Podcast: Christian Bök’s process

I conduct experiments through language.

Christian Bök

Poetry in Process podcast, July 2019

Hello poets and readers,

We’re delighted to be able to bring you our second podcast, with experimental poet Christian Bök. Christian’s approach to poetry is scientific. He uses experiments in poetry to test ideas and capacities, unsure of outcomes. He has dedicated himself to ‘formalistic innovations’ and ‘exploratory procedures,’ which means that his work is intimately bound up with process.

Bök extends poetry’s range. His first book, Crystallography, ‘misreads the language of poetics through the conceits of geology’ (156). The geological processes described in the sequence ‘Geodes’, for example, includes self-reflexive injunctions and statements which create a form of process poetry – where the act of creating becomes part of the content. Scientific vocabulary is gathered for our aesthetic pleasure. If, in Wilfred Owen’s experience, the poetry is in the pity, in Bök’s it lies in the fluorescent algae mimicking constellations in a cave, where the author attempts to ‘saturate with new meaning / the dead layers of rock’ (48).

His second book Eunoia has been hugely successful, despite being a determinedly avant-garde collection. It has sold over 20,000 copies and been reprinted 20 times. It uses extreme technical constraints to test the boundaries or ‘limit cases’ of language in a way that ultimately celebrates what language can achieve.

His most recent collection The Xenotext, Book 1 explores the encoding of genetic sequences into cells which ‘read’ a poem and become a machine for generating their own poem. This work further develops Bök’s relationship with the natural world in the context of taking ‘instructions’ from molecules and genetic sequences for the composition of poetry. Each of Bök’s projects have been years in the making and demonstrate the work of a poet committed to both craft and the future development of poetry.


Christian Bök, Crystallography (Coach House Books, 2003)

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 teaches at Charles Darwin University.

  4 comments for “Podcast: Christian Bök’s process

  1. John Geraets
    July 10, 2019 at 9:44 am

    Christian Bök’s approach to poetry sounds fascinating and leads me to make a brief reflection even before I listen to the podcast. Working to the limit cases of language has to be problematical, given such limits are never fixed. Are we looking to extend the limits of what language can do – and is this specifically poetic, or else why not give it the form of a scientific or linguistic treatise? 20 reprints and 20000 copies sold sounds either extraordinary or a contradiction in terms, amounting to a huge reinvention (or reimagination) of what poetry can achieve. What’s the case? The other thing to ask about is what part of the tradition such inscribed cellular-up poetry belongs to – a number of French schools can be pointed to, or in the west we have the chance operations starting at Cage and Mac Low (‘Words and Ends from Ez’). Or Coolidge’s ‘Sound as Thought’ or geologically riven texts. Poetry has perhaps not raised many compelling questions for some time, so to have some sense of that possibility re-occuring is quite enthralling. Having had my say, this evening I’d better catch the podcast. Hard to know what comes first sometimes!


    • July 12, 2019 at 2:04 pm

      You raise some appealing questions, John. As you say, the limits of language aren’t fixed, since we’re always adding to language. Perhaps it’s as much about testing the limits as extending them. Christian’s work certainly extends the range of poetic language; his success suggests an interest in new topics, vocabularies, the experimental and radical restraints in writing. Re the tradition, Jackson Mac Low’s work comes to mind for me, too, as one kind of antecedent. But Christian’s work also goes beyond chance, and his comments about the language telling him what to write in relation to Eunoia are compelling. I look forward to your thoughts on the podcast itself.


  2. John Geraets
    August 7, 2019 at 11:59 am

    Like you, Owen, I find Christian’s ‘boundary conditioned’ approach really intriguing. Also, as you say, it allows a push both ways: operating within a distinct boundary constraint, while at the same time exercising sufficient skill in organising the materials gathered to form what we call a poem. The skilfulness knocks me flat; how fortunate that poetry has been able to attract this kind of response. I think the move beyond the personal-authentification lyric was already well advanced, but the new scientific methodology that Christian, Goldsmith and others initiate is strangely enlivening. There is also something of the personal that stays active in Christian’s work. Who knows if these writers are allowing language to be itself in different ways? There is still a figurative in the language. The podcast is a complete treat I reckon, at once inviting and a sharp kick in pants! Now I have to go and read/watch more of the poetry. I’d like to be back. I head into the poetry with a couple of questions. The first has to do with poetry communities, something already raised in Poetry in Process. New communities are being created and they’re not necessarily communities as we’ve known them. Is the new poetry dis-communitarian? You see, I tend to start off sceptically. My second question is to do with authenticity in a different way. Christian mentions his model is more Keatsian (negative capability) than Wordsworthian (egotistical sublime). Funnily enough, the figure who comes to mind for me is Milton. I wonder how the poetic authorisation is working here: is the rules-based endeavour to get into the very genetic code in an ongoing wrestle with time a kind of new poetic magisterium? It doesn’t matter the yes or no of any answer I (or you) come up with. The questions themselves reflect a fresh kind of urgency that these poets urge upon us. Nice to think that poetry still kicks! Having commented, I’ll now go off and have a read.


  3. June 11, 2021 at 12:58 am

    Fascinating. Making a machine that perpetuates beyond human survival


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