with the transparent transmission of a message (so that, ironically,
much of the poetry might seem "opaque"); instead, lucid writing concerns itself with the
reflexive operation of its own process (in a manner reminiscent of lucid dreaming). Such an
act of sciomancy borrows much of its crystalline sensibility from the work of Jean
Baudrillard, who argues that, for 'pataphysics, every phenomenon exceeds its own containment
within the paradigm of a theoretical explanation. The crystal represents hyperbolic
objecthood--a thing impervious to analysis: captivating because it is indifferent; frustrating because it is meaningless. The crystal invites us to enter a poetic prison of surfaces
without depth, a prismatic labyrinth of mirrors that revolve into themselves--hence, we lose
ourselves when we gaze into this crystal because it promises us answers to all the questions
that we exact from it, but instead it ensnares us viewers with even more questions to be asked
- SV: Two responses: first, Alfred Jarry's concept of 'pataphysics may require some
explanation for readers unfamiliar with this notion. Second, since
Crystallography attempts to negotiate poetic form through the conceit of
geology, one might call it a "nature poem." Is there an attempt to radically overhaul our
notion of this genre?
CB: 'Pataphysics is the "science of exceptions" imagined by Alfred Jarry. 'Pataphysics
occupies a cognitive interzone between ratiocination and hallucination, appearing on the eve
of postmodernity at the very moment when science has begun to question the paradigm of its
own rational validity. 'Pataphysics proposes a set of "imaginary solutions" for proposed
problems, proposing absurd axioms, for example, then arguing with rigor and logic from these
fundamentals. In contrast with metaphysics, which has striven to apprehend the essence of
reality itself and is thus a kind of philosophy of the "as is," 'pataphysics is more like a
philosophy of the "as if," giving science itself permission to dream--to fantasize, if you
like. I argue that, if poetry cannot oppose science by becoming its antonymic extreme,
perhaps poetry can oppose science by becoming its hyperbolic extreme, using reason against
itself in order to subvert not only pedantic theories of absolute verity, but also romantic
theories of artistic genius. I think that my book on crystals does not portray the nature of
crystals, through either description or explanation, so much as my book tries to emulate the
formal system of crystals, mimicking the processes inherent in their symmetries and their
- SV: Speaking of the book, you place considerable importance on its material production.
Typesetting a text replete with diagrams, transparent paper, and letter-fractals requires a
great deal of precision. Did the composition of this text require you to learn desktop
Figure 1: "S-Fractal" (left) and
Christian Bök, Crystallography 23, 26-7
Courtesy of Coach House Books
Figure 2: "Key to Speleological Formations"
Christian Bök, Crystallography 60-61
Courtesy of Coach House Books
Figure 3: "The Cryometric Index"
Courtesy of Coach House Books
- CB: Crystallography does require intensive labor to print, and I have in
fact stopped production of it upon discovering the mis-registration of a single title-line,
but in a book about the "aesthetics of perfection," I think that this kind of attention to
detail is appropriate to the mandate of the work.
- Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have argued that each book must lay itself out
upon a super plane, a vast page, doing so both extensively and expansively, without the
internal closures of a codex. The idea of the book, for me, has becoming something more than a
temporal sequence of words and pages. The book need no longer wear the form of codices,
scrolls, tablets, etc.--instead, the book of the future might in fact become indistinguishable
from buildings, machinery, or even organisms. I think that the book is itself a weird object
that might not exist, except at the moment of its reading--for until then the book always
pretends to be something else (a stack of paper, a piece of décor, etc.). I want each
of my own books to burgeon into the world, like a horrible parasite, exfoliating beyond
itself, evolving along its own trajectory, against the grain of truth and being.
- SV: How then does Crystallography specifically operate beyond the
"closures" of a conventional book? For me, it eschews the notion of a poetic "sequence" in
favor of something closer to a constellation, a book spatially organized. You write, if a
crystal is a mineral "jigsaw puzzle" that "assembles itself out of its own constituent /
disarray," then a "word is a bit of crystal in formation" (12). Can this be applied to the
- CB: Crystallography is definitely, definitely an extension of what Eugen
Gomringer in the world of visual poetry might call a "constellation"--words arranged artfully
into a rigorous structure across the field of the page. My book consists of conceptual
fragments, all configured into a crystalline latticework of correlated, figurative devices.
