Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Christian Bök

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Christian Bök

This spring, Toronto high-school students from two Writer's Craft classes conducted interviews with some of Canada's finest poets. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book in June and July 2011.

Taylor Aitken:

Christian, thank you for giving your time to participate in this interview. I first encountered your work when angela brought in her Canadian poetry books to class. I happened to pick up Crystallography and was immediately enthralled by the intricate detail put in to each poem. I had been toying with the thought that the language of science could be read poetically and your book helped bridge the gap in my mind. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to finish reading Crystallography, but I did manage to get my hands on Eunoia, which was a pleasure to read. Reading the different chapters was like traveling to different countries, eras, even planets. Now, before I make the introduction longer than the interview; here are my questions:

You’ve spent many years studying English literature. How has your academic study influenced your poetry? How has your non-academic life influenced your poetry?

Christian Bök:

My studies in English have, of course, informed my poetics. I am like an engineer who has learned the physics involved in the construction of bridges — but I also get to apply these studies to the act of construction itself in order to learn what makes bridges fall down in the coolest process possible. I have lots of friends in the world of poetry outside of the academy, and they certainly influence my appreciation for literary practice….


After listening to recordings of some of your poetry on UbuWeb, I found that Eunoia was almost a different poem from when I read it as text on paper. I also imagine that if someone with a different voice from yours were to read it would sound distinctly different. Do you consider the timbre of your voice when composing sound poetry? If so, how do you use it to your advantage?


I certainly read my poetry aloud to myself in order to understand how my readers might hear the cadences of such work. I feel that a poem, like a piece of music, constitutes a kind of score that performers can interpret for their own benefit. I strive to be virtuoso in my performances so that listeners can see why I might be passionate about my poetry.


Your poem “H” in Eunoia, I imagine, would be very difficult to reproduce orally. Is a poem still a poem if it cannot be performed in a life setting? Where is the line between poetry and visual art?


Poetry, for me, is nothing but “language on holiday” — free from the need to mean. I think that, whenever texts no longer serve an intentionally communicative function, they always have the potential to be interpreted as poetic, even if they cannot be “read” in a conventional manner. A poem can certainly become a work of art, to be stared at, rather than perused through — especially if it emphasizes the visual traits of language.


In your book Crystallography you weave together scientific and poetical methods. Do you believe that there is a central connection between language and natural processes? Or is language just a byproduct of life?


Language, for me, is a kind of alien “superorganism” that colonizes our brains, using us for its own purposes, and the poet is a kind of scientist working in Area-51, reverse-engineering this alien stuff for human usage. I think that life itself operates in the milieu of linguistic phenomena — be it in the genetic codes of our cellules or the digital codes of our machines. I think that, whenever we find life, we also find systems of codes and signs.


You stated in a previous interview that “meaning is always the happy side-effect of other processes within the poem itself.” Is it the poet or the reader who gives the poem meaning? Is it possible to compose a poem devoid of meaning? Would it still be a poem?


Meaning always seems to come from elsewhere, neither from the reader nor from the writer — but from, what William S. Burroughs might call, a “third mind” that seems to intervene from elsewhere when two minds work together. I think that, even when we attempt to eliminate meaning from our language (by writing nonsense, for example), our brains are so evolved at pattern-seeking that we always create meaning or refind it.


One of your more recent poetical projects, “The Xenotext Experiment,” involves altering the genetic code of bacteria. There seems to be many opportunities for error in this project. What is the status of this project? Was it/do you believe it will be successful?


“The Xenotext” is progressing well — better than expected. My team at the laboratory has just confirmed that the poem, in fact, works during test-runs, after being implanted into the bacterium, E. coli — meaning that I am now the first poet in the history of literature to design a microbe that can write a meaningful text in response to an engineered gene. I now have to figure out how to insert this gene into the targeted organism: D. radiodurans. I am hoping that, by this time next year, I might actually have a working microbe….

Cheers and many thanks for your engaged queries,

Christian Bök is the author not only of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, but also of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial languages for two television shows: Gene Roddenberry’s Earth: Final Conflict and Peter Benchley’s Amazon. Bök has also earned many accolades for his virtuoso performances of sound poetry (particularly the Ursonate by Kurt Schwitters). His conceptual artworks (which include books built out of Rubik’s cubes and Lego bricks) have appeared at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York City as part of the exhibit Poetry Plastique. The Utne Reader has recently included Bök in its list of “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.” Bök teaches English at the University of Calgary.

Taylor Aitken is a kid from Toronto who once thought that maybe it would be a good idea to write about things. Nothing has been formally published though some of his words have been released so you could try and look for them if you wanted… you probably won't find anything though. He enjoys the academic world and wishes to shield himself in it for as long as he can. His writing isn’t profound and he uses lots of run-on sentences but that’s okay because my mom said that I’m just a kid and kids don’t need to be profound.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page