Five Questions: Steve Roggenbuck

In my previous interview, the name of one poet consistently crops up: Steve Roggenbuck. At one point, Leo Mercer writes of him, “[he’s] the only person I feel is one step ahead of me in the things I’m concerned with.” Any number of “internet poets” would espouse a similar sentiment. Roggenbuck is undoubtedly one of the major figures associated with internet poetry. I came to know him after Kenneth Goldsmith—poet, founding editor of UbuWeb, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and MoMA’s first poet laureate—praised Roggenbuck in a New Yorker article titled “If Walt Whitman Vlogged” (2014). Goldsmith’s comparison, an internet poet to Whitman, is arresting; but, oft-repeated. The New York Times, Gawker, Rolling Stone, the Guardian, and the Atlantic have, if not made the same comparison, made equally praiseful comments: Roggenbuck is inspiring, hypnotic, hilarious.

They also speak of Roggenbuck as the embodiment and expression of a 21st century sensibility. Along with Tao Lin, Mira Gonzalvez, Spenser Madsen, and Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, Roggenbuck is one of the leading proponents of that sensibility’s artistic corollary: “Alt Lit.” In the New Yorker article, Goldsmith describes Alt Lit as a literary style “marked by direct speech, expressions of aching desire, and wide-eyed sincerity.” Alt Lit’s lyricism often outweighs its craft; but its poems do contain some consistent formal characteristics: “lowercase letters, inverted punctuation, and bad grammar.”

Another thing journalists will often mention is that Roggenbuck and the other stars of Alt Lit adopt a counter-cultural, do-it-yourself ethic. The DIY ethic of the Alt Lit community, Roggenbuck mentions to me via e-mail, is “an extension, evolution, or continuation of the punk DIY ethic.” In a fashion reminiscent of Ian Mackaye (let’s say) making and distributing LPs via Dischord Records, Roggenbuck  printed and mailed over 1,000 free copies of his first chapbook, i am like october when i am dead (2010), from out of his own home.

In addition to punk, the Alt Lit ethos has another relative: the internet tabloid. Whereas a limitation of punk is its exclusionary nature (anti-mainstream, anti-masses), the internet tabloid is inclusive, social. Alt Lit poetry does its best to appeal to the general public and to adopt the speech of the common person. Take this poem from Roggenbuck’s DOWNLOAD HELVETICA FOR FREE.COM (2011):

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“FINAL DESTINATION 3…” from DOWNLOAD HELVETICA FOR FREE.COM (2011)

The poem seems democratic. It is understandable to just about anyone pop-conscious in the mid-2000s and is so for two reasons: first, it alludes to a popular movie; second, it uses the syntactical structure of that movie’s advertising slogan. The poem, in other words, is democratic because it adopts not only the contents of consumerism, but also the language of consumerism.

The language of consumerism, I want to claim, is a formal issue. It’s the syntax that marks “Buy the iPhone 7 now!” It’s easy, slogan-like, accessible. And it’s a far cry from the ideals of democratic language.  To speak with the ease and accessibility of advertising is to speak without personhood. It is to hand over your agency and language to the tycoon. “Speak for me now,” you say to Him as He lifts a spoon to feed you more of his plastic excreta. My worry is not that Alt Lit poetry endorses consumerism, but that it’s forms do. You don’t need to consume to speak like a consumer.

In my previous interview, Mercer gets close to addressing my worry. At one point, he speaks of Roggenbuck and Sam Riviere as poets who have “branded themselves.” About the former he writes, “I feel like Steve’s now marketing a grandd, and defiitely noble, vision of life which he wants to persuade you to aspire to” [sic]. Before he completely weaves Roggenbuck with corporate interests, Mercer clarifies: “Also, its not true what i said about steve, his work includes powerful look-in-the-mirror-statements such as when he saysin his characteristic vocie that he’s sure that we can achieve for free the happiness that corporations are trying to sell us” [sic]. Mercer’s second point is beyond true and, here, I want to repeat it: Roggenbuck does not endorse corporate interests! …at least thematically.

