With the immortal Xenotext, poetry gets stranger than fiction

The “world’s best-selling poet,” University of Calgary’s Christian Bök, is hard at work on The Xenotext, a project for which he’s used genetic modification to implant an enciphered poem into the living DNA of a bacterium. Bök’s plan is to to make use of D. Radiodurans, an organism capable of surviving nuclear holocausts and travelling through the vacuum of space unharmed. Inside this bacteria, Bök’s poem would endure indefinitely, guaranteeing him a kind of immortality.

In case you’re curious, no, this isn’t just a very weird April Fool’s joke.

I’ve been known to boast very vociferously of my own merits as a poet.
—Christian Bök

Bök visited UVic on March 9th  and 10th as part of Special Collections’ speaker series “Unravelling the Code(x): History of the Book.” He brought with him The Xenotext Book One, the first published work to result from the now 14-years-running project, containing numerous offshoots, explanations, and meditations on the work.

Needless to say, it wasn’t your typical poetry reading. Bök is an utterly unique speaker; his sense of humour is black and sharp, and it’s often unclear whether he’s joking at all. As if the entire concept didn’t already suggest megalomania, he seemed happy to step up as poetry’s own Kanye West. Or, as he puts it, “I’ve been known to boast very vociferously of my own merits as a poet.” If his Xenotext succeeds, Bök assured the crowd, he will be the greatest poet of all time — for now, he’s “only in the top five.”

No one could say he isn’t working hard for the title. For Bök to consider himself successful, many criteria must be met. Not only must his 14-line poem, “Orpheus,” be stably enciphered within the bacterium’s DNA, it must then build a protein encoding another 14-line poem, “Eurydice,” which serves as an answer to the first and causes the bacterium to fluoresce red.

First Bök had to discover a viable cipher to translate his poem into genetic code, then run countless computer simulations to predict within a small margin of error whether or not the protein would fold properly without adverse effects. Finally, he took his work to the lab for scientists to perform (extremely expensive) test runs. So far Bök has enjoyed significant success working with E. coli, an organism that can be grown and genetically manipulated easily. Bök says that the “scientists were very impressed with me,” but he knows that inserting the poem successfully into D. radiodurans will be, literally, a different beast altogether.

Bök also readily acknowledges the thorny GMO debate that his project finds itself a part of. He claims that far from recklessly playing with life, he is bound by the demands of the bacterium. “I can’t make it do whatever I want. It makes me do what it wants . . . I have to appease it.” Besides, he stresses, DNA is the most durable archive yet known in the universe — why wouldn’t he want to make use of it? Bök predicts that everyone will one day turn to DNA to record their most meaningful thoughts and feelings.

Nevertheless, the project isn’t without critics, including Nicole Shukin, a UVic professor in the Department of English who specializes in biopower, animal studies, and the politics of nature. In a talk last year, Shukin argued that The Xenotext is symptomatic of the increasingly bizarre intersections of biotechnology and capitalism, where life is being exploited in “service of a human species seeking to secure [survival] beyond the limits of earth . . . after the auto-violence of humans ruins Earth for habitation.”

As Shukin sees it, organisms that thrive in extreme environments like D. Radiodurans “make it possible for humans to speculate, emotionally and economically, in future life freed from the biological and ecological baselines . . . required by most species on this planet.” In that sense, Bök’s interest in the bacterium makes him complicit with a kind of madness inherent in the biotechnological industry (what Melinda Cooper calls ‘delirium’ in her book Life As Surplus,  a work on which Shukin’s argument centers).

Shukin believes Bök’s project is just another expression of this madness that allows “life-systems on earth to be sacrificed to extreme capitalism” even as “biotechnology [promises] the replacement and recreation of entire worlds [by] investing in . . . other life” — life like Bök’s modified D. Radiodurans.

In such a light, The Xenotext seems almost as sinister as fragile GMO grain monocultures (or at least as unsettling as meat cells grown in petri dishes). It doesn’t help that Bök totally acts like a mad scientist, utterly consumed by his work. A sonnet in The Xenotext Book One (a double acrostic, 33-letters-per-line, perfect anagram of Keats’s “When I Have Fears . . . ”) took Bök four months to complete, and that’s nothing compared to the 14 years The Xenotext itself has taken so far.

If you’re like me, such single-mindedness is a little disturbing, and a little stupefying. How are we supposed to feel about Bök, this hell-bent GMO bibliomancer of the apocalypse? He himself is tranquil, convinced of what he’s doing and why. He concluded to the crowd at UVic, almost as if daring us to stop him, “failure is always more interesting to the spectator.” Without a doubt, he has no intentions of quitting until his poem has made it to the end of time.

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