Extracurriculars is a recurring feature in which artists discuss their interests that are not art.
Steve Roggenbuck is an evangelical artist, often associated with the Alt-Lit movement, who makes work that is neither political nor religious but spiritually motivational in the most fundamental of ways. His crudely Romantic poetry and fiction, which he has been publishing since 2006 on his blog and in videos on social media, frequently employ Internet vernacular and deliberate misspellings (his personal blog is called “live your lief”) in order to strike a chord with as wide an audience as possible. “Two words, jackass: YOLO!” he screams in a 2012 YouTube video titled make something beautiful before you are dead. “Back in my grandfather’s day, they didn’t have YOLO. We have YOLO. We have to harness this gift….Everything dies. Everybody dies. Guess who you can’t hug when you’re dead: everyone! Seriously, humans are fucking up. Some people die because they don’t have food. People don’t have homes. Almost everyone wakes up and does something they don’t like. We can do better than this! Human beings can do better than this!”
Roggenbuck is a cofounder of the Tucson-based publishing imprint and art collective Boost House, also the name of the literal house in which he lives with the other Boost House members. This past spring, Roggenbuck’s videos were featured in the basement hallway at the New Museum Triennial, where he also launched his most recent collection of short stories, titled Calculating How Big Of A Tip To Give Is The Easiest Thing Ever, Shout Out To My Family And Friends (2015).
I spoke to Roggenbuck about ethical veganism, the gray area between irony and sincerity, and the brilliant (and now-defunct) @Horse_ebooks Twitter account over Facebook chat a few weeks ago. An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows below.
Steve Roggenbuck: I’m ready if you are, woo woo.
ARTnews: OK, here we go. So to start out, I’m curious—what’s a typical day like for you?
Well, it depends a lot whether I am home or on tour.
[Most people would probably think] my life at home (recently anyway) has been quite “boring.” I have been touring two weeks of each month this year on average, so when I’m home I’m kind of just doing work on my computer a lot, hanging out with a couple of close friends, and “resting up,” in a sense. I mostly just go between the library and Boost House, where I live.
On tour it is a lot busier physically, a lot of long bus rides, sometimes overnight buses or flights, and meeting up with people I haven’t met before, or have only met once or twice on previous tours. Sometimes I have to wake up and sleep at weird times, and I’m eating mostly raw fruit and cans of beans out of my backpack, and I usually do a performance every day, sometimes every other day.
How many other people work at Boost House?
Only two other people currently live at Boost House. Our vision was originally to have more and we’d like for it to be a bigger vegan co-op house someday. It’s kind of just a normal house right now, though. Not everybody here works on the press/business. Mostly E.E. [Scott] and I work on the press, with Rachel [Younghans], who is traveling right now, and our other roommate right now is Alexandra Bodman who is a cool poet but not directly involved with the press much.
Where are you originally from, and why did you decide to live in Tucson?
I’m originally from Michigan. I started Boost House in Maine in 2014 because of a relationship I had there, but then our team decided it was not the best location for us to build community and so we looked for places that were bigger and warmer and still very cheap. Tucson fit all those requirements and we knew a few people here, so we just chose Tucson and moved here in early 2015.
Your lifestyle sounds pretty ascetic, in terms of you being vegan and from your description of your life on the road. Why do you think it’s easier for you to live more abstemiously than most people do?
[Becoming vegan] started as a strong ethical objection to the way animals are being treated, so that gave me a lot of conviction and strength to stop eating animal foods. By now I’ve been vegan for eight years and I’ve learned so much else about it that I feel like I would be vegan for nutrition[al] reasons alone, too. I’ve been learning a lot about my bodily organs and it’s all so complex and amazing. I feel such powerful waves of gratitude for them, and I really want to treat them nicely if I can.
I don’t know if the traveling thing is in the same vein as quitting animal foods or not. I’ve actually been adjusted to very “minimalist” living for a while. I don’t like having much stuff because it feels like clutter and a distraction. I don’t want distractions, I want a life of purpose and service, and just like a few things to make me happy and to make me feel taken care of…but yeah, I live in a closet currently. I like that haha. It’s funny to me but it also feels right. I spend the most on food—I will buy the more expensive fresh produce if I think my body could really benefit from it.
