An Interview with Christian Bök

Wave Composition: I wanted to begin by asking what you’re currently working on. I’m aware of such works as The Cyborg Opera and The Xenotext Experiment; perhaps you’d be willing to say a few words about these projects?

Christian Bök: Well, for the last couple of years, I’ve been working very diligently on The Xenotext. I’ve written a short poem, and then through a process of encipherment, I’ve translated it into a sequence of genetic nucleotides, which I’ve manufactured at a laboratory, and then, with the assistance of my scientific collaborators, I’m going to implant this gene into the genome of an extremophile bacterium called Deinococcus radiodurans. I’ve written this poem in such a way that, when translated into this genetic sequence, my text actually causes the organism to interpret it as a set of meaningful, genetic instructions for producing a protein, which, according to my original, chemical cipher, is itself yet another meaningful poem.

I’m at the point now where I’ve the two poems in place, after about four years of dedicated research. I’ve spent this last year working on all the genetic engineering and proteomic engineering required to make the project possible. I’ve actually submitted the gene sequence to a manufacturer down in the States, and just this last week, my laboratory at the University of Calgary has received the gene for implanation. The lab is currently doing test-runs of the gene-sequence on E. coli, just to see whether or not the poem can actually express itself as a viable protein. I’m hoping that the gene can, in fact, cause the organism to fluoresce red, in which case we know that the protein has been expressed and that the gene is viable. So I’m at the stage, where I get to find out whether or not all my hard work is going to pay off.

WC: And it’s been four years coming. You’ve been collaborating with Stuart Kauffman, is that correct?

CB: Stuart Kauffman is the person whose name appears on my grant application as my scientific collaborator. I’ve needed about four or five years of solicitation in order to secure funding ample enough for me to realize this project, and during this time, he’s left the Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics at the University of Calgary. He’s now retired—and consequently, his successor, Dr Sui Huang, is responsible for providing logistical support at the lab. I’m reliant on his team to do the technical aspects of the biochemistry, since I don’t have sufficient expertise to do the work myself. But I’ve done all the genetic engineering and proteomic engineering on my own. And I think that the scientists are quite blown away by the sheer scale of the work that I’ve accomplished, while being equipped with only a PhD in English. They‘ve been quite surprised that I’ve managed to figure out the optimal design of the gene myself, taking into account, for example, codon-usage biases, restriction-enzyme sites, and base-nucleotide ratios—all the kinds of biochemical constraints that make the writing of the two poems difficult. I’ve done my best to make sure that I don’t look like a complete dilettante. I think that they’ve been amazed that I’ve actually gone to the trouble to simulate the protein-folding, doing all of this work, without ever consulting them for advice. I think that they’re quite pleased by the excess effort that I’ve so far invested in becoming a molecular biologist. I’m hoping that these initial test-runs prove favourable; otherwise, I’m going to have to back-pedal to a point about seven months ago in order to figure out some new strategy for making the gene work. I’ve only got a limited amount of time before my funding runs out, and I guess that I’m feeling some anxiety about the outcome of the experiment.

WC: At this point, even if it completely failed, would it still have merits as a conceptual project?

CB: No, I don’t think so. Given the time that I’ve invested, nearly ten years of work in this project, people are likely to be very disappointed if I don’t live up to all the hype. The success of my last book, Eunoia, has been so extreme that hostile critics are probably waiting for any excuse to impugn the merits of my poetics, and if I don’t produce this work, such critics are likely to see the failure as an occasion to validate their own dismissal of my practice.

WC: Well, [on the subject of your critics] I’m reminded of the “Cage Match of Canadian Poetry” [with Carmine Starnino] which I was reviewing yesterday, and which I really enjoyed…

CB: Oh well, I’m surprised that you’ve enjoyed it. I thought that the debate resembled two comptrollers arguing for some minor seat in a municipal election. If it was a cage match, it consisted mostly of sleeper-holds.

