Tucked away in a corner of Toronto’s Power Plant contemporary art gallery, Christian Bök sits in front of an open MacBook, eyes narrowed in concentration, while assembling what from a distance appear to be brightly coloured LEGO blocks. He looks like he’d prefer not to be disturbed. Ignoring the noisy construction around him, he slowly pieces together what turn out to be parts of a molecular building set. When he’s finished the sculpture, an oversized rendering of a string of molecules known as Protein 13, it will form part of the gallery’s summer exhibit.
He later admits to being on edge. Nearing the culmination of more than a decade of work – of many trials and many more errors – Dr. Bök (pronounced book) will discover over the next few weeks whether his latest endeavour has succeeded. “I’m very scared it won’t work” he says. “Every stage, every phase of this experiment has failed and required an enormous amount of effort to redress. I’m very concerned that I will yet again end up hitting another roadblock.”
He is speaking of The Xenotext Project, a work that is equal parts science experiment, poetry and visual art. Dr. Bök, a renowned Canadian experimental poet, visual artist and associate professor of English at the University of Calgary, has spent the past 12 years attempting to write, genetically encode and implant a poem into the DNA of a bacterium, hoping to create “a living poem.” But that’s not the half of it. Once implanted, the poem is designed to act as a set of genetic instructions prompting the bacterium to create a protein, a chemical reaction that will produce yet another poem. “I’ve engineered an organism so that it not only becomes an archive for storing my poem but also becomes a machine for writing a poem in response,” explains Dr. Bök.
The bacterium he has chosen as his co-author is Deinococcus radiodurans, one of the hardiest in existence. “You can scorch it, freeze it, wither it and it continues to live. It can even survive in the open vacuum of outer space,” he says. “By putting my poem into this organism, I could conceivably be writing a book that might outlast the rest of civilization.”
If it works. And though it may sound impossible, Dr. Bök has reason to be optimistic. The experiment succeeded once before, in 2012, when the poem was inserted into E.coli as a test-run. That took years. Deinococcus radiodurans is proving to be trickier and the roughly $100,000 grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council that funded the project is due to expire at the end of October. “I’m running out of time. I’m running out of money. I’m running out of people to help me,” he says dejectedly.
If the logistics of genetically engineering a poem sound complicated, here’s the final twist. Dr. Bök actually wrote two mutually enciphered poems for the experiment. He came up with the encryption by pairing each letter of the alphabet with another, a process that would allow him to write two poems simultaneously. But, there are almost eight trillion pairings to choose from. So he designed a software program to sift through the multitude of possibilities, most of which produced gibberish. The one he selected has a vocabulary of about 100 words from which he composed two 14-line poems, each a sort of mirror image of the other.
The compositions aren’t typical of his work. “The constraint is so onerous that there’s not a lot of freedom to move around,” he says. “I didn’t get to say whatever I want.” But he devised the exercise in this way to mimic the chemical reaction that takes place when the bacterium reads the poem and produces a corresponding protein, a process known to biologists as transcription. “If I want these poems to be meaningful, I had to write them this way,” he says.
Dr. Bök’s poem begins: “any style of life/ is prim.” The organism responds: “the faery is rosy/ of glow”. At the same time, the chemical process should cause the bacterium to take on a reddish hue. “It enacts what it is doing,” he says.
Perhaps somewhat naively, he didn’t anticipate the process taking as long as it has. At the outset he believed the tough part would be securing the funds for the project or learning enough about molecular biochemistry, genetic engineering and computer programming to carry it out. He’s had some help along the way from biologists and technicians at the U of Calgary’s Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics, from a California biotech company and, more recently, from the University of Wyoming. But he’s done the heavy lifting himself. Dr. Bök has also written a number of supporting poems and essays that he hopes to publish along with the two original works and the accompanying scientific data when the project is complete.
As outlandish as this project sounds, it resonates with writers and scientists alike. “At first I was very skeptical whether he had actually learned molecular biology,” says Lynne Quarmby, professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at Simon Fraser University, who attended one of Dr. Bök’s poetry readings earlier this year. By the end of the lecture, she was convinced. But what most impressed her about the project, more so than his scientific knowledge, were the questions The Xenotext raises. “Big questions that are at the interface of art and science,” she says.
Dr. Bök isn’t the first to try to implant messages, poetic or otherwise, into bacterial DNA. Scientists and artists have been experimenting with this for over a decade, although he’s probably the first to take the process to such lengths. But then Dr. Bök’s poetry is all about extremes.
His previous book, the international bestseller Eunoia, took him seven years to write. Published in 2001, the book has five chapters, each containing words with only a single vowel. Chapter A begins: “Awkward grammar appals a craftsman.” To prepare, he read the three-volume Webster’s Third New International Dictionary five times, once for each vowel, while making lists of all the single-vowel words.
In writing Eunoia, Dr. Bök also set a number of subsidiary rules for himself. Each chapter had to refer to the process of writing and include descriptions of a sea voyage and a banquet; Chapter E retells the story of Helen of Troy. All chapters had to use 98 percent of available words and avoid repetition. Despite its quirkiness, Eunoia remains one of Canada’s bestselling poetry books and is in its 30th printing here. It won the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize in 2002. The book was later published in Britain where it also became a bestseller and launched Dr. Bök’s reputation as an internationally acclaimed poet.
Any English professor will tell you the distinguishing feature between poetry and prose is a constraint, a self-imposed rule, whether it be a rhyme scheme or a prescribed number of lines. But by any measure, the constraints Dr. Bök sets for himself stretch the imagination. “I’m trying to be as contemporary as I can be,” he says by way of explanation. “I’m trying to broach the uncanny in my own poetry. I feel like a researcher in language. I joke that I don’t write poetry; I make anti-gravity machines out of words.”
