Issue 16
Monday, 12 September 2016
Charles Darwin University
Dr Christian Bok with his book The Xenotext: Book 1
Dr Christian Bok with his book The Xenotext: Book 1

Creative writer explains his ‘living poem’

By Patrick Nelson

Charles Darwin University’s new creative writing lecturer has explained his ambitious "living poem" science project to delegates at the Visualising Top End Research Conference in Darwin.

Prize-winning international author Dr Christian Bok gave a report on his 15-year Xenotext Experiment, in which he is attempting to encipher poetry into a bacterium’s genome.

Dr Bok discussed the experiment in his book The Xenotext: Book 1, where he explained that the project consists of a sonnet (called Orpheus), which, when translated into a gene and then integrated into a cell, causes the cell to “read” the poem, interpreting it as an instruction for building a protein whose sequence of amino acids encodes yet another sonnet (called Eurydice).

“The organism not only becomes an archive for storing my poem, but also becomes a machine for writing a poem in response,” Dr Bok said.

He already had reported a significant breakthrough that suggests “The Xenotext works”.

“I’ve received confirmation from the laboratory that my poetic cipher, gene X-P13, has in fact caused E. coli to fluoresce red in our test run …,” he said.

“I must [now] figure out how to implant X-P13 into the genome of the Deinococcus radiodurans,” a far more robust microbe.

“I am, in effect, engineering a life-form so that it becomes not only a durable archive for storing a poem, but also an operant machine for writing a poem; one that can persist on the planet until the sun itself explodes.”

Dr Bok came to prominence in 2002 when he won Canada’s Griffin Poetry Prize (valued at $40,000), for his book Eunoia.

The best-seller contains five chapters (entitled “A”, “E”, “I”, “O” and “U”) in which the letter in the title is the only vowel used throughout that chapter. For example, from Chapter E: “Whenever Helen needs effervescent refreshments, she tells her expert brewer: ‘brew me the best beer ever brewed’.” 

He also wrote Crystallography, a book of poetry and prose that uses the vernacular of geological science to challenge conventional thinking about the use of language.