- SV: Finally, in regards to your first book, I'd like to ask a specific question about
one of the poems, "Diamonds." It is one of your few attempts at a lyric poem. Yet when you
read it in Toronto at the Art Bar Reading Series, many in the audience found your
"machine-like" performance somewhat disturbing, as if you had eradicated any sentimentality
from the text. Is there a conscious attempt on your part to perform a lyric poem in this way?
- CB: "Diamonds" consists of very tiny "opuscules" of words, all arranged according to a
lettristic constraint, in which each line of each fragment contains the same number of
characters (including spaces). I have written this poem in order to demonstrate that a
"heartfelt" sentiment can arise spontaneously from a rule applied with a rigorous, technical
detachment. I have expressed no lyrical content about my own biography at all within the poem,
and my "mechanical" performance of the poem probably arises, I think, from the mechanical
preciseness of its architecture.
Figure 4: "Diamonds" (Excerpt)
Courtesy of Coach House Books
- SV: I would like for us to turn to your second collection of poems,
Eunoia. Can you describe this text and what is now commonly referred to as
"constraint writing"? (Readers can find a flash version of the poem's "Chapter E" by visiting
Coach House Books
and an mp3 file of Bök reading the text in its entirety by visiting
5: "Chapter I"
Christian Bök, Eunoia 50
Courtesy of Coach House Books
- CB: Eunoia (my second book of poetry) strives to extend the formal rigor
of "crystallinity" into the realm of linguistic constraint--in this case, a univocal lipogram,
in which each chapter restricts itself to the use of a single vowel (the letter A, appearing
only in the first section; the letter E, appearing only in the second section, etc.). Coined
by Aristotle to describe the mentality required to make a friend, the Greek word "eunoia" is
the shortest word in English to contain all five vowels, and the word quite literally means
"beautiful thinking." Eunoia has received much fanfare, appearing for five weeks
on the bestseller list of The Globe and Mail after winning the Griffin Poetry Prize, now worth
$50,000. Eunoia responds directly to the legacy of Oulipo (l'Ouvroir de
Littérature Potentielle)--an avant-garde coterie renowned for its experimentation with
exaggerated, formalistic rules. Oulipo rejects the metaphysical surrealism of inspired
insights in order to embrace what the poet Jacques Roubaud calls a "mathematical
surrealism"--a unique phylum of 'pataphysics, one that formulates methodical, if not
scientific, procedures for the production of literature, thereby conceiving of difficult,
potential problems that require a rigorous, imaginary solution. Oulipo imposes arbitrary, but
axiomatic, dicta upon the writing process in order to evoke an unpredicted possibility from
these experimental restrictions. Such laborious exercises reveal that, despite any instinct to
the contrary, even the most delimited behavior can nevertheless generate both artful liberty
and poetic license.
- SV: The last time I checked, Eunoia was up to 20 print runs, and "Chapter
I" was recently featured in Harper's Magazine. Does it surprise you that a book
of poems--particularly one dubbed "experimental"--has had so much popular success?
- CB: I am surprised that my own work of experimental poetry has enjoyed popular success,
selling more than 20,000 copies at last count, but this number still pales in comparison to
the success of other cultural artifacts in other art forms--so I still feel that I have a very
long way to go in order to boost the profile of avant-garde poetry among a mainstream
- SV: So then the notion of a mainstream audience for innovative poetry appeals to you?
- CB: Poetry used to be the highest art form after music--but now, because of its
quaintness, poetry has become one of the artisanal vocations (like needlepoint); so I would
love to find ways to rejuvenate the discipline.
- SV: It should also be noted that Eunoia exhausts at least 98% of
univocalic words in English. With that in mind, can you describe the process you adopted for
composing this text?
