Christian Bök is a renowned modern poet that hails from Toronto, Canada. “Vowels,” featured in the 2007 version of Best American Poetry, is arguably his most well-known poem. Mr. Bök spends most of his time as a professor at University of Calgary, but still writes poetry as often as he can. Nick Trager and I conducted an interview with Professor Bök to gain a better understanding of his poetry and personality.
Ryan Luttrell: Is there a purpose to the anagrammatic style of ‘Vowels’? If so, what is it?
Christian Bök: ‘Vowels’ uses only words, consisting of letters found in the title. The work attempts to derive a meaningful statement from this limited repertoire of letters in an effort to demonstrate my skill under duress. The work has inspired a song by the Norwegian rock band ‘Ulver.’
RL: Why have you chosen to sacrifice meaning over language in your poems?
CB: T.S. Eliot has described ‘meaning’ as the ‘meat that the burglar throws to the dog.’ A poet may write something cryptic, but in order to appease a readership, the poet might include a message that lends credence to such nonsense. I have not ‘sacrificed’ meaning in my work — since a poem always means something in spite of itself.
RL: Why do you prefer to experiment with your poetry rather than write ‘traditional’ poems?
CB: I write out of curiosity — to see what language can do at the ‘limit-cases’ of writing. I believe that poetry constitutes the ‘R & D wing’ of language, reverse-engineering this alien technology for human expression. I build anti-gravity machines out of words.
RL: How has living in Canada influenced your poetry?
CB: Canada does not feature very prominently in my poetry at all — but other poets from Canada have certainly influenced my practice: bpNichol, Derek Beaulieu, Sina Queyras, and Lisa Robertson (among many others).
RL: Is there a common theme throughout your poems?
CB: Thematically, I am interested in pushing language to its utmost limits, striving to explore the boundaries of writing.
RL: What emotions do you like to bring into your writing?
CB: I am generally dispassionate when I write, avoiding emotive lyricism during my composition. I have joked that, depending upon my mood, I strive to write like an amoeba, a meteor, or an abacus.