In an e-mail to Roggenbuck, I mention the issue of “branding” as the general topic of my interview. He immediately responded:

SR. My immediate thoughts: I think there is a sense in which everyone inevitably brands themself, even just your family and friends, even people who are not public figures. for example, your dad might have an awesome beard that he is known for, and then one day he shaves the beard, and it feels really weird and like he is a different person now, because the beard seemed like a symbol of who he was. The little external detail, the beard, became a symbol or almost a “logo” of what your dad is all about. You obviously dont need to call this “personal branding” to understand it, but i think it’s the same principles at work. I think it’s a potentially fun way to understand how the little details of what we say/do, how we present ourselves, are what we become known for, and how we can intentionally affect the image/associations that other people have of us. You can adopt a catchphrase if you want, and a few months later, your friends will think of you anytime they hear something similar being said by someone else. You can be the “cat person” in your family, simply by expressing your love of cats all the time, and then everyone will start getting you cat-related gifts on the holidays, and sending you cat pictures on facebook.

Roggenbuck’s response is valid: personal branding and corporate branding are similar in principle, but obviously different in scale and effect. But, what if personal branding and corporate branding align? What if your dad’s  beard is a lot like the beards worn by American Apparel’s male models. And what if my catchphrase sounds a lot like a McDonald’s catchphrase – not just in content, but in form?

Forms mean something. The medium is the message. Forms carry and embed themselves in the meanings a speaker/artist/advertiser is trying to convey. Forms and meanings have a symbiotic relationship. Forms carry meaning even if they don’t contain the contents of that meaning. Forms mean something.

I want to propose one thing before I move forward: perhaps difficult and boring poetry (the type Alt Lit may reject) is, in fact, more democratic than the easy and corporate? What if formally complex poems give the reader his or her personhood back – stops him or her from being programmed, a talking-android? A difficult poem has the capacity to make a reader dwell on words (semantically or phonetically) or lines (syntactically). The reader may pull out his or her dictionary, discover a word’s meanings and associations, and then realize that word’s linguistic possibilities. The reader begins to develop a handling of language that is precise. Language and its forms become tools at the reader’s command, not vice versa. The reader speaks for himself or herself again!

But…

After all of this, I have not convinced myself. The talk of forms embodying consumerism, though perhaps valid, mean little when considered in the context of social change. Roggenbuck aims for change and does so outwardly.  What does form matter if the language of consumerism is used as the means to a good? Can’t you write like an advertiser, but advertise a plant-based diet, for example? If the reader becomes a vegetarian or vegan, then why worry about form? With these questions in mind, I reached out to Roggenbuck for an interview. I asked him if he’d like to speak about the poet’s relationship to consumerism, form, and the poets’ relationship to corporate interests. These questions always need unpacking. One of Roggenbuck’s own poems captures this difficulty in but a few lines. I’ll end my introduction there:

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“I MAY GO INTO ADVERTISING…” from DOWNLOAD HELVETICA FOR FREE.COM (2011)

*   *   *

Steve Roggenbuck (1987- ) is an internet poet, video-maker, short story writer, and vegan activist. He has currently published six books, the most definitive being Live My Lief: Selected & New Poems, 2008-2015 (2015). He has performed at over 300 live events across ten countries. He is also the founder of “boost house” (a small poetry press) and “plant liker”(a podcast about plant-based diets). You can find his work here: www.steveroggenbuck.com; Twitter; and Instagram.


FIVE QUESTIONS: STEVE ROGGENBUCK

1. Personal

AA. Your life story is well known: you were born and raised in rural Michigan, you played drums in a death-metal band in high school, and then, while at Central Michigan University, you turned your attention to writing and publishing poetry. You then enrolled in an MFA program at Columbia College Chicago. You didn’t like the program, dropped out, but, while you were there, published your first two collections of poetry, started making videos, and became more vocal about your veganism. In 2012, you traveled and continued to build an internet following. A year later, you moved to Chicago and started boost house press. You’ve since spent your time traveling and doing poetry readings. Also, you’re a Buddhist and you like Walt Whitman, e.e. cummings, and Lil B. I’ve read or heard this story a few times now. This is not to say that that’s a bad thing; but, do you find yourself self-mythologizing? Are you in some way fabricating an identity or is this just the way you relate your life-story? Is self-mythologizing is an inevitable part of being a poet of such visibility?

