“ultimately beautiful”: an Interview with Steve Roggenbuck
I saw Steve Roggenbuck read at Stephen Dierks house during AWP week he stood on top of something, I can’t remember what, he is small, his physical presence not very dominating. But he stood up there and took control of the audience, yelling 666 and Justin Bieber and all kinds of weird shit. The audience stood there, completely enthralled. People were yelling and screaming during the whole reading, people were extremely excited to be at a poetry reading.
According to AD Jameson Steve Roggenbuck would be considered a New Sincerist and the question has been asked, if writing in such a sincere manner can be prolonged over a long career. I think it can, because sincerity is transitory. The writing is Buddhist in that way, an acceptance of endless change, the impermanence. We can be convinced of truth at times/later/that truth becomes false/we forget those beliefs. For three years we read one type of books/then move onto another/then move onto another. We move from the country/to the city/we fall in love/we fall out of love/do it again/we don’t have sex for two years/we meet a sado maschocist and get choked/we have kids/watch them grow/we wash diarrhea off her our naked father because he is sick and dying/we become concerned about insurances/it goes/on on on. Roggenbuck’s first book I am like October when I’m Dead were short little poems with a tibit of sentimentality. Helvetica was this blitzkrieg of weird ass flarf lines. And Crunk Juice was an intensely designed chapbook with longer poems, using more poetic devices with a higher emphasis on sound. These changes, are not just the changes of a writer, but Steve Roggenbuck changing before us, we are getting older with him. He asks us to join him, on his journey through life, seems a little like reality television, but who wouldn’t want a reality television full of really emotional well-read people.
NC: I think what you don’t do is one of the reasons you have made such a ‘big splash.’ Like you didn’t go down the depression road when writing, which I think invited a lot more people into the alt-lit scene. Because not everyone is suffering from depression and existential crisis all the time. Did you consciously reject the depression route or just find it not your style?
SR: i just never connected with the focus on depression in others’ writing. the first writers who deeply influenced me, e.e. cummings and walt whitman, were both very positive and energetic, and my most recent influence lil b is also positive and energetic. in early 2010 when i was first discovering tao lin, my writing became a lot more minimalist and neutral, but i never really followed him all the way to writing about depression
i’d hope that my writing and videos are emotionally powerful for people, and they seem to be, but usually what im trying to convey is a kind of profound moment of sadness that seems like, “ultimately beatiful,” not a stagnant ongoing depression
i have been deep into vegan activism in the past, and i found that keeping a positive outlook in my work was even a practical issue of effectiveness. if you constantly focus on the terrible things that’s going on, it wears you down, and after a while, you cant even help anymore, the terrible things have won
also in my personal life i’ve found that the only way i wil actual achieve what i want is by sincerly believing that i can, and putting in the work every day. idk its cheesy but i truely believe it. most people give up before they even try at something. if youre going to do something awesome it probably won’t be easy, u have to be willing to work hard for a long time. will smith (hehe) has said you shouldnt have a back-up plan because it distracts from the main plan. u see? i truely believe this stuf. i will never stop. i will build something gigantic while tons of people sit around thinking it is not possible. 666
NC: Why did you drop out of your MFA program?
SR: i think if my life conditions were different, i never would have gone. i never had any illusons that it was going to magicaly transform my writeing, or that teaching was the perfect career fit for me. after undergrad i was in a long-term relationship, and we were planning to have a family in the next ~5 years. i felt like i needed to pursue a “career” that would bring in an income big enough to support a family. but i am also very stubborn about doing what i want with my tiem. i hate having a job, last year i maxed out my credit cards instead of getting a summer job. the mfa was kind of a compromise between what i really wanted (to be an artist all the time) and what was expected of me (standard middle-class career path)
i gained some things from my mfa experience.. i now have an acute awareness of what i don’t like about academic/lit culture, for exampel. i started fully embraceing my identity as an “internet poet” only after my workshop teacher left me a condescending comment on my poem, “save this stuff for your blog.” with my misspellings too, i was fueled by my teacher’s disapproval
i never really liked the progam too much, but when my long-term relationship ended, i felt like i finaly had other options. i could live with my dad for free (or with various friends, as i eventualy decided), or i could at least split rent with more roommates in a cheaper neighborhood, without bothering/disappointing my partner
also my school started grating on me in more fundamental ways this past fall. my core audience is not poets in academia.. so why should i be seeking feedback from (only) poets in academia? i would get comments from my teachers, for example discouraging my misspellings, and i would kind of just dismiss them because i know they arent realy my main audience. but if i they’re not my audience, why am i asking for their feedback in the frist place? the feedback ive gotten from friends online has been much more valuable
NC: You seem to be living some kind of life of traveling now, blogging, and just being creative. How are you surviving doing this? Do you suggest this life to other people?
