March 2018

Back to Issue 3

Christian Bök in conversation with Rosanna Licari


1. As a young child you received a typewriter from your parents, can you tell us about that?

When I was four years old, I was seated on the knee of Santa Claus at a shopping mall, and when quizzed about what I wanted for Christmas, I requested a typewriter (despite not knowing what a typewriter was). Even though Santa Claus tried to dissuade me from this oddball request, I nevertheless insisted — and to the credit of my parents (both of whom come from a long line of labourers), they bought me a plastic, green typewriter, which I used to recopy pages from an encyclopedia of machines (my favourite book at the time). I could not read a word of this book, of course, so I hunted and pecked my way through the text, typing out the pages, merely by comparing the symbols found in the textbook with the symbols found on the keyboard. To me, this little ritual was writing.

2. You are a practitioner of experimental poetry, sound poetry and as well as conceptual art. When did your interest in writing seriously begin and what writing genre did you initially work in?

I wrote throughout my life, but I did not decide to become an experimental poet until I entered my phase of graduate research at the age of 22. I was writing lyric verse about myself (the kind of poetry that could get published, but would never contribute to the history of poetics). I discovered that I was striving to become the kind of poet whom I “should” be rather than the kind of poet I “could” be. I loved writing poetry, not so much because I had any emotive insight to offer the world, but because I loved the sensuality of language itself, its shapes and its sounds — so I decided to abandon the “lyric voice” altogether so that I could pursue only my obsessions with the “limit-cases” of writing, embarking upon a course of study that would be both generative and exploratory.

3. How did this evolve into something else in relation to your interest in science and poetry?

When young, I went through a phase when I wanted to become a “mad scientist” — especially after reading the first novel ever given to me: Tom Swift and His Atomic Earth Blaster. I was a precocious, polymathic child, and in Grade 2, I wrote a short essay about atomic energy in longhand for my teacher (who seemed very wary of me). I received a high mark for my performance in the sciences throughout my schooling, and I think that most of my peers thought that I would just become an engineer — but while I enjoyed such study, I knew that I did not have the “artistry” required of a mathematician, and I had a greater passion for literature anyway. I later discovered the poetry of Christopher Dewdney, and his conflation of both science and poetics excited my imagination.

4.You published Crystallography in 1994 and Eunoia in 2001. What inspired you to write these pieces?

After reading A Palaeozoic Geology of London, Ontario by Christopher Dewdney, I started looking for other poets inspired by science — and at the time, I was pursuing doctoral research in the subject of “pataphysics” (a whimsical philosophy created by Alfred Jarry to lampoon the relationship between science and poetics). My first book Crystallography became a kind of pataphysical encyclopedia, using concepts from geology to misread premises in poetics — and this interest in perfect, crystal forms, led me to the procedural constraints of Oulipo, resulting in me writing my second book Eunoia (an extended, univocal lipogram). Both titles provided lovely tropes for poetry: crystallography (meaning “lucid writing”) and eunoia (meaning “beautiful thinking”).

5. In your last work, The Xenotext, you hope to encode a poetic text into the genetic sequence of a living organism. Can you tell us more about that?

Currently, I am striving to address the sociological implications of biotechnology by manufacturing, what I call, a “xenotext”—a poem, whose “alien words” might subsist, like a harmless parasite, inside the cell of another life-form. I have used a “chemical alphabet” to translate a short piece of verse into a sequence of DNA for subsequent implantation into the genome of a bacterium called Deinococcus radiodurans (a germ capable of surviving in the vacuum of outer space). I have composed this poem in such a way that, when integrated into the cell, the organism manufactures a viable, benign protein that is itself another text. I am engineering a life-form so that it becomes not only a persistent archive for storing a poem, but also a functional machine for writing a poem.

6. What are you working on at present?

The Xenotext still takes up most of my time, as I try to figure out how to get the construct to work in the intended organism — (I have already gotten the project to work in E. coli). Labour on the experiment has taken a hiatus for now, while I rebuild my funding, seeking more opportunities for collaboration, but I am still writing poetry for the forthcoming installment of the experiment. Other ongoing actions include a project inspired by Kazimir Malevich, in which I experiment with dissections of his painting “Suprematist Composition: White on White.” I am also dabbling with opportunities to work as a visual artist, preparing for an artshow in Australia. I am also striving to finish work on a book of essays about topics in Conceptualism (the literary movement that I have helped to found).

7. How does your writing position itself in the current writing environment?

Friends among my coterie always joke that History is our only opponent — and hence, we are striving, if we can, to place ourselves on the side of the Future. After all, the job of the avant-garde is to make sure that everyone shows up for the Future on time. I think that, for this reason, all of us in my coterie are playing the “long game,” hoping to exert a prolonged influence upon our tradition by pursuing pathways so far unexplored by other poets. I do hope that each of my projects is radically disparate in style from its predecessor. I want to restart from scratch everytime, learning a new set of unused skills.

8. Finally, many writers have complained about writer’s block. Do you get it and, if so, how do you deal with it?

Conceptualism has formulated strategies for generating literature automatically without much effort, after which the poet can modulate the result (since editing a text is always easier than writing a text). Sometimes, I might resort to these techniques of mechanical expression, just to get over my resistance to writing on an “off-day”—but usually, I have more ideas at my disposal than I can ever use, and I often feel distracted by one project while working on another. Given that I often write poetry according to a procedural constraint, I must be the kind of writer who invites “writer’s block,” thereby hampering my ability to express myself before I even begin to work. I usually explore poetic forms rather than express poetic ideas, preferring to play with language so as to surprise myself.