Did you always have this sense of purpose, or did you undergo a change at some point in your life?
Mmmm, I think it’s been a gradual growth, and the synthesis of a few different things. I don’t know, I’m trying to write out an analysis of how it came to form, but it feels kind of complicated and I might not even be the best person to try to analyze that about myself, idk. Do you have a more specific question about this, or do you just want to move on to something else?
I guess what I mean is, would a third party consider your personality to have always been the same? And/or when did you realize you had come to this decision to live a life of service and purpose?
Well, I was never very interested in things like getting drunk and just fucking around or indulging. In high school I would spend my free time on my band and music, which was my passion at the time. For a high schooler, I was pretty serious about the goals I had. So yeah, I think that aspect of my personality has been consistent for quite some time, but the specific focus of it has evolved, and maybe I’ve become a lot more concerned about helping others specifically, and trying to have goals that focus on others. Even over the course of my poetry/art/video career I think it has evolved toward that more, or I’ve gotten smarter about that? Maybe.
I know you’ve been publishing poetry since 2006-ish, but when and why did you start making videos?
The videos started around 2011. I had some experiences in late 2010 and early 2011 that really got me interested in being an “Internet poet” of some sort. I was in an MFA program for poetry, and the professors didn’t seem to respect/understand the Internet angle at all. One time I wrote this silly poem for workshop and the teacher gave me this comment: “Save this stuff for your blog.” It felt condescending, and it also felt completely clueless. I thought, “This professor has no idea that a blog is potentially a way more powerful way to reach readers than the literary magazines she submits to.” That winter (2010–11) I also got interested in some Internet-based projects that struck me as really similar to poetry in ways, like the Twitter account @Horse_ebooks especially. I got interested in webcomics and image macros, usually called “memes” by most people. I made a couple videos trying the “YouTube video response” as a format, and then “vlogging” as a format. It was like a systemic experiment of trying my humor and poetry in these different Internet forms. Gradually the “vlog” videos evolved into something weirder and more intense. I just kept working with it and it eventually became its own “thing” and was much more distinct and popular than any of my experimentation with image-based stuff or Twitter stuff, which I also did a lot of (and still do).
@Horse_ebooks is the best. I was really sorry to see them stop tweeting. I was watching a bunch of your videos, and I was wondering, do you have a method to the madness, so to speak? You obviously have a lot of interesting thoughts, but how do you edit yourself, both in videos and in other online platforms?
Most of the recording is improvised and I only have a very loose idea of what I will talk about, if that. My creative process is mostly to record/draft a lot of material, and then watch (or read) it over and over, deleting more and more of it. I try to only keep what is really truly engaging/interesting/compelling to me. I feel like as a creator I’m very aware that my contemporary audience has a whole world at their fingertips in their phone at every moment, so if I want their attention and if I want to serve them with something valuable, I better not waste their time. I’m always trying to cut out as much of the mediocre material as possible, and to only keep the best/most striking material. So it’s a process of seeing what comes out, and then cutting it down to the best.
In terms of the structure/order, it depends. I try to start strong and end strong, especially in the written work, with memorable stand-alone lines. In the videos, the order [of the lines] will sometimes be influenced by the music—I’ll try to have the emotional climax in the music line up with the emotional climax in my rant or my poetry, stuff like that.
Sometimes I will also take a really good line I tweeted and develop it into a longer piece, whether a video or a written poem.
You talked a little about this before, but could you tell me more about your experience in an MFA program? Do you think it’s worth it to go to school for art, by the way?
If you’re paying for it with your own money, and you’re not, like, rich, then no, I don’t think it’s worth going to school for art. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a bad experience for everyone. I enjoyed my undergrad university experience—my parents paid for it and I did a lotttt of good studying and was exposed to a lot of cool ideas and people. But if I was resourceful I could’ve experienced most of that benefit without the actual university (or tuition) being involved. Most of what I did was read a lot of books, and practice writing my own stuff, both of which I could have done anyway. My MFA experience was less enjoyable, partly because I knew I was paying for it myself. Also I think I had bad luck with some of the professors I ended up having. I know some friends who are in poetry MFAs and they enjoy it a lot more. For me, I had a vision and my own interests that I wanted to follow, but the curriculum at my school (Columbia College Chicago) was pretty strict. Maybe in a more interdisciplinary school with full funding, I would’ve loved it?