SR: i had a bit of money when i started–from selling most of my possessions and telling my parents i wanted money instead of christmas presents. and then i’ve been able to keep an almost-steady amount in my bank account since then, from selling t-shirts and books
i’m living very cheaply. many people think it’s expensive to travel, but if you do it right, it can be cheaper than living in one place. my rent was $500 when i was living in chicago; i could’ve probably gotten it down to $300 if i tried.. but so far, my transportation has been (far) less than $300 each month. for march it was $210, for april it was around $125 and for may only $16. i don’t have utilities to pay, and sometimes i get free food depending where i’m staying. i printed and sold about 110 t-shirts in dec/jan, making about $8 profit from each, and i’ve sold about 220 books so far with a similar profit per sale
getting to meet all my internet friends is awesome. all the events and stuff can make it harder to get work done, but being able to connect people and build community is very rewarding and fun. im getting to experence a lot of the world and geting a better idea of what i want in my lief. i think my recurring loneliness, from not having someone to hug after six years of having someone to hug, is heightened in some ways by traveling..
as far as whether i suggest it to others… it really, realy depends. this has been very very satisfying for me. i am very happy with the decision i made to live like this. but i think im positioned particularly well to suceed with it. my work ethic, my natural interest in community building and branding, my flexibility in terms of living very frugally.. it wouldnt work this well for everyone. but i mean. if you know what you want to do in your life, i feel like you have to try to find some way to do it, whatever it is. you only have so long to live. .. living like this has allowed me to do what i want with my life, every day.. i literaly wouldnt trad that for anything
NC: Do you an ultimate goal with this massive amount of output in the last couple of years, do you want to be famous somehow, do you want just to make people happy, or is there no goal. That this is some kind of Buddhist experiment and there is no goal at all, but someone just having fun?
SR: i think making a lot of people happy is my ultimate goal, but in terms of the massive output in the past year or so, i’ve also been driven largely by my desire to keep doing this work. like i have been pretty driven to grow my following rapidly, because i dont want to have a different job
i feel so deeply fulfilled by what i am doing.. i can’t count how many times it has been 4 AM and i’m about to go to bed after like 6+ hours of interacting with people on social media.. and i’m just so profoundly happy, like im lying in bed or staring out the window and i can’t stop smiling, and i feel so excited and so content at the same time. im not tryig to paint some unreal picture of perfec happiness–other days i feel like shit. but this work really fulfills me, and i know it’s boosting others too because i get messages all the time saying so
also, my prolific output has to do with my desire to create a potentially very deep, holistic experience for the reader, and create a sort of cultural movement. i wil explan this more in my response to your question about style (below below below)
NC: You haven’t been published in many places, like it seems you aren’t concerned with the submission publishing experience. I remember in the early years of Internet writing writers noticed that submitting to The Paris Review or the Kenyon Review seemed futile. And we realized that publishing online would lead to the same amount of readers, but maybe not the right readers, the kind of readers that made you famous. But readers none the less. But you seem to have taken it even farther, that all a writer needs is a few places to social network (tumbrl, facebook, their own website) and they have a place to reach readers. Do you think eventually webzines will even be phased out?
SR: i think the established way of publishing will sustain itself for a long time, because a lot of people are invested in it and there is a huge community of people who do believe in it. the scale of AWP and the number of MFA programs in the US, for example, illustrates the amount of people invested in this system
but yeah, you dont need approval from anyone with “expertise” about good writeing. to have readers, all you need is readers
i think what’s helped me is that i dont really distinguish between readers and friends.. i have about 400 contacts in my phone now, and most are people i’ve never met in person. im willing to interact with people on an equal level as a friend, without trying to be above them or distanced from them as The Artist or somthing. there are hundreds of people who comment on the writing blogs you like, who post about your favorite writers on twitter (twitter has search), who contribute to your favorite lit mags. u can reach out to all these people.. with goofy comments if youre like me, or with plain conversation if thats more your style. making friends and building community improves ur lief in so many ways.. and most of these friends will also go check out your full-on writing. if your writing is awsome, some of them will help share it
it takes a while to build an audience this way, there isn’t as much of a “big break,” it is very gradual. but your community will also be stronger and more invested than if they found your book in a store and never talked to you
NC: I recently learned that you are from what could be called a cowtown/hicktown. Personally I am from a small town and found the experience nice in terms of its sense of community and the access to nature. But I did not enjoy that I loved literature so much and no one cared about it but myself. But it wasn’t like in a movie, where I was a dork or nerd, everyone thought it was cool in my town, they just thought of me being really emotional, which I was. How was the experience of growing up in nowhere Michigan, how has it affected you as person and your writing?
