or “An Old Guy at a Steve Roggenbuck Reading in Seattle”
I recently encountered Steve Roggenbuck in person for the first time. He performed (read) at Hollow Earth Radio in Seattle’s up-and-coming “Central District”, along with poetry buddy Raul Alvarez, Seattle local Elissa Ball, and poetry buddy James Ganas. I had my reservations about Steve, his work, and his contributions to the poetry universe (and metaverse a la Youtube, Tumblr), for a variety of reasons, which I will go into below.
Alt Lit. The term either makes you shudder, or it makes you get your image macro editor ready. It either means: reckless, juvenile disregard for formalities in language, or the best attack on pop aesthetic since Dadaism. If you know alt lit, then you probably have come across Steve’s name. If not, let me help you. Steve’s charisma and vivacious attitude towards living has contributed to an image, an ideal, that everyone from pre-teen girls to grey-haired professors laud. I, too, reference Steve and the idea of Steve regularly in conversation about poetry’s place in the 21st Century.
Arguably, as many other people, more intelligent than I, have talked about, Steve’s work is about more than poetry alone. Steve is, like the best leaders and motivators, searching to communicate (in his case, through poetic language) an ideal. Through relatively zany (absurd) tactics, Steve’s work maintains moral/ethical underpinnings advocating queer culture, veganism, and general self-empowerment through creativity. Likewise, his positive attitude and aggressive (and successful) self-promotion has generated a community of intelligent clone-like writers (some identifying with alt lit, and some not) and an even larger community of the trendiest young artist-types looking for something guttural, raw, beautiful, and honest in a world betrayed by Gen X nihilism and post-Gen X consumption.
The dichotomy between older folks and youth (I want to say “young kids” here) at the reading was startlingly obvious. The older folks, a subset of the audience I personally identify with, stood out like potholes. The majority of the floor (there weren’t many chairs) was doused in young bodies. It wasn’t much of a problem; the usual, expected existential crises arose by being surrounded by significantly younger writer-types. It reminded me, actually, of a reading only a few days before, which featured Ugly Duckling Press writers. There was a cool clique-iness to it that turned me off socially but charged my curiosity engines. At Steve’s reading: why are any of these people here? Do they like Steve? Do they know his writing? Do they know him as an Internet “personality”? Are they in tune with the poetic spirit? The potential answer to all these questions was “yes” and that’s where I left it. I talked with one “Fan” before the reading who provided significant praise towards Steve and his work, exclaiming she had been at the previous reading (aside: during Steve’s reading he referenced reading a piece at his last reading in Seattle and asked the audience about their attendance and if they’d heard the piece read then, and she said yes). We talked a lot about, well, nothing, really. I don’t really remember any of the conversation, except that a lot of it was imaginative and situated in small intellectual chatter. I was feeling pings of warmth along the same lines of flirtation, but at the same time, the entire vibe of the place felt sterile. Sterile with happiness. All of those earthly, non-White-hipster problems going on in the world? Nope.
When I first arrived I was greeted almost intrinsically by Steve himself, as apparently being on time was being ultra-early in this pop glam poetry bubble. We exchanged a few awkward words about the tour and he mentioned scoring some food. I didn’t have any positive or negative reaction, and was quickly deterred by some friends who were along for the ride as I was. We spoke of many things: hamsters as pets; communications with the dead; space travel. And then the reading started.
I’m not a Steve Roggenbuck fanatic. I’m not even a Steve Roggenbuck fan. I find him quintessentially enjoyable as a Youtube video person(ality) and as an online presence. His strength is in his diversity, his multi-channel existence of poet being. But his strength is also his identity, and, as a youthful celebrity, some of his behavior, especially in his most outrageous moments (see his AWP Chicago videos), reminds me more of a rattled celebrity than an artist of distinction. I often wonder: will he implode? Will the weight on his shoulders, the representations of his values, cause him to collapse in front of his large audience, or will he continue to find new hijinks and new levels of absurdity to keep him upright?
Poetry readings are typically boring and the reading I saw was a healthy mixture of stereotypical poetry tropes, stand-up comedy, and storytelling. It was a standard reading with a four person line-up. Most people sat on the floor, me clutching my legs uncomfortably (I was the large trunk amidst a copse of saplings).
James Ganas, who played the “Lack of Confidence Man” persona, got up and spoke in a monotone causing rising and falling hushes and awkward laughter from the audience. I tried not to look around at the audience, feeling out of my element. I did feel a sense of joy, however, because I had never seen the readers.
Skinny reader number 1 was Raul Alvarez, who just moved to Seattle from Chicago. His most memorable line was actually not from one of his poems, but straight from his heart, and it went something like “I feel like I made the right decision in moving to Seattle, because Seattle winters are so mild, and Chicago winters are so cold.” Well great. You and everybody else, buddy. But his work was strong, in the “How do I construct a poem that can get the world to make out with me?” way. Like Roggenbuck (his friend), Alvarez is quintessentially lovely. His work is all about empowerment, understanding the world, and being okay with it. I wondered: if this is what the cult of personality of alt lit poetry is really all about, why? Did it birth itself out of the womb of goth and emo from the early 2000s? Is it a result of some kind of progressive, late-Gen-X parenting methods? So many people in the audience were simply smiling in that reading, and, despite Alvarez’s capability of creating some compelling images, the poem itself did not seem exquisite. It seemed disposable. Like a grenade, or a rainbow, it was gone as immediately as it was witnessed. Conceptually, however, there was one poem Alvarez read that had everyone shouting words at the end of each line. At one point, someone shouted out “Watercolors” at the end of the line, and ringleader Roggenbuck from the corner recommended everyone keep using that word as the response word, instead of response-by-arbitration. It was quite magical, really, a vomit of unicorn meat magic, hearing so many people chanting “Watercolors” at the feet of this trendy, young, cute poet.
