Steve Roggenbuck, a 26-year-old rising Internet bard with nearly 15,000 Twitter followers, shared his work on campus last week.
Many of us have thought at one time, “My professor is wrong.” And some of us have felt the urge to abandon college and pursue something we are more passionate about. But few of us ever act on these moments. Steve Roggenbuck, a rising poet best known for his viral YouTube videos, did exactly that.
After completing a degree in English at Central Michigan University, Roggenbuck began courses at Columbia College Chicago for his Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) in Poetry. However, when his professors discouraged his more playful poetry—inspired by beat writers and Walt Whitman—he eventually dropped out.
“I was interested in doing this funny poetry that was based off the Internet,” said Roggenbuck. “I do misspellings in my work, sort of similar to how LOLCats have the misspellings. But my teachers didn’t really appreciate the value of that very much, and they discouraged me from it. I needed to be able to follow what I was interested in and they were trying to push me in a different direction.”
Roggenbuck’s poetry is driven by irony, improvisation, positive messages and an engagement with our generation’s Internet culture. There is no strict boundary of what is and is not poetry for him.
“The thing is, people who say that I’m not a poet—I don’t have any strong argument against that,” he said. “If you look at the actual history of poetry, there are people who have made poetry that is just visual or just audio. There’s been video poetry. There have been poems as short as just a couple words. There’s so much that’s been done that you literally can’t say that something is or isn’t poetry based on that precedent anymore."
He expressed his desire to continue in the sport of his more traditional poetic predecessors.
“I want to remind people about carpe diem. And I want to remind people about love and appreciating their life while they’re alive and just playing with language,” he said. “So I still feel like I’m doing what poets have done all those years even if it comes out in a very different form.”
Since dropping out of the MFA program last year, Roggenbuck has spent most of his time couch-surfing—most recently in Brunswick—so that he could focus on blogging and writing as much as possible. And it has paid off—literally.
“This past year is when I really built a foundation for myself with poetry sort of as a career,” he said. “And this year I’ve even been able to live off of it a little more.”
This fall he would spend a week on tour doing readings at various universities, and then a week here in town before heading back on tour again. He now has plans to permanently reside in the area.
“I like Bowdoin and Brunswick a lot,” Roggenbuck said. “I like the library. I like the woods. And hopefully, I’ll have an apartment here soon if everything works out.”
As a 26-year-old rising Internet-star, Roggenbuck currently has 14,825 followers on Twitter. He has posted nearly 150 videos on YouTube and his most popular video, “make something beautiful before you are dead," has received approximately 105,350 views. He was recently interviewed by Gawker as well.
Beyond just entertaining his viewers, audiences and readers, Roggenbuck also strives to deliver positive and motivational messages through his work.
“I’m experiencing something now that a lot of people experience, I think, when they get more success or more popularity—more people looking at what they’re doing,” he said. “You start to feel a responsibility to make sure that you’re spreading a good message. So this year I especially have made sure that I’m spreading a positive message as I see it. And that has meant being a little more vocal about some activist causes that I believe in and just trying to focus on what’s going to help people.”
His poetic style that has gained so much renown is an amalgam of comedic commentaries and serious messages through social media. For example, one of his personal websites is entitled LIVE MY LIEF. According to Roggenbuck, this very phrase epitomizes his intentional blend of messages, as he truly wants his followers to live actively, but he does not want them to take it too seriously—hence the misspelling.
“I really like building rapport with comedy and then saying something serious. A lot of the times the people. who like my stuff, like youth and indie people, they don’t like mainstream motivational speakers at all,” he said. “They’re not very receptive to it usually. So I like to sort of repackage it into the goofy humor, the Internet culture humor, to create that message as a new package.”
Beyond the comedic aspects of his poems, Roggenbuck also actively engages with this generation’s meaning of the Internet. His YouTube videos are filmed as if they were “selfies.” He appears to be fascinated with YOLO (a term coined by recording artist Drake which stands for ‘You Only Live Once’), and turns his poetry into image macros (photos overlaid with humorous text). He communicates with his audiences in the comment sections online, especially engaging insults and criticisms.
“I like to use these populist forms,” he said. “I want to reach lots of people and I want to embrace the forms of the people, so I like to use these forms that anybody can make, like an image macro is so simple to make.
“I like using selfies and tweets, and videos that are recorded like selfies and patched together with copyrighted music that I didn’t even get permission to use.”
And while Roggenbuck enjoys the direct connection he can make with audiences during live performances, he thrives on the accessibility and speed of the Internet.
“I can tweet something and it reaches all these thousands of people in the middle of their day. Somebody might be in class or even on their lunch break going through their Twitter and they can see it,” he said.
In delivering his messages so playfully, Roggenbuck hopes to make a difference in people’s lives by reminding them to enjoy the little things.
“That’s a main dynamic of my work and a lot of the stuff I like that’s being made now,” said Roggenbuck. “It’s like it’s funny but it’s not just a joke. Or like it’s serious but that doesn’t mean it can’t be joking around. A lot of people would say that a poet can’t really help people much, but I feel like you can.”