It's possible that Steve Roggenbuck just set the record for highest number of chainsaws at a literary event. There were two at his last reading in Chicago, both brought in by fans responding to the 25-year-old poet's tweet offering free copies of his new book to anyone who carried a chainsaw into Logan Square's Uncharted Books. Skinny and manic, Roggenbuck reads with the kind of energy you're more likely to find at a rap concert than in an indie bookstore. He prowls the space he's given, slinging jokes and laying backstory in between poems. At one point, he turned to his MacBook to play an Owl City song behind his words. He didn't understand the distaste for the frequently-mocked band, he said. “This is very positive music.” That's a good word to sum up Roggenbuck's work, too. His mission statement (as emblazoned on his website) is simple: “i want to boost the world.”
Self-published last summer, IF U DONT LOVE THE MOON YOUR AN ASS HOLE is well worth the price of hauling a heavy weapon on public transit. Full of deliberate typos, motivational aphorisms, and grainy selfies, the thin square—smaller than the books in City Lights' iconic Pocket Poets Series—crackles with humor and unfiltered euphoria. Inside chain reactions of poop jokes and pop culture nods, Roggenbuck hides lines that would sit comfortably in austere, university-funded poems—lines like, “if you have a thousand birds in you they'll find a way out.”
Like many other Chicago-based creatives—the most notable being Kanye West—Roggenbuck found his voice only after he dropped out of school. He moved from rural Michigan to Chicago to enroll in Columbia College's MFA program in poetry, but left after he realized that his instructors were stifling his work. He didn't want to write academic poems, poems that would be accessible only to other people highly educated in poetry. He wanted to reach people who had written off poetry as useless, to use poetry as a vessel for communicating concrete ideas about ethical and joyful living. Since quitting school and self-publishing his work, Roggenbuck has toured the country on a minimal budget—couch-surfing, giving readings, and meeting fans, living off of book and t-shirt sales. His poetry is his full-time job, and he spends many of his hours—up to 8 in a row, sometimes—just interacting with readers online. If you follow him on Twitter he will follow you back. He replies to his mentions. He'll accept your friend request on Facebook.
At a moment when the creative vein known as “alt lit” seems to be suffering an identity crisis, Roggenbuck has never had a clearer vision for the future. He recently announced his plan to found Boost House, a small press and community space, in Brunswick, Maine. He's currently screening applications for creators and activists to join him in putting out books, zines, and other merchandise, all with the goal of reconciling literature with activism.
The internet has democratized information at an unprecedented level, but literary creators and political activists remain largely in separate spheres. Millennial apathy has been well documented (if unfairly) in big-name trend pieces; there's a sense that caring about social justice and environmental issues has yet to be rebranded as “cool” among young people. Roggenbuck is working on that rebrand. “To me, spending your time on direct efforts to help others and end oppression is one of the coolest things you can do,” he tells me via email. “I want to popularize that perception.”
Roggenbuck posits that the simple act of making another person happy—”boosting” them—can be a political act. If lethargy and low confidence are the default states imposed by a culture that encourages material consumption as a self-soothing strategy, using something immaterial like language to make people feel good about themselves shifts the status quo. Roggenbuck's poetics are sustainable, open source, anti-capitalist. He sells books to live, but all his text is in the public domain. Most of his poems refract through his blogs, his Twitter, and his YouTube channel, free to consume.
In his “Ars Poetica” (titled “AN INTERNET BARD AT LAST!!!”), Roggenbuck argues against the idea that the internet is degrading literature, that the written word is losing value due to its saturation online. There's never been a more exciting time to be a poet, he asserts, now that it's easier than ever to reach people directly with his work.
“We don't just have the opportunity to produce books for people now,” he says in the video. “We have the opportunity to be in people's lives every day.” He thinks Walt Whitman would have loved the internet. He would have been great at Twitter. All Roggenbuck's doing is following the same poetic impulse—the impulse to scream about being alive, to be a beacon for the enthusiasm of other people—down the various channels that technology now allows.
