Umlaut Champ, Academic and Experimental Poet Christian Bök Gets Into Bacterial Culture With His Latest Boundary-Bending Work
By Rob Thomas
The last time Christian Bök was at Carleton University was the spring of 2010. That year he was a guest of the department of English, where he delivered the annual Munro Beattie Lecture.
Bök, BAHons/89, MA/90, wore a white-collar shirt and a dark Armani suit. It was a far cry from his days as an undergraduate and graduate student, when—if anonymous internet comments are to be believed—he sometimes wore more outlandish attire, maybe even a sash. The only hints of the internationally renowned poet’s more playful side that evening were a violet tie and the lecture’s provocative title, “Be Okay With an Umlaut.” The lecture was about poetry, of course, but also encryption and microbiology.
That is because Bök—who jokes that he dropped an “o” from his real name and added an umlaut to spare himself the inevitable jokes that come with being a writer named Book—has spent the past 12 years trying to write the most challenging poem imaginable.
The aim of his ongoing Xenotext Project is to encipher a short poem into the DNA of a bacterium and direct the bacterium to write a response. The response is a protein, produced by the bacterium, that can also be deciphered by using the original code. In other words, he wants to write a poem directly into the genetic code of the bacterium that also turns the bacterium into a machine that writes an original poem in response.
He has had some success. In 2012, he managed to implant his six-word poem (“Any style of life/ is prim”) in an E. coli bacterium and forced a response (“The faery is rosy/ of glow”). He describes that breakthrough as a first draft. “Now I have to finish the manuscript,” he says.
His ultimate goal is to implant the poem and force a response in Deinococcus radiodurans. D. radiodurans is sometimes called “Conan the Bacterium” because of its ability to withstand acid, cold, dehydration and radiation. The idea is to write a poem that might last forever. This has proved more difficult. Bök recently learned that the D. radiodurans bacterium accepted his genetically encoded poem but flubbed the response. He still isn’t sure why.
“I feel disappointment, of course, but I’m not entirely surprised,” he says. “I’ve had setbacks every step of the way on this project.”
But the latest setback comes just as funding for the project has expired. Asked what the next step is, Bök says, “I just don’t know.” He insists, however, that the project isn’t over. It is “just delayed.”
It wouldn’t be the first time Bök has defied expectations—that’s what defines his career. In 1994, Bök reimagined the alphabet as exquisite fractal formations in his first book, Crystallography. He has challenged the conception and form of the book by building his own volumes from Lego. His second book, Eunoia—in which each of the five chapters uses only words with one English vowel—was a bestseller in Canada and the U.K., won the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2002 and, most recently, has been adapted for the stage by Toronto experimental choreographer Denise Fujiwara.
Bök says making a name for himself by creating experimental works, the kinds people generally pay no attention to, has been his goal for decades. It began in the final years of his undergraduate degree at Carleton University. Bök describes himself, at the time, as an exceptional student and an unexceptional writer.
“I was writing anecdotal poetry about my own experiences. I was a capable writer. I was able to get my stuff published. But I realized very quickly that I was not going to have any significant impact producing the kind of work I was,” he explains. “I, of course, had much grander ideas for myself.”
These days, in addition to his international reputation, Bök is an associate professor of English at the University of Calgary. He’s also busy trying to secure new funding to complete a microscopic poem that, he says, just might outlast civilization.