In Brief: An interview with poet and blogger Steve Roggenbuck about publishing, social media, writing, and, of course, libraries.
by Erin Dorney
How many poets do you know who have an entry on KnowYourMeme.com? Steve Roggenbuck, a 25-year old poet and blogger from Michigan, is one of them. Boasting 9,801 Twitter followers (for comparison, current US poet laureate Natasha Trethewey has 241), over 4,000 Facebook page likes, and almost 700,000 views on YouTube, Roggenbuck is using the web to interact with his readers. He experiments with technology, is deeply engaged in building community, uses humor to resonate with his audience, and embraces many aspects of participatory culture. His newest book if u dont love the moon your an ass hole: poems and selfies was released in late June 2013, bringing his total book count up to 5: CRUNK JUICE; DOWNLOAD HELVETICA FOR FREE.COM; i am like october when i am dead; and I LOVE MUSIC. I recently had the pleasure of conducting an email interview with Roggenbuck for In the Library with the Lead Pipe and we chatted about publishing, social media, writing, and, of course, libraries. Roggenbuck also created a 10-minute video addressing his personal history with libraries and his vision for the future of libraries in the age of the Internet and digital texts, which can be found embedded at the bottom of this article.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background? How did you get to this point in your writing career?
Roggenbuck: i started writing poetry a lot in 2006, i gradualy started publishing things in 2008, 2009, 2010. then in 2011 i realy started using the internet to self-publish and distribute my work agressively, and also to explore new forms that combine poetry with blogging, memes, and internet culture. my videos have caught on the most, and they have alowed me to reach more people than contemporary poets often do. i’ve had a couple moments of getting big press coverage (new york times, know your meme, i-D magazine..) but most of my following was built thru individually interacting with thousands of people online, and those people sharing my work to friends and family.
What is lit 2.0 and who do you think has achieved this status?
Roggenbuck: i havent talkd about “lit 2.0” that much since 2011 realy.. i mentioned “lit 2.0” in an essay, suggesting that literature could become much more social and interactive than it has been in the past, in the same way that the internet has become “web 2.0” with the development of social media. in a typical day i respond to dozens or hundreds of people’s comments and messages online. “lit 2.0” is the literature that is created in back-and-forth comment threads, in posts that are sent “@” a single specific person–it’s when the writer is available to talk back, when there is active community, two-way conversation instead of one-way broadcasting, and there are new updates every day/hour, not once a year!
I’ve noticed a few references to libraries and librarians in your poetry. What aspects of working in or with libraries were different from what you expected?
Roggenbuck: hehe.. i’ve done my work in libraries a lot. honestly though, i’ve recently identified that i work best in busy/active settings, so cafes or busy co-op houses are often a more ideal setting. i’ve actually had good experiences doing work at house parties haha, like when everyone around me is partying, that creates a good energy for me to get excited and work vigorously. i love the idea of libraries, so public and open and free, workin to spread literacy and critical thought and learning, such a benevolent force.. unfortunately i perceive libraries as usually having less funding to bring touring writers, compared to universities.. also i wonder if my “readings” would be too loud/inappropriate for library settings.. i would be interested to work with libraries more in the future!
What are your thoughts on the future of writing as a profession, both for yourself and in general?
Roggenbuck: i’ve said that in the future, it may not matter as much what genre of art you mainly create, you will just be followed because you’re an interesting Person, people will follow you as a Person. i like this because it means i can talk about anything i want, i can share all my beliefs with my followers, and it allows an incredible amount of artistic freedom. i could release a novel or a rap album or a comic book–things i have never practiced or studied–and i could sell hundreds, probably thousands of copies. and people would enjoy the work, because they mainly follow me for my message and my energy, which are going to be present in anything i create.
How do you manage your time—responding to your followers on social media, writing, filming and editing video, putting together your books, performing, and traveling seems like a lot to juggle.
Roggenbuck: it is a lot to juggle. usually i’m unsatisfied with how i manage my time, i don’t think i’m doing enough, i fall behind on important tasks.. people say that “80% of your results come from 20% of your actions,” and i think thats probably true for what i do, and this summer ive been tryin to focus more time on my videos, which spread my work the fastest.. but i also love interacting with ppl, it makes me happier than anything, and i need to make it all work financially too.. so its a constant struggle to balance it haha.
How do you support yourself as a constantly touring writer?
Roggenbuck: i’ve started getting hired for readings at universities, and those can pay a lot. i would only need one of those each month to pay my rent, food, and debt payments. i’m also selling t-shirts and books on an ongoing basis through my website, occasionaly making pushes for sales. i’ve also done DIY shows that can pay a little bit from door donations or pass-the-jar type of donations, and selling chapbooks at those events. in march i did a tour of ten DIY shows, and i made enough to cover the month’s living expenses through that.
Can you talk about your process for putting together a book of poetry?