- CB: Writing Eunoia proved to be an arduous task. I read through all three
volumes of the Webster's Third International Unabridged Dictionary, doing so five
times in order to extract an extensive lexicon of univocal words, each containing only one of
the five vowels. I could have automated this process, but I figured that learning the software
to write a program would probably take just as long as the manual labor itself--so I simply
got started on the project. I arranged the words into parts of speech (noun, verb, etc.); then
I arranged these lists into topical categories (creatures, foodstuff, etc.), so that I could
determine what stories the vowels could tell. I then spent six years, working four or five
hours every night after work, from about midnight on, piecing together a five-chapter novel,
doing so until I exhausted this restricted vocabulary. I thought that the text would be
minimally comprehensible, but grammatically correct, and I was surprised to discover many
uncanny coincidences that induced intimations of paranoia. I began to feel that language
played host to a conspiracy, almost as if these words were destined to be arranged in this
manner, lending themselves to no other task, but this one, each vowel revealing an individual
- SV: You mention that among the various meanings of "eunoia," Aristotle defines it as
the "mentality required to make a friend." It is also a rarely used medical term to describe a
state of normal mental health. I find this amusing, since Eunoia seems to have
required near pathological compulsion to write. Intriguingly, other constrained forms such as
the sestina or even the sonnet were from their beginnings linked thematically to obsessive
love. Can we talk about Eunoia in terms of (compulsive) desire?
- CB: Eunoia suggests that, even under duress, language finds a way to
express its own compulsions. I like the fact that, despite the constraints of the work, the
text still finds a way to be not only uncanny or sublime, but also ribald and sexual, writhing
against the chains of its apparent handicap. I feel that the vowels themselves have conspired
amongst themselves to speak on their own behalf, using me as the agent of their compulsive
- SV: You mention earlier that you were putting together "a five chapter novel." Do you
think of this text as prose or poetry? If one thinks of it as a prose poem, how does the sentence
function in Eunoia, in contrast, say, to Silliman's notion of the New
CB: Eunoia uses prose for poetic effect. While Ron Silliman has argued for
writing in sentences that integrate only at the grammatical, rather than the syllogistic,
level, I have preferred to write Eunoia in meaningful paragraphs, only because
this formality makes the constraint of the univocal lipogram far more difficult to
fulfill--and for this reason, each narrative in the book ultimately conforms to the classic,
generic rules of any sensible anecdote, thereby entrenching a regular, capital economy of
meaning (an economy that its avant-garde constraints might have otherwise challenged). A
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, like Silliman, for example, might find this work a bit
disappointing for its inability to depart from the norms of grammatical, referential
- SV: Silliman speaks highly of Eunoia on his blog. He comments on your
"awesome ear," claiming that the "book's driving pleasure lies in its author's commitment to
the oldest authorial element there is: a great passion for rigor." Granted, he does not discuss the politics of representation as it
pertains to Eunoia. But this raises an interesting question: the Language Poets
insist that departure from referential speech in poetry is necessary for an examination of the
political uses of language. Might constraint writing have a viable political function, albeit
perhaps a different sort?
- CB: Oulipo has so far left unexplicit, if not unexplored, the political potential of
constraint itself, apparently preferring to "constrain" such potential, confining it primarily
to a poetic, rather than a social, agenda. Oulipo in fact never deigns to make explicit its
political attitudes, even though the conceptual foundation of "contrainte" (with all its
liberatory intentions) might lend itself easily to political agitation. We can easily imagine
using a constraint to expose some of the ideological foundations of discourse itself (perhaps
by exaggerating the absurdist spectacle of arbitrary protocols in literature, making grotesque
their approved grammar, their censored content, their repeated message, etc.). To fathom such
rules supposedly emancipates us from them, since we gain mastery over their unseen potential,
whereas to ignore such rules quarantines us in them, since we fall servile to their covert
- SV: With so much emphasis on Eunoia's formal principles, it is easy to
forget that each chapter "conspires"--as you put it--to tell its own story. Which is your
- CB: When I read Eunoia in public, most people ask that I perform excerpts
from "Chapter U" because its scatalogical content "plays well to the pit." Of all the stories,
my favourite is certainly "Chapter I" because, to me, it feels the most polished--consistent
in quality throughout the entire chapter. It is the one that appears most effortless, both in
its fulfillment of the formal constraint and in its achievement of some poetic eloquence. In
other chapters, I always note a few paragraphs that, with another year of effort, I might have
improved, repairing minor flaws in either style or voice.