SR. i don’t think i would say my life story is “well known,” but yes i do have most of this info on my website, and certain details from it have come up repeatedly in interviews. i think there have been a few reasons behind my sharing of this information.

in some cases, sharing my story, like the bit about dropping out of my MFA program and touring as a poet, has served to inspire others who are also interested in unconventional life-paths which emphasize artistic practice. for me, art is often about how to live, so discussions of these life-paths are relevant in my opinion. on my Plant Liker podcast, the format is usually Q&A, and so i sometimes get questions from young artists who are interested in how i’ve built an audience, booked tour dates as a poet, or made some money from my art. i don’t necessarily shy away from discussing these things because, after all, we live in a capitalist system where shelter and food cost money, so we are all forced to make money somehow. if possible, i would love to help these artists find ways to keep making art and build support systems for their practice, even in this world which tends to be hostile to artists. telling my story helps illustrate one real-life path that i personally took.

i also find that, for me, the person behind the art is important to some degree. i want to know and trust the person whose art and ideas i’m feeding myself with. that trust doesn’t necessarily need to come from hearing every detail of their life story, but i do think that art is sometimes about finding and connecting with like-minded people. if i read someone’s funny poem in a literary journal, i might be more interested in looking up further writing by that person if their byline mentions that they’re a vegan or a socialist too, or something else that suggests to me that we have similar values. you could maybe view this process as “branding,” name-dropping these terms in a first impression like that, but i think calling it “branding” might cheapen what is in this case actually a very positive thing. i want to make it easier for people with similar values to find my work, because that’s who i think my work can usually help the most, and that’s who i most want to build community with.

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“I LOVE YOU SO MUCH…” from Crunk Juice (2012)

2. a. Form

AA. Journalists and critics frequently mention that you take a lot of your inspiration from the internet. One poem may read quickly (like Tweets); another may advertise the personal (like Facebook or Instagram); another may contain lots of “jump cuts” (like gifs); another may be extremely catchy (like the stock music you find on YouTube videos). To me, the forms that emerge from the internet are inextricably linked to forms found in advertising. It’s no wonder retail stores now post their advertisements on Youtube before they’re even advertised on television. While your poems don’t endorse capitalist interests, do you worry that the form or rhetoric of your poetry does?

SR. the influence of capitalism is hard to escape, and i’m not going to claim that my work has totally evaded that influence. i’ve become much more aware of this issue in the past couple years, but it’s still difficult to know where all your impulses are coming from when you’re working from your heart as an artist. so, it’s an interesting question for sure.

but i also think it’s important to remember that many of the ideas and forms that corporations utilize, they did not invent; they merely appropriated them. corporations are always trying to insert themselves into processes that are at least partly biological: they exploit and distort our inborn drives for food, sex, safety, etc. they also try to associate themselves with anything that is already popular. the language of advertising is constantly evolving as it continually appropriates youth culture, especially african american vernacular english (AAVE).

when discussing the internet forms themselves and their relationship to capitalism, of course it’s important to acknowledge that social media has transformed the way corporations advertise, and that the social media platforms themselves are huge corporations. but it’s also important to recognize that these tools have transformed anti-capitalist and anti-oppressive struggle in amazing ways, too.

twitter has been a medium through which news can effectively be spread, even when mainstream media refuses to cover it. two of the most visible hashtags used for political organizing have been #Occupy and #BlackLivesMatter, but there are countless more which have been used to connect activists and empower people to resist. queer culture has also exploded on social networks, especially on tumblr: queer kids who are isolated in their hometowns can now find community online, be affirmed in their identity, and find sources that further educate and radicalize them.

thinking about the politics of artistic form can be interesting; i remember an anthology called The Politics of Poetic Form (edited by Charles Bernstein) which i read back in college and which i remember liking. but sometimes i find arguments about the meaning of form to be a little impressionistic. for example, you said you think internet forms are “inextricably linked” to the forms of advertising. but what does it precisely mean for them to be “linked,” and is it even problematic if they are?

the bottom line for me is that corporations use internet forms because they are effective forms through which to grab and hold people’s attention. as an artist and poet, i also want to grab and hold people’s attention. how is your poetry going to transform someone, or even just help them laugh, if they aren’t reading or hearing your words at all?

2. b. Form

AA. I frequently come across statements like “Alt Lit writers can’t write” or “Alt Lit writers lack craft” or “Alt Lit is hyper-lyrical.” The verity of these statements doesn’t concern me. What does is that they eschew any critical engagement with the formal aspects of your poetry and, also, any attempt at uncovering your “poetic.” In one poem, you do say that a poem is simply something the poet loves, i.e. that poetry is intuitive. Nevertheless, there are formal techniques that you use repeatedly: lowercase letters, visual rhyming, typographical experimentation, mispelling, play with punctuation, the cliché, repetition. Do you consciously use these techniques? What do you find in them?

