Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Christian Bök
By Yeow Kai Chai
Most poets contend with the written word. Christian Bök, however, often strays off the page or the computer screen. A 21st century Michelangelo, he is adept in wide-ranging disciplines – or at least manipulating them to his own needs.
One of Canada's leading exponents on contemporary experimental poetics and literary theory, he has created conceptual artworks out of Lego bricks and Rubik's cubes. His latest project is his most ambitious yet: He is breeding a self-replicating text out of bacterium that can exist in outer space. It is out-of-this-world. Specifically, he has written a poem, 'The Xenotext', which is crafted into the DNA of a resilient form of bacteria, Deinococcus radiodurans. His debut book, Crystallography (1994), based on a pataphysical conceit that language is a crystallisation process, contains charts, concrete poems and pseudohistorical texts. His 2001 follow-up, Eunoia, comprises chapters using words limited to a single vowel. It went on to clinch the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. In 2008, a British edition of Eunoia was the eighth best-selling book on Amazon.co.uk, competing with books by Barack Obama and Nigella Lawson for top position on Christmas wish lists.
A celebrated performer of sound poetry, he has also created artificial languages for two television shows, namely Gene Roddenberry's Earth: Final Conflict and Peter Benchley's Amazon. In 1993, he co-authored (with fellow Canadian poet/critic Darren Wershler-Henry) the Virus 23 Meme, which was circulated on the nascent Internet. Born in Toronto, Bok is currently a Professor of English at the University of Calgary.
1. What are you reading right now?
No, Wait. Yep. Definitely Still Hate Myself by Robert Fitterman. The book concatenates the melancholy statements of depressed personages online, collapsing the variety of their voices into one lament about the angst of being alive. As a work of Conceptual Literature (generated through the use of Google Search), the work is both lovely and moving.
2. If you were a famous. literary character in a novel, play, or poem, who would you be, and why?
HAL 9000 from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. I have no desire to be a psychotic, heuristic algorithm (responsible for piloting a spacecraft to Jupiter, before being lobotomised by an astronaut)—but I do think that this computer is probably the most emotionally interesting of the sentient machines in the history of storytelling.
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
People who know me, only through my poetry, presume that, as a writer, I must have no soul—when in fact, I just keep it safe inside my "Horcrux": a crystal, made by crushing, into an Asscher diamond, all the ashes from the burnt script for Superman: The Movie.
4. Name one living author and one dead author you identify with most, and tell us why.
Living: Kenneth Goldsmith is my personal James Joyce. He has transformed every expectation about the role of avant-garde writing at the start of this century, and I am always impressed by his ability to provoke discussion about the future of poetry.
Dead: bpNichol has certainly become the most beatified celebrity for poets of my generation in Canada, if only because no other avant-garde poet (aside from Derek Beaulieu) has worked so generously upon such a broad gamut of charming projects.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Writing is always the act of chipping away at the white block of the page in front of you.
6. What qualities do you admire most in a writer?
I like writers who can inspire in me a sense of deep envy—especially if they have capitalised well upon a good idea, creating work that I might have imagined myself creating (if not for them having had the dumb luck to get this good idea in advance of me). I can think of no higher praise to give my peers than my expression of jealous rage.
7. What is one trait you deplore most in writing or writers?
I dislike writers who squander a good idea, realising their enviable concepts poorly due to a lack of effort, a lack of rigour, or a lack of talent. A good idea, executed badly, not only wastes the potential of the idea, tainting it, but any attempt by another writer to improve the execution of this idea just looks like a secondary borrowing of its potential.
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
I have numerous, favourite lines of poetry—so I choose one at random from my notes:
A luna kanula. (A Russian palindrome, meaning roughly: "the moon has disappeared.")
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but…
I regard Earth as my aboriginal homeworld (despite apparent evidence to the contrary).
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy, or an action thriller to watch, which will you go for, and why?
I choose science fiction—because no matter how poor the storytelling might be, there is always at least one scene that depicts a surreal, oneiric vista, inspiring to the imagination. I think that we go to the movie-house so that we can experience our dreams while awake, and science fiction lends itself to such oneiromancy by letting us hallucinate the future.
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
My favourite word is probably "eunoia"—(just because it is the shortest word in English to contain all fives vowels, and the word quite literally means: "beautiful thinking"); however, popularisers have all but debased the word over the years since the publication of my book with this title, and consequently, I have become less fond of the moniker.
12. Write a rhyming couplet that includes the following three items: meme, germ and plumber.
What plumber of sleep plumbs his humble dreams,
to dream of germs, which spread, like fatal memes?
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
Access to the Internet seems crucial for me to be creative. I cannot understand how I have written anything in the past without being able to consult a library as big as humanity.
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
3am. The whole world is asleep—so I get to work, undisturbed at my command-console, toiling in solitude to make something amazing for the world to see upon waking.
15. If you had a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
Neil Armstrong, Sergei Krikalev, and David Bowman. I probably just want to have dinner with three astronauts: the first human being to walk on the Moon; the first human to travel 0.02 seconds into his own future because of time-dilation (caused by spending 803 days in orbit); and of course, the astronaut who lobotomises HAL 9000.
16. What is the status of The Xenotext Experiment? How would you like readers to experience it? And what new project is on the horizon beyond The Xenotext?
'The Xenotext' is stalled within sight of its conclusion. The initial battery of assays on the extremophile Deinococcus radiodurans have hit two out of the three benchmarks for success, but I need to hit all three for me to say that I have completed the project. The organism is destroying the poetic matter of the protein before the poem itself can be detected—and I have now run out of both resources and expertise before being able to troubleshoot this problem. I am trying to raise more funds for me to revise the experiment, in the hope that I can overcome this obstacle—and in the meantime, I am still working on the manuscript that showcases the poetic result of all this work.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone (or Petri dish, if you like)?
QLRS Vol. 13 No. 2 Apr 2014
I actually plan to be among the immortals who survive the advent of the Singularity.