Christian Bök is the author of Eunoia (2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök is currently working on The Xenotext — a project that requires him to encipher a poem into the genome of a bacterium capable of surviving in any inhospitable environment. Bök is a Fellow in the Royal Society of Canada, and he works as an artist in Melbourne, Australia. In this conVERSEverse with Christian, he talks about becoming the poet he is today, working on The Xenotext, and what he wants to see for the poetry NFT community.
VV: Tell us a bit about your poetry journey before the blockchain
CB: In graduate school, I was writing poetry in an effort to get published. While my writing was adequate and publishable, I was unhappy with the results, and I became convinced that I wasn’t going to make an important contribution to the field. A friend introduced me to the work of the Language poets, and I realized that there was an entire avant-garde, experimental history that no one had told me about. I then realized that, up until that point, I was trying to become the kind of poet I should be rather than the kind of poet I could be.
After this discovery, I was able to more freely explore my fixation on crystals and mineralogical imagery, and I produced my first published work Crystallography. This work spawned a subsequent greater challenge: Eunoia. The book is written in five chapters, each telling a story, but using only one of the five vowels. For example, in the first chapter, the only vowel that appears is the letter “A,” and I can use no other vowels. After seven years of concerted work, the book came to fruition. I won the Griffin Prize for it, and it became one of the most bestselling books of poetry ever in the history of Canada.
VV: Tell us a bit about what you’re working on now, The Xenotext
CB: Eunoia’s positive reception gave me permission to do something even weirder — a project that became The Xenotext. It has so far taken 20 years of effort, and I am still working on it. Essentially, I am genetically engineering a bacterium so that it becomes not only an archive for storing my poem, but also a machine for writing a poem in response.
I’ve written two very short sonnets, enciphering one of them into the genome of a bacterium. When the poem is inserted into the genetic code of the bacterium, the cell interprets the sonnet as a set of instructions for building a protein. The sequence of amino acids in this protein enciphers the other poem, producing a meaningful insight in response to my first poem.
The last step is getting this to work in a bacterium called Deinococcus radiodurans, which is capable of surviving in all types of hostile environments: scorching, freezing, one thousand times the dose of gamma radiation that would obliterate a human being, even the open vacuum of outer space. If I’m successful, I would effectively be creating a book that could outlast terrestrial civilization.
VV: How did you get into NFTs?
CB: I’m an experimental poet, so I go wherever the experiments are. Back in the late 1990s, I helped found a literary movement called Conceptualism. Part of its contribution involves a response to the advent of the Internet. We were attempting to create poetry that would be responsive to the new environment online.
At the time, peers thought we were nuts for doing so. They thought that the Internet was not well-suited to poetry. We were told it was a scam-ridden space and a pollutant danger to the environment. The critiques sounded very much like the kinds of complaints that we currently hear about the blockchain — and I feel very lucky I get to relive my youth twice.
Right now, there’s a great deal of skepticism among my contemporaries about the merits of the blockchain. I’m trying to convince my peers who make these familiar complaints that this technology is an important milieu to think about and to contribute to. I don’t want to be so old in my career that I can’t continue to participate in the new innovations that appear on the horizon.
VV: What’s been your biggest challenge bringing poetry to NFTs?
CB: It’s the challenge everybody is figuring out: how to overcome the enormous barriers to entry into the new environment. How to purchase the currency, how to obtain a wallet, how to navigate the environment safely, how to contribute something, and then how to promote it. All of these features of the environment are not obvious. They’re time-consuming, and potentially expensive.
But despite these challenges, there are enormous affordances. I enjoy the community of people here, which is fecund with a lot of imaginative, speculative creativity. It’s not like the milieu of poetry outside this environment — a milieu that has recently become more cutthroat. On the blockchain, the quality of engagement and the spirit of support are simply more exciting, more conducive to collaboration.
VV: Where do poetry NFTs go from here?
CB: Anything that I might suggest is not prescriptive, but rather speculative. I think that poets have to range further outside the catechism of their literary training to do things of interest. You might have to learn how to program a computer, or how to sit at a lab and engineer a bacterium.
I think that greater engagement with the culture of science will be an important feature of future poetry. Short of the economy, the most important cultural activity that we do on the planet is science. It is our greatest hope for being able to weather any cosmic threats that might arise. And yet, there’s little poetry about our scientific advancement — which I think is a shortcoming.
Overall, the future of poetry is going to be very disparate. I don’t know what all the new things might be, but I want to be among the people who are trying to innovate.
Check out Christian’s work on theVERSEverse here