Did you have to respond to other students’ work in class? I took some creative writing classes in undergrad and those got pretty tense sometimes.
Every semester in a poetry MFA you have writing workshops where you give feedback on work by classmates. I liked the writing of some of my classmates, and thru Boost House I’ve actually published one of them, Raul Alvarez. But not all of them were on the same page as me. I usually didn’t get a tonnn of valuable feedback.
What would they say?
There were a lot of people who didn’t get the misspellings. That was something I was doing very heavily at the time, and it became almost the entire focus of the feedback usually. I think a lot of people weren’t looking for funny poetry. Sometimes I will write a poem where basically the only point is to make people laugh, but a lot of poets don’t like that haha. They want some profound meaning or darkness and pain. I get that, but sometimes just making someone laugh is really valuable in itself, and it was a little frustrating that people mostly didn’t see eye-to-eye with me on that.
Do you feel like you’ve gotten better at writing poetry since you started publishing, and if so, how?
I think by putting my writing out into the “real world” of the Internet (on YouTube and Twitter), and by doing live readings (over 250 of them now), I’ve become more in touch with how non-poets think about and respond to poetry, rather than just how poets in workshops respond to it. When I’m working on a poem now, I think I can kind of predict what will connect with people and what won’t. Sometimes I’m pushing against that—I don’t want my work to become too “easy” or too smooth of a package. But I also have this broader perspective now. I can appreciate strings of words as a poet, but I also have this context of knowing that most other people will not care about that at all because that doesn’t reallly have much to do with their life. It has to do with my life, because I’m a poet, but [it won’t carry as much significance] for them. Non-poets will start caring about poems when they can tell the poems actually have something to do with their life. Whereas if I get up in front of a crowd and start talking about the death of loved ones, or toxic masculinity, or CATS, I will be speaking to them and their life a little bit more probably.
In our e-mail chain [regarding this interview], you said you were confused as to how poetry isn’t art. There’s obviously a performance aspect to your work, and you’ve talked a little above about harnessing the power of the Internet to create new types of literature, or Lit 2.0, which is arguably a new art form. Anyway, would you say your work falls into the same category as, say, a Jackson Pollock painting? If so, do you think all poetry is included in that same category?
Yeah, I mean, I’ve always thought of “art” very broadly, in a way that includes music and film and literature, so that would include poetry for sure. But maybe you mean “art” more narrowly.
Well, I feel like your work does straddle the line between art and poetry more so than other poets’, maybe because it’s more experimental?
I’ve done more with visual stuff than most poets, yeah. For the videos, you don’t need to understand them as “poetry” to get anything from them. There are people who just call me a YouTuber, but my work means a lottt to some of them, as well. Some people do see the videos as fitting into a genre of video-based art, and that’s [a field] I would honestly like to learn a lot more about! Historically and theoretically I can only usually speak to the way my work fits into poetry, which can be funny for people coming at it from a totally different background! I mean, I took some entry-level art history, but I’m not well-versed in contemporary video artists. I only know Ryan Trecartin and his work because people kept telling me that my videos reminded them of Ryan’s.
In your poetry and your videos, I’ve noticed that you use language that people with maybe less self-awareness would use. It’s almost like you go into different characters. Would you say that’s true?
I do feel like I go into different characters, as the different voices will often accentuate. I’m curious what language you’re talking about specifically?
Well, all of the “hahas” for one.
[Speaking through characters] is a way that I’ve been able to make my passion as a poet more accessible. I am amused by interesting uses of language like that, and delivering them thru those voices maybe accentuates what I find amusing about them? I don’t know, though; I haven’t thought about this a whole lot.
How much of your writing is told through characters?