Skinny reader number 2 was Elissa Ball, who mostly read from her new book. I saw on the Facebook event that Elissa had requested to be a reader at this reading—quite admirable and courageous. She was the second “Seattle poet” (“local poet”) to read, and it was clear that the other three readers were of another world. But everyone was respectful despite the obvious polarized style of Ball. Ball, like me, actually, is quite intense behind the mic, her poems loudly read, quivering in anger, fear, excitement, etc. Unfortunately for us nervous types, all that energy in the mic does not necessarily guarantee a sound reading. Unfortunately for Ball, she was a bit of a mess over the mic and fumbled between pages and came off sounding like she did not have control. Granted, I would have probably been in the same place if I had been at that reading, filled to the brim with the smiles of juvenilia.
One thing to note about her reading: at one point Ball described Roggenbuck as Whitman. A very strange comparison, considering Roggenbuck had just compiled a book of Whitman in 2013, and it kind of blew up in the “poetry media world” last year, thanks to Kenneth Goldsmith and others. But to describe Roggenbuck as Whitman is quite the statement. I’m now imaging Roggenbuck with a huge beard. I’m imagining Roggenbuck in the military. I’m imagining Roggenbuck as someone who he is not, someone who he is, traveling the country, but doing more than just writing and presenting poetry—actually investigating the American landscape, and reporting on it. Is this what Roggenbuck will turn into? That possibility seems stark and attractive to me, but at this point does not seem possible in his world of self-promotion, marketing, and a succumbing to the damnation of the digital drone.
After Ball had cleaned up her papers and thanked (yet again, even more profusely, awkwardly) the others for her to let her read (it surprised me, because Ball is a local powerhouse, and the thanking should be in the other direction, toward her), it was time again for host Ganas to lend us his voice. I wonder if the somewhat nonplussed, somewhat irritated response a lot of people had to his work was along the lines of how audiences reacted to Dadaists 100 years ago. Ganas’s work is a hybrid of the ultra-gushy confessional alt lit statement-driven work, and conceptual writing. His style is the equivalent of 100 one-trick ponies, totaling into a stampede of “poetry” that feels unaligned, malignant, the substance of a giant world of gimmicks. From poetry email addresses, to found letters, Ganas read through the pieces in his bucket of semi-humorous, semi-nihilist drivel, ending with a couple poems that felt like, well, poems. In the old school, beauty-meets-truth sense of the word. I can’t fault any of these readers, including Ganas, in their awkwardness, just as I can’t fault them in their most charismatic shimmer, but it must be said that by the end of Ganas’s reading, I realized this is all the work of young people. Brilliant young people, but young people nonetheless, and there is a drive of ego about them all, about these poets, that, just as with myself, curses them into an awkward space. They demand to be taken seriously, but they haven’t even tied their writing shoes. And even if these shoes are new, made out of the nicest leather, and worth more than your paycheck, that doesn’t mean they know how to be worn.
Roggebuck is the storyteller, and he was the real reason everyone came out to the reading. His pedestal is so high, that his image is imagined, and his voice echoes down among the people. He towered above us folks sitting on the ground like a giant, a storyteller, a bard. He read exclusively from a book of stories soon to be published. Self-published, like everything Steve publishes, everything Steve is. Steve’s reading was everything I expected it would be, though I worried the entire time before the reading began. I wanted Steve to be something different, something unexpected, something less than charming, less than dazzling. I wanted Steve to be a poet that somehow fucked up, somehow blemished just a bit more than he did. I wanted to see Steve as someone beyond his highly-refined, highly-edited image, that image he’s painted in so many forms across his Youtube channel, across his Boost House, across his Tumblr, across his tweeting, his Facebook, all of those spaces he can edit into perfection. But he was as “good” as his presentation. His talent, his ability to be a showman, even when reading stories that were somewhat enjoyable and somewhat stupid to listen to, he was in touch with his readers. He made the reading an experience, and I’m sure there are people who were in that audience who will not forget that.
I’ve always worried about Steve because I’ve always looked at him as a production too refined, too consumed by digital media to know any world beyond that image. Part of me is disappointed that I did not experience any more grit at that reading. I wanted less polish. I wanted less hilarity, less concise measurement of a guy who knows what he’s doing. Might I dare say I wanted a reason to not be so jealous? But his reading was as it should have been: a representation of who he is as a writer in his other forms. Ultimately, Roggenbuck will continue to be as honest to his self and consistent to his aesthetic and poetic drive, or he will denounce and detract from his current trajectory. Waiting to see how the bomb is cared for might be the justification we previous haters need to encourage Roggebuck to stick around and do his thing.
Greg Bem is 28 years old. He lives in Seattle where he runs and co-runs several literary-infused event series, including Ghost Tokens, Breadline, and Seattle Poetics Lab Presents. From 2013-2014 he wrote poetry and organized literary events in Cambodia. In Fall 2014 he served as associate curator for citydrift: Portland. He is currently preparing for a residency with sound poetry group the Four Hoarse Men at Cornish and an upcoming literary exploration in the industrial area on the Duwamish river.