Category: Knowing & unknowing

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.

Reference

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.

Process and knowing

Hello poets and readers,

Poets need to be able to inhabit the place of unknowing, in order to bring new realisations, techniques, forms and processes into the known world. In an article recently published in TEXT, ‘A New Suite: The Process of Knowing through Poetry’, I highlight the fact that the noun ‘knowledge’ is unnecessarily privileged in western writing, compared with the verb ‘knowing’, and emphasise that knowing how to do something is the most important aspect of knowledge. That knowing how to do something is what matters most is an idea found in various forms in writers as diverse as Aristotle (the knowledge of how to make things); William Carlos Williams (knowledge as ‘a living current’); Mark Johnson (knowing as a process of inquiry); and Jen Webb (poets offering ‘new ways of knowing and doing’). These are all descriptions of active states characterised by the verb ‘to know’. But we don’t always know how to do something until we’re doing it and working it out in process.

Philip Gross and collaboration

Hello poets and readers,

I recently revisited the text of UK poet Philip Gross’ keynote speech ‘Together in the Space Between: Collaboration as a Window on Creative Process’ given at the Poetry on the Move festival in 2015 and later published in Axon. Gross has had the advantage of a number of productive creative collaborations, both with artists from other media and, less commonly, with a fellow writer. Early in his career, he worked in a mixed group of painters and musicians from several traditions gathered around John Eaves’ huge charcoal drawings of Stonehenge, a collaboration which was extended to include the artist FJ Kennedy. The topic of Stonehenge is one shrouded in unknowing, which was deemed inviting to creative adventure, to leaving behind preconceived notions and to improvising.

Amy Lowell and the subconscious

Hello poets and readers,

One of the first pieces of writing I remember reading about process is Amy Lowell’s essay ‘The Process of Making Poetry’ (from a book originally published in 1930). Lowell was an early shaker in the Imagist movement, and experimented with lineation and what we now call prose poetry. She also wrote haiku and is anthologised in the recent Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years.

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