Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015


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In The Consequence of Innovation: 21st Century Poetics (edited by Craig Dworkin), Charles Bernstein updates Pound’s dictum about 20th Century poetry by quipping that rather than simply making it new, poets need to make the poem live. Christian Bök has been trying to do just this through his ambitious Xenotext Experiment, where he is attempting to insert a poem into the DNA of a bacterium. The aim is to encipher the poem as a set of instructions into the genetic nucleotides of the organism in order to cause the bacterium to create a benign protein. This protein, the result of an amino acid sequence determined by the original poem, will be legible as its own complementary poem. The project has proven to be extremely difficult (there is the problem of writing a mutually correlated text as well as the problem of doing so in a way that doesn’t draw the editorial attention of the organism). Here is a recent interview Bök gave explaining aspects of his project:

Bök’s project is a species of bioart, which has become increasingly fertile grounds for artistic innovation as scientific technologies become more advanced and accessible. Eduardo Kac, for example, a pioneer in what he calls transgenic art, has also translated poems and inserted them into the genomes of bacteria (see his work Genesis); however, he is most famous for his work GFP Bunny, which involved inserting green fluorescent protein into a rabbit, causing it to fluoresce under certain wavelengths of light.

I think it is important that artists and poets engage with cutting-edge scientific technologies. Putting genetic engineering technology into the hands of an artist is a valuable and desirable exercise. The objective of bioart is clearly to ask questions and provoke larger conversations about the risks and rewards of technological innovations. Private industries cannot be trusted to have the same motivations, given their interests in profit-making and gate-keeping. Poets should be going into space. They should be given the chance to work with the Large Hadron Collider, for example. Poets should be playing with the tools the scientists are playing with so that they might provoke us to ask better questions about the worlds we are building and taking apart.


Thanks for your comments, Edward. As Bok has currently conceived of the project, there seems little opportunity for the organism to re-interpret the poem. By writing a mutually enciphered text, he is effectively determining the response poem even as he writes the original. I suppose in the future, if the organism alters the amino acid sequence of the protein, then the response poem may change. The Xenotext Experiment might be said to be algorithmic in some respects (he has to find a way to fit a poem into the constraints involved with sequencing a benign protein); however, this project strikes me as a lot less algorithmic than more conventional procedural or aleatoric poetics which can act more or less like little computer programs (quite literally like algorithms).

Adam . . . Thanks for this . . . Bök’s curious experiment works hard at first externalizing how (and where) a poem finds itself and what it is meant to be, and then appears to hope (plan?) for that external host to both house and re-interpret/feedback against itself. It sounds like a quest for a kind of biological algorithm, having its genesis in the very nature of a poem’s creative process, where the poem can also be understood as the outcome of the algorithmic process of thought and the metaphorical design and patterned structures of language. Time will tell both whether such a thing is possible and how it might be applied. Poetry is always about how disparate things simultaneously co-exist and integrate, a petri dish and chemical/biological pool of its own.

Edward Carson

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Adam Dickinson

Adam Dickinson’s poems have appeared in literary journals in Canada and internationally. His first book of poetry, Cartography and Walking (Brick Books), was shortlisted for an Alberta Book Award. His second collection, Kingdom, Phylum (Brick Books), was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. His third collection of poetry, The Polymers is published by House of Anansi Press.

Go to Adam Dickinson’s Author Page