By Anthony A. Davis - Friday, January 11, 2013 - 0 Comments
After 11 years and $120,000 in research, Christian Bök has put words to DNA
“I’m the poet who does the impossible thing. I am the poet who aspires to have the biggest imagination in the room,” Christian Bök says bluntly. Yet his grandiose inventiveness has been focused on the most minuscule attempt at verse. After 11 years of working on what he’s dubbed “The Xenotext,” Bök is close to creating the world’s first living poem. A short stanza enciphered into a string of DNA and injected into an “unkillable” bacterium, Bök’s poem is designed to trigger the micro-organism to create a corresponding protein that, when decoded, is a verse created by the organism. In other words, the harmless bacterium, Deinococcus radiodurans (known as an extremophile because of its ability to survive freezing, scorching, or the vacuum of outer space), will be a poetic bug.
Bök first conceived of “The Xenotext” after reading a scientific article by Pak Chung Wong at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington and another by Arizona-based astrobiologist Paul Davies. Wong encoded the lyrics to Disney’s It’s a Small World After All into bacteria. Davies speculated that if extraterrestrial civilizations wanted to make contact with other worlds, they would send highly adaptable self-replicating bio-probes—something akin to a bacterium or virus—that could carry messages and survive the destructive environment of outer space. Continue…
By Barbara Amiel - Sunday, June 17, 2012 at 6:10 PM - 0 Comments
As a drug trip, Einstein on the Beach would stun. As far as opera goes, our reviewer says, it’s a hoax
Basically it started when I accepted an invitation to a dinner in honour of the creators of the 1976 avant-garde opera Einstein on the Beach, put on last weekend at Toronto’s Luminato festival: music by Philip Glass, direction by Robert Wilson, choreography by Lucinda Childs. Wilson explained the libretto was a communal effort; fairly strange since there is no libretto to speak of—but then one of the persons creating the “spoken text” is autistic, which might explain the word deﬁcit and repetition of symbols. Normally I would not mention a neurological condition but it was emphasized in the pre-opera talk by the director.
I should mention that Toronto was awash in High Culture last week and I dodged from the Grifﬁn Poetry Prize events to Luminato’s Einstein. The Grifﬁn Poetry Prize is a universally Good Thing. It would be a good thing even if a Black Mountain poem won it, an avant-garde form of poetry that came to mind during the many and lengthy libretto lacunas of Einstein. True, the American school of Black Mountain poetry only had a lifespan of 23 years (1933-56 ofﬁcially) although it seemed more like an eternity if you had to listen to it as I did at Canadian poetry festivals in the ’70s. Various critical descriptions explain that Black Mountain poetry was “progressive” with an open-form approach “driven by the natural patterns of breath and utterance.” God, it was vile.
Toronto aviator and businessman Scott Grifﬁn and his wife, Krystyne, endowed the Grifﬁn prize with dollops of loot, making it the richest poetry prize in the world ($65,000 for the best Canadian and the same again for the international winner). Its independent jury could theoretically give all the prize money to some current equivalent of Black Mountain poetry if the moment embraced that fashion but tant pis. A bespectacled 17-year- old, who appeared not to be spotty though you’d think what with his thick glasses and poetry keenness he would be, won Grifﬁn’s high school competition for poetry reading. Scott Grifﬁn claims his love of poetry sprung from memorizing a poem whenever he was bad as a child. I’m not sure a parent today could demand such compliance, but thank you, parents Anthony and Kitty Grifﬁn.
By Brian Bethune - Tuesday, June 5, 2012 at 11:46 AM - 0 Comments
Serious cash, glamour, mystery–and great poetry–make this prize one of the world’s richest
As the literary calendar turns, it’s time again for the glittering Griffin Poetry Prize. Founded in 2000 by businessman and serious poetry lover Scott Griffin to celebrate excellence in poetry, the prize is for first edition books of poetry written in, or translated into, English anywhere in the world. The two winners—one Canadian and one international—both take home $65,000 plus the $10,000 the prize provides each shortlisted author, making the Griffin one of the world’s richest literary awards of any kind. This year’s three Canadian nominees are Ken Babstock, Phil Hall and Jan Zwicky, while the four internationals are David Harsent and Sean O’Brien from Britain, American Yusef Komunyakaa and Tadeusz Rózewicz of Poland. All seven will give public readings from their shortlisted collections on Wednesday evening, June 6, in Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music. (The winners will be announced at a gala dinner the next night.) During the course of the Wednesday readings, though, prize trustees will present a Lifetime Recognition Award in tribute to the work and achievements of a major poet whose name will not be released beforehand. Serious cash, glamour, mystery, and words to move mind and heart: the Griffin does have it all.
