The Yolo Pages
Boost House, April 2014
206 pages / $15.00 Buy from Boost House
“Just between the time when one could use one’s age as a power and one uses one’s age as a crutch.” – Jack Spicer (paraphrasing Arthur Rimbaud) from “Homage to Creeley/Explanatory Notes” in My Vocabulary Did This To Me
“Alt Crit” is a term I’m pretty confident I just invented… or at any rate, hope to make some money off of for my own altruistic (see also: poetic) purposes. Everybody knows Poetry with a capital “P” is a negative economy, and that anyone who has nevertheless found a way to sell his or herself as a poet must be a genius at something. Maybe not the actual writing itself, but self-promotion, for example. By editing and publishing this anthology of poems, Steve Roggenbuck, “the first poet to be cataloged as a meme” is finally profiting somewhat from his 18,000 Twitter followers and his slew of YouTube video-monologues about poetry. When I switch on a Roggenbuck video, I feel like I’m watching dust collect on an empty stage; or someone bombing an audition for the high school play over and over again. I can’t ignore it because this is my generation, but then eventually I feel the need to switch it off, so I do.
While attempting to read The Yolo Pages anyway (I did flip through a lot of it, my friend has one…), I got the feeling it could only have been written by one person, most likely our aforementioned “Alt Lit” vlogger maestro. I say this because everything in the book has the same flat, naïve air about it… half-hearted altruism, with a hyper-moralistic identity politics foregrounded at all times. This gets old fast. There is no articulate political stance here (beyond this claim that being Vegan and straight-edge is going to somehow save the world) and no formal invention on the page whatsoever. These are mostly un-ironic lyrical poems with titles like “Accept Me.” There are some cute typos intentionally thrown in every once in a while too, as ornament.
Contributors like Andrew W.K. are in the book clearly for their fame-generating potential. K. Silem Mohammed is in it because he’s a venerable older poet and seems like a nice, charitable person. Ditto Sharon Mesmer. I happen to like Patricia Lockwood’s poetry as well, but she’s poorly represented by this selection of her Tweets… why not print excerpts from that poem of hers that went über-viral last year? Has that poem ever even appeared in print before? As his influences, Roggenbuck has cited e.e. cummings, Flarf, Walt Whitman, Jenny Holzer, Roland Barthes, Miranda July, Dada, William Blake, Surrealism, The Beat Generation, The Lost Generation, Generation X, Generation Y, The X-Files and Punk. Whatever it is, his youth is supposed to make it fashionable again. But when someone is being compared to, and/or makes a habit of comparing themselves to pretty much everything that has happened before in their medium, it becomes impossible to take an objective look and make any decision as to whether you even like it or not. You have to like it, or else you run the risk of being called out as a h8r.
Like Nardwuar, Roggenbuck is basically a hype man…another fan boy for contemporary poetry, the perfect gadabout and Web 2.0 chameleon. The videos are amazingly solipsistic for a guy who claims to be starting a morally righteous collective (privately funded by Kickstarter, of course). The bookstore of the future is opening its doors, and he’s determined to make a job for himself there. Like Pharrel, he’s probably much better off producing other people’s work than making any of his own, and he’s all about being avant-happy. I would like his videos more if he interviewed people like Nardwuar does. He could interview poets, or strangers on farms in rural Michigan, and ask them what they think about poetry. That might be a little more compelling. The strangest thing about the videos is the chintzy music in the background, which makes the work eerily reminiscent of the corporate advertisements for those expensive iDevices that allow it to happen and be distributed so widely.
If this is supposed to be an alternative, why even do a print book in the first place? On the inside cover, there’s just a bunch of social media addresses for where to send a letter, if you care to know where Boost House printed this book. There is also a very peculiar ellipsis in the middle of that James Baldwin epigram at the front, which makes me wonder if the quote is correct. They don’t even note where it comes from, because of course it comes from the Internet. Roggenbuck is a clever opportunist who knows there is a vacuum outside the walls of the MFA debt factory that needs to be filled with something… but you can’t fight vacuity with even more vacuity and paper wasting. Where are the ecologically minded poets of yesteryear? Are they seeing this? It’s enough to make a young poet run scared back to the classroom to grip that MFA degree pronto. Some maniacal workshop teacher right now is probably screening Roggenbuck videos for their students as an object lesson: “Thinking of dropping out? Well, you might end up like this…” So in that way, he has (ironically) already allowed himself to be assimilated as a booster for the very system he would have us believe he is railing against.
The Yolo Pages is not Alt Lit, meta-modernism, emo, homespun, “new sincerity” or “uncreative writing.” It’s all much too aspirational to be any of those; it’s more like some new kind of ineffective self-help poetry. So actually, it’s a lot like America’s once-favorite poncho-wearing poet and translator Robert Bly, with his whole Iron John thing, where men went out together shirtless to the woods so they could help each other bang on drums and recuperate their masculinity. Wasn’t that embarrassing enough? “Young Adult” poetry might be a better, more lucrative fit than Alt Lit. Maybe The Yolo Pages makes people who suffer from extreme logorrhea (online) feel better together. It’s all like this endless rabbit hole you’re being led down, and there’s nothing at the end but a sign that says “thanks for following.”
Ben Tripp is on Facebook.