The SLS Interviews: Christian Bök

The SLS Interviews: Christian Bök

The experiemental poet on The Xenotext, genetic triplets and the epistemology of poetry.

By Sachiko Murakami June 1, 2011

Christian Bök is the other of Eunoia (Coach House), which won the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize, and Crystallography. He teaches at the University of Calgary. Sachiko Murakami is the author of the poetry collections The Invisibility Exhibit (Talonbooks) and the forthcoming Rebuild.

Sachiko Murakami: I'd like to start with The Xenotext, your latest project. Nine years ago, you began the project of writing a poem into DNA that will be implanted into the genome of Deinococcus radiodurans—an extremophile bacterium that can survive under extremely harsh conditions. Potentially, the poem will act as a sequence to initiate the manufacturing of a new protein, in fact a new poem. You're creating a living poem. You are working with scientists at the University of Calgary, who recently informed you that this in fact works—at least in E. coli. Congratulations!

The original poem begins "any style of life/ is prim..." and the new poem produced by E. coli begins "the faery is rosy/ of glow..." I'm a bit muddled on how exactly those words are produced. Can you explain a bit about how the chemical alphabet works? And, related to that, how involved are you with the actual science and research of this project? And do you mind if I add emphasis for readers who might get overwhelmed by Science?

Christian Bök: Explaining the process of encipherment in detail is difficult without providing your readership a crash course in genetics, and I'm still trying to figure out how to explain the process in a way that does not simply add to any confusion about the details of my project. But I can do my best to convey the general concept for the constraint.

Writing the "xenotext" requires that I create a chemical alphabet of "codons"—of "genetic triplets" made by permuting the four nucleotides in DNA (adenine [A]; cytosine [C]; guanine [G]; and thymine [T]). Each codon is a three-letter "word" that the cell interprets as an instruction for creating one of twenty amino acids used to make a protein. I can arbitrarily assign each amino acid to a given letter of the alphabet, and by stringing these codons together, I can create chemical messages, enciphered as sequences of DNA.

Because there exists a codependent, biochemical relationship between any preliminary DNA sequence and its resulting RNA sequence (which creates the string of amino acids in the protein), my two poems must likewise be bijectively codependent for my project to work. Just as adenine [A] and thymine [T] mutually encipher each other, so also do cytosine [C] and guanine [G] mutually encipher each other (with uracil [U] standing in for thymine during transcription into RNA). My two poems must mimic this process.

Let us imagine pairing off all the letters of the alphabet so that they are mutually assigned—knowing that there exist 7,905,853,580,625 different ways of enciphering the alphabet according to this one constraint. Now choose a cipher from this set. Then write an eloquent poem such that, if we replace every single letter with its counterpart from our chosen cipher, we get yet another eloquent poem. No poet in the history of poetics has ever actually imagined creating two texts that mutually encipher each other in this way.

I plan to integrate my encoded text into the genetic code of the cell so that, during transcription, the RNA in the cell might translate my string of codons into the required commands for manufacturing a correspondent series of amino acids—except that, through this act of biochemical translation, this series of amino acids must also encipher a totally variant poem. I am trying, in effect, to design a biological cryptogram that consists of a meaningful text that can, in turn, be deciphered into yet another meaningful text.

SM: Well, glad that's all cleared up. Related to that, how involved are you with the actual science and research of this project?

CB: I have had to teach myself skills in computer programming in order to build the tools required to explore the available lexicons for these ciphers. I have also had to figure out how to write these two poems so that they might actually make sense, according to my constraints, and I have had to figure out how to assign the amino acids to the letters of my poem so that, during expression in the cell, the text might actually make a viable, benign protein—one able to fold into a compact package, low in energy, with no cytotoxicity.

I think that I have impressed my team of scientists because they see that, despite holding only a doctorate in English, with no academic training in biochemistry whatsoever, I have nevertheless undertaken advanced, graduate research in the field, doing all the genetic engineering and protein engineering myself, designing the gene on my own, even going so far as to simulate the protein-folding without having to consult the expertise of any biologists—except at this final stage, when verifying my results and creating the plasmid.

SM: This sounds somewhat similar to the work of Crystallography and Eunoia, although the complexities are obviously deepened. I mean to say that there is an unrelenting relationship between form and content in your work; form demonstrates content, but at the same time content requires the form to be expressed. In Eunoia, the trap of the univocal lipogram becomes the preoccupation with the act of writing ("Writing is inhibiting. Sighing, I sit, scribbling in ink this pidgin script. I sing with nihilistic witticism, disciplining signs with trifling gimmicks impish hijinks which highlight stick sigils. Isn't it glib? Isn't it chic?") In Crystallography, molecular structures are mimicked in concrete poems and the language of geology "misreads the language of poetics." And in The Xenotext, the poems' content reflect the process by which they are created, but they actually perform this process in an organism. The Xenotext seems a natural progression of your aesthetic interests. Or do you see it as a departure?

CB: The Xenotext certainly does extend my ongoing interest in avant-garde poetics of all sorts—but I have always striven to ensure that each of my books remains radically different in style from its predecessor, requiring that I experiment with novel forms each time, while learning a new set of skills entirely from scratch. Each of my books, for this reason, has begun to take an increasingly longer amount of time to bring to fruition: four years (for Crystallography); seven years (for Eunoia); and so far, nine years (for The Xenotext). The trend is worrying, because I have lots of great ideas for future poetry, and at this rate of production, I may find myself unable to begin such projects before I run out of time. I tend to think of my work as a kind of "R & D" that takes place in the "skunkworks" of literature—so that, like the scientists working at Area-51, I am trying to reverse-engineer an "alien technology" (in this case, Language itself), in order to activate, for human usage, some of the unaccessed, but otherwise superhuman, potential of such a technology.

