Steve Roggenbuck, twenty-four, is a traveling poet from the farmlands of Michigan. Viewing literature as a “memeplex,” he integrates into his poetry the self-promotional impulses, community-building processes, sense of humor, and syntax of social media and web forum discourse, creating a holistic artist-brand that has recently been everywhere from Duke University to the New York Times style magazine. Tomorrow’s 4:00 p.m. performance at Pratt Institute marks his last scheduled NYC tour date of the year. We caught up with Steve on his MegaBus into town about the internet’s place in his work and life, what’s next for his itinerary, and scaling his relationship with his fans.
You began to make a name for yourself last year by taking a polemical approach with your work, releasing video manifestos like “breaking free from the shackles of word documents with other forms of poetry” and declaring that “everything is literature.” Looking back on your output since then—Tumblr image macros, YouTube videos, instant message quotations—how much conviction do you have behind it all being poetry? Or does not everything you do have to be “poetry” or “literature” per se?
I still think it may as well be poetry, for me it does the same things as poetry, and there are precedents for everything I’ve done in the history of poetry. Everything I’ve done is powered by an attentive, energetic and creative use of language. What’s changed for me is that I’ve become less concerned about the label. I’m less convinced that it needs to be called poetry to have value. Poetry can change your life, but so can blog posts or stand-up comedy. It’s more important to me that it changes your life, not what genre it is.
Obviously you couldn’t do exactly what you’re doing right now without it, but do you think you could still be an artist sans internet?
I didn’t have a Facebook, Twitter, or blog until late 2009, but I’ve been serious about my poetry since 2006, so my earlier writing might indicate some of how my writing would look. It’s impossible to say exactly. The forms would definitely be different, but I also think the humor would be different, and maybe something about the spirituality would be different, I don’t know… When the world changes so drastically, as the internet has changed it, your approach to living in that world has to change also, yeah?
That said, sometimes I catch glimpses in your work of ambivalence and melancholy towards those changes. Are these moments deliberate? For all that it’s done for you and for others, do you have any reservations or deeper concerns about the internet’s influence on art, on life?
I think those moments are primarily playing on other people’s judgment of me rather than what I myself feel about the internet. Of course I have some reservations about the effects of the internet. It’s changing every industry and aspect of human life super rapidly—it can’t all be good. But I’m excited about it. For people like me who want to build something, it’s completely changed the game. I still do readings in person and seek some print publication, but I mean, it’s so much faster to build online. The word of mouth is just so much faster and it’s so much easier for people to follow your work after the initial exposure. And all these new internet forms are so fun… I’m enthusiastic to be alive and to be a creative person at this time.
You’ve been living the life of a traveling poet all year, resting and reading at fans’ apartments around the country. Where has been most inspiring for you? Where would you like to go next?
California was my favorite in terms of the setting: the weather and the palm trees and the ocean. But the people are what really boost me wherever I am. I have some really great friends in Washington State, and I love NYC for the sheer amount of people I know. I want to go to Australia and England because I have a lot of friends/followers in those places.
Do you still plan on basing yourself in San Francisco once the tour is over?
If the tour ever ends, then yes, I think San Francisco. I’m coming to really appreciate the traveling though. My life is never boring this way. Sometimes it’s tiring or lonely, but I don’t know, you only live once… This has been the most eventful year of my life. When I stayed a bit longer in Brooklyn this summer—for six weeks—I noticed that time started to go by faster, the days ran together more. When I’m traveling, that automatically keeps my life interesting and forces me to pay attention because everything is new.
If you do settle somewhere, though, how might that change things? I imagine that while chapbook and t-shirt sales can get you from city to city, things like rent and groceries will spike your operating costs. Would you have to get a job? How would that affect your work?
I won’t get a job. I would keep living with other people as long as necessary. Doing this work full time is the top priority in my life. Before I was doing this full time, my only goal was to do this full time… I have so much vision and determination about how I want to use my time on earth, I hate the idea of just being a tool for some other business to achieve their goals. I know it’s privileged that I can live this way, but I honestly believe that it’s better for everyone. I am giving my best contribution to the world every day because I am passionate about what I’m doing. I hate that almost no one gets to live their passion like this.
I think a lot of people, from some of your comment box critics to your old MFA professors, would be surprised to see you getting a co-sign from the New York Times. How mainstream do you think you can go?
There are high schools where my videos and memes have spread person-to-person between friends and now twenty to fifty people at that high school love and follow my stuff. I think that could potentially happen all over. I don’t even know how to calculate the math of it, but I’m confident I’ve only reached a small portion of my potential audience.
On that note, a lot of your work benefits from a sense of intimacy with your audience—up until now you’ve been able to be Facebook friends with most of your fans, for example, and I think the bonds you’ve developed with them in the public-private sphere of social media have been an important extension of your creativity. How do you plan to maintain that dynamic once it becomes impossible to respond to every YouTube comment you get?
When I saw Lil B the Based God in Seattle, he stayed around for at least half an hour, maybe an hour or more after the show doing autographs and taking pictures, hugging, listening to what people had to say. He doesn’t respond to nearly everything online, but I get a sense that he puts in a lot of time and manages to respond to a lot. Some forms of interaction are easier to scale; I’ve got the live broadcasts every Sunday, which is a rapid-fire way that I acknowledge people and answer questions. Really I think just doing your best matters to people, and if you really care, that will come across.