Some thoughts on Christian Bök’s process

Hello poets and readers,

In our recent podcast with experimental poet Christian Bök, I spoke with a poet who has a truly scientific approach to poetry, who ‘conducts experiments through language.’ He accepts that some experiments won’t work, but is committed to seeing them through, even if they represent decades of work through complex processes. His poetry can be termed ‘process poetry’: work where the act of creating becomes part of the content.

In parts of his first collection Crystallography, Bök’s process lay in ‘simply writing poetry about crystals over and over again, using that as the dominant metaphor for the act of writing itself.’ Importantly, this reiteration mirrors the repeating pattern that forms a crystal. More specifically, his process in some poems was to take the instructions for the chemical formulae of precious stones as prompts for poems – this strategy was repeated in certain works in The Xenotext, Book 1. Responding, as Bök says to this structure gave a framework or scaffold for the poems. This reflects the discovery already made regarding the similarities between the way atoms are combined in a molecule with the way letters of the alphabet are combined in writing.

The process inherent in his current project, which seeks to encode DNA chains with a poem, is one which potentially gives rise to another process, i.e. that the host cell itself ‘becomes a machine for writing a poem.’ This transferal of process, which generates a new technique, is the kind of thinking that is dear to Bök, and I know from a previous conversation that he expects his students not only to master a technique but to use the knowledge it produces to create another new process, to extend the learning cycle. The initial preparatory work for Bök’s grand project is collected in The Xenotext, Book 1. A second volume is in preparation and will be published once the experiment is complete. The advanced form of the experiment seeks to produce an artefact that outlasts us; ‘the only way we can preserve information over epochal time,’ he suggests, ‘is through genetic transmission.’

Bök details the process of composing Eunoia’s central work, in which each section employs only a single vowel. He makes a number of discoveries along the way. These include the realisation that the different vowels in English have particular characters. A related insight is that the ‘emotional affect attached to each of the vowels might explain at least in part some of the connotative moods of words.’ This is intriguing work with suggestive outcomes for the poet and literary scholar. A third discovery lies in the perception that the language used in Eunoia was somehow telling Bök how to write.

For Bök, what most facilitates writing is curiosity. He is often motivated by the desire to test his own abilities, and his curiosity is stimulated by judgments which suggest that something is not poetry. He frequently cites unusual and elaborate metaphors for the writing process: For example, the word ‘crystallography’ means ‘lucid dreaming’; ‘eunoia’ means ‘beautiful thinking’; and language guides him like Virgil through the Underworld. Experimenting in poetry means utilising a full range of techniques, which also have colourful metaphors, such as ‘using every gold club in the golf kit’ and aspiring to a vocabulary that is ‘a richer palette of colours.’

Bök extends poetry’s range. His processes also suggest strategies another poet might adopt. For example, since interviewing Christian, I have been writing a series of prose poems which uses particular forms of compound nouns as my ‘lexicon’ – this does indeed have the effect of the language at least partially dictating the direction of the content of composition, but is also proving an exciting exploration. Beyond language, and analogous to it in the way Bök suggests, there may be other diverse forms of ‘instructions’ from nature which we can adopt in our writing.

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