WC: Well, I think you probably came out on top, but let’s keep that between us.

You of course set the standard for yourself very high, and you’ve said Eunoia has pushed the expectations, both for yourself and for your peers, to an extremely difficult level. Outside your own body of work, how would you hope for your career to impact future poetic or artistic activity, or scientific practice for that matter? And also, maybe you could just say a bit about the reception of your work among scientists. Whether you think the spirit of ’Pataphysics upon which you base so much of your work would be useful to a scientist, for instance, or whether it’s just so much nonsense.

CB: I’m trying to treat poetry itself as a kind of “skunkworks” of literature, a kind of top-secret research facility, where we can reverse-engineer the alien technology of language itself. I believe that poetry must think of itself as kind of R&D, setting out to foment new discoveries or create new inventions. I think that poetry has increasingly become a kind of artisanal activity quite satisfied with replicating successful formulae from literary practices of the past. I’ve often joked that poetry no longer speaks adequately to the cultural condition of the 21st Century, in part because poetry doesn’t recognize the impact of important disciplines outside its own domain of expertise: for example, I think that science has probably become the most important cultural activity that we do as a species, in part because science has the greatest potential to influence our own long term viability on the planet. I always ask my students, for example, to name their favorite, canonical work of poetry about the moon landing—and of course, they can’t, because it hasn’t yet been written; but, if the ancient Greeks had built a trireme and rowed it to the moon, you can bet that there would’ve been a 12-volume epic about such a grandiose adventure. I’m just surprised that, despite the fact that the 20th Century has seen intercontinental battles and extraterrestrial voyages that would rival the fantasies found in our epic works of classical literature, poets don’t seem willing to address the discourses of these cultural activities….

WC: May I just interject with a question: do you think the reason for that is a lack of mastery of the language of science, or unwillingness to adopt the kind of authoritative stance that contemporary science adopts?

CB: Well, I think that poets feel little incentive to range outside the catechism of their own literary training. I think that poets are generally very satisfied, simply to report back to us about the domestic trivia of their own personal, lyrical experience, but it is getting extremely difficult to make an epistemological contribution through such a style of writing. I think that, conventionally, the ambitions of poetry have become modest in relationship to the very grand scheme of life, defining artistic experience in almost any other domain of enquiry.

In my case, I’ve selected biotechnology as an area of exploratory interest—but poets could focus on other, equally unusual, domains of unorthodox expertise. I’m trying to respond very directly to the cultural conditions of my own life as a citizen in a virtually “sci-fi” world. I think that molecular biology and computer science are already on the verge of merging into a kind of superscience about life at the very extremes of our understanding. And I think that poetry really needs to be at the forefront of these kinds of sociocultural discussions. If a scientist can encipher messages into genomes, then surely poets need to be engaged with such avant-garde personalities who are becoming “bards” in the medium of life.

WC: I read that Stuart Kauffman had aspirations of his own to be a poet, that he was trained in the humanities. Have you encountered other congenial figures in the science world?

CB: Well, scientists have generally overcome their preliminary scepticism in order to endorse this activity, in part because my work provides laypersons with some popular, artistic access to this world of the lab. The scientists see my poetic experiment as a way of popularizing their research to a larger audience: Stuart, for example, is himself something of a mad scientist, an unorthodox personality in his own discipline of biology, and I think that he recognizes himself in my harebrained project. He jokes that, when he was a young man, he often asked himself whether or not he would prefer to be either Einstein or Shakespeare, and at the time, he felt pretty sure that, given the choice, he would prefer to be Einstein. But now, he’s not so sure that he wouldn’t have made a better choice by being Shakespeare. He argues that the division between the two cultural domains of the sciences and the humanities now hinders the societal changes needed for our civilization to progress to a better world. I’m convinced that we’re living through a new kind of Renaissance, in which these two cultural domains are going to interfuse, so that, artists are going to have to acquire skills in the sciences in order to make use of relevant, creative techniques, whereas scientists may have to access skills in the art world when trying to visualize, interpret, or explain the novelties of a discovery. I think that these kinds of collaborations are likely to become far more common, and they provide a fairly obvious way to do something new in my domain of poetry. I think that, right now, very few of us know how to be “poets of the future.”

