of Dr. Bök’s poetry readings earlier this year. By the end of the lecture,
she was convinced. But what most impressed her about the project, more
so than his scientific knowledge, were the questions The Xenotext raises.
“Big questions that are at the interface of art and science,” she says.
Dr. Bök isn’t the first to try to implant messages, poetic or otherwise,
into bacterial DNA. Scientists and artists have been experimenting with
this for over a decade, although he’s probably the first to take the process
to such lengths. But then Dr. Bök’s poetry is all about extremes.
His previous book, the international bestseller Eunoia, took him
seven years to write. Published in 2001, the book has five chapters, each
containing words with only a single vowel. Chapter A begins: “Awkward
grammar appals a craftsman.” To prepare, he read the three-volume
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary five times, once for each
vowel, while making lists of all the single-vowel words.
In writing Eunoia, Dr. Bök also set a number of subsidiary rules for
himself. Each chapter had to refer to the process of writing and include
descriptions of a sea voyage and a banquet; Chapter E retells the story of
Helen of Troy. All chapters had to use 98 percent of available words and
avoid repetition. Despite its quirkiness, Eunoia remains one of Canada’s
bestselling poetry books, in its 30th printing here. It won the prestigious
Griffin Poetry Prize in 2002. The book was later published in Britain
where it also became a bestseller and launched Dr. Bök’s reputation as an
internationally acclaimed poet.
Any English professor will tell you the distinguishing feature be-
tween poetry and prose is a constraint, a self-imposed rule, whether it be
a rhyme scheme or a prescribed number of lines. But by any measure, the
constraints Dr. Bök sets for himself stretch the imagination. “I’m trying
to be as contemporary as I can be,” he says by way of explanation. “I’m
trying to broach the uncanny in my own poetry. I feel like a researcher
in language. I joke that I don’t write poetry; I make anti-gravity machines
out of words.”
If history is destiny, then Dr. Bök’s fate was sealed the day he was
born in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke and named Christian Book. The
family later moved to nearby Georgetown where he grew up. He can’t
recall wanting to be anything other than a writer. He remembers sitting
on Santa’s knee at a local shopping mall when he was four and asking for
a typewriter for Christmas. He got one. Dr. Bök, who is 47, did his under-
graduate and master’s degrees at Carleton University before moving to
York University in the early 1990s to complete a PhD. Along the way he
changed the spelling of his surname, although not its pronunciation, to
downplay, in his words, the “embarrassment” of being an English profes-
sor and writer with the last name Book. And not just any book. “I used to
get a lot of Bible jokes when I was a kid,” he says.
The ’90s were an auspicious time to be at York. Over the course of
that decade about a dozen students emerged who went on to become
“crazy experimental poets,” says Ray Ellenwood, professor emeritus who
served on Dr. Bök’s doctoral supervisory committee. Though they are
few in number, they have an international reputation. “There’s no doubt
Christian is a major figure,” says Dr. Ellenwood.
At the time, the young poet struck Dr. Ellenwood as a bit of a paradox.
He says: “On the one hand he was a very serious academic scholar and
on the other hand he had this boyish and very playful quality to him.”
Dr. Bök’s dissertation, later published as Pataphysics: The Poetics of an
Imaginary Science, traces the history of the relationship between avant-
garde poetry and science. On the day of his oral defence, Dr. Bök brought
along his parents, sister and good friend (and York colleague) Darren
University of Calgary, has spent the past 12 years attempting to write, ge-
netically encode and implant a poem into the DNA of a bacterium, hop-
ing to create “a living poem.” But that’s not the half of it. Once implanted,
the poem is designed to act as a set of genetic instructions prompting the
bacterium to create a protein, a chemical reaction that will produce yet
another poem. “I’ve engineered an organism so that it not only becomes
an archive for storing my poem but also becomes a machine for writing a
poem in response,” explains Dr. Bök.
The bacterium he has chosen as his co-author is Deinococcus radiodurans, one of the hardiest in existence. “You can scorch it, freeze it, with-er it and it continues to live. It can even survive in the open vacuum of
outer space,” he says. “By putting my poem into this organism, I could
conceivably be writing a book that might outlast the rest of civilization.”
If it works. And though it may sound impossible, Dr. Bök has reason
to be optimistic. The experiment succeeded once before, in 2012, when
the poem was inserted into E. coli as a test-run. That took years.
Deinococcus radiodurans is proving to be trickier, and the roughly $100,000 grant
from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council that funded
the project was to expire at the end of October. “I’m running out of time.
I’m running out of money. I’m running out of people to help me,” he
If the logistics of genetically engineering a poem sound complicated,
here’s the final twist. Dr. Bök actually wrote two mutually enciphered poems for the experiment. He came up with the encryption by pairing each
letter of the alphabet with another, a process that would allow him to
write two poems simultaneously. But, there are almost eight trillion pairings to choose from. So he designed a software program to sift through
the multitude of possibilities, most of which produced gibberish. The one
he selected has a vocabulary of about 100 words from which he composed two 14-line poems, each a sort of mirror image of the other.
The compositions aren’t typical of his work. “The constraint is so
onerous that there’s not a lot of freedom to move around,” he says. “I
didn’t get to say whatever I want.” But he devised the exercise in this
way to mimic the chemical reaction that takes place when the bacterium
reads the poem and produces a corresponding protein, a process known
to biologists as transcription. “If I want these poems to be meaningful, I
had to write them this way,” he says.
Dr. Bök’s poem begins: “any style of life/ is prim.” The organism responds: “the faery is rosy/ of glow.” At the same time, the chemical process should cause the bacterium to take on a reddish hue. “It enacts what
it is doing,” he says.
Perhaps somewhat naively, he didn’t anticipate the process taking
as long as it has. At the outset he believed the tough part would be
securing the funds for the project or learning enough about molecular
biochemistry, genetic engineering and computer programming to carry
it out. He’s had some help along the way from biologists and technicians
at the U of Calgary’s Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics, from
a California biotech company and, more recently, from the University of
Wyoming. But he’s done the heavy lifting himself. Dr. Bök has also written a number of supporting poems and essays that he hopes to publish
along with the two original works and the accompanying scientific data
when the project is complete.
As outlandish as this project sounds, it resonates with writers and
scientists alike. “At first I was very skeptical whether he had actually
learned molecular biology,” says Lynne Quarmby, professor of molecular
biology and biochemistry at Simon Fraser University, who attended one