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Canadian avant-garde poet promises his audience a ”˜pyrotechnic experience’

By in Culture

Arts Writer

His volume Eunoia is the best-selling collection of Canadian poetry of all time. His sound poetry will blow your mind. As for his current project: he’s writing a poem that will persist after the sun explodes.

You may have the chance to see him live on February 10th, when Christian Bök will read some of his greatest hits from Eunoia (2001), perform a sampling of sound poetry and treat his audience to excerpts from his soon-to-be-released project entitled The Xenotext Experiment.

I reached Christian Bök by phone to discuss his forthcoming project. (In case you’re wondering, Bök is pronounced like “book,” and the wordplay will only continue.)

With The Xenotext Experiment, Bök reconsiders the idea of the book. A book functions to transmit information across time. If the notion of time is expanded (beyond, say, the existence of the human species), the idea of the book must similarly expand. Imagining a poetry that will persist across epochal time, Bök employs “the language of life itself”: DNA.

I would effectively be writing a book that could conceivably be on the planet earth long after the extinction of terrestrial civilization.

”“Christian Bök

“The only form of information transmission that we know of capable of storing information and sending it into the future is in fact living organisms,” he explained. And thus, he is currently working with scientists to synthesize a genetic sequence to be stored in an extremophile bacteria.

Assigning a letter of the alphabet to each codon of the genetic sequence, the bacteria’s DNA will encode Bök’s poem, reproducing the poem as it replicates its DNA. Because an extremophile, the poetry will be encoded into a living life form capable of withstanding 1000 times the amount of gamma radiation that would instantly kill a human being. Bök muses: “By storing my poem in it, I would effectively be writing a book that could conceivably be on the planet earth long after the extinction of terrestrial civilization. It could even be on the planet earth when the sun explodes.”

Since the bacteria will also be capable of protein synthesis — which inversely transcribes the genetic code — the bacteria will thereby be capable of “writing” its own poetry.

The concept is similar to the cryptograms found in most newspapers: Bök’s poem and the bacteria’s poem are mutually encoded. He has, however, quite outdone the writers of cryptograms since both of his messages are readable, and even, possibly, sublime.

“I’m trying to suggest poetry’s always been embedded or implied in these new-fangled technologies and it’s the job of the poet to respond intelligently and creatively to each of these advancements, in an effort to showcase the potential for their long-term transmission of cultural heritage across epochal time.”

For now, and until the sun explodes, The Xenotext Experiment is an invitation to discussion. “The work is a conceptual exercise designed to suggest that it will be addressed to a future readership that might be around billions of years from now,” explained Bök, “But in fact, of course, it’s a way of talking about the future to my own current poetic milieu.”

One of the most amazing features of Bök’s poetry is that even if complicated theory and years of labour stand behind his work, the poems themselves are a lot of fun. His work is not only impressive, it is also surprising, and at its best leaves the audience in a state of wonderment.

His Saskatoon reading should be extra-special for the chance to see him perform his sound poetry (which is roughly similar to beatboxing).

“I’m not the kind of poet who believes the audience should sit in their pews politely and wait for the sermon to be over. It’s supposed to be something that excites and inspires people to take an interest in poetry. So, I feel obliged to deliver a relatively pyrotechnic experience.”

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