Christian Bok on The Xenotext Experiment

Christian Bok
First aired on Q  (06/23/10)

Christian Bök is used to tackling the impossible. After all, he's an extremely successful experimental poet — a feat that in and of itself is quite admirable. His earlier book, Eunoia, is an avant-garde exploration of the flexibility of the English language. Each of the five chapters in that book uses only one vowel.

Does your head hurt yet? Well, wait until you try to wrap it around Bök's current project — The Xenotext Experiment.

This is what Bök calls his attempt to create a poetry that will continue to live long after humankind has been wiped from the face of the earth. The Xenotext Experiment aims to embed poetry in one of the earth's most resilient organisms — a strain of bacteria called Deinococcus radiodurans.

Think of it as a kind of organic watermark. The poetry is created in the form of a genetic sequence. The bacteria carry that sequence around with them, and we can later reclaim that sequence and decipher its meaning. Bök, however, has decided to take this idea of embedded messages in genetic material one step further. He intends to have this encoded poem also be a set of instructions. Those instructions would allow the organism to build a protein, and within this protein there would be yet another embedded message — a second, original poem.

It's a project that is baffling in its complexity. In order to accomplish it, Bök will have to create a code which links the letters of the English alphabet to the genetic nucleotides (adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine, or ACGT). Each English letter will correspond to a grouping of three of these nucleotides (a tri-nucleotide sequence or "codon").

This alone would be quite difficult, but Bök must also keep in mind the fact that the way he orders the genetic sequence (or, in this case, the letters of the words) will determine the bacteria's response. Finally, the coding must also be able to function in two ways, so that the resulting protein can be deciphered into a meaningful message.

At least, I think that's how it works. Hear Bök explain it better, and in more detail, to Jian Ghomeshi on Q.

Related Content:

Subscribe to the Q podcast.

Read Christian Bök's explaination of The Xenotext Experiment.

Take a peak at the widely successful Eunoia.

Listen to a reading of Eunoia.

Follow Christian Bök on Twitter.

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