academic circles. “I was quite impressed because the work he was doing
was so esoteric and so academic,” says Dr. Ellenwood.
The two have lost touch over the years; Dr. Ellenwood inquires
about Dr. Bök’s most recent work. He listens to a brief explanation of
The Xenotext, laughs quietly, then replies: “This absolutely fits my no-
tion of him. It’s at once highly playful but of course it’s got its finger
on our modern obsessions. What he’s doing in effect is making poetry
relevant to our very chemical structure.”
Darren Wershler, who is now assistant professor of English at
Concordia University, and Dr. Bök remain friends, and have at times
been collaborators. “Of the contemporary poets out there, his work is
among the most interesting and provocative,” says Dr. Wershler, who is
also a poet. “It’s also that rare thing: poetry that people who aren’t poets
The Xenotext Project, notes Dr. Wershler, spans disciplines and
genres: “Is it science? Is it poetry? Is it gallery art?” Perhaps the most
significant thing about it, says Dr. Wershler, is that it challenges our no-
tion of what poetry and the role of the modern poet ought to be. “What
matters about it is the idea almost more than the text itself. The literary
aspect is the least interesting of the whole project,” he says.
Dr. Bök went on to become one of the early founders of the conceptual writing movement, the subject of Toronto’s Power Plant exhibit. A
few days after the show’s opening in late June, Dr. Bök and New York
poet Kenneth Goldsmith, another principal founder, read excerpts from
their work and discuss the origins of the movement. On stage, the two
stand in stark contrast to one another: Dr. Bök in a black suit to Mr.
Goldsmith’s head to-toe-white. They keep the audience entertained with
their lively banter.
The movement, they say, takes as its inspiration the work of Andy
Warhol and other conceptual visual artists of the 1960s. It is also highly
influenced by the Oulipo, a group of experimental French writers who
use extreme literary constraints, as well as the emergence of the Internet
and other modern-day technologies. Conceptual writing relies heavily
on plagiarism, appropriation and what Dr. Bök calls other “uncreative
practices.” The Xenotext, as well as other works of conceptual writing,
are remarkable “not because of the words you see,” says Mr. Goldsmith,
whose own projects have included a year of transcribed weather reports.
After graduating from York and working at various jobs including as
a tutor and a private-school teacher, Dr. Bök landed at U of Calgary in
2005, where he teaches poetry and sometimes science fiction. If there’s
one message he strives to instill in his students, it’s the same one he tries
to convey to his readers: “To show them the vast potential that is mostly
untapped in the world of poetry.”
Along with teaching and writing, Dr. Bök has numerous other ac-
complishments to his name. He performs sound poetry (to get a flavour
of this, search for Bök and Ursonate on You Tube). He’s created languages
for science fiction television shows – “one of the more colourful lines” on
his CV, he says. His work has been featured in both literary and science
journals. He gives lectures and readings around the world. His previous
works of visual art, books built out of Rubik’s Cubes and LEGO, have
been shown internationally.
But these days it’s The Xenotext that preoccupies him. “If I can’t get it
to work after 12 years, that will be a ringing failure for me,” he says. “If I
pull it off, I get to be one of the great poets of the 21st century. If I don’t,
then I’ll just be a loser.”
In early July, the following message appears on Dr. Bök’s Twitter feed:
“Assays for the final phase of the The Xenotext seem to have all failed. –
(so I have to head back to the drawing board for the next 2 months…).”
The vector didn’t work properly, explains Dr. Bök the next time we
speak, but he thinks he knows how to solve the problem. And he plans to
give it one more try. “It’s going to look like a photo finish,” he says.
Back at The Power Plant, one of the two principal poems that comprise The Xenotext is displayed as part of Dr. Bök’s installation, directly behind Protein 13. Each molecule of the sculpture corresponds to a
specific letter in the poem, explains Dr. Bök. And projected on the wall
alongside the two are variations of the word “Sisyphus,” a king who in
Greek legend was forever condemned to rolling a large rock up a hill,
only to have it roll back down. A reference to the task Dr. Bök has set for
himself? I wonder, but hesitate to ask.
Futile or not, he’s not giving up. Not when the finish line is within sight.
Rosanna Tamburri recently took a course in American poetry, given by a massive open
“His work is also that rare thing: poetry that
people who aren’t poets care about.”