SM: Yes, your projects tend to be, in a word, epic. Crystallography and Eunoia seemed to have a certain longevity in your imagination; that is, both books were published (in 1994 and 2001, respectively) and then re-issued as "upgrades" with additional poems much later (2003 and 2009). The Xenotext has its own longevity built into it—a text that perpetuates itself, potentially beyond the end of humanity. So now that your achievement (of encoding The Xenotext successfully) is in sight, do you have plans for your poem-toting Deinococcus radiodurans?

CB: My lab is currently in the process of isolating Protein 13 in order to confirm that it has indeed folded according to my projections and simulations (but so far as I can tell, the poem is functioning without adverse effects upon the cells). I am going to be spending the next two months or so analyzing the results of this experiment, while arranging more test-runs—but once done, I then have to figure out how to implant X-P13 into the genome of the targeted organism, Deinococcus radiodurans, a much tougher microbe to engineer in the laboratory.

I foresee two creative outcomes from my project: first, a literary book for publication; second, an artistic show for exhibition. I am in the process of trying to produce an artfully designed book of poems, featuring not only my "xenotext," but also the chemical alphabet for the cipher, the genetic sequence for the poetry, even the schematics for the protein, complete with images and essays, outlining my results. I plan to include a slide with an actual sample of the germ for inspection by the public. I want my work to lend a possible, literary dimension to biology itself.

I also foresee enlarging charts and photos from this exercise so that I can display my data in galleries, and I plan to create artworks responsive to my encoded, genetic poem. I plan, for example, to submit the gene to a company that uses DNA fingerprinting to make giclée prints, and I plan to build a colourful sculpture of the gene itself out of toy molecules (I am, in fact, currently building this sculpture at an art gallery just outside of Manchester). I want my installations to provide a larger, visual context for the works appearing in my book.

SM: You clearly take an untraditional approach to writing, your lineage more Oulipian than canonical, though you seem to push the limits of what writing is. You take the idea of "uncreative writing"—the procedure becoming the machine that makes the text—to a literally, biologically creative microlevel; the univocal lipogram constraint sent you to read and re-read the dictionary several times over, collecting single-vowel words; the visual poems of Crystallography are precursors to the large-scale molecular sculptures of The Xenotext project. I'm wondering how this plays out for you as a creative writing educator. What happens when you encounter a student who wants to write lyric poems about his cat?

CB: The University of Calgary has one of the best programs in Creative Writing in North America, and we are the only program in English Canada offering a PhD degree in English with a specialization in Creative Writing. We, of course, get a diverse variety of students, and of course many of them may aspire to do little more than write "lyric poems about a cat." I always emphasize to my students that, in many respects, I do not really care what they write, so long as they "just amaze me." I think that students sometimes forget that the act of writing poetry is supposed to be an epistemological activity, ideally contributing to our body of knowledge, because such poetry makes a "discovery," teaching us something new about how to be a poet in the world at large.

I certainly teach the mechanics of writing lyric poems, but to me, these lessons represent the kind of foundational information required of all art-majors in an art-studio, where students must, for example, know how to draw a still-life in perspective (through a relatively rote set of heuristics, which always work, once you receive training in these techniques). I teach a handful of rules for lyricism that always prove effective, if you just follow the principles blindly—and the students are always doubtful that I can reduce their "emotional insights" to such mechanical procedures of writing and editing—but after some exercises, the students begin to recognize when they are, in fact, being poets: using language in a concrete, dynamic manner, in order to evoke emotion. And consequently they begin to generate some very lovely work, describing a rose, for example, as "a red megaphone that drools," or a sunflower as "a lion's head impaled upon a lance," etc.

I am happy to provide this kind of info about the "basic engineering" of poems—and my students always wonder why I do not write lyric poems as a matter of course, when I seem to generate them so easily in class. I try to emphasize that I am far more interested in figuring out how to "misuse" such skills in order to learn a new set of techniques that nobody else has already codified. I think that all young poets probably need to feel confident that they can, in fact, write lyric poems effectively—but I want my students to be more ambitious, to feel free to extend their reach beyond their normative prejudices about what a poem can be. I want them to be experimental and imaginative in their use of language so that they have permission to take a risk large enough to allow them to make the next epic discovery about some untapped reserves within poetry itself.

SM: I'm rather tickled by the idea of students having their emotional insights reduced to mechanical procedures and having that, in turn, produce work that is indeed lovely. How surprising language can be. Radical misuses of poetry at the beginning of beginning to write is, I agree, essential. Anything special in store for students when you're at SLS this summer?

CB: I have yet to plan my workshops in much detail, but I probably foresee teaching the writing of poetry, using my four standard "modules" from my scholarship on conceptual literature, in which we explore the relationship between "intentionality" and "expressiveness." I foresee doing some unorthodox, but delightful, exercises with the students in response to this kind of discussion about poetics.

SLS

As part of Montreal's Summer Literary Seminars, Christian Bök is reading Tuesday, June 21 at 7:30 p.m. at Concordia University's deSeve Hall with David McGimpsey and Rachel Resnick, and conducting poetry workshops throughout SLS.

Montreal's Summer Literary Seminars take place from June 12 to June 25, 2011. For a schedule of events, or to buy a pass, visit www.sumlitsem.org/montreal/schedule.html.

Related on maisonneuve.org:

—On Starnino's Nichol
—The SLS Interviews: Mikhail Iossel
—The SLS Interviews: In Good Company

SubscribeFollow Maisy on TwitterLike Maisy on Facebook