Christian Bök

[POET]

“I FORESEE THAT I WILL BE ABLE TO WRITE TWO POEMS—I JUST DON’T KNOW YET WHETHER OR NOT THEY MIGHT MERIT PRESERVATION IN AN ORGANISM FOR THE NEXT 6 BILLION YEARS.”
How to create a work that survives humanity:
Write a poetic genetic sequence
Inject it into a resilient bacterium (say, Deinococcus radiodurans)
Wait for the sun to explode

Christian Bök comes from a “long line of plumbers,” but broke with family tradition to become a controversial and internationally celebrated poet. He is a professor at the University of Calgary, and the author of two books of poetry, Crystallography and Eunoia, as well as a book of literary theory, Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science. A much-lauded performer of sound poetry, he has created conceptual artworks for gallery exhibitions and artificial languages for the television shows Gene Roddenberry’s Earth: Final Conflict and Peter Benchley’s Amazon. Bök is also the anonymous coauthor (with Darren Wershler-Henry) of the Virus 23 Meme, which circulated on the fledgling Internet in 1993. (The meme is a product warning that proclaims itself to be a self-replicating trap, triggered by the very act of reading the warning itself.) Douglas Rushkoff, in his 1994 book Media Virus!: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture, argued that the philosophy behind this meme/poem represented “the most subversive opinions that a person can hold.”

Bök is best known for Eunoia (published in 2001 by Coach House Books), a text that won the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize and brought the author international recognition. A series of univocalic lipograms, with each chapter utilizing only a single vowel, Eunoia became the first best-selling book of poetry in Canadian history, and he sparked a brief national debate about whether or not avant-garde poetry was entering the mainstream, heralding a new era of public acceptance of radical poetry. Alas, it did not. A UK edition of Eunoia was published by Canongate in 2008, and went on to become a national bestseller. For a time it was the eighth best-selling book on Amazon.co.uk and competed with Barack Obama’s and Nigella Lawson’s books for pole position on Christmas wish lists.

—Jonathan Ball

*

THE BELIEVER: When you were writing Eunoia, how did you find working within the constraints of that lexicon? Did the constraints actually help you to write the text in some way, or were they simply obstructions?

CHRISTIAN BÖK: Well, the constraints were certainly Herculean, but I would say that, in the end, they were enabling obstructions. They were difficult obstacles to overcome. I found the project very difficult. It was discouraging. I didn’t think that I was actually going to finish it. My friends thought that I had squandered what momentum I had already earned in my career with the release of my first book, Crystallography. They thought that, by wading too deeply into this swamp, I was never going to be able to extricate myself from it. They worried that I had made an exorbitant commitment to a fool’s errand. I worked from eleven o’clock at night until four or five in the morning, six days a week, while holding down two jobs, working sixty hours a week, all the while trying to complete my PhD dissertation. The book constituted a stressful experience in my life, but its publication has resulted in all kinds of support for my practice, and I’ve received a great deal of attention, so I think that the task was probably worth the effort. The project also underlined the versatility of language itself, showing that despite any set of constraints upon it, despite censorship, for example, language can always find a way to prevail against these obstacles. Language really is a living thing with a robust vitality. Language is like a weed that cannot only endure but also thrive under all kinds of difficult conditions. This robustness of language has encouraged me to try even more ambitious projects that might push language to its limits.

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Jonathan Ball is a writer with two books of poetry forthcoming from BookThug: Ex Machina and The Words of the Book (cowritten with Kevin McPherson Eckhoff). He is completing a PhD in English literature at the University of Calgary.

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