Christian Bök isn’t composing his next poem for paper, nor for anything so fleeting as a stone tablet. The 43-year-old experimental poet is working on a poem that will be coded, translated, and constructed into a genetic sequence, and then implanted onto a bacterium. For this honor, Bök, a professor of poetry and creative writing at the University of Calgary, has chosen the alarmingly durable Deinococcus radiodurans, an organism that–thanks to its resolute ability to withstand extreme temperatures and radiation–has earned the Guinness Book of World Records entry for “world’s toughest bacterium.”
Bök, who earned a doctorate in English literature while he was tutoring algebra, calculus, and chemistry, insists that the biochemistry isn’t the tough part. It’s “making something that’s intelligible and interesting and probably deserves to last for a few million years,” he says. Given the constraints of his coding process, which in some cases limit his potential vocabulary to fewer than 200 words, this won’t be easy. Bök has proven to be up to the challenge, however. In his 2001 poetry collection, Eunoia, each chapter features words with only the same vowel, so there’s a chapter for a (“Awkward grammar appals a craftsman”), one for e, and so on. Genetic poetry? No sweat.
You can read the full text of Eunoia at the Coach House Books website. To get intimately acquainted with the personality of the letter “i,” watch Bök’s supercharged reading from that chapter, or watch this longer reading from Eunoia (with selections from each chapter). Bök is also an accomplished sound poet; watch him perform a selection from The Cyborg Opera, another project he’s working on.
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