Roggenbuck: im constantly writing litle bits of text, short poems, tweets, lines for image macros, lines for videos.. the book-making process for me is mostly an act of compiling all that stuff, and filtering out the weaker stuff, so the book just repeatedly hits people with quick engaging bits of text. my books are like thousands of one-liners in a row haha.. often i try to start and end with particularly meaningful material, the stuff that feels like “thesis statement” stuff for me, and i want to keep it visual with enlarged text and/or images. i finally arrange a draft, and then i read it over and keep making small changes until im totally satisfied or i reach a final deadline !!
In your essay raising poetry to the level of internet culture, you discuss the value of writing as determined by readers rather than editors, saying “this model shifts power, somewhat, from the few (editors, reviewers) to the many (all readers).” What future implications (for writing, art, sharing, publishing, etc) do you anticipate from this kind of change in power dynamic?
Roggenbuck: many people will complain about the loss of literary “quality”.. the new form of “approval” is not what editors want to share, its what masses of internet users want to share. so there may be writers who pander too much to what is retweetable or rebloggable. i have seen how this has affected my own writing, and i’m not sure i always like it. i’m tryin to stay conscious of it, and sometimes i reject it. the lines that are the funniest or most insightful or beautiful to you are not always the most retweetable. if i go and tweet “YOLO YOLO YOLO YOLO YOLO YOLO YOLO YOLO YOLO” right now, from my account, it will get 30+, probably 50+ retweets, which is considerable free exposure to new people.. but that tweet is not offering anything super beautiful or insightful haha, its kind of energizing maybe, it has some playful energy… anyway– it can be fun and intellectually stimulating to learn what “works” in these online forms, but in order to stay satisfied with yourself as an artist , it’s also important to stay aware of and vigilant about what YOU Love, of what YOU want to be about.
What made you decide to self-publish your books/art and put them into the public domain instead of pursuing a more “traditional” publisher/distributor? As more and more writers take similar courses of action, how might a library be able to contribute or support self-published authors?
Roggenbuck: i decided to self-publish because the kind of publishers i perceive as willing to publish my work–small poetry presses–don’t offer a ton of readership or financial support anyway, so i figured i could reach just as many people myself by self-publishing, with a higher profit margin and more artistic freedom. i think i have been correct about that. i’ve sold over 500 copies of my new book already, and the release date was less than two weeks ago. about half of what people pay ($10) goes directly to me as profit. i was able to include selfies in the book, which is very funny and exciting to me, and a page about veganism, which is very important to me.
i think libraries may be able to help change the public perception of self-published work. especially in the poetry world, self-publishing is stigmatized, not “legit,” like it “doesn’t count” as being published, when in actuality you could be affecting just as many people. of course libraries can’t just stock every self-published book, at least not in print.. there is so much.. you still need some filter for quality. this is part of a bigger issue, but i would like if more libraries were producing content, like if one of the librarians reviewed books as part of their job, and kept a blog of these reviews. then there would be an opportunity to review some self-published books on an equal-footing with the traditionally published books; it would be exciting to see a reviewer treat the self-pub books with as much respect and consideration as traditionally published books.
In your 2011 essay toward a more flowing culture: lit 2.0 + the online “total work” you mention an interest in “…creating an active, varied, and prolific source of culture…” through your LIVE MY LIEF website. How will you know when you have accomplished that? What other sources of culture are young people of this generation encountering through the open web?
Roggenbuck: my vision has evolved a bit since then. in 2011, i perceived my ultimate “form” to be the website, and my models were other high-traffic blogs like hipster runoff and even webcomics like pictures for sad children. but i realized by late 2011 and especially in 2012, my “form” had become the personal brand, more broadly. i’ve come to use platforms like twitter and facebook and vine and instagram more prolifically than the actual LIVE MY LIEF website. my total output on alll these sites combined, and even the private 1-on-1 interaction i do, and the shows i do on tour–all these contribute to the impact my personal brand has in peoples lives. my goal is not realy to get people to subscribe to LIVE MY LIEF anymore, the goal is just to get Steve Roggenbuck in their hearts, using any combination of platforms available to me.
What can we expect to find in your new book, if u dont love the moon your an ass hole: poems and selfies?
Roggenbuck: thousands of funny and thought-provoking lines, and twenty-three truely hot selfies :) the goal of the book is to make you laugh and make you excited about life. i am proud of the book. it is easy to read, very much instant gratification. if you like my videos or my online output, the book is just a more sustained dose of that same energy
Is there anything else you want our readers to know that I didn’t ask?
Roggenbuck: everyeone should know that i love them :) and thank u for reading this !!
Thanks to Steve Roggenbuck for his thoughtful responses, and to Tyler Barton and Lead Pipe editors Emily Ford and Brett Bonfield for their helpful comments on interview questions and formatting.