If history is destiny, then Dr. Bök’s fate was sealed the day he was born in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke and named Christian Book. The family later moved to nearby Georgetown where he grew up. He can’t recall wanting to be anything other than a writer. He remembers sitting on Santa’s knee at a local shopping mall when he was four and asking for a typewriter for Christmas. He got one. Dr. Bök, who is 47, did his undergraduate and master’s degrees at Carleton University before moving to York University in the early 1990s to complete a PhD. Along the way he changed the spelling of his surname, although not its pronunciation, to downplay, in his words, the “embarrassment” of being an English professor and writer with the last name Book. And not just any book. “I used to get a lot of Bible jokes when I was a kid,” he says.
The ’90s were an auspicious time to be at York. Over the course of that decade about a dozen students emerged who went on to become “crazy experimental poets,” says Ray Ellenwood, professor emeritus who served on Dr. Bök’s doctoral supervisory committee. Though they are few in number, they have an international reputation. “There’s no doubt Christian is a major figure,” says Dr. Ellenwood.
At the time, the young poet struck Dr. Ellenwood as a bit of a paradox. He says: “On the one hand he was a very serious academic scholar and on the other hand he had this boyish and very playful quality to him.”
Dr. Bök’s dissertation, later published as Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science, traces the history of the relationship between avant-garde poetry and science. On the day of his oral defence, Dr. Bök brought along his parents, sister and good friend (and York colleague) Darren Wershler to sit in. This is something rarely done in North American academic circles. “I was quite impressed because the work he was doing was so esoteric and so academic,” says Dr. Ellenwood.
The two have lost touch over the years; Dr. Ellenwood inquires about Dr. Bök’s most recent work. He listens to a brief explanation of The Xenotext, laughs quietly, then replies: “This absolutely fits my notion of him. It’s at once highly playful but of course it’s got its finger on our modern obsessions. What he’s doing in effect is making poetry relevant to our very chemical structure.”
Darren Wershler, who is now assistant professor of English at Concordia University, and Dr. Bök remain friends, and have, at times, been collaborators. “Of the contemporary poets out there, his work is among the most interesting and provocative,” says Dr. Wershler, who is also a poet. “It’s also that rare thing: poetry that people who aren’t poets care about.”
The Xenotext Project, notes Dr. Wershler, spans disciplines and genres: “Is it science? Is it poetry? Is it gallery art?” Perhaps the most significant thing about it, says Dr. Wershler, is that it challenges our notion of what poetry and the role of the modern poet ought to be. “What matters about it is the idea almost more than the text itself. The literary aspect is the least interesting of the whole project,” he says.
Dr. Bök went on to become one of the early founders of the conceptual writing movement, the subject of Toronto’s Power Plant exhibit. A few days after the show’s opening in late June, Dr. Bök and New York poet Kenneth Goldsmith, another principal founder, read excerpts from their work and discuss the origins of the movement. On stage, the two stand in stark contrast to one another: Dr. Bök in a black suit to Mr. Goldsmith’s head to-toe-white. They keep the audience entertained with their lively banter.
The movement, they say, takes as its inspiration the work of Andy Warhol and other conceptual visual artists of the 1960s. It is also highly influenced by the Oulipo, a group of experimental French writers who use extreme literary constraints, as well as the emergence of the Internet and other modern-day technologies. Conceptual writing relies heavily on plagiarism, appropriation and what Dr. Bök calls other “uncreative practices.” The Xenotext, as well as other works of conceptual writing, are remarkable “not because of the words you see,” says Mr. Goldsmith, whose own projects have included a year of transcribed weather reports.
After graduating from York and working at various jobs including as a tutor and a private-school teacher, Dr. Bök landed at U of Calgary in 2005, where he teaches poetry and sometimes science fiction. If there’s one message he strives to instill in his students, it’s the same one he tries to convey to his readers: “To show them the vast potential that is mostly untapped in the world of poetry.”
Along with teaching and writing, Dr. Bök has numerous other accomplishments to his name. He performs sound poetry (to get a flavour of this, search for Bök and Ursonate on YouTube). He’s created languages for science fiction television shows –“one of the more colourful lines” on his CV, he says. His work has been featured in both literary and science journals. He gives lectures and readings around the world. His previous works of visual art, books built out of Rubik’s Cubes and LEGO, have been shown internationally.
But these days it’s The Xenotext that preoccupies him. “If I can’t get it to work after 12 years, that will be a ringing failure for me,” he says. “If I pull it off, I get to be one of the great poets of the 21st century. If I don’t, then I’ll just be a loser.”
In early July, the following message appears on Dr. Bök’s Twitter feed:
Assays for the final phase of “The Xenotext” seem to have all failed—(so I have to head back to the drawing board for the next two months…).
— Christian Bok (@christianbok) July 6, 2013
The vector didn’t work properly, explains Dr. Bök the next time we speak, but he thinks he knows how to solve the problem. And he plans to give it one more try. “It’s going to look like a photo finish,” he says.
Back at The Power Plant, one of the two principal poems that comprise The Xenotext is displayed as part of Dr. Bök’s installation, directly behind Protein 13. Each molecule of the sculpture corresponds to a specific letter in the poem, explains Dr. Bök. And projected on the wall alongside the two are variations of the word “Sisyphus,” a king who in Greek legend was forever condemned to rolling a large rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down. A reference to the task Dr. Bök has set for himself? I wonder, but hesitate to ask.
Futile or not, he’s not giving up. Not when the finish line is within sight.
Rosanna Tamburri recently took a course in American poetry, given by a massive open online provider.