SR: i think i was oblivious to a lot of youth alt culture. as a vegan who was interested in buddhism and avant-garde art, i felt like there was nobody similar to me alive haha. it was really strange eventually finding tao lin and reading some articles about “hipsters,” and then moving to chicago and realizing there was actually a whole bunch of people with similar values and taste as me. it was really encouragin to me actually
NC: There seems to be a lot of rules in your writing and in your life, for example you don’t just stick to one simple size of text, you are picky about what font you use, you don’t concentrate on depression, you don’t just wrote in simple verses, concerning your life you are vegan and wears certain clothes that your philosophy condones. Do you consider yourself a legalistic person or just a stylist? Why do you think you are so consumed with style? Do you enjoy writes and artists that also love style?
SR: style for me is a kind of content, and one that is more valuable and interesting than specific statements or individual beliefs, because it’s holisitic and more pervasive.
my favorite books are ones that can plausibly be your favorite book, because they embody something, because they are an icon of something. sometimes being an icon is in a thesis statement or something, but often it’s in the overall style. style and ongoing memes, repeated stylistic moves, allow the memeplex to spread to countless contexts, and countless people
people start using scare quotes like tao lin maybe for its humor, and soon enough they start to really feel the skepticism that is embodied in it, they start trying to be more precise with their sentence and not relying on cliches or vague abstractions.. the surface-level style is a gateway to the deeper worldview
i have been interested in branding because it is about creating holistic culture around something. of course corporate branding is often just an empty shell used to sell products, but the most effective branding is not just a catchy slogan or something, its about capturing the essence of some core values in the external presentation
i’ll admit that i don’t care about individual poems or writing craft as much as a lot of writers. i care about culture broadly. i care about the attitude and personality that is behind a book. if i become obsessed with this book, how will it effect my personality?
everything we do is set in culture. even people’s frendships are made stronger because of shared culture: inside jokes, shared memories, slang that people outside of the relationship don’t understand. and we can each help create/alter the culture in our communities. this is especially true for writers and artists.
some of what im about to say might seem surprisingly political, and ambitious, but i realy want to change world to make it better for people. i hate that so much of culture seems like it just exists to make someone money. companies aren’t concerned enough about what will actually help people long term. and i mean actual health issues like companies selling cigaretes and fast-food, and things like pesticides and sweatshops.. but also just the lifestyle branding and advertising. companies want you to equate buying their products with having a happy life. and they have to know they are lying. everyone knows buying more stuff won’t make them happy. but people keep doing it because so much of our culture encourages it
in order to create an alternative way of living, there has to be culture around it. we need something to celebrate, something to enjoy and share. having occasional critical debates about “the issues” or writing occasional “political poems” isn’t enough. there needs to be a new, better way of life that is embodied in the main work. something that isn’t just criticism of the past way, but something new to sustain people, something that makes people say, “fuck yes, i identify with this. i am proud to be part of this.”
specific debates about “the issues” are still helpful, but i think a lot of changing culture is making the new way more enjoyable. my ex-girlfriend never fully embraced veganism until she discovered a community of vegan food blogs. we can criticize television and mainstream media all day, but if we don’t create something else to enjoy instead, we are eventually going to feel deprived and fricking depressed.
style is very valuable i think
NC: Concerning your poetry, on page 66 you write a poem that emphasizes the long vowel sound, the line, “on you and/my hands on you so” is so beautiful and quiet and endearing. Do you think a lot about sound when you write, what other modern writers do you consider good at making the words into music?
SR: that poem specifically was influenced a lot by e.e. cummings, who does some cool things with sound. i used to read a lot of poetry aloud (i used to consistently read 20+ pages/day, usually out loud), including some really sound-focused writers like gerard manley hopkins. i’ve really appreciated the use of sound in robert fanning’s work, a poet who i had as a teacher in undergrad. usualy sound is not a main (conscious) concern of mine anymore, but i definitely appreciate it in some work, and have specificaly focused on it more in the past
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Noah Cicero’s Best Behavior was recently rereleased in new form.