WC: You’ve gone to great lengths to extend the parameters of what can be considered a poetic medium in the first place, from LEGO blocks and Rubik’s Cubes, to the Deinococcus radiodurans bacterium. You’ve also edited an anthology of experimental Canadian fiction, Ground Works: Avant-Garde For Thee (2002), introduced by Margaret Atwood. How interested are you in specifically literary forms, at this point? How important is the “literary”?

CB: Well, you know, I’m still a very literary animal—but I think that poets face a problem analogous to the kind of problem faced by painters less than a hundred years ago. No matter how innovative the techniques deployed by avant-garde painters throughout the century, they must still apply coloured mud on a sail, and no matter how innovative the techniques deployed by avant-garde poets, they must still apply ink upon a page. I think that, just as painters have had to question their relationship to their own materials, in order to find new ways to be painters without having to “paint,” so also must poets learn to be poets in a manner that must seem, at first blush, to be “unpoetic.” To write a poem, for example, and then simply publish it as a book made out of LEGO doesn’t seem to me to so interesting as writing a poem that could not meaningfully exist without the poet first inventing the material of LEGO itself. I think that too many poets are satisfied with republishing their work on a billboard or on the Internet without actually figuring out how to use the medium to create something that redefines what a poem can actually be and what a poem can actually do.

Maybe I’m just bored of having to pick up a book, flipping the pages, only to note that I’ve seen all these words before, just not in this order. No matter how conservative or how progressive a book might be in its technical virtuosity, it is ultimately little more than words on a page, and I guess that, after years of reading so many books, all these poems begin to look very much alike, in the same way that many aficionados of art might begin to get bored of seeing the greatest paintings in the world, because the accumulated “déjà vu” begins to inure these experts to the effects of such oils on canvas.

WC: If I could just switch gears here, I was wondering about the role of nature in the avant-garde/experimental work with which you’re involved and broadly associated. I’m thinking of everything from “the graph that charts the meteorological conditions necessary for the crystallization of poetic forms” in Crystallography to Kenny Goldsmith’s The Weather and Lisa Robertson’s The Weather. What’s happened to Nature?

CB: Among many current schools of lyrical poetry, there’s certainly a renewed interest in Nature, because of course we’re living through a time in which we all feel that Nature has somehow come under threat. We see a diverse variety of “eco-poetic” schools of writing becoming popular because they revise the pastoralism of the past and make it more relevant to the environmental concerns of the present. I’ve got to confess that I’m not, by nature, a “Nature-poet,” but I come from a culture that tends to reward poets for being descriptive spokespersons of Nature….

WC: Though if I’ve got it right, one of the constraints for Eunoia was that there had to be a pastoral scene in each chapter, among many other things. But you sort of fold it into a number of other generic…

CB: The generic categories in Eunoia are informed by the sets of tableaux usually seen in the epic poems of ancient, classic Greece. I’m trying to respond to the classical concerns embodied in the neoclassical rationalism of the word “eunoia,” whose emphasis on “beautiful thinking” owes its origins to the philosophy of Aristotle.

I’m not somebody who typically writes about “Nature,” but I’m very interested in the way that somebody like Lisa Robertson might appropriate the language of the pastoral to the purposes of the avant-garde. A radical, pastoral poetry seems difficult for me to imagine, in part because pastoralism, by its very nature, looks nostalgically to a past allegedly preceding civilization, bemoaning the loss of an Arcadian paradise—whereas the avant-garde, by its very nature, is supposed to be forward-looking, focused upon the future, usually at the expense of a past that seems retrograde and oppressive. I think that Lisa is not writing pastorals in order to speak nostalgically about the loss of Nature itself—instead, she is bemoaning the loss of “pastoralism” as a viable, poetic strategy. We no longer live in a world where the avant-garde can possibly imagine writing pastoral poetry; ergo she writes a kind of pastoral that speaks to this fallen, poetic condition.