- SV: A final question about your second book: we have discussed the text's principal constraint; yet,
Eunoia operates according to several subsidiary rules. For
instance, each chapter must allude self-reflexively to the act of writing, describe a feast, a
prurient debauch, a nautical journey, and a pastoral landscape. Wherever possible, the text
must adhere to syntactical parallelism, minimize repetition, accent internal rhyme, and
exhaust at least 98% of all English univocalic words (as we earlier discussed). You mention
these subsidiary rules in a brief essay, "The New Ennui," at the end of Eunoia.
Yet, there are other constraints you do not mention. For instance, any time a sentence adheres
to strict parallelism, nouns and verbs typically correspond in the number of letters:
Here is another example:
In the second example, a "pagan skald" and a "papal cabal" both consist of two-word phrases,
each with five letters per word. "All annals and tracts, all dramas and psalms" comprises a
list of four six-letter words, juxtaposing historical and political discourse with literary
and religious texts. The subsequent list of writers alternates between four-letter and
five-letter proper nouns, arranged alliteratively by their first letters. Readers can find
several examples of numerical parallelism throughout the work. When did you figure out you
could add this constraint, and are there other embedded rules you've kept a secret?
- CB: At the back of my book, I do mention that the text owes some of its euphony not
only to internal, rhyming schemes, but also to syntactical parallelism--but (as you have
observed) I do not mention that this parallelism appears at the level of phrases (in both
their letteral counts and their syllabic counts). I adhere to these rules strictly throughout
the book--and, believe me, this constraint is difficult to maintain under the weight of all
the other restrictions. I have in fact adhered to many other unmentioned constraints (most of
which testify to my obsessive-compulsive disorders)--but for your amusement, I can mention one
among them: in any paragraph, the initial words of the sentences are either the same length or
get progressively shorter over the course of the paragraph--so that, for example, if I begin a
paragraph with the word "This," no sentence afterward can begin with a word longer than four
letters; and if I begin a subsequent sentence with the word "Its," no sentence afterward can
begin with a word longer than three letters, etc. I shorten each of these initial words over
the course of the paragraph so that, for me, the sentences "stack neatly"--and (as with all
the other constraints in the book), I have adhered strictly to this rule too. I never
highlight these other quirks and trivia of the text, because many of the rules just reflect
the minutiae of my own poetic habits.
- SV: At this point, I would like to discuss two additional aspects of your artistic practice:
sound poetry and visual art. Regarding the first, you are renowned for your performance of Kurt
Schwitters's Ur Sonata and at one point you were likely the only person in the world who
had committed it to memory. (Readers can find the poem online at Ubuweb.) What is the function of sound poetry today? How
has the genre changed from, say, the groundbreaking work of the 1970s by poets such as the Four
Horsemen, Henri Chopin, or Bob Cobbing?
- CB: Sound poets from the 1960s and 1970s have often justified their work by saying that
such poetry allows the practitioner to revert to a more primitive, if not more infantile,
variety of humanism. When such poets resort to a musical metaphor to explain their work, they
often cite jazz as the prime model for their own form of verbal improv--but despite the
importance of jazz in the history of the avant-garde, such music seems like an outdated
paradigm for poetry. I think that most of the theories about sound poems are too
"phono-philic" or too "quasi-mystic" for my own tastes as an intellectual, and I think that
modern poetry may have to adopt other updated, musical theories to express the hectic tempos
of our electrified environment.
- SV: I take it you are thinking of Techno and other forms of electronic music? What
appeals to you about these (or other) contemporary musical genres as opposed to Jazz?
- CB: When asked about my taste in music, I usually respond (with some embarrassment)
that "I like music by machines--for machines." The varied genres of electronica simply
dramatize more accurately our collective immersions into the hectic, social milieu of
technology. No human can perform a set of techno tracks without assistance from a
computer--and the sound of such music can radically transform our heartbeats and our
brainwaves in a manner that almost seems pharmacological in its intensities.
