Xenotext

The two poems are part of a project that Bök calls The Xenotext — an attempt to encode a poem into the genome of a bacterium in such a way as to cause the genome to manufacture a protein that encodes yet another poem, mirroring and referring to the first. In order for this experiment to work, the two sonnets need to be mutually transposable according to a “bijective” substitution-cipher, where each letter is mutually switched for another. So far, only the opening lines of these poems have been published — “any style of life / is prim…” for the first; and “the faery is rosy / of glow…” for the second. Even in these small sections you can see the substitution at work: for example, the letters E and Y are mutually correlated with each other across the two poems, so that wherever the letter E appears in one text, the letter Y appears in the other. In order to write these poems, Bök created a computer program which, when given one of the eight trillion-or-so possible ciphers, produced a list of words that were mutually transposable according to this scheme. In our interview, Bök said that the largest list produced by his program was “about 800” words long, and the list used for his poems was “slightly more than 100.”

Christian Bök Makes his Poetry Come Alive.