WC: So, to change gears once again: I guess over the last ten years there’s been this sort of “dialectic” of Flarf and Conceptual writing, and you clearly occupy a very interesting position within those communities, inclining more towards the conceptual but probably with sympathies for both. If we can speak of a “dialectic” there in the first place, might we also be able to speak of any sort of “synthesis” coming out of that? Where are we headed? Where do you see things going?

CB: Well, I’ve got to say that any “dialectic” between Flarf and Conceptualism is somewhat artificial, deliberately exploited by the respective members of both schools. When Kenny Goldsmith, Darren [Wershler], and I, first sat together in a bar in Buffalo concocting our ideas about what a school of conceptual poetry would look like, we could only hope to have some sort of contrasting school of writing that would provide a foil for our own activities. So Kenny has been very deliberate in his sardonic attempts to stage this contrast between Flarf and Conceptualism as a kind of “cold war” fought to the death—but really both schools partake of very similar sensibilities about writing in a culture now dominated by digital networks and demotic creativity. I suppose that the differences are primarily tonal: whereas one is probably more Dionysian in its excesses, the other is more Apollonian…

WC: Right, to borrow Goldsmith’s binary model from his essay in the Poetry magazine “Flarf and Conceptual Writing” issue (July/August 2009)…

CB: Sure. The two schools seem to be flipsides of each other, picking tools from the same toolbox in order to respond to a social milieu, where the very act of creating texts seems less appealing than the very act of figuring out how to reframe the sheer exabytes of data, already being generated automatically around us. I would prefer to think that Conceptualism enjoys greater critical appeal, but I think that, in showcasing the sheer scale of absurdity in our cultural situation, Flarf enjoys far more popular appeal.

WC: Well, I know Marjorie Perloff doesn’t have much patience for Flarf. I heard her at Oxford a couple years ago, and she dismissed it quite authoritatively!

CB: I can easily see her dismissing Flarf—and I can understand her rationales for doing so. But I look at objectionable work from poetic schools, about which I might have misgivings (whatever they might be), and I can see that such schools often contain within themselves potential tools that could be useful in different contexts. It just seems to me that, when we have a critical objection to some kind of poetry, be it conservative or progressive in its attitudes, we’re probably recognizing that, for us, such writing is not the right tool for the job at this moment: it’s either obsolescent or dysfunctional—misdesigned, in effect—but perhaps, a few tweaks would make it suddenly pertinent again. I think that, as poets, we’re trying to use language in order to find the “right tools for the job….”

WC: I see. And finally, do you have a favorite science fiction writer, or writers?

CB: Oh, well,—when I was young, I thought that I was going to make my living as a science fiction writer. I suppose that there’s some argument to be made for the “sci-fi” nature of my poetry—but I quickly gave up on any notion of being a speculative, pataphysical novelist. I was definitely a big fan of Samuel R. Delaney, whom I thought was quite brilliant: he was one of the writers who made me want to be a writer when I was a kid. But in the interim? Oh that’s harder: I’ haven’t kept pace with all the newest writers. I did read The Windup Girl by [Paolo] Bacigalupi, and I liked the quality of his “world-building.” I’m doing my best to catch up on the work of Peter Watts (whose work is great…)—and he’s planning to include The Xenotext in his forthcoming novel….

WC: Fair enough! OK, well I suppose we could end here. Thank you again for your time today.

CB: Thank you, I do appreciate the interest in the practice, and I’m grateful that you called and that I could take questions, —and thank you for being so patient with my long-winded answers.