SR. there may be several different functions served by the lowercase letters, misspellings, improper punctuation, and cliches in my poetry, but there’s at least one main function they all help in serving: they make it clear that i don’t want to appeal to respectability. i want people to read my poetry because they actually like it or feel moved by it, not because it’s earned the respect of gatekeepers and institutions.

the boldest misspelling i’ve ever published was on the cover of my fourth poetry collection. i used the incorrect form of “you’re” in the actual title of the book: “IF U DONT LOVE THE MOON YOUR AN ASSHOLE.” i’ve seen so many times when someone posted a picture of themself with the book on social media, and the first comment is someone correcting the spelling: *you’re.

the thing is, it’s really easy to follow conventions, to spell correctly and to use proper punctuation. in my opinion, it’s boring. and yet, people are judged every day for having “bad grammar” or whatever. it’s a form of pretentiousness and judgment that i just don’t respect at all. i feel like poetry and art are spaces where you should be able to follow your heart and do what you feel. the rules that teachers and editors come up with can be so arbitrary and stifling sometimes. i had an idea once to go through a prescriptive grammar handbook, and make a point to systematically break every single rule in the handbook in my poems. maybe i should still do that…

3. Creation

AA. Does the act of creation matter to you more than the product?

SR. what matters most to me is the reader/viewer experiencing the work. creation is sometimes very fun, and it often helps me work through my ideas and feelings, but i wouldn’t find nearly as much purpose in making something that i couldn’t show to anybody else.

4.a. Metamodernism

AA. Have you come across the term metamodernism? From what I know, its the artistic use of an insincere means to communicate a sincere message. Your videos, for example, tend to begin with some improvisatory dialogue (or monologue) and end with statements akin to “carpe diem.” The dialogue is, for the most part, ironic: you’ll drop the names of celebrities or make a silly comment. The closing statements are usually sincere, but they too are said with some irony or cliché-ness: appreciate life, appreciate nature, appreciate your friends. Do the terms ironic and sincere apply to the relationship you have to your work? Is metamodernism something you connect with?

SR. i do think most explanations of “post-irony,” “post-postmodernism,” and “metamodernism” are relevant to my work, but i don’t like how calculated those terms make the process sound. when i’m creating, i’m not consciously thinking, “ok, i’m going to use an ironic means to communicate a sincere message” or anything like that. it’s a much more intuitive process. i think the term “playfulness” is more helpful, because it captures the attitude behind the work, speaking in goofy voices, mixing jokes into heart-felt messages, and sort of undermining your own seriousness, while still communicating an overall warmth and positive intent.

4.b. Metamodernism

AA. In my opinion, your poetry doesn’t always do well when it has to stand on its own. They, instead, get a lot more weight when they are in multi-media type contexts. In your videos, for example, you have the linguistic, the visual, and the musical. Your choice of music is especially powerful: usually post rock. But the whole formula feels a little unbalanced. I see it in Lil B too. His lyrics do absolutely nothing for me when alone; but, in the context of a Clams Casino beat, they sometimes do. The cliché or unpoetic gains weight only because it has a more serious and formally exploratory (though this can’t always be said about post-rock) art to lean on. Do the words of your poems, alone, matter? Or is it about the “total art”? If it is about the latter, does the imbalance of artistic seriousness matter at all?

SR. i don’t have a great answer for this, but definitely my videos have seemed to have a bigger impact on most people than my written work. i’ve said before that i’m not actually sure whether the videos “are poems” or not. they are simply what happened when a poet started making youtube videos. maybe poetry is only a piece of what’s happening in the videos, maybe it is “applied poetry.” the categorization of the work can be interesting to discuss but it is ultimately not of critical importance to me.

5. Social

AA. What does all this talk of poetic form matter when your message is positive? You promote veganism in your “Plant Liker” podcast. You promoted less-visible poets in your “Read Poetry and Eventually Die” podcast. You publish poets through Boost House. You are supportive of the LGBTQ community. You’re encouraging. You communicate with the people who reach out to you. Do the details of your poetic really matter? Do “high-caliber” aesthetics matter when you visibly promote change? 

SR. i’d never assert that the questions about the implications of form are totally irrelevant; they are interesting and may have real consequences. but i do think there are other actions we can take that are often more important in terms of leaving the world a better place than we found it. i do think sometimes criticism can focus on nit-picky details of poetics, but if the poet is raising money for oppressed people or putting their body on the line standing with striking workers, that probably has more impact in most cases. i’m not claiming a moral high-ground in any of these places. i try to use my platform responsibly, but there is still a lot more i could do in terms of political organizing too.

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“attention people…” from LIVE MY LIEF (2015)

Header Image: Steve Roggenbuck via Vox Populi

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