Grad student Gerard Breitenbeck reviews Christian Bök’s recent BathHouse reading:
Appropriately enough, Christine Hume concluded her introduction of Christian Bök with a poem she composed consisting only of the letters which make up the poet’s name. Christian then took the podium and read two Hugo Ball poems which to the uninitiated could be described as something along the lines of beat-boxing but more free form and using every object imaginable as a sound model rather than just a drum kit. He followed these with readings from his Bestselling book Eunoia, of which he promised, given the demographics of the crowd, he would read exclusively from the “naughty parts”.
He then read the Lego Poem Ten Maps of Sardonic Wit, and explained how coincidentally the permutations of the Lego creator’s patent write up matches with Democritus’ ancient outline of the theory of the atomic nature of the universe.
Very enjoyable was the series which involved a robot or computer speaking, consisting of many repetitions such as “I think so but I’m not completely sure” and “I don’t know if I’m pessimistic, I’m a giant electronic brain.” He followed this with a sung rendition of an alien hymn from the television show Earth: Final Conflict, the language of which he invented.
Christian then went on to discuss the Xenotech Project, which he outlined as implanting a poem in a bacterium specially selected to outlast just about any physical contingency over the course of millions of years, and the DNA code to be implanted would itself both be a poem and, as fully functioning genetic instructions, facilitate the creation inside the bacterium of a “Response” poem in the form of a protein. Thus the poetic DNA and the protein response would be both physically salient as well as poetically coherent and meaningful.
The Q&A following the performance was remarkably in-depth in terms of the comprehension Christian was inclined to go in answering the questions posed to him. First concerned the field of Pataphysics, the study of science that doesn’t exist. Christian explained how Pataphysics functioned in a world in which science doesn’t always realize its linguistic/metaphysical implications/impact and how poetry can be a powerful tool in engaging science to deal with these questions, though outside of Pataphysics poetry has a poor track record for engaging science and the way it’s changing our world.
He then went into greater elucidation regarding the Xenotech Experiment, giving the room a remarkably comprehensible crash course in genetics in about five minutes. He went on to describe the arduous process of isolating letter pairs to use for the poems which consisted of months and months of trial and error in order to find a series of pairs that would both permit a sensible initial poem and an intelligible response (the rigors of which being no doubt confusing to those not graced with Christian’s genetics lesson, suffice to say that in order to create a working genetic poem one has to operate in some ludicrously tight constraints that could be likened to a three dimensional crossword puzzle with a limited amount of letters and no clues).
Christian then spoke for a time about his philosophy of poetry and beauty and literary merit which he boiled down to: Making sense, looking effortless, having thematic complexity, re-readability, and finally, that it is Amazing. The amazing part he expanded upon as being unique/anomalous, as well as containing the qualities mentioned above.
We were then treated to a mini-poetry class in which Christian instructed us in how to make a quick and easy poem that wasn’t terrible. The method involved using concrete, specific nouns over vague, abstract ones, eliminating passive verbs and using verbs to make our concrete nouns do things they usually don’t, using anomalous adjectives and adverbs or better still none at all.
The poet’s readings emphasized the performance nature of poetry, his distinctive presence and delivery pronounced and enunciated. In the Q&A he demonstrated himself as someone who is extraordinarily enmeshed and dedicated to what he does and loves to discuss it at length. Overall, Christian Bök is clearly a poet operating in a fascinating niche of his own design, and one in which he appears very much at home.