From My Commonplace Book - 44

Mutations of Immortality

from an interview with Christian Bok conducted by Jonathan Ball


Could you describe your next project?

The Xenotext Experiment is responding to the millenial science of genetics. I'm trying to write a book of poetry in which I translate a single poem, through a process of encipherment, into a sequence of genetic nucleotides, and then, with the assistance of scientists, I plan to build this genetic sequence in a laboratory so that I can implant the gene into a bacterium, replacing the portion of the genome with my text. The bacterium would, in effect, be the poem. I've selected an organism which is widely considered to be the most unkillable bacterium on the planet, Deinococcus radiorans. . . . The microbe is so durable that, if I were to store a poem in the matrix of this organism, I could effectively be creating a literary artifact that. . . would be one of the few objects so far created by humans to outlast terrestrial civilization itself. I am hoping, in effect, to write a book that would be on the planet Earth when the sun explodes. . . .

. . .

I would not only be storing my poem in the organism, but I would also be hijacking the organism and turning it into a machine for writing a poem in response. Because the two poems are chemically correlated, they are actually biochemically constrained by each other. It's tantamount to writing two poems that mutually encipher each other . . . . I've tried writing poems using a wide variety of ciphers to see what it might be possible to say. . . . and the results, so far, have been discouraging. But I foresee that I will able to write two poems I just don't know whether or not they might merit preservation in an organism for the next 6 billion years.


Experimental poet Christian Bok (Canadian, born 1966) began life as, believe it or not, Christian Book. He changed his name, he says, to distinguish himself from the Bible. His poetry collection Eunoia is said to have sold more copies than any other poetry book in Canadian history. The interview, from which I have excerpted sections (minus a detailed explanation of the process of encipherment), appeared in Harper's Magazine, December 2009. It originally was published in The Believer, June 2009.

For an update on the Xenotext Experiment read what Christian Bok had to say in the spring of this year:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2011/04/the-xenotext-works/

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