- SV: "By machines for machines"--in "The Piecemeal Bard is Deconstructed: Notes Toward a
Potential Robopoetics," you state, along similar lines, that "we are probably the first
generation of poets who can reasonably expect to write literature for a machinic audience of
artificially intellectual peers."
How seriously should
readers take this statement?
- CB: Readers should take the statement seriously. Within the next few decades, advances
in computer engineering are going to produce machines as sophisticated as the human brain--and
before the end of the century, we can fully expect to share our cultural activity with a
- SV: Sound poems such as "Motorized Razors" and "Mushroom Clouds" string together
recognizable words in suggestive, sometimes funny or disturbing sequences. For instance, the
latter poem features references to the atomic bomb amid talk of pinball, pogo sticks, and
ping-pong games. (Listen to these two poems at Ubuweb.)
Also, both poems
were initially conceived as part of a larger project entitled The Cyborg Opera.
Are you still planning a long sound poem?
- CB: The Cyborg Opera is supposed to be a kind of "spoken techno" that
emulates the robotic pulses heard everywhere in our daily lives. The excerpt entitled
"Mushroom Clouds" takes some of its inspiration from the acoustic ambience of Super Mario
Bros. by Nintendo. The poem responds to the modern milieu of global terror by recombining a
large array of silly words from popular culture, doing so purely for phonic effect in order to
suggest that, under the threat of atomic terror, life seems all the more cartoonish. I am
still amazed that, even though Japan is so far the only casualty of nuclear warfare, the
country has (weirdly enough) counterattacked us, not with its own WMD, but with symbols of
cuteness, like Hello Kitties and manga girlies.
- SV: You have created a number of conceptualist object-poems. I'm hoping you will
discuss two of them: Bibliomechanics and Ten Maps of Sardonic Wit.
Both, interestingly, were constructed using plastic--which is an interesting material. Roland
Barthes marveled at "its quick-change artistry," having the capacity to "become buckets as
well as jewels" (97). Does it hold special significance for you?
- CB: Bibliomechanics consists of 27 Rubik's cubes, stacked together into a
block (3" x 3" x 3") so as to create a device reminiscent of the writing-machine
Jonathan Swift in The Voyage to Laputa--"a project for improving speculative
knowledge by practical and mechanical operations." Every facet of these cubes displays a white
word printed in Futura on a black label so that, when properly stacked together, the cubes
create 18 separate surfaces (6 exterior, 12 interior), each one of which becomes a page that
displays a readable sentence (81 words long). The reader can, of course, scramble each cube so
as to create a new text from the vocabulary of the old text.
8: Bibliomechanics |
Twenty-seven Rubik's Cubes
6-3/4" x 6-3/4" x 6-3/4"
Courtesy of the
- Ten Maps of Sardonic Wit is a book whose cover, spine, pages, and words
consist of nothing but thousands of Lego bricks, each one no bigger than a tile, four pegs in
size. Each page is a rectangular plate of these pieces, three layers thick, and the surface of
each page depicts a black-and-white mosaic of words, spelling out a single line of poetry.
Each line is an anagram that exhaustively permutes the fixed array of letters in the title,
recombining them into a coherent sequence of phrases about atoms and words. The opening two
lines, for example, are "atoms in space now drift/ on a swift and epic storm." The letters of
the poem become the literary variants of molecular particles, and the book itself consists of
discrete, granular elements that can be dismantled and recombined to form something else.
Ten Maps of Sardonic Wit
atoms in space now drift
on a swift and epic storm
soft wind can stir a poem
snow fits an optic dream
into a scant prism of dew
words spin a faint comet
some words in fact paint
two stars of an epic mind
manic words spit on fate
|Text from Ten Maps of Sardonic
Wit, courtesy of the author.
