Category: Research

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.

The process of making a poet

Hello poets and readers,

How does one become a poet? This perennial and intriguing question is in part answered by recent research in Australia. Interviewing 76 poets, Jen Webb, Paul Magee, Kevin Brophy and Michael Biggs isolated key factors which help to foster excellence in poetry. Although my research here emphasises process rather than end results, this group’s study has implications for process more broadly: it’s about the making of the poet rather than the making of the poems and can tell us much about what behaviour contributes to good writing.

Experimental process and ekphrasis

Hello poets and readers,

Sometimes I’m amazed and delighted by other forms of art and want to respond in poetry. I want to go further than simply responding through the content of my work. I want the dynamics of the other art form to effect the structures of my poetry, to help invigorate and update my poetry, in what I call a radical ekphrasis. In a recent article, published in Axon, I address the popular topic of ekphrasis – writing in response to other forms of art, and show that the close association the word has with visual arts is an entirely modern one, and that the ancient understanding of ekphrasis was one of the general ability to make a scene vivid.

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.

Lisa Samuels and multiplicity

Hello poets and readers,

In an interview with transnational poet Lisa Samuels, she suggests that at the heart of her poetry and her process is a multiplicity of reference and background. When asked by interviewer Jack Ross, in the first issue of the revamped Poetry New Zealand Yearbook, which writers inspire her she answers in terms of categories, and says that she is as likely to be inspired by, “patterns, sounds, place histories, images, philosophy, statistics for a country’s fabric imports, dictionaries, encyclopedias, poetry, experimental drama, strange comics, physics hypotheses, theory, and manifestos,” as writers (41).

Philip Gross and free-search

Hello poets and readers,

When I come across a great poem that shows originality of form or content, I often wonder how it was made. The process of making a poem is often not fully articulated and in my interviews with poets I will aim to be as specific as possible about the writing process to elucidate how they work. I’m also on the lookout for existing interviews or essays which may tell us something about the writing process. I want to create a resource that other poets may use to invigorate and stimulate their writing and that readers will find illuminating.

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