Christian Bök has been known to make things hard on himself. That's his whole thing: His last book, Eunoia, notoriously includes five wordy chapters that each make use of one vowel only. With one chapter for every vowel - and vice versa - the book took Bök (pronounced Book) most of a decade to write, at the rate of several months a paragraph, four hours a day without fail, while the author worked two jobs and wrote his doctoral dissertation.
That Eunoia went on to become the bestselling book of Canadian poetry ever published only inspired Bök to set a higher bar for his next work, which is still very much in progress nine years later - and may well prove impossible to complete. He is struggling manfully to teach bugs to write poetry.
And not just any bugs, but those of the oldest, most obdurate, resistantly preliterate species conceivable: Deinococcus radiodurans, the world's toughest living thing, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. "Conan the Bacterium," according to whimsical biologists.
"You can burn it, freeze it, dry it out and it will continue to survive," the poet enthuses on the telephone from Alberta, where he teaches at the University of Calgary. "It can survive in the vacuum of outer space. It can even survive a thousand times the dose of gamma radiation that would instantly kill a human being. So it's a very tough bug."
Deinococcus radiodurans may not be the most lyrical bacterium, but once he teaches it to store and even create poetry, Bök theorizes, it will never stop. "It could be on the planet when the sun explodes," he says. "Effectively I'm trying to write a book that would last forever."
Eunoia continues to do well in the meantime, so much so that Bök is travelling to Toronto this month to take part in the Open House Festival, where his "dazzling word games," to quote The Times newspaper, will be set to music by Canadian rocker Dave Bidini as part of the festival's Torn from the Pages program.
Bök's readings are unforgettable, a sensory barrage "with the impact of a Jimi Hendrix concert," according to Bidini. Large in body and stentorian in voice, Bök "attacks the air, really bites the air," the musician says. "There's a lot of clavicle and rib cage. The words just shoot out of him."
Whitman's barbaric yawp translated into "univocal lipograms," as Bök describes his favourite phrases - perhaps with a grunt or a squawk from one of the alien languages he invented for Hollywood impresarios Gene Roddenberry and Peter Benchley.
Today, Canada's most popular poet is distinguished by his silence: the non-sound of his tortuous progress with Deinococcus, which he calls the Xenotext Project. "It's a slow process," he says. "I don't think I would be so enthusiastic about embarking on this idea if I knew it would take so long to do it."
Bök's original inspiration was an experiment in which U.S. scientists translated song lyrics into genetic code and implanted them in various bacteria, retrieving them intact after several generations of reproduction. An article by physicist Paul Davies speculating about the use of such bugs as space travellers sealed the deal.
"We could image a civilization encoding information in genetic sequences that could be incorporated into spores and viruses," the poet says, describing Davies's idea. "And these spores and viruses would be transmitted into the interstellar void and survive and adapt to the various environments they encounter. And just sit and wait for a smart enough civilization to build computers fast enough to discover these messages and decipher them."
Eureka. "I thought, Why wait? Why not be that civilization?"
Typically, Bök wants to go beyond the now doable act of embedding a recoverable text into the genetic material of a single-celled organism, which he calls "a simple act of republishing a text in a new medium." Instead, he is trying to embed a poem in Deinococcus that will cause the bug to produce a new protein that can be read as a second, entirely different poem.
"I'm not just hijacking the organism to turn it into an archive for storing my poem. I'm also transforming the organism into a machine for writing a poem in response," he explains. "I'm trying to make my poem a living thing that in turn writes a poem."
To ensure his poem makes "biochemical sense," Bök enlisted the help of leading biologists. To find a code suitable for transmitting "mutually enciphered" texts, he taught himself computer language and built a program to troll through the eight trillion possible combinations of 26 paired letters, searching for one that generated a usable lexicon of English word pairs. Using one word of any pair in the initial poem would create a protein that "wrote" the other.
But the result of his search for le code juste was "an unfortunate surprise," the world's most ambitious wordsmith admits. He discovered that if he wanted to use the eight-letter word "language" in the first poem, for instance, the bug's response was restricted to only three possibilities: toxicoid, foxtrot and copy boys. "And that's it," he says. "Of the eight trillion ciphers at my disposal, there's only a handful of sets which will produce only these three results."
Such are the "highly obscure and exceptionally rarefied little lessons I've learned about language," Bök says. More economically, he calls them "autistic discoveries" - using a word that makes his best friend Darren Wershler laugh.
"Christian has this rage for order that leads him to produce projects that have to be realized in a very precise way," says Wershler, Bök's editor, now a professor of communications at Wilfrid Laurier University. "He really does carry that to an extreme. It's also what makes him special."
Bök has single-handedly transformed literary discourse in Canada, according to Wershler. "You can't trot out the standard complaints about ivory tower eggheads around Christian," he says. "The phenomenal success of his work suggests that the reality is a lot more complex. Readers are smarter than we give them credit for, and experimental literature has more relevance to our daily lives than we are willing to attest."
At stake in the Xenotext Project is "the very problem of communication itself," Wershler says. As in, who or what exactly are we communicating with here? "It raises that incredibly paranoid possibility that there might be messages embedded in the real world all around us," he adds. "It raises the question of whether or not we're missing things, or whether something has been left for us that we just don't see."
Eight years on, however, there are still no verses in Bök's petri dish. "I'm still struggling with the poems," he says, visiting "all kinds of bizarre little neighbourhoods of language within the universe of these ciphers" in search of his bound-and-gagged Muse.
But, as with Eunoia, the wait will probably be worth it. "I would rather have one astonishing thing from him every decade than a stack of Canada Council-funded poetry books gathering dust," his friend says.