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Poet Steve Roggenbuck gives workshop, performance, talks alt-lit and social justice

This post was originally published on April 13, 2015.

On Saturday, April 11th, vegan poet, editor, video artist, and aspiring activist Steve Roggenbuck gave a workshop at SAGA about how to use social media for social change, followed by a reading at C-Haus.

Originally from Ruth, Michigan, Roggenbuck graduated from Central Michigan University in 2010, and dropped out of his MFA program at Columbia College after about a year. He couchsurfed for a whole year, performing his poetry and building community both online and offline. He has performed in almost all 50 states and in many different countries. The reading in Beloit was one stop on a series of tours. He is known for his minimalist lifestyle. While on tour, he only brought a backpack and duffel bag, both full of books to sell, and only one change of clothes.

He started posting Youtube videos in 2011. His most popular video, “make something beautiful before you are dead,” now has over 160,000 views on YouTube. He makes fewer videos these days, focusing instead on other platforms like twitter.

Roggenbuck has published five works, including the poetry collections I Am Like October When I am Dead (2010), Download Helvetica For Free.Com (2011), Crank Juice (2012), If U Don’t Love The Moon Your An Ass Hole (2013) and most recently the short story collection Calculating How Big a Tip to Give is the Easiest Thing Ever, Shout Out to Family and Friends (2015). Many of these are available as free pdfs. He also makes podcasts talking about writers he enjoys, called “Read Poetry and Eventually Die.” He is also a co-editor of The Yolo Pages (2014), an anthology of internet-based poetry, yolo spirituality and radical politics.

His inspirations include ee cummings, Walt Whitman, Charles Bukowski, Dada poets, Tao Lin, Lil B the Based God and others.

His work has been covered in the New York Times Style Magazine, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, New Yorker, The Fader, Know Your Meme, Gawker and The Guardian.

In January 2014, Roggenbuck co-founded the publishing and co-op house Boost House in Maine. It moved to Tucson, AZ in the winter of 2015. They host regular documentary screenings and poetry readings. Three people live there now, but two more people will move in soon, and he hopes to see it grow even bigger.

He is interested in the different forms that language can take, experimenting with twitter, facebook, YouTube, tumblr, instagram, image macros and other platforms to express himself. Roggenbuck is one of the more well-known figures in the alt-lit community, In The Yolo Pages, the co-editors Roggenbuck, e.e. scott and Rachel Younghans write that the term “alt-lit” was coined by Cory Stephens in the summer of 2011. The term spread in 2012, as more lit mags were created and the community grew. The term tends to be used to describe art and writing that uses internet culture and platforms, such as image macros, tweets, and screenshots. In certain subcommunities, is also associated with nihilism, Buddhism, and an embrace of the “YOLO” lifestyle, which “can provide a passion and sense of agency that encourages us to say and do what we really believe in, ethically,” as the editors describe.

Roggenbuck had to catch the Van Galder at 3:45 a.m. to get to his next stop in Lansing, Mich., and he decided he wanted to stay up until then. After eating pasta, we sat down around 1 a.m. for this interview and talked about alt lit, his trajectory as an artist and activist. Below are excerpts from the interview.

The Round Table: How has the alt-lit community changed?

Steve Roggenbuck:
I think the golden age of alt-lit was 2012, and even like mid 2012. There was just this energy when everyone was getting connected for the first time. [Alt lit writer] Jos Charles was telling me the other day that there’s different waves of alt lit, like first and second wave. And now we’re in the third wave. I know my perspective is biased… and everyone sees a different corner of it because it’s so many people involved … with different blogs, publications and presses and everything. I already felt like 2013 and 2014 there wasn’t as tight of a community. People had sort of splintered off and made their sub groups and doing their different things. Then the sexual assault stuff came out [referring to fall 2014, when members of the alt-lit community came out with stories of being sexually assaulted and harassed by editors], then it was a discussion about representation. … Alt lit was a term that no one really proudly used. I sometimes would jokingly use it, especially back in 2012. Maybe alt lit is dead. No one really cares about it, so it’s fine if it’s dead. A lot of the presses are not dead, a lot of the community is still there. I see a lot of people whose direction was clarified since the fall. A lot more people are being intentional and conscious about the community they’re creating. I feel that 2015 is the best year for alt lit, or whatever it is now, since 2012. I think there’s more momentum and energy now. It’s partly because I’m touring more and doing more myself, but I feel like a lot of the people have clarified that they need a space that is more intentionally feminist. The values of the community have been discussed more. And there’s still so many talented people doing cool stuff.