- Plastic allows us to convert every object into a single, common substance--a polymer,
whose gewgaws are likely to outlast civilization itself. Plastic has thus become one of the
modern tropes for a kind of pliable but durable mentality, in which everyone shares the same
thoughts, the same opinions--a mentality in complete contrast, for example, to the
"esemplastic" imagination of the Romantics. Every idea now seems to have become a kind of
disposable convenience, no less pollutant than a styrofoam cup. I suppose that poetry itself
tries to "metabolize" these persistent, linguistic forms of polypropylene in order to recycle
them into something new.
- SV: I used to play with Lego when I was a kid. Was it difficult to find pieces
appropriate for creating a book?
- CB: The Lego Corporation, upon request, provided all the elements for the book (an
object that consists of about 8500 pieces). Lego bricks in fact have an almost Platonic
perfection: getting a package of 2000 small, white tiles, each one exactly the same, is really
like getting a big bag of protons.
- SV: The trope of plasticity seems to promise simultaneously glorious hybrids and
garbage we can't get rid of. I detect the same ambivalence in your response to the question
posed about innovation: art, as you put it, risks "the kind of manufactured obsolescence that
has come to justify advertisements for 'improved' products."
- CB: Art is really just an exalted species of garbage (stuff leftover by a prior group
from some other economic activity--and when we haul off this junk in order to dispose of it,
we just take it to an incinerator called a museum).
- SV: You mentioned earlier that poetic activity today might include "colonizing
unfamiliar lexicons." Many of your readers may be unaware that you have created two alien
languages for science fiction television shows. First of all, why? And second, do these
projects inform your creative practice in any way?
- CB: TV producers invited me to contribute to their shows, and because I needed money, I
agreed to design a couple of artificial, linguistic repertoires. I thought that the job was
fun, and it added a couple of colorful lines to my CV. I would say that, at the time, these
jobs did inform my creative practice (insofar as I felt that, for our culture, avant-garde
poetry had become so outlandish a practice that it now resembled an alien idiom with no real
home, except perhaps for the fantasyland of science fiction).
- SV: At this point, I would like to shift our discussion to your most recent work. I
understand you are currently making plans to convert a poem into genetic sequence? As I'm
sure you already know, members of the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) have recently turned to
biotechnology as an artistic medium--and this has created a great deal of controversy. First,
I'd like you to describe this field of art for those unfamiliar with it and elaborate on what
you believe are the social and political implications of this practice. Then, can you explain
how you would integrate poetry, in particular, with biotechnology?
- CB: Genetic engineering is going to be competing with computer engineering for the
brightest minds during the next decade, and I expect that, during this century, these two
disciplines are very likely going to overlap and coalesce into one "superscience." Artists
need to participate in these domains of study, simply because such technologies of
information-processing are going to become the medium for all forms of cultural expression. I
am currently trying to address these issues through an unorthodox experiment in poetry.
- "The Xenotext Experiment" is a literary exercise that explores the aesthetic potential
of genetics in the modern milieu--doing so in order to make literal the renowned aphorism of
William S. Burroughs, who has declared that "the word is now a virus." I am proposing to
address some of the sociological implications of biotechnology by manufacturing a
"xenotext"--a beautiful, anomalous poem, whose "alien words" might subsist, like a harmless
parasite, inside the cell of another life-form.
- Pak Chung Wong at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has recently demonstrated
that even now scientists might store data by encoding sequences of textual information into
sequences of genetic nucleotides, thereby creating "messages" made from DNA--messages that we
can implant, like genes, inside bacterial organisms. Wong has enciphered, for example, the
lyrics to "It's a Small World After All," storing this text as a plasmid of DNA inside
Deinococcus radiodurans--a bacterium resistant to inhospitable environments.
- Eduardo Kac has, likewise, used a genetic process of encipherment for creative purposes
in his artwork entitled "Genesis." Kac has transformed the biblical sentence, "Let man have
dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing
that moves upon the earth," encoding this phrase into a strand of DNA, which he has then
implanted into a microbe, subjecting the germ to doses of ultraviolet irradiation so as to
cause mutations in the text itself as the microbe reproduces and multiplies.
