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Class Notes

A Germ of an Idea
Umlaut Champ, Academic and Experimental Poet Christian Bk Gets Into Bacterial Culture With His Latest Boundary-Bending Work BY ROB THOMAS, BA/99, MJ/06
The last time Christian Bk was at Carleton University was the spring of 2010. That year he was a guest of the department of English, where he delivered the annual Munro Beattie Lecture. Bk, BAHons/89, MA/90, wore a white-collar shirt and a dark Armani suit. It was a far cry from his days as an undergraduate and graduate student, whenif anonymous internet comments are to be believedhe sometimes wore more outlandish attire, maybe even a sash. The only hints of the internationally renowned poets more playful side that evening were a violet tie and the lectures provocative title, Be Okay With an Umlaut. The lecture was about poetry, of course, but also encryption and microbiology. That is because Bkwho jokes that he dropped an o from his real name and added an umlaut to spare himself the inevitable jokes that come with being a writer named Bookhas spent the past 12 years trying to write the most challenging poem imaginable. The aim of his ongoing Xenotext Project is to encipher a short poem into the DNA of a bacterium and direct the bacterium to write a response. The response is a protein, produced by the bacterium, that can also be deciphered by using the original code. In other words, he wants to write a poem directly into the genetic code of the bacterium that also turns the bacterium into a machine that writes an original poem in response. He has had some success. In 2012, he managed to implant his six-word poem (Any style of life/ is prim) in an E. coli bacterium and forced a response (The faery is rosy/ of glow). He describes that breakthrough as a first draft. Now I have to finish the manuscript, he says.

His ultimate goal is to implant the poem and force a response in Deinococcus radiodurans. D. radiodurans is sometimes called Conan the Bacterium because of its ability to withstand acid, cold, dehydration and radiation. The idea is to write a poem that might last forever. This has proved more difficult. Bk recently learned that the D. radiodurans bacterium accepted his genetically encoded poem but flubbed the response. He still isnt sure why. I feel disappointment, of course, but Im not entirely surprised, he says. Ive had setbacks every step of the way on this project. But the latest setback comes just as funding for the project has expired. Asked what the next step is, Bk says, I just dont know. He insists, however, that the project isnt over. It is just delayed. It wouldnt be the first time Bk has defied expectationsthats what defines his career. In 1994, Bk reimagined the alphabet as exquisite fractal formations in his first book, Crystallography. He has challenged the conception and form of the book by building his own volumes from Lego. His second book, Eunoiain which

each of the five chapters uses only words with one English vowelwas a bestseller in Canada and the U.K., won the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2002 and, most recently, has been adapted for the stage by Toronto experimental choreographer Denise Fujiwara. Bk says making a name for himself by creating experimental works, the kinds people generally pay no attention to, has been his goal for decades. It began in the final years of his undergraduate degree at Carleton University. Bk describes himself, at the time, as an exceptional student and an unexceptional writer. I was writing anecdotal poetry about my own experiences. I was a capable writer. I was able to get my stuff published. But I realized very quickly that I was not going to have any significant impact producing the kind of work I was, he explains. I, of course, had much grander ideas for myself. These days, in addition to his international reputation, Bk is an associate professor of English at the University of Calgary. Hes also busy trying to secure new funding to complete a microscopic poem that, he says, just might outlast civilization.

Carleton University Magazine 41