If a line from MOON sounds like it would make a great tweet, that's probably because it started as one. Unlike poets who use Twitter as a space for short-form “bonus” content, separate from the canon of their published books, Roggenbuck considers everything he does on various social media outlets to have equal literary merit to what he prints. “I don't think there's a definitive form of my work!” he tells me. “I think each form (and each social network specifically) has nuances, like what 'works' depends on each platform. Most writers create books or post poems on static webpages and then LINK TO them on Facebook and Twitter—the social networks are just used to promote or distribute the page poem. But what excites me is creating poetry IN the unique forms of each platform.”
“CARPE DIME” is a latin phrase that mean's “HASTAG YOLO”
— steve roggenbuck (@steveroggenbuck) December 22, 2012
In one of his letters, the Romanian poet Paul Celan wrote, “I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem.” Few contemporary poets embody this idea as fully as Roggenbuck, although he probably thinks of his poems as hugs. At readings, he greets old friends and new fans with the same wide-armed bear hug, no hesitation. Besides a basic knowledge of American pop culture, his poems need hardly any frame of reference to be understood. You don't have to have read the classics to enjoy them. They're easy to accept, like a casual, friendly embrace.
Alongside Walt Whitman and ee cummings, Roggenbuck lists rapper Lil B and the Twitter account @Horse_ebooks among his inspirations. The latter, a stream of flarf that was thought to be automated for two years, recently was revealed as a long-form art project by a collective called Synydyne. Originally a bot designed to sell .pdfs, @Horse_ebooks became something of a nucleus for the feral world of text loosely grouped together as “Weird Twitter.” Some of the internet's most original writing happens here, often taking the form of jokes or pithy philosophical ruminations, flowing freely from a mostly anonymous cast of characters with a predilection for the absurd.
Everything happens so much
— Horse ebooks (@Horse_ebooks) June 28, 2012
Roggenbuck says that learning @Horse_ebooks was deliberately written for the past two years doesn't change the way it's affected him.
“For some people the human/bot author question is critical, but not for me,” he writes. “Horse_ebooks was inspiring to me because it was essentially doing what experimental poets have been doing for the past thirty years, in terms of messing with syntax and found language, and yet it was packaged and distributed in a way that made it accessible to hundreds of thousands of people. It used a populist platform (Twitter) to provide laughs and smiles for thousands of people every day, for years. That's what I'm excited about: using poetry to boost people; taking things I've found of value in the poetry world and creating versions of it that are actually going to reach masses of people and create sizable change in the world.”
Others behind popular Twitter accounts seem to have the same goal, although few articulate anything like a manifesto. Feeds like @jonnysun also use superfluous misspellings as a way of shirking authority, or to give the sense that whoever's behind the keyboard is way too excited to type correctly. Like Roggenbuck, jonny cuts jokes (“wat they never tel u is that when Peter Parker got biten by spider, the spidre gained the human-powers of cripplimg self-confidemce issues”) with what sound like snippets from 21st century love poems: “when u die, they play u a recordimg of all the times somone said 'i love you' to u and u didnt hear it.”
corect directions are importamt, for example: i lov u bc ur the only girl thats right for me i lov u bc ur the only girl thats left for me
— jomny sun (@jonnysun) October 17, 2013
Though in tone and content his Twitter feed fits neatly alongside other members of Weird Twitter, Roggenbuck thinks it's important to avoid anonymity, to present himself as honestly as he can. “By being a real person with a face, meeting people in real life, and using my birth name, I'm more accountable, more transparent,” he says. “I can't lie about things online! Everything I do is exposed. I can't play out one specific gimmick for my accounts; I'm a whole person. And I think that invites people to model my behavior as a person more, too. It leads more of my poetry followers to consider my activist opinions too, for example, or ask me for life advice.” Plenty of Twitter users commentate on politics, but few offer their own lifestyles as an example of how to live ethically. By selling most of his possessions and famously wearing the same hoodie every day, Roggenbuck weaves his anti-capitalist ethos into his work.
