My very first assignment when I joined the PennSound team was to segment a recent reading by Christian Bök at the Kelly Writers House. It seems only fitting to start my “Notes from PennSound” commentary by returning to audio file that I cut my teeth on as I learned the ins and outs of PennSound's infrastructure, and to an author that has been unavoidable in discussions concerning performance, sound, experimentation, technology, word play, computational composition, 'pataphysics, unintentionality, intentionality, and semi-intentionality.
The visual poems in Christian Bök’s series, Odalisques, fascinate me, both as texts in themselves and because these resting female bodies appear so different from the rest of his body of work.
These pieces, as representations of female nudes, are mimetic and seem to engage with notions of representation of gender (the female body and more specifically, the ‘male gaze’), both in visual art and in language. Is the body — specifically here, a woman’s body — concubined by language? Are women trapped in its semantic (sementic) harem (-scarum)? Trapped by a kind of economy, a commodifying calligraphy?
Or is it the other way around: language itself is the concubine that must give pleasure to its master, that must live in the seraglio of its grammatical sultan?
Sean Bonney is another poet who turns to a poetics of iteration as a poetics of revolution. Especially in Baudelaire in Englishand Happiness: Poems after Rimbaud, Bonney adapts iteration to revolutionary poetic and political ends. In these two books, Bonney attends to the way revolutionary writing, if too direct or smooth, can become implicated in the power structures it seeks to overcome. Bonney’s Baudelaire in English concludes: “the poem is in danger of becoming an overly smooth surface fit only for the lobbies of office buildings and as illustrations / expensive gallery catalogues, that kind of bullshit.” In Baudelaire in English, Bonney stresses the relation between echoes and cracks in the smoothness in his version of “Correspondances,” which contains the phrase “their echoes split us.” Bonney’s texts are idiosyncratic translations of Baudelaire’s poems so breaking the smooth surface of standard translations. Bonney’s translations overlay lines of typewritten text to the point of illegibility, even as they superimpose twenty-first-century London onto nineteenth-century Paris. Through grainy photographs of neglected and forgotten places in London, Bonney (like Baudelaire) emphasizes the ruins and decay of the modern city, the fissure lines and suffering that are the neglected side of the progress of modernity.
In Happiness: Poems after Rimbaud, Bonney again makes the city of London his subject, this time through a focus on the protests against the existing economic and political order that took place in 2010 and 2011 in the wake of the financial crisis. Much of Happiness first appeared on Bonney’s Abandoned Buildingsblog so that the book functions as a retrospective archiving and framing of poems written as news, as part of and in response to a movement for revolutionary change.
From an interview by Sonnet L’Abbé with Sarah Dowling and me in Canadian Literature 210/211 (Autumn/Winter 2011)
As long as Christian Bök and Darren Wershler remain influential figures in conceptual poetics, would you consider conceptual writing a practice that has its origins "in Canada," perhaps with 'pataphysical roots? Can Canadianist scholars stake that territory?
Christian Bök: I would like to be a mad scientist in my basement designing a new brand of nerve gas that I could just spring on the population. And I am doing it through this kind of viral thing called language.
Scientist: None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science. In other studies you go as far as others have gone before you, but in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder.
The Xenotext: the translation of a poem into a specific gene sequence, which then gets inserted into the Deinococcus radiodurans bacterium; the bacterium responds by producing a viable protein, writes a poem in a fluorescent response.
Christian Bök I met up with Christian and Brigitte a few days earlier. We had met at the noisy lounge at his hotel on West 55th and walked over to the Mandarin Oriental lobby sky bar overlooking Central Park. But it was too dark to take any pictures. I saw Christian again at Kenny's on New Year's Day. Cheryl's studio was fairly quiet and the light was right. January 1, 2008
In 2005, a seminar of Penn students and Charles Bernstein spoke with Christian Bok, making a recording that is now part of the "Close Listening" series hosted by Bernstein. Here is the recording and here is more information about the session. Now Michael Nardone has transcribed the interview for later publication in Jacket2 but we cannot resist offering a brief excerpt here:
PENN STUDENT: So, while we are talking about Eunoia, can we look forward to a consonant sequel?
BÖK: A consonant sequel? No, I’ve promised myself that I won’t ever write another constraint-based book again. The blood-pact I have with my peer group is that every book we write will be radically different from its predecessor, that the entire oeuvre should be completely heteroclite. So, the next project requires learning a whole new skill-set and re-training my brain, in effect, to learn something else. I probably would not have the endurance now or perseverance required to actually finish a constraint-based book.
PENN STUDENT: So, clearly, this is very constraint-based, and from what you’re saying, you’re probably going to set yourself a new set of rules every time you write something new. So, are you arguing for something, for going back to sort of the poetic formality that has existed forever, against the tide of free verse, or stream-of-consciousness?
BÖK: Well, actually, I have no problem with those poetic forms. I think my only complaint about those poetic forms you’ve cited is that they are not feeling much incentive to innovate and produce something new and reinvent themselves in a manner which is exciting and stimulating. And to me, it’s not so important that the work actually demonstrate some sort of formalistic character, so long as it has some kind of innovative rationale for its practice. So, I’m not making a case, I think, for a return to rigorous and strict formality. You know, I’m not that fascistic or school-marmish, I think, in my sensibilities. But I did this project thinking that it was a kind of experimental work. I didn’t know if it could be done, and I merely conducted the experiment to see what would happen. And to me, that’s really what writing poetry is about, it’s a kind of heuristic activity where you indulge in a completely exploratory adventure through language itself.