As part of my current project of ‘working on anything except my PhD’, I’ve been revisiting a conference paper I gave at ‘The Place for Poetry’ conference at Goldsmiths last year. The paper was on internet poetry and cuteness (and will hopefully resurface at some point) and uses Steve Roggenbuck’s poetry and the anthology, The Yolo Pages (Boosthouse, 2014) to make a claim for extending Sianne Ngai’s formulation of the category of the cute in Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Harvard UP, 2012) to a reading of poetry on the internet. Just as I’d thought I’d sunk enough time into the project, Roggenbuck announced his European tour on twitter, featuring a date at the Eagle Inn in Salford.
Steve Roggenbuck describes himself as a ‘poet / video artist whose work explores the new forms art and humor might take on the internet.’ I think I first came across his work from DOWNLOAD HELVETICA FOR FREE.COM on tumblr in 2011/2012 and it was uncanny how well suited Roggenbuck’s form and sentiment was to the platform, and to the kinds of communities that religiously reblogged and reposted Roggenbuck’s material. Roggenbuck has published six books in total (including ‘LIVE MY LIEF: SELECTED & NEW POEMS, 2008-15’ by Boosthouse last year) and on February 13th announced on twitter that he was about to pass 1.5 million views of his Youtube videos.
One of the readings I tried to push in this conference paper was that Roggenbuck’s poetry was at best a kitschy cupcake activism (a term similar to those Roggenbuck uses in his editorial introduction to The Yolo Pages) that was definitely ineffective and probably harmless – and at worst, Roggenbuck’s exaggerated sense of poetry’s abilities was corrosive to any real potential that poetry might have. I wasn’t entirely sure what I meant when I first said this (and I’m still probably not) – though it was clear from some discussions about Roggenbuck after the paper (and before the reading on Saturday) that my suspicion of Roggenbuck put me in the minority. The most common criticisms were that I was ‘taking it too seriously’, ‘reading too much into it’, or that I simply didn’t ‘get it’. I don’t usually give criticisms like this second thought, but after seeing Roggenbuck read/perform on Saturday I’ve had to reconsider.
Lenni Sanders worked hard to get the audience ‘ready’ for a marathon set from Roggenbuck (though I don’t think she knew how long he was about to read for) – but unfortunately many of her poems sat awkwardly between the notebook and the stage. A slip into an American pronunciation of ‘assholes’ early on in the set revealed the debt that this kind of poetry has to the American scene.
Roggenbuck did actually read for one hour and forty minutes (he checked in with the audience at around the hour mark to see if he could set a new record for his longest set) – and though he did very obviously lose the crowd at points, overwhelmingly I think, the room was with him. I naively didn’t expect this to be case, and underestimated the ‘belief’ (that seems like the most appropriate word here) that his followers have in Roggenbuck and his work. Roggenbuck punctuated his short stories, poems, and tweets read from his laptop with a series of bizarre rants about the water content of fruit and vegetables, the phrase ‘value-added’ (taken from a business module Roggenbuck said he briefly took), and public speaking life hacks. At one point he launched into his critique of the publishing industry (one that readers of Roggenbuck will be familiar with) and his unique reappraisal of self-publishing and ‘following your heart 100%’. These sorts of rants (and this last one in particular seemed to fall flat, perhaps, because he was preaching to the converted) have become as much a part of Roggenbuck’s canon as any other of his fixations.
It was Roggenbuck’s delivery (and I’m thinking of his short stories in Calculating How Big Of A Tip To Give Is The Easiest Thing Ever, Shout Out To My Family & Friends in particular) and the way it transformed the flat, ~authentic~ tone it always seemed to me to have on the page (or the screen) that was oddly appealing, and at points mesmerising. In the conference paper I had used Roggenbuck’s poem ‘everybody i see hurting and i dont want them to hrurt’ for the benefit of my own argument, and to attempt to demonstrate the precarity that some of Roggenbuck’s poetry hinges on (and perhaps exploits). Though I’m not willing to completely drop this, after hearing Roggenbuck read this same poem on Saturday (and the weird hush that came over the room) I absolutely think that Roggenbuck believes in the sentiment of his work and the statements it makes. Roggenbuck really does believe that yolo spirituality and poetry can change my life in a way I find completely troubling and appealing. I thought I would be able to clearly see the move between Roggenbuck the ironic, post-internet troll in his accounts of his experiments with YikYak – and Roggenbuck the Poet, aping after a Poetry or Poetic Moment in his love poems. But I really couldn’t – and not, because Roggenbuck has rehearsed himself in front of a mirror until the whole thing is so consistent that we can’t tell, but because he is only concerned with saying and doing things that he 100% believes in at that moment. What this means for someone that high kicks between poems though I’m not sure.