While many anonymous Twitter accounts produce work that could easily be labeled poetry, few use the term. But Roggenbuck embraces his identity as a poet rather than a blogger or vlogger or an internet comic, although all of his YouTube videos use humor. “I'm asserting the value and context of what I'm doing,” he says. “Not that I think 'poetry' is inherently more valuable than 'blogging'—I don't—but I think there is history behind what I'm doing. I come from a long lineage of people trying to express what they feel passionately, in words, and I'm not going to shrug that off.”
When you're bombarded daily with advertising urging you to feel good about yourself by feeling good about a product, it's easy to be skeptical of outright positivity. Even the instinctive process of sharing your interests and your personality feels hollow now that Facebok has monetized it. It's not surprising that many of the most interesting writers on Twitter shy away from markers of identity and refuse to share details of their personal lives. Fact feels disingenuous; creativity hides behind a brightly colored avatar and several layers of irony. But Roggenbuck, who calls his work “post-ironic,” broadcasts all the messages that have been all but worn down to the bone by feel-good advertising and half-hearted after-school specials. You watch his videos and you want to believe in yourself, to believe that the world is beautiful.
Roggenbuck tumbles in and out of character in his videos, drawing upon a few recurring voices. There's a nerdy dad, a neurotic dog owner, an exasperated son. There's an enthusiastic horse blogger and a few awkward fetishists. The characters seem to grow out of the language, not the other way around, as Roggenbuck delivers snippets of all the personality types that are now available for anyone to view online. But he's not really mocking these people. It's more like he's boiling over with excitement that they even exist. And by the end of each video, the absurdity morphs into urgency as he shifts into something like his own voice. Roggenbuck goes from asking a dog if he wants to be cremated or buried after he dies to pleading with the viewer: you have to believe in yourself. Humans can do so much better than this. Through the slow untangling of chaos into love, Roggenbuck sells sentiments you thought you were too hardened to absorb.
Even in his written work, Roggenbuck uses images that are like the Lisa Frank stickers of poetry. Moons, birds, and natural landscapes populate the text of IF U DONT LOVE THE MOON YOUR AN ASS HOLE. In context, they defy cliché. Between references to Owl City and jokes about showering with dead people's body parts, the moon hangs in all caps. It's always there. How jaded do you have to be not to love it? “I'm interested in marketing, but I'm mainly interested in marketing the moon,” Roggenbuck jokes in “AN INTERNET BARD AT LAST!!!”.
He's selling the moon, but he's also selling—or maybe sharing—a way of life. Since becoming a full-time poet, he's sold all but a backpack's worth of his possessions. He sleeps rent-free on the couches of friends and family. He doesn't really buy things. The activism that he's planning to do through Boost House will center on veganism, a cause Roggenbuck's been outspoken about for years. He shares vegan-positive media through his blog Vegan Frickwad, and includes a summary of his vegan politics as a footnote to MOON. While he champions for animal rights, Roggenbuck also uses the word “vegan” as a stand-in for the effort to end all oppression. “I think a lot about sharing quotes and images and videos that make people reconsider their own participation in oppression. Boost House will be able to reach a lot of people with that kind of content,” he tells me. He's also planning to open a free online school through the house. “Each week there will be a different livestream video presentation by somebody in the community about a topic or skill they have extensive knowledge of.” Between readings and vegan potlucks, Boost House will also maintain a presence in the physical community of Brunswick. Roggenbuck has friends at Bowdoin College, and is considering partnering with the English department there for events.
It's one thing to broadcast a message; it's another to get people to identify with it. With a mix of humor and untempered energy, Roggenbuck seems to have picked up the key to both. Like any art that's unabashedly positive and often absurdist, his poetry isn't without its detractors, but he embraces them as readily as his fans. The quotes on the back of MOON come from strangers who have lashed out online in response to reading his poems: “YOU ARE A TALENTLESS HACK” and “PLEASE DIE” scream in all caps beneath a bathroom mirror selfie. It's refreshing to see them there, where literary praise might go; Roggenbuck takes his work seriously but not so seriously that he can't laugh at himself. For him, poetry is not so much a genre as an impulse that he chases fearlessly. It's the urge to make people feel good about themselves, not with a product or a brand but with a simple, two-way human connection. Just like Lil B has #based, Roggenbuck has #boost. And it's spreading.