- Paul Davies (a respected professor for SETI at the Australian Centre for Astrobiology
in Sydney) has even gone so far as to propose an extravagant speculation, arguing that, if
humans can encode messages into DNA, then we may have to consider the possibility that
extraterrestrials more advanced than us might have already tried to establish interplanetary
communications by enciphering messages into our own earthly genomes, using viruses, for
example, to act as small, cheap envoys, transmitting data across the void.
- These three thinkers have suggested the degree to which the biochemistry of living
things has become a potential substrate for inscription. Not simply a "code" that governs both
the development of an organism and the maintenance of its function, the genome can now become
a "vector" for heretofore unimagined modes of artistic innovation and cultural expression.
In the future, genetics might lend a possible, literary dimension to biology, granting every
geneticist the power to become a poet in the medium of life.
- Stuart A. Kauffman (a MacArthur Fellow, who is now the iCore Chair for the Institute of
Biocomplexity and Informatics at the University of Calgary) has agreed to lend me the
expertise of his lab during its free time so that I might compose an example of such "living
poetry." I am proposing to encode a short verse into a sequence of DNA in order to implant it
into a bacterium, after which we plan to document the progress of our experiment for
publication. I also plan to make related artwork for subsequent exhibition.
- I foresee producing a poetic manual that showcases the text of the poem, followed by an
artfully designed monograph about the experiment, including, for example, the chemical
alphabet for the cipher, the genetic sequence for the poetry, the schematics for the protein,
and even a photograph of the microbe, complete with other apparati, such as charts, graphs,
images, and essays, all outlining our results. I want to include (at the end the book) a slide
with a sample of the germ for scientific inspection by the public.
- I am hoping to encipher my text and then integrate it into the genome of the organism,
doing so in such a way that, not only does the organism become an archive for storing my poem,
but moreover the organism also becomes a machine for writing a poem. I am hoping to design a
text that, when implanted, does not injure the organism, but that instead causes it to
generate a protein--one that, according to my cipher, is itself another text. I foresee that,
in the future, DNA might become yet another poetic medium.
- I am hoping to "infect" the language of genetics with the "poetic vectors" of its own
discourse, doing so in order to extend poetry itself beyond the formal limits of the book. I
foresee that, as poetry adapts to the millennial condition of such innovative technology, a
poem might soon resemble a weird genre of science-fiction, and a poet might become a breed of
technician working in a linguistic laboratory. I am hoping that such a project might, in fact,
provoke debates about the future of science and poetics.
- SV: Are you familiar with the case against Steve Kurtz at Buffalo?
- CB: I am familiar with the rough circumstances of the case, as the media have reported
them, but I do not know the details of his response to the allegations against him. I love the
scholarship of Critical Arts Ensemble, and I suspect that, by reacting hysterically to an
imagined, but baseless, threat of biological terrorism, the authorities have found a
convenient opportunity to make an example of an artistic activist, punishing him for otherwise
legal forms of political critique.
- SV: Do you consider the Xenotext Experiment an act of "artistic activism"?
- CB: The Xenotext Experiment is, at least so far, just an experiment--with no overtly
political overtones to it. I am not, for example, offering any cautionary appraisals of
biotechnology--and I guess that, if there is any "activism" in this work, the radical gesture
might lie in my complaint that despite science being our most important cultural activity as
a species, poets have ignored, if not rebuked, any attempt to engage with it.
- SV: This comment chimes with an observation you made earlier: that poets rarely extend
beyond the narrow scope of their own humanist training (note that some would take exception to
this remark!). Why do you think there is a resistance to science in particular?
- CB: Poets have generally forgotten that their art form, like science, is an
epistemological activity, in which practitioners gain acclaim for making discoveries and
innovations, generating surprises about the paradigms of their discipline--and usually the
"manufacture" of such anomalies requires that innovators speculate imaginatively in domains of
knowledge outside the immediate parameters of their expertise. Poets have historically
regarded the discourse of science as innately "unpoetic" (in part because science regards
"metaphor" itself as a barrier to its own mathematization of truthfulness)--and because
science is "hard," poets have found lots of reasons to justify their own ignorance of the
discipline, rather than engage with its discourses and procedures as participating
- SV: How do you expect audiences of poetry will receive the project?
