Arts, Science & Culture Profile: Hannah Brooks-Motl

Hannah Brooks-Motl (Ph.D student, English) was selected as one of six 2014-2015 Arts, Science & Culture Graduate Fellows. The AS&C Graduate Fellows program is for UChicago students whose work is firmly anchored in the humanities, social sciences, or sciences, but for whom crossing disciplinary boundaries is integral to the particularities of the research, writing, artistic practice, or scientific inquiry. The AS&C Graduate Fellows meet monthly over dinner to discuss their work, and to exchange insights into their disciplinary methodologies and research practices. Encouraging the fellows to disseminate their work beyond the university campus, the AS&C Inititative supports the graduate fellows in pursuing a research project, panel presentation or other program outside the university context.

We caught up with Hannah at the beginning of the Winter 2015 quarter to ask her for some insight into her process, her thoughts on poetry and scholarship, and to get some updates on her upcoming research trip as an AS&C Graduate Fellow

In what way do you see poetry interacting with — or being resistant to — other disciplines or mediums?

I think poetry and history have a lot of useful work to offer one another; certainly history helps us think about how experience has been conceptualized and modes of reading or understanding codified, and too history offers us language to begin thinking more fully and complexly about the confusions of the present. I appreciate poems that help me feel philosophy in ways philosophy often does not (but I also appreciate William James, Emerson, and Montaigne for this). Poetry and science, for many poets including Muriel Rukeyser who described both scientists and poets as “hunters of the improbable,” exist in coziest relation. So poetry potentially flows through these various methods, stashes, and reserves of disciplinary thought or knowledge, gathering residues or deposits. Yet richness, denseness, even confusion of texture are allowed in poetry as they’re not much elsewhere. Poetry likes to be looked at; often this looking doubles as reading. In looking at a poem’s textures you’re also often looking at the operation by which you look—looking at yourself looking (at language, at thinking). Poetry of course also likes to be heard and, I think more and more, moved to. Literary scholarship frequently prefers one not look at or listen to it very closely. It seems to me not admirable in the same ways.

How does poetry differ from other "descriptive" mediums or disciplines (such as physics or photograph)? 

I kind of refuse to give up on poetry as an expressive as well as descriptive medium. Or force. Poetry seems to me both expressive description and descriptive expression; there’s a way in which it brings potentially contrary modes of experience into relation that I value.  Or maybe rather than “describe,” poetry dilates experience, observation, feeling, and thought through perceptual actions or events that always might not happen. In the way you cannot not (barring mechanical malfunction) take a photograph if you set out to take a photograph, or do an experiment should you intend to do that, you can often end up not writing a poem in a literal way: instead you might drink another cup of coffee, have another beer, watch some youtube clips. And yet all of these might remain vital to whatever incipient poem’s going on within you at that moment—part of the pattern of living and being alive. I mean that poems happen inside everyday sorts of failure in ways that I think are unique. As a discipline it can (and should?) be rather undisciplined. I root for poems—the ones I write and read—as they make their way out from under the clutter of my own confusion at and with and among the many objects, situations, and worries of the world.


Image from the cover of Brooks-Motl's newest book of poetry titled The New Years (Rescue Press, 2014).


How have the conversations from the Graduate Fellows dinners been of value to your research or writing process?

I recently led a discussion with the Graduate Fellows group that swirled around note-taking and scholarship creation. What’s creative about what we do? How do we do what we all do? People brought in their notebooks and I had groups examine notes from disciplines far outside their own, taking their own notes on the notes of others. I am interested in the problems of collection. How do we collate, what’s important about what we’re keeping, why these arrangements? I proposed theories of cooking and weather as perhaps germane to our discussion: that writing scholarship one proceeds as one cooks, while the scholarship/object divide might be recast as meteorological. What are the kinds of scholarly weather we endure, take shelter from, and generate?

Looking with my partner in the exercise, Anya (M.D/Ph.D candidate, Neuroscience), at the note-taking apparatuses of Mallory (Ph.D student, Anthropology) and David (Ph.D student, Molecular Engineering) we were both struck by the architecture of their notes: columns, figures, long cascades of marks. David’s notes, mainly equations, also included bits of narrative—jottings to self about what was going on or wasn’t with the experiments and, I presume, problem sets he was attempting to solve. Together, Anya and I produced a document that included the strangest of outbursts as well as meditated (it seems to me) on the shapeliness of scholarly endeavors generally. Shape is something that preoccupies me as of late since I’ve recently started to choreograph some of my own poems. Body language, it seems, has sneakily inhered in my work’s very structures. Continuing to “write” (maybe better: inhabit) this book, long after it’s been published, has been frankly surprising to me. While perhaps not directly related to our conversations, meeting with the group has led me to more carefully consider the assumptions poetry scholarship, and perhaps my own relation to poetry and scholarship, perpetuates about itself, and how it does so.

Collaborative notes from the AS&C Graduate Fellows during Brook-Motl's December presentation.


What research project do you plan on pursuing as an Arts, Science & Culture Graduate  Fellow?

I’m planning on going to the Bay Area to give a short reading tour and look at the archive of a poet and scholar, Josephine Miles, housed at UC Berkeley. Miles is a peculiar, under-read poet, and a scholar who had ideas we might read as prescient in relation to the current trend toward “big data” approaches to literary scholarship. She thought you could track the continuity of poetry by counting instances of words through particular periods, for example. What her relationship to her own poetry through that scholarly practice might have been is of particular interest to me.


Hannah Brooks-Motl holds an MFA from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and is the author of the poetry collection The New Years (Rescue Press, 2014) and the chapbook The Montaigne Result (The Song Cave, 2013). With Stephen Burt, she helped edit the essays of Randall Jarrell on W.H. Auden (Columbia, 2005). She is currently a PhD student in the English department at the University of Chicago.

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