Interview with Christian Bök in The Believer

The newest issue of The Believer contains an interview I conducted with poet Christian Bök, concerning his poetry/genetics art project, in which Bök intends to write a poem that will, essentially, become a living organism that would still be on this planet when the sun explodes. You can preview an excerpt from the interview here (it contains Bök’s bio and an excerpt from later in the interview, about his book Eunoia, although most of the actual interview concerns his forthcoming Xenotext Experiment).

The Globe and Mail enjoyed the interview. Read what James Adams had to say, in “On the Stand: A Weekly Roundup of the Best Magazine Reads”:

Poetry doesn’t sell but Christian Bök’s poetry does. His last (and most recent) book of poems, Eunoia, has been printed at least 19 times in Canada since [Coach House Books] launched it in 2001, and today sales in this country alone total more than 20,000 copies. These are the sorts of numbers one usually associates with a strong fiction seller, not a five-part book of experimental verse, seven years in the writing, where each part is devoted to words containing only one of the five vowels.

Bök, a Toronto-born literature prof at the University of Calgary, is currently hard at work on his next poetic endeavour, The Xenotext Project. As described here to interviewer Jonathan Ball, it sounds like something out of a Don DeLillo novel. Simply put (if it, in fact, can be put that way), Bök proposes to write a poem that he would translate, by encipherment, “into a sequence of genetic nucleotides,” then implant in an unkillable, evolution-resistant bacterium. “I guess that this is a kind of ambitious attempt to think about art, quite literally, as an eternal endeavour,” he says. Or at least one lasting the next 6 billion years at which time the sun is expected to explode.

Okay, say, “Huh?” if you wish. But it all makes sense (I think) when you read his explanations. Bök’s one of those uncommonly lucid guys who can speak on complex matters in fully formed paragraphs with sprinkles of piquant metaphor (i.e., “To write a poem nowadays is to knit a doily for a candy dish.”).

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