By Elisabeth Schnebele
Rare are the people who start honing their career at only five years old, but this was the case for University of Washington Bothell alumnus Brent Cox. From the time he could hold a pencil, he has been writing poems.
“A lot of these narrative poems emerged from long hours playing in the bathtub with action figures until the water cooled, where I would still remain, shivering — nonetheless intent on bringing objects to life with language.”
He developed his skillset further in middle school when he started creating videos to complement his poems. “I experimented with all kinds of mediums,” Cox recalled, “but I most vividly remember the films I made with animated figurines and clay animation, also known as claymation.”
Some decades later, Cox is now defending his doctoral dissertation that mirrors the very thing he was doing all those years ago but on a much larger, more sophisticated scale by creating video-animated readings of poems and art. “People often have a very difficult time with poetry, and what attracted me to the medium of video is its ability to help make it less intimidating, while still preserving its mystery.”
When a poem is just words on a paper, it’s easy to get lost. “Hearing it read aloud gives people a roadmap to follow,” he said. “They can better identify where sound patterns are occurring and, based on the inflection of the readers voice, can determine how words signify.”
More than a degree
It was Cox’s lifelong interest in exploring multimedia poetry that led him to enroll in UW Bothell’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing & Poetics program in 2015. In contrast to many other MFA programs, the writers in this School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences’ program enjoy the freedom to experiment across genres and media as it suits their creative purposes.
“I made a very intentional choice to go to UW Bothell because I greatly admired the work of the faculty and poets there,” Cox said. “They were incredible role models and teachers — always encouraging me to experiment with multimedia, publish my work and network with others in the field.”
As evidenced by Dr. Amaranth Borsuk, associate professor and the MFA’s associate director, that encouragement extended far beyond the program’s duration. “One of the things I really appreciate and admire about Brent is his collaborative spirit and intellectual generosity,” Borsuk said. “I have continued to follow Brent’s work, and I love that I still learn from and am energized by his many creations.”
That same long-lasting support exists within Cox’s cohort of fellow students, too. Six years after graduating from the University in 2017, Cox is publishing two UW Bothell alumni in The Topological Poetics Research Institute, the autonomous research collective he founded.
A place for poets
The collective, which launched in 2018, is a manifestation of Cox’s desire to create an institute for poetics that is entirely autonomous and focused specifically on researching poetry and poetics. It encompasses the work of individuals from dozens of different cities, states and even countries. In fact, the TPRI’s first print journal features writers from Ukraine, Russia, Australia, Poland and the United States.
Along with the authors, the collective also houses a diverse set of opportunities, including an annual Ecopoetry Workshop that takes place at llaria Mazzoleni’s Nature, Art, Habitat Residency in Taleggio Valley, Italy. Organized by Cox and collaborators Brooke Bastie, Courtlin Byrd and Simon Eales, this two-week residency explores collaborative, critical and creative connections between poetics and contemporary environmental issues.
“Rather than only providing time to write nature poetry,” Cox said, “Ecopoetics Workshop is intent on gathering poets, multimedia and movement artists, theorists, philosophers, and researchers who are committed to advancing the way humans both understand and interact with nature.”
This year, in partnership with NAHR, the workshop will concentrate on the theme of air.
Airing out ideas
“Participants will be encouraged to explore the function, mechanism, importance and state of air from a wide range of perspectives,” Cox said, “and to reflect on the impacts of air pollution and air quality degradation as it relates to climate change, atmospheric toxins and environmental racism.”
The workshop schedule involves alternating days of structured and open time. On structured days, the group meets in the morning to discuss the day’s theme, and in the afternoon they embark on a creative exercise.
Halfway through, a ‘work-in-progress’ event is held to give participants an opportunity for feedback as, at the end of the workshop, they will be presenting their final projects.
These projects have historically led to esteemed publications and conference presentations — including one at UW Bothell’s &NOW Conference in 2019. There, the TPRI organized two panels: One on the affordances of video for poetry was titled, “Ask Not What Video Can Do For Poetry But What Poetry Can Do For Video” and another on materialist poetics was titled, “Toward Topological Poetics: Media, Materiality and the Impossibility of a Desaturated Media Environment.”
What’s more, the Ecopoetics Workshop has inspired a course by attendee Joanna Doxey at Colorado State University as well as a number of courses at the University of Buffalo that are taught by event founders Cox and Eales.
The TPRI runs a podcast, too, called “Buried Text,” with core members Zack Brown, Byrd and Eales. “Buried Text is a good example of TPRI’s objective of doing fundamental poetics research that insists on expanding poetry beyond the page while building a community committed to unfolding the event of poetry,” Cox explained. The podcast, which has featured a number of esteemed guests, has published more than a dozen episodes.
Expanding the poetics community even further, Cox runs a coffee blog and Instagram account called Pure Happiness Coffee. He describes it as “a multimedia, poem and artwork project that includes writing, video, print zines, a computer game and more.”
Like with the TPRI, his intention is to build community and facilitate philosophical and aesthetic reflection — but in this case specifically surrounding the infrastructure of specialty coffee.
He does all of this while simultaneously teaching courses in the Environmental Humanities at the University of Buffalo, where he is currently defending his doctoral thesis. His dissertation, “Infrastructuralist Writing,” presents poems by Louis Zukofsky, Kamau Brathwaite, Asiya Wadud, Jose-Luis Moctezuma, Holly Melgard, Craig Dworkin — and more — as “metamorphic entities that swallow criticism into their identity, freeing us from the illusory mandate of critical distance.”
In other words, Cox said, “my dissertation argues that we read poems just as much as they read us, and in the process, the poem, and the reader, change.”
A passion, purpose and pursuit
In the past year, Cox has presented work related to his dissertation at the University of Cambridge 2022 Graduate Conference “What Does the Poem Think?” as well as in Lake Como, Italy, at the Electronic Literature Organization’s 2022 Conference Exhibition of digital works.
Additionally, he received a race and technology grant to study at University of Colorado Boulder’s Media Archaeology Lab and has work recently published or forthcoming at &&& (Triple Ampersand) and in OEI, a poetics journal out of Stockholm, in an issue on Aural Poetics edited by Michael Nardone of the Center for Expanded Poetics at Concordia University in Montreal.
“For me, poetry is a lifelong pursuit,” Cox said. “It has been my passion for as long as I can remember. For those reading this who are committed to getting an MFA and interested in poetry and poetics — I cannot recommend UW Bothell enough.
“I moved from California to attend this University and explore new ideas and test the bounds of what is possible in poetry,” he said. “Pushing those boundaries is what shaped me into the poet I am today.”