CanLit Rewind: Eunoia by Christian Bök

October 2, 2015

Our first CanLit Rewind title is from Toronto-based publisher Coach House Books. Back in August we went In House at Coach House and they mentioned Eunoia as one of the titles that stood out on their list. Naturally when we wanted to take a look back at important titles in our publishers' backlists, it made sense for us to dig a little deeper into the backstory of the award-winning poetry title by University of Calgary creative writing professor Christian Bök. Coach House shares with us, in their own words, why this title was so important and its broader influence.

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This year marks forty years of supporting and celebrating some of Canada's finest literary presses for our parent organization, the Literary Press Group of Canada. To help celebrate, for the entire month of October All Lit Up will be highlighting books from our publishers that either helped launch a new voice in CanLit or made an impact at the press it was published with. Go on a CanLit Rewind with us to rediscover some backlist gems!

 

Our first CanLit Rewind title is from Toronto-based publisher Coach House Books. Back in August we went In House at Coach House and they mentioned Eunoia as one of the titles that stood out on their list. Naturally when we wanted to take a look at important titles in our publishers' backlists, it made sense for us to dig a little deeper into the backstory of the award-winning poetry title by University of Calgary creative writing professor Christian Bök. Coach House shares with us, in their own words, why this title was so important and its broader influence.

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In 2001, Coach House published Eunoia, an Oulipian exercise in severe constraint and a radical experiment not only for poetry but also for the English language itself. (The word ‘eunoia’ means ‘beautiful thinking.’) The book comprises a univocal lipogram, which means that each of its five chapters excludes all but one vowel. To prepare for this undertaking, Christian Bök read the dictionary five times, and, determined to make the project even more difficult for himself, included 98 percent of the possible vocabulary for each vowel. Additionally, he made sure that each chapter included a reference to the act of writing, a banquet, a debauch, a pastoral tableau and a nautical voyage. Intriguingly, these crippling constraints allow the language to flower in surprising ways, and we soon come to see that each vowel evinces a very particular personality. (Don’t believe us? Check it out for yourself .) When the book came out, it caused quite a bit of controversy (Was it poetry? Where were the ‘feelings’?), making poetry suddenly more vital than it had seemed. As though confirming that fact, Bök was awarded the Griffin Poetry Prize for Eunoia in 2002.

Eunoia’s influence on the broader canon of Canadian literature (and beyond: a musical interpretation of the work, titled Helen Enfettered, was recorded at Carnegie Hall, and a theatrical adaptation of the book is being performed by Fujiwara Dance Inventions at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre this fall) is congruent with the book’s impact on Coach House Books. Eunoia has, since 2001, sold over 35,000 copies in North America, and another 10,000 in the U.K., where it was published in 2008 by Canongate. These are rather staggering numbers for a poetry book, and they highlight the enormous contribution Bök has made to his art form, as well as to the vibrancy of his publisher. The book is taught in dozens of university courses, and we regularly see references to it that suggest it has entered the zeitgeist.

Xenotext

Bök continues to add to his legacy, most recently with The Xenotext, which has been more than ten years in the making, drawing attention from media outlets including the Guardian and Nature. But it is the cult status of Eunoia that has continued to attract emerging and established poets to Coach House Books, not least because of Bök’s passion for the press. He says: ‘I’ve worked only with Coach House. The experience has been fabulous. I mean, it’s the only press that would be interested in publishing my books. The press is very receptive to artistic input during the publishing process. The editor let me design my own books completely, allowing me to pick the typefont, the paper, the cover, etc. I was entirely responsible for designing my own publication. In the case of Eunoia … I typeset my own manuscript. That’s a very unusual experience. I don’t think that most writers ever get such a rich opportunity to make their own books.’ 

 

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Thank you to Coach House for sharing Christian Bök's Eunoia with us. If you're interested in more titles by Bök, read  Crystallography, a ’pataphysical encyclopedia' nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award for Best Poetic Debut, which was published by Coach House in 1994, and Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science (Northwestern University Press, 2001). 

We'll be back with another CanLit Rewind title on Tuesday! Follow along with the whole series here.


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