To Christian Bök, anything can be a poem, and a poem can be anything. Having written both a bestseller and a poem that’s unreadable to humans, he’s a remarkably versatile poet.
Bök's practice is firmly rooted in avant-garde fields like pataphysics, the mock-scientific field of Dr. Faustroll from the book of the same name by Alfred Jarry; the sound poetry of Dada and Kurt Schwitters; and the experiments of the mainly French Oulipo group, whose authors (Raymond Queneau, George Perec, Anne F. Garréta) subjected themselves to strict rules in order to be able to re-conquer the freedom of writing. Yet Bök is not one to long for the greener pastures of the 20th century. He is also a co-author of one of the first online memes, Virus 23, and has designed artificial languages for TV shows about both aliens and Amazonian tribes.
His two collections represent only a small part of his activities as a poet. The first, Crystallography, appeared in 1994 and explores the relation between language and crystals. It features poems about the nature of certain crystals, but also poems in the shape of crystals. After that, he spent seven years working on Eunoia, a book made up of five chapters that each use only one of the five vowels in the Latin alphabet. This book was awarded the Griffin Poetry Prize and ended up on bestseller lists in Canada and the UK. He has shown other poems, written using LEGO blocks and Rubik's cubes, for instance, at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York.
Yet the building blocks Bök has used to create his farthest-reaching work are threads of DNA. For The Xenotext project, he developed a chemical alphabet and inserted a poem written in that alphabet into the nucleus of a Deinococcus radiodurans bacterium, which can now multiply it for centuries (the bacterium in question is especially tough and radiation-resistant). In response, the E. coli bacterium produces a protein which in turn can be read as a new poem, so that Bök has not only ensured the endurance of his poem beyond humanity's lifespan, but also created an organism that writes poetry. The bacterium now fluoresces red when it produces its poem.
Aside from all this creative work, Bök also teaches creative writing, literary studies and poetry, first at the University of Calgary, Canada, and for the last few years working at Charles Darwin University in Darwin, Australia.
Crystallography, Coach House Press, Toronto, 1994
Eunoia, Coach House Books, Toronto, 2001
The Xenotext, Book 1, Coach House Books, Toronto, 2015