- The Xenotext Experiment: An Interview with Christian Bök
Christian Bök is the author of two collections of poetry: Crystallography (Coach House, 1994) and Eunoia (Coach House, 2001), which earned the Griffin Prize for Poetry in 2002. He is also a sound poet and conceptual artist; Bök has performed to audiences internationally, and his art has been showcased at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York and with the traveling text art exhibition Metalogos. This interview considers the wider scope of his artistic practice and his current project, The Xenotext Experiment, which explores the relationship between poetry and biotechnology. Bök hopes to encode a poetic text into the genetic sequence of a living organism.
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.
When did you first begin to write poetry? How would you describe those initial efforts at writing verse?
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.
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?
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...