Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Christian Bök Makes his Poetry Come Alive

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XPI3-3 (xenotext project)

Christian Bök has spent several years now preparing to publish a pair of 14-line, quasi-Petrarchan sonnets, which he composed over the course of four years with the help of a specially-made computer program. Bök has been one of Canada’s best-known and best-selling poets ever since the 2001 publication of Eunoia (Coach House Books), which won the Griffin Poetry Prize and has since sold over 25,000 copies. His first book, 1994’s Crystallography (Coach House Books), was critically acclaimed and nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award. Bök’s only other book, Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science, is a scholarly text published by Northwestern University Press in 2001. Now, at the end of a sabbatical, Bök has nearly finished the text of a fourth book — though whether this book will be a record of an artistic triumph, or a quixotic and impossible fight, remains unknown.

Given Bök’s history as an experimental poet, the choice of a Petrarchan sonnet (a form which has been in general use since the thirteenth century) as the crux of his next work might seem strange. Given, too, the vicious “publish-or-perish” nature of academia, the absence of any book-length publications since 2002 seems professionally self-destructive. Indeed — it probably would be, if Bök were simply trying to publish the two sonnets in a journal somewhere. Bök’s plan, however, is slightly more ambitious.

The two poems are part of a project that Bök calls The Xenotext — an attempt to encode a poem into the genome of a bacterium in such a way as to cause the genome to manufacture a protein that encodes yet another poem, mirroring and referring to the first. In order for this experiment to work, the two sonnets need to be mutually transposable according to a “bijective” substitution-cipher, where each letter is mutually switched for another. So far, only the opening lines of these poems have been published — “any style of life / is prim…” for the first; and “the faery is rosy / of glow…” for the second. Even in these small sections you can see the substitution at work: for example, the letters E and Y are mutually correlated with each other across the two poems, so that wherever the letter E appears in one text, the letter Y appears in the other. In order to write these poems, Bök created a computer program which, when given one of the eight trillion-or-so possible ciphers, produced a list of words that were mutually transposable according to this scheme. In our interview, Bök said that the largest list produced by his program was “about 800” words long, and the list used for his poems was “slightly more than 100.”

“This is probably the only poem that could be written under these constraints,” said Bök, who in addition to keeping the poems transposable also had to write them so that they could be encoded in the genome (because “if they’re too long,” he said, “then they begin to interfere with the genetic function of the cell”); moreover, the poems had to refer to their composition (the “rosy glow” in the second poem, for example, alludes to the fact that the bacterium glows red when expressing the gene). Even though Bök had initially expected that writing the poems would be the hardest part of the project, he still underestimated how much work would actually be involved in the engineering of the organism.

“I was starting to get very desperate at the end of four years of work on the poems themselves,” he said. “Everything that I thought would be very straightforward turned out to be extremely difficult.”

Bök’s earlier optimism about encoding his poem stems from the success that other researchers have had with similar, if less ambitious projects. Bök’s inspiration for the project was a scientific article published in 2003 by Pak Chung Wong, Kwong-Kwok Wong, and Harlan Foote. all of whom announced that they had encoded some lines from the song “It’s a Small World (After All),” storing this information in the genome of Deinococcus radiodurans — one of the most indestructible living creatures on Earth. The choice of the nigh-invincible Deinococcus (which can survive both the vacuum of deep space and radiation doses capable of killing a human instantly) is due to the researchers’ goal of creating a way to permanently store information for retrieval later — say, after a nuclear war or asteroid impact.

The researchers wrote the lines as sequences of base-pairs in the DNA — that is, pairs of molecules which, when assembled in the DNA strand, carry all of the genome’s information. The chemicals, usually identified by their initials, are Adenine (A), Cytosine (C), Guanine (G) and Thymine (T). In order to write their message, Wong et al. developed a code in which specific sequences of three bases were assigned to letters, numbers and punctuation marks so that, for example, the word “poem” would be written out as “CGC CGA ATG CCG.” A similar method has since been used in studies by other researchers. In 2010, for example, a team lead by biologist Craig Venter created what they called the first example of “synthetic life.” In order to identify the bacterium as artificial, Venter and his team “watermarked” its genetic code with three English quotes, one of them being a line from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.”

Bök’s sonnets have been written, and will be fully published for the first time in an upcoming book about the project. According to Bök, the book will be written “for a poetic audience,” and will contain the two poems along with a description of all the techniques involved in the project. Bök, by now, knows this material very well, as he has been working almost completely on his own since the project began.

“In order to write this book,” he said, “I’ve had to teach myself a good deal of biochemistry and computer programming. My team of scientific consultants doesn’t do any of the design for me; they provide advice, and they test the results of my design in the lab — and if the experiment doesn’t work, I’m the one who has to figure out why.”

Indeed, Bök has been doing quite a lot of “figuring out” since the project started. In 2011 the project seemed to have had a breakthrough, when Bök’s team was able to make an E. Coli bacterium glow red (meaning that the cell was responding to the implanted gene by building the poetic protein in response). However, the glow turned out to be the only part of the test that went right. Soon after announcing the breakthrough, Bök discovered that the bacterium was actually destroying much of the poem, leaving only the fluorescent tag intact.

“It’s actually censoring the poem,” Bök said. “I’ve created the world’s first microbial critic.”

Bök plans to make the results of his experiment an integral part of the book. But the results so far have not given him the data that he needs — and he may never get it at all. The experiments are not very expensive, but they are time-consuming to design: each new protein, Bök said, takes about six months to build up from scratch (since he must model the sequence on supercomputers in order to make educated guesses about viable candidates). A lab must be hired to build the gene, and the cost for manufacture has dropped to about $1000 for each attempt (prompting Bök to observe that arranging for these tests is “like ordering a pizza”), but these costs are still far too much for him to pay for out-of-pocket, and he must recruit technicians from his university to test out the gene on the target-organism. Thus far, the experiment has been funded by grants from the Canada Council of the Arts and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, but Bök expects the money from those grants to run out in February.

“I’m feeling under the gun right now,” Bök said. “I’m about a year behind where I thought I’d be.”

“Failure right now is a potential outcome — but I’m resolute about making the project work.”

Still, the decreasing costs of the technology means that finding enough additional funding to continue might be far less difficult. The project has also given Bök the confidence to try equally ambitious projects in the future — since he now knows that he can learn whatever skills he might need. For now, though, Bök’s main concern is getting the test-bacterium to express the protein properly so that he can finish writing his manuscript.

“So much of the book depends upon whether or not I can get the organism to cooperate,” Bök said. “If I manage to get the thing to work, I’ll have contributed to some pretty good, literary folklore.”

Jeremy Colangelo is an author and journalist living in St. Catharines, Ontario. His work has been published, or is upcoming, in several magazines, including The Dalhousie Review, Steel Bananas, and The Incongruous Quarterly. Jeremy has an degree in English and History from Brock University. He is currently working on a novel. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter, @JRColangelo.

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