Ada Smailbegović was an honors graduate in biology at the University of British Columbia. She stayed on to pursue a master’s in English literature, then finished with a Ph.D. in English and American literature at New York University.
On paper, she appears to have made an abrupt shift from science to humanities. She doesn’t remember it that way.
"I’ve always been interested in poetry and writing, so it wasn’t a complete surprise. When I got toward the end of the bachelor’s degree, I started asking more theoretical questions that had to do with the history and philosophy of science,” she said. “I wanted to ask about the biological unfolding of materiality, about communications in nature that are not necessarily human communications. People were asking those questions also in the humanities. I didn’t feel like I was switching gears. The fundamental things — the things I was asking about — remained constant all the way through.”
They remain constant with her as she begins her work at Brown. This year, she will offer courses on poetic cosmology, a spring course on poetics and science, and “a course in something called zoopoetics.”
Science embraces the result of change, the most recent findings. A poet might embrace the process of change, the nature of development. Smailbegović mentions Luke Howard, an early 19th-century pharmacist and amateur meteorologist, who created a taxonomy of change. His 1803 Essay on the Modification of Clouds gave us the nomenclature we use today — cumulus, stratus, cirrus — a system of terminology that also accommodates the constant transitions clouds make between forms: cirrostratus, cirrocumulus.
Howard’s effort both to understand natural transformations and to grasp them in language was seamlessly science — he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society — and poetry. The poets Goethe and Shelley celebrated him and his work on clouds, and Howard’s essay informed the landscapes of the painter John Constable. The contemporary poet Lisa Robertson has developed a 21st-century interest in Howard’s work. “Something from 19th-century science can be present in a contemporary poetic text in a way that reanimates an era or an idea for the current moment,” Smailbegović said.
Working at the interchange of science and humanities need not be a matter of larger scientific questions informing the practice of poetics. Smailbegović cited the work of Christian Bök, a Canadian poet who is harnessing laboratory techniques to create poetry. In April 2011, Bök announced that he had encoded a line of poetry — “any style of life/ is prim” — in triplets of DNA nucleotides and inserted it into a bacterium. The bacterium, attempting to synthesize a protein, produced a reciprocal mRNA line of its own for him: “the faery is rosy/ of glow.”)
In her scholarly and theoretical work, Smailbegović has encountered many writers who work productive territory informed by science, from Francis Bacon (The History of the Dense and Rare, 1623) to Gertrude Stein (trained in medicine before launching her literary career in Paris), to Robertson, Bök and many others. Her dissertation — Poetics of Liveliness: Natural Histories of Matter and Change in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Poetry — explored that territory. Her own poetic writings and performances often begin with natural science, from the changing nature of oceans to an ethological study of monk parakeets.
Smailbegović is a co-founder of Organism for Poetic Research, an experimental critical-poetic platform that supports projects involving the natural sciences, artistic practices, and research in the humanities. OPR publishes PELT, a magazine and online journal that serves as an “epidermal organ,” holding together a great diversity of projects and experiments.
“For me, teaching poetics has to do with elements of practice and performance,” Smailbegović said. “I would like academic and scholarly work to go hand-in-hand with creative practice. The Organism for Poetic Research is one way of doing that.”
She is finding colleagues and students engaged in the practice of poetics and in academic conversation about literature. “Students at Brown don't have to make a declaration between arts and sciences,“ Smailbegović said. “I’m still in the beginning stages of having a sense of what the Brown experience might be, but I have a great sense of the potential.”