By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, June 2, 2011 at 1:39 AM - 0 Comments
The two winners of the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize both happen to be North American women with an academic pedigree who were born in 1953—Canadian winner Dionne Brand, who immigrated from Trinidad at 17 and teaches at Guelph University, and Tacoma-born international winner Gjertrud Schnackenberg, a highly awarded American poet who has lectured on campuses ranging from M.I.T. to Oxford. Presented last night at a dinner in the Fermenting Room of Toronto’s distillery district, the awards recognize Brand’s book Ossuaries and Schnackenberg’s Heavenly Questions. Each poet will receive $75,000 from the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry, founded by Scott Griffin—one of the richest literary awards in the world ($65,000 plus $10,000 that each nominee receives).
Clearly a hometown favorite, Brand, Toronto’s third poet laureate, was greeted with a jubilant response from the 400 guests at the dinner. Fulfilling a promise she had made to herself the previous time she was shortlisted for the Griffin, she pulled out a note and proceeded to thank all the poets who had ever touched her. It was an exhaustive and dazzling pantheon, a constellation of names as diverse as Aime Cesaire, Octavio Paz, Michael Ondaatje, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, Milton Acorn. . . plus the Mighty Sparrow and Bob Marley. I felt sorry for any poets in the room who were not mentioned.
The range of the three Canadian nominees shows how elastic the contemporary poetry can be. They range from the novelistic sweep of Brand’s Ossuaries, an epic tale of a fictional activist, to the aphoristic wit of Suzanne Buffam, whose tweet-length koans could fuel a stand-up comedy act, to the observational acuity of John Steffler, who reengineers the poet’s classic interplay of language and landscape. At the previous night’s Griffin poetry readings, at Koerner Hall, a packed event of 1,000 people, all three Canadian poets performed their work with eloquence. Buffam, who is based in Chicago, was the most lightweight of the three, but the most startling, and quotable. It was as if she could be working the club circuit but decided on a whim to take the high road. I especially liked her poem Geological Time—”Enjoy the view while you can,/Mt. Everest.” Or take these lines from Buffam’s On Last Lines: “The last line should strike like a lover’s complaint./ You should never see it coming./ And you should never hear the end of it.” In poetry, as in film, I guess comedy rarely wins awards. Brand’s book, from what I heard in her reading, has the appropriate ambition and power, combining sensual evocation of desire and memory with erotic and geopolitical urgency.
Among the four international poets, only Schnackenberg read her own work at Koerner Hall. Sadly the legendary Seamus Heaney was not on hand to read from Human Chain. The other two finalists, François Jacqmin and Adonis, were voiced by their translators, eminent poets in their own right,. Schnackenberg read an intricate “lullabye” addressed to her late husband. Precisely balanced between science and cosmic mystery, it’s an exquisite description of a seashell being formed, but it’s really about what is fragile and oceanic about love and memory. Its narrative power reminds us that poetry’s job is to let us in on the secret of how things happen. And as Schnackenberg took us inside the poem’s spiral shell, the tide of her own emotions seemed capable of capsizing her at any moment.
The panel of Griffin judges are poets too: Tim Lilburn (Canada), Colm Toíbín (Ireland) and Chase Twichell (United States). And when poets write a citation or make a speech, the bar is set high. At last night’s awards dinner, Colm Toíbín offered the night’s most stirring flash of oratory, praising the strength and diversity of the Canadian poets—and explaining the moral necessity of cadence with an Irish, uh, cadence that was a living example of what he was talking about. It was just a brief, plainspoken speech about poetry, and the vital importance of getting words right, but it had more political heft than anything I’d heard during the federal election campaign. If Harper is going to create an elected Senate, perhaps only poets should be eligible. Continue…