Does Anyone Really Know What Alt-Lit is?

by Alexandra Cichon

Image still from Steve Roggenbuck’s YouTube video, “An Internet Bard At Last!!! (2013) ARS POETICA.”

My freshman year of college, spring semester 2013, I found myself standing on a rooftop in Brooklyn with people I didn’t know. What we did have in common was our ability to Instagram the Manhattan skyline and our following of alt-lit, or Alternative Literature. The semester before, I had discovered Steve Roggenbuck whose poems were turned into motivational YouTube videos. Little did I know I would be seeing him read his poems on that rooftop, with Sigur Rós playing in the background and very emotional twenty-something’s huddling in the cold. Alternative literature is essentially a group of contemporary writers whose work centers itself on a strong internet community of both people and humor. Some well-known names include Tao Lin, Mira Gonzalez, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, and Roggenbuck himself. Many of the works play on using memes, purposefully misspelled words, incorrect grammar, and the use of multiple social media platforms to spread the alt-message.

Roggenbuck started out on YouTube in 2010, with his first video on his channel serving as a trailer for his chapbook “i am like october when i am dead.” Many of his videos revolve around themes of positivity and achieving dreams, but also recognizing that anyone can be a poet. He argues that “social media will spawn a major revitalization in poetry,” with the growth of technology as a positive. His videos range from serious poems like, “Somewhere in the bottom of the rain” to funny montage videos like, “I Found Out My Dog Is An MFA Candidate.” Other motivational videos include “experience lief before you’re dead in the grave (2011)” or “make something beautiful before you are dead (2012).” His poems talk about life, love, and they always try to remain lighthearted. In “i am like october when i am dead,” Roggenbuck writes: “there is a show on the history channel about the mayan doomsday prophecy/ jupiter is in the south of the sky / i love you in the south like the hurricanes of Jupiter.” At another point in the poem he address the reader, saying “thats it / thats all/ the poem is done, get out.”

Sophomore year, I did a presentation about how Roggenbuck is the internet’s Walt Whitman. A year later, as a junior, I wrote a paper comparing his poem to one of Gertrude Stein’s. If you can’t already tell, I’m a fan of Roggenbuck, mostly because his poems have the ability to bypass the sometimes pretentious literary wall that stands in front of reading already difficult poems. They’re funny, light hearted, and relatable. In the above poem, he urges readers to see past the structure of the poet, past his presence as the author and mediator of the work, and rather, look at the words on the page as a stream of consciousness piece. He makes sure that his work is accessible to everyone.

In January 2014, Roggenbuck, along with Emily Elizabeth Scott and Rachel Younghans, launched Boost House, a poetry publisher located in Arizona. The publisher focuses on alt-lit pieces, publishing works by Roggenbuck, Espinoza, Raul Alvarez, and Laura Theobald. The space is also known as a vegan co-op, and along these lines, Roggenbuck has recently been focusing on becoming an animal activist. Using his previous platform as a poet, his activity on Facebook discusses veganism, his support of the Green party, LGBT problems, and overall how to be a better human. His recognition as an alt lit poet has lead him to tour, visit universities and motivate others to do better by him. In the end, although alt lit can be full of memes or weird internet humor, Roggenbuck is right. Social media has, and will continue to be a revolutionary space for poets and non poets to write.

Visit Boost House to buy any of Roggenbuck’s books or other works by fellow alt-lit poets.

Alexandra Cichon is a senior studying English at the University of Connecticut. She is on the poetry panel at the Long River Review.

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