RT: Could you comment on the relationship between radical politics and the alt lit community?

SR: There’s always been a corner of alt lit that’s been concerned with radical politics. So if you seek out those writers, then it can definitely be a really cool radical progressive space and you can learn a lot about capitalism and its alternative and other important stuff. If you tune in to the right people it can be a radical space. At least in 2015, at least I, and I think many others, are getting more clear about what kind of community we want to be building. One of the things I’ve been noticing is really you can’t be apolitical most of the time. My friend was ranting about something on twitter, and they basically said art that is seen as apolitical, all that means is that its ideological impact cannot be felt by the privileged. If your art doesn’t seem radical or different, then it’s probably reinforcing the status quo, maybe in subtle ways.

RT: Could you talk about your path as an artist, and the choice to drop out?

SR: [After graduating from Central Michigan University] I thought I would need a job, like a legit salary job, and so I was like, I’ll teach poetry, because everyone says you can’t make money as a poet. So I was pursuing an MFA so I could teach. But I kind of always knew that I didn’t want to teach, even though I’d be pretty good at it. I just knew I could do this, that I could be a poet. People can be a touring musician, and people can be a touring comedian, and there are even people who make a living as a blogger. I’m someone who goes from place to place and posts on the internet, videos of it, just being funny in front of an audience, saying meaningful things in front of an audience. There’s nothing inherently different about poetry that I couldn’t do it as a poet.

RT: A lot of your videos contain so much high energy. How do you maintain that, and how do you take care of yourself while working on social justice issues?

SR: I just feel this impulse to entertain, when I know that people are paying attention to me and looking for that. I used to do these livestreams, and I would always be like, is this boring? What can I say? What should we do now? I don’t want to bore people when people are paying attention to me. I want people to be excited. I’ve thought a lot about the transfer of energy between people. I’ve been around people who just have enthusiasm and it’s just nice, it’s just helpful. It transfer pretty easily to you a lot of times. I’ve talked about that in various posts about boosting. One purpose of my work is just simply to transfer good energy to people. Even the videos where I’m just being goofy and funny, I don’t need to say anything sincere, and yet it can have a sincere and important effect on someone because it can make someone feel lighter or happier. In terms of self care, meditation is the important one if you’re really feeling f*cked up. Any time somebody sends me an email or text or twitter DM – I feel like twitter DM are where people send me the f*cked up stuff – oh, I feel really bad, or whatever, I always just tell people meditating to get into the present moment is the number one thing, if you’re feeling intense pain about stuff that’s in your head, then you need to get into the present moment, because there’s sights and sounds and feelings, and all of those things you’re amping up in your head, that’s all p here and you can breathe it out and get a little more attached to the physical things around you and get grounded. In terms of my self confidence, my folder of screenshots nice things people have said to me on the internet, that really helps me when I’m doubting myself. With a lot of the social justice-related stuff, that’s an issue for me, because … if I’m reading about how patriarchal masculinity, then I feel bad because I was raised as a man, and if it’s about racism, then I feel bad because I’m white, and other issues too, I just feel like different forms of privilege related guilt, or like I can’t contribute anything positive because I’m the oppressor based on my identity. For me, reminding myself of the people who have supported me and why they have supported me … if I read enough in a row, it starts to actually shift my conscious and makes me feel more hope that I can be good and do good. I also do journaling to figure out what I need to do.

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