Last Saturday night, I went to see Internet poet Steve Roggenbuck in Minneapolis. The Subterranean Café turned out to be the basement of a house and decked out with improvised furniture. I had to take off my shoes before walking in and I ended up sitting on a converted back seat from an old sedan. Most people sat on the floor.
Roggenbuck is a difficult artist to describe outside of his own world. Any attempt to wrangle a description of his voice or aesthetic in anything other than his unrestrained and uniquely online system of expression will not accurately describe him. For those of you already familiar with his work, here’s this: Steve Roggenbuck was accepted to the illuminati and is truly fricked up and satanic, bringing the YOLO lifestyle to dads everywhere. BOOST!
To everyone else, I’m sure none of that made any sense. It’s not really supposed to, being a distillation of some of the more evocative and strange memes and motifs of his work. More concretely, Steve Roggenbuck is part of a poetry movement known as alt lit, known for using and warping the forms of the Internet—tweets, Youtube vlogs, gchats, image macros, Myspace chain letters—as well as writing in non-traditional voices ranging from extremely confessional to nonsensically absurd.
He travels via Megabus to read poetry all over the country, carrying everything he owns in a purple backpack and wearing his only pair of pants. During his travels he spends a lot of his time keeping up a presence online, running a tumblr called “Live my Leif,” publishing chapbooks as .pdfs and putting major work on Facebook and Twitter.
Roggenbuck’s most visible medium is likely his Youtube videos. The clips can go anywhere from absolute manic flarf to some of the most sincere carpe diem poetry you’ll hear in your life, often both in the same video, but what stays constant is his energy and positivity. It’s sometimes hard to tell whether or not he’s being serious, which is pretty typical of art after modernism. Like most people who spend a lot of time online (including myself), Roggenbuck shuns the irony/sincerity dichotomy, stating in several interviews that he’s really just trying to be playful.
He considers his three biggest influences to be Buddha, Walt Whitman and Lil B the Based God. He used to run a three-hour “talk show” called illuminati power hour on livestream, and he may be one of my heroes. But more on that later.
Back to the Subterranean Café. During intermission, before Roggenbuck went on, I went over to talk to someone wearing a Matt Romney and Rob Paul 2012 shirt. Matt Romney, still killing it on twitter @mattromney2016, was a fake presidential candidate who said he was running “because obama tried to tax my dead dog.” Recent sample tweet: “it is snowing and obama is lickeing his chops waitin to killl us.” Obviously I’m a fan.
Roggenbuck is as well, and came over to talk to him at the same time. He got excited when he found out the guy was a personal friend of another figure in the same twitter-sphere, @gaysexHaver420 [I’m sorry]. Recent sample tweet: “‘wow i better pinterest this skimmed milk’ – moms”
I’d heard that Steve Roggenbuck was kind of unfriendly IRL compared to online, and I was relieved to discover that this was not the case. I told him who I was, and he remembered me from some of the online interactions we’ve had in the past. We started talking about Beach Sloth (@Beach_Sloth), an anonymous blogger who never shows his face on camera but may have the most genuinely nice persona on the Internet, consistently posting positive and creative reviews of people’s work in the alt lit community.
In the course of speculating about his home life and why he is the way he is, Roggenbuck said, “Hold on a second I haven’t sent beachy a video in a really long time.” He pulled out his iPhone and started filming our conversations, asking us questions like “is Beach Sloth the batman of alt lit?” I decided to go with Alfred the Butler, personally. Steve Roggenbuck is Steve Roggenbuck all the time.
Steve Roggebuck starts his readings like a rock star, screaming MINNNNEAAAPOLIS into the mic as he steps up. His poems, often basically just tweets, run the gambit, so rather than describing I’ll just give some sample lines:
question of the day, whats your dads phone numbr?
today i was killed when i was struck in the face with a fire hydrant
today i died while heating up my lava lamp on the kichn stove
would u get ur tubes tied if justin bieber said he would never be with u? trick question nver say never
The moment of the performance came during one of his more legitimate love poems. Though they are still full of absurd metaphors and not entirely serious, they aren’t meant to be comedic. The crowd, still feeling the energy of his earlier poems, laughed anyway.
Roggenbuck stopped reading in the middle of the poem and with complete good humor and amusement said “No one ever laughs at this poem! Wow you guys are truly some fricked up individuals…666.”
This is why I love Steve Roggenbuck. He is one of the few artists I know of that legitimately does not seem to care at all whether or not his audience “gets” his work. It’s not that he doesn’t care about his fans, quite the opposite—he just genuinely aims to make people happy, rather than trying to convey a specific meaning.
In his videos and his poetry Roggenbuck says the kind of things you don’t say in poetry, or at least you aren’t supposed to. He talks about how beautiful life is, and how much he appreciates birds, and wanting to kiss people, by literally saying those things. This shouldn’t work—it should be contrived, meaningless, too cliché to mean anything. But it does work.
It only works because when Steve Roggenbuck talks about YOLO and the importance of “making something beautiful before you are dead,” you can see and hear that this is someone who actually has looked into the face of infinite nothingness, the one unimaginable thing, and lol’d. His best videos and his best poetry are barbaric yawps, celebrating life especially for its fleeting nature with absurdity and sincerity and profound playfulness.
There are certain things we all deal with. Mortality, being in love, searching for a purpose in life. This is what forms the foundation of art throughout history, and most work doesn’t call these conflicts by their names, instead dealing in story and symbol. This is fine, obviously, but the great thing about Steve Roggenbuck is that he embodies the old maxim that “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”
Sometimes when I’m struck by the fact that I’m going to die someday and that life is a fleeting and beautiful experience, anything but just straight-up saying or hearing that with as much feeling as possible feels hollow. And for that, I go to Steve Roggenbuck.