Hmm. Yeah, I guess the whole subject of irony/self-awareness is really confusing to me. I think when you analyze my work looking to delineate “ironic” from “sincere,” it gets really confusing. I think that’s intentional at some level, even though it’s hard for me to explain. I definitely go into some characters that are meant to be funny, but that doesn’t mean everything they say is just a cheap laugh. Maybe sometimes it is, but maybe other times they really have something warm or powerful to say too. I think for this reason I prefer to understand the characters and my humor as “playfulness.” That seems more accurate in terms of describing my attitude and intent, as well as the way it can get sloppy. It’s not coldly calculated, like, “Oh this character is the foolish one that we laugh at, and this is the character who is correct.” It’s playful, and I think most people get it at an intuitive level, but I do get comments [on my videos] like “Is this guy serious or not?” So maybe some people do struggle with understanding the interwoven joking/sincerity and the shifting characters in this context.
I think it’s easy to understand actually—it’s just less easy to analyze in words.
Yeah, I think so! I think the voices maybe accentuate what is interesting about the language sometimes. Like, some of the lines said in the goofy character voices would not be as funny when just written out.
You once said that you could, for example, just as easily make a rap album instead of what you create now, and people would buy it because people are buying the personality behind your work. What keeps you writing poetry as opposed to working in other creative formats? Also, do you think you were ahead of the game in terms of marketing yourself? The kind of personal branding you do has only become such a ubiquitous practice fairly recently.
I have actually spread pretty far into different forms and media: I’ve done videos, image stuff, podcasts, some prose (stories in the book and essays/long blog posts online), and actually some music, all released thru my blog and social media channels. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m going to write much more written poetry, but then other times I get inspired by what I can do in that medium and I write more. I’ve kind of just been following my heart with it lately, but maybe giving priority to the things I seem best at. The videos have really resonated with people, so I think that’s a gift of mine, and I also think live performances and podcasting are things I’m really good at, so I have been trying to focus on those too. The podcast has been a lot of start/stop though.
[Regarding] branding—haaa, I don’t know. A lot of people misunderstood what I was trying to say about branding a few years ago so I have pulled back from talking about it much. I think the term is just totally soiled for most people—they can’t imagine anyyything positive coming out of “branding.” I actually think it’s a really compelling form, the personal brand. It might get ethically complicated because it involves this weird confusion between a person and an art-thing, but being responsible for the creation of a character on the Internet is so potentially thrilling. As an art project, it feels so big and holistic.
I think I was partly inspired by Lil B seeing how he was this character [TheBasedGod], yet also seemed [to remain] true to himself. It really interested me and still does, in a way, altho I’ve become more wary/confused about it theoretically.
How have you built up your fan base over the years, and do you think it’s going to keep growing at the same rate? I read that you used to interact with hundreds of people online everyday.
O wow my answers are getting too long, but here’s this: in 2011–12 I was reallllly focused on interacting with people online every day, as a way to find new audience and also to keep my existing audience extra-engaged, and it was a very big joy in my life. I have often felt like, “I gotta get back to doing more of that.” I still spend hours replying to e-mail and Facebook messages, and Twitter is where I reply to people the most. I think especially at the beginning, I built a lot of friendships that way and got a lot of people’s attention by giving them myyy attention first. I think a lot of people don’t know the story behind how much hard work that took from me, and I’m not trying to brag haha, but a lot of people just assume if you’re popular on YouTube then it just happened to be “a hit,” but I built my audience quite intentionally and gradually. The first real press I got from traditional media was September 2012 in [T: The New York Times Style Magazine], but Know Your Meme had already cataloged me a “meme” before that, just from all the social media stuff that was put into motion by my own effort. [However,] I actually think my audience has nottt been growing as fast over the past two years. Certain things like the triennial definitely helped, but on Twitter I’ve maintained approximately the same number of followers, or maybe it’s decreased a little.
Up until the past few weeks I’ve been a lot less consistent in producing new videos, and a lot less proactive about community interaction. I’ve been taking more time for growth and learning and reflection, and I think the new videos are going to be much better for it. I don’t know what the response will be like in terms of the number of people who will care. My goal is [to make] the right people care a lot. I really want to make work that helps a certain kind of person feel OK about the world! And [that makes them] try hard to do good! I really cherish when I get feedback from someone who I know is a really good person with a big heart who wants to change the world, but maybe they’re learning about all the ways the world is fucked up and its getting them downn. [I hope] my videos somehow help them to exist thru that and not lose hope and not lose their ambition, or just help them laugh on a particular day. That’s what it’s about for me, at this time!