Somehow, the words "experimental poet," "conceptual poet," and "sound artist" seem inadequate to describe the work of Christian Bök. Perhaps the terms "syntactic futurist," "phonological engineer," and "genomic auteur" might equally apply. What's indisputable is that Bök (pronounced "Book") is one of only a handful of contemporary artists and thinkers who have demonstrably expanded our ideas of what the "field" of poetry is, and given us a glimpse of how poetics might be encoded in our planetary future.
Bök, who is the featured guest of Just Buffalo's March "BIG NIGHT" event tonight beginning at 8 p.m. at the Western New York Book Arts Center, 468 Washington St. (at Mohawk St.) in Buffalo, is perhaps the leading exponent of what might be called a "post-humanist" poetics -- one not bound by the constraints of genre or cultural convention, but rather which projects its formalisms beyond the Humanities onto the fields of chemistry, physics, information science and biochemistry.
A Toronto native who is now professor of English at the University of Calgary, he first came to prominence for his book “Crystallography”(Coach House Press, 1994), a “pataphysical encyclopedia” nominated for Canada's Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and his subsequent critical study "Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science" (2001), in which he revisists proto-Surrealist Alfred Jarry's coinage of the term to describe "the science of imaginary solutions," or "that which is above metaphysics."
In the former book, Bök writes:
Crystallography, the science of crystals, literally means 'lucid writing,' a metaphor for science, if not the conceit of science, for science strives in its writing to clarify the ambiguities of language in order to fortify the contiguities of language. Science in effect yearns to create a system of reference without interference, a system in which the diffracted meaning of the very word "crystallography," a word whose pun means what science is, might vanish before science, leaving behind an undiffracted meaning -- a music without noise in a jewel without defect...Science begins with the parapraxis of poetry. Language, like a virus, lives in the form of a crystal...Reference is the tragic flaw in the characters of language.
Bök is best known, however, for "Eunoia" (Coach House Books, 2001), his tour-de-force exercise in constraint-based poetics, which takes its title from the Greek term for "beautiful thinking," was the optimal condition of friendship in Aristotle's "Ethics," and is the shortest word in the English language to incorporate all five vowels. The book consists of five chapters, each of which is limited to words using a single, identical vowel per chapter, producing such sentences as "Hassan can, at a handclap, call a vassal at hand and ask that all staff plan a bacchanal" or 'Enfettered, these sentences repress free speech.”
The book, which won Canada’s top poetry award, the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence, and became an improbable best-seller, "demonstrates the flexibility of the English language" and Bök's assertion that "each vowel has its own personality."
More recently, Bök has has created artificial languages for two television series, and earned many accolades for his conceptual artworks and virtuoso performances of sound poetry (especially the work of Dadaist/Surrealist poets Kurt Schwitters and Hugo Ball). His most recent projects include "The Cyborg Opera," a long poem-in-progress Bök describes as a "linguistic soundscape that arranges words, not according to their semantic meanings, but according to their phonetic valences doing so as a literary response to the ambient chatter of technology," and perhaps his most celebrated venture to date: a plan to to encode a poem into bacterial DNA and have that life form generated and replicated by genomic scientists.
The "genomic poetics" project is a bit complicated to explain here, but involves injecting a series of 26-character coded nucleotides into the DNA of the bacteria Deinococcus radiodurans (the so-called “world’s toughest bacterium”) to form an intelligible poem, and then, in turn, having the constituent amino acid genes of the protein the bacteria manufactures also forming their own meaningful poem (or poems) within limited syntactic and genetic parameters. Were the project to succeed, the line of bacterium Bök participated in creating would likely persist until the hardy species itself goes extinct, presumably propagating billions of encoded poems in human language long after humankind itself disappeared from the planet.
Joining Bök on the BIG NIGHT program will be "A Telephone Call by Dorothy Parker," a presentation by video and media artist Stella Marrs that mashes together multiple readings of Parker's short story by that title, music by Poverty Hymns, and food creations by gourmet chef and Blazevox Books publisher Geoffrey Gatza. Admission is $5, free to UB students with a valid ID and members of Just Buffalo and its affiliate organizations.