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Christian Bök Creates Microscopic, Living Poems…And Poetry Critics

By Harriet Staff

Today, Open Book Toronto reports that Griffin Poetry Prize winner Christian Bök has nearly completed a project that’s either crazy or really, really neat, depending on your perspective. His fourth book consists of only two poems, written over the course of four years. These Petrarchan sonnets were not composed with a pen and paper, but rather with computers and bacterium:

The two poems are part of a project that Bök calls The Xenotext — an attempt to encode a poem into the genome of a bacterium in such a way as to cause the genome to manufacture a protein that encodes yet another poem, mirroring and referring to the first. In order for this experiment to work, the two sonnets need to be mutually transposable according to a “bijective” substitution-cipher, where each letter is mutually switched for another. So far, only the opening lines of these poems have been published — “any style of life / is prim…” for the first; and “the faery is rosy / of glow…” for the second… In order to write these poems, Bök created a computer program which, when given one of the eight trillion-or-so possible ciphers, produced a list of words that were mutually transposable according to this scheme. In our interview, Bök said that the largest list produced by his program was “about 800” words long, and the list used for his poems was “slightly more than 100.”

With such peculiar methods, surprises were inevitable:

In 2011 the project seemed to have had a breakthrough, when Bök’s team was able to make an E. Coli bacterium glow red (meaning that the cell was responding to the implanted gene by building the poetic protein in response). However, the glow turned out to be the only part of the test that went right. Soon after announcing the breakthrough, Bök discovered that the bacterium was actually destroying much of the poem, leaving only the fluorescent tag intact.

“It’s actually censoring the poem,” Bök said. “I’ve created the world’s first microbial critic.”

Bök probably isn’t the first to compare critics to parasites, though. Check out the full story over at Open Book Toronto.

Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, July 19th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.