- CB: Readers of poetry have become relatively conservative in their expectations, so I
expect that, in the short term, the project is likely to be greeted with some bewilderment by
poets, but conceptual artists are probably going to be more receptive to the project,
recognizing themselves within this kind of novel practice. I think that, in the long term,
using DNA as a medium for writing is going to become so commonplace an idea that my project is
going to seem ordinary by the technical standards of a future poetry.
- SV: We don't typically think about poetry as a communal artistic practice, so it
interests me that much of this work is collaborative (by necessity). How have scientists
responded to your proposed plan of work?
- CB: Stuart Kauffman, the geneticist, is my collaborator--and because he is a MacArthur
Fellow, he is already highly acclaimed for his unorthodox genius. He has always responded to
this project with a kind of dubious glee. He is originally a graduate of the humanities (with
aspirations of becoming a poet himself), so he appreciates the provocative character of my
exercise, but of course he wonders about its beneficial merits. He is, after all, trying to
use genetic algorithms to find a cure for cancer, so my artistic use of his resources might
seem like an amusing distraction from his more serious work.
- SV: I would like to end the interview with a question about your own personal reading
list. In your opinion, who among your contemporaries are doing interesting work? Whose poetry
are you currently reading?
- CB: Among my peers, Kenneth Goldsmith is still the man to beat--but I take inspiration
in varying degrees from a variety of contemporary writers, most of whom take their cues from
conceptual artistry of one sort or another: Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Kevin Davies,
Jeff Derksen, Craig Dworkin, Dan Farrell, Steve McCaffery, and probably most of all, my best
friend Darren Wershler-Henry (co-author of the recent book "Apostrophe"--an awesome work of
avant-garde poetry, written entirely by a machine that scours the Internet for interesting
phraseology). I have also been very excited by the recent book entitled "Lemonhound" by the
feminist poet Sina Queyras.
- SV: One more question, Christian: what is the story behind the umlaut above the
"o" in your last name?!
- CB: "Book" (B, double-O, K) is in fact my birthname, not "Bök" (B, O, K, with an
umlaut), which is in fact my pseudonym. When people ask me: "Are you the Christian
Bök," I usually respond by saying: "No, that's the Bible." With my credentials, I must
sometimes endure the indignity of being called Dr. Book. With such a moniker, I feel a minor
sense of irony when declaring that the concept of the "book" remains extremely important to my
own radical poetics, which has often striven to explode the formal limits of the book (its
serialized words, its stratified pages), doing so as if in response to the formal demise of
poetry at the dawn of a new millennium.
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1. The Flash realization of
Eunoia's "Chapter E" was created by Brian Kim Stefans. Eunoia was recorded on 2 June
2002, by Steve Venright in Toronto, Canada.
2. Marjorie Perloff, in her latest book,
provides an astute reading of Eunoia in these terms. She observes that
each chapter exposes the "semantic overtones" of each vowel, so that, indeed, the
vowels seem to speak on their own behalf. See Perloff 205-26.
3. Silliman's review of Eunoia
appeared on his blog (<http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/>), dated
9 April 2002.
4. The full text of Bök's essay can be
found online at <http://www.ubu.com/papers/object.html>.
5. Note that "Mushroom Clouds" comes directly
after "Motorized Razors" on the same mp3 file.
6. On the morning of 11 May 2004, the artist
Steve Kurtz called 911 to report the death of his wife, who had succumbed to heart
failure. Upon entering the home, local law enforcement encountered biological materials
and lab equipment, which Kurtz and other members of the Critical Arts Ensemble
routinely use in their art installations. Local authorities promptly called the FBI, and
Kurtz was briefly detained under terrorism legislation. Although a grand jury later
rejected charges of terrorism, the associate professor at SUNY Buffalo was still
charged with federal criminal mail and wire fraud, and faces a possible twenty year
sentence if convicted.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang,
Perloff, Marjorie. Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy. Tuscaloosa, AL:
U of Alabama P, 2004.