Steve Roggenbuck is a young YouTube filmmaker and poet who’s inspiring and funny… online he comes across as loopy and brave and ambitious, and surely our world needs more people like that? In The Role Model Issue, i-D spoke to Steve about his attempts to construct new cultures and new communities, about YouTube and #YOLO.
Originally appeared in The Role Model Issue, available to buy from i-D online here and on newsstands now.
Steve Roggenbuck is a poet, a vegan, a Buddhist and a social media messiah currently taking the United States by storm, one town at a time, living on his online friends’ couches. Although he first came to our attention as a writer, in the alt-lit niche of Tao Lin, Frank Hinton and Crispin Best, it is his YouTube videos that have provided the most consummate incarnation of his personal brand. These short, impassioned and yet carefully precise sketches combine moments of both humour and sincerity, encapsulated by scenes like Steve wearing bunny ears and shouting #YOLO (You Only Live Once!) at a tree, and act as blisteringly defiant retorts to anyone who’s ever invested in the notion of social conventions. However, this is not to overshadow his poetry, which extracts a tender affirmation from the experience of living at the speed of social networking. For Steve, no act of documentation – be it a poem, video or Facebook post – is removed from the act of doing, and so everything becomes an extension of his philosophy: to make the world a better place through travelling and sharing love and goodwill through the tools we have invented as humanity. i-D caught up with him over Gchat in North Carolina, to go heart to heart, screen to screen, and keyboard to keyboard.
Steve! Boost! I see in your work a refreshing attempt to create a new language, and a new community from this. In your video Create An Alternative Culture you give the instruction, “Build movements, build culture, create an alternative culture.” What is it you’re fighting against? What does this alternative culture consist of? I feel that most culture in the United States doesn’t exist to make people’s lives better. In a really basic way, companies don’t care enough about what is actually going to improve your life. Companies want to make money, so they try to convince you that you need their product, even if they know that their product is kind of unnecessary, or even harmful. In terms of my work, I would say that I’m building culture and community to make people’s lives better and spread the things I believe in, and I will probably continue that for my whole life.
What is the role of poetry within this? I think I am particularly indebted to poetry. Two of my biggest influences, E. E. Cummings and Walt Whitman, were poets. I’m trying to take the most exciting and valuable parts of poetry, and put them to use to make people’s lives better. A lot of exciting stuff has been said by poets, a lot of ideas that could change the world… but those ideas are obscured by the trappings of poetry, they are buried in centuries-old print books that people associate with schoolwork and boredom and intellectualism. YouTube videos can be profound. Image macros can change people’s lives.
You also have an obsession with the moribund – mostly dead dogs and dead kids. Is this obscene? Where does it come from, and to what effect is it used in your poetry? I have always been drawn to dark imagery, I was in a death metal band in high school. Recently, I’ve been referring to my dark imagery in a humorous way; I say “666” casually and I like to joke that, “I’m the darkest writer.” But also, in the poems, the dark imagery often functions to express some of my loneliness. It helps to create something that feels more emotional, or something that’s willing to confront the sadness inherent in the human condition.
We should talk about the internet. How do you maintain such an active social presence online? Is it difficult? Sometimes I get in a zone where I’m listening to music and Facebook commenting for hours, it could be six or eight hours. I love interacting with people. I get really boosted by people’s funny and heart-warming comments, and I’m motivated by the long-term goal of building community. I get very jacked up about this work… other than like falling in love, commenting on social media for hours at a time is usually the thing that makes me the happiest out of anything in the world.
A lot of your community is created through internet acronyms. How does #yolo relate to your Buddhist philosophy? Is it an extension of it, or does it clash with beliefs in reincarnation? I think #yolo playfuly emphasises the fact that we have a limited amount of time to be with other humans, create things, and experience the world. I connect #yolo with the carpe diem (“seize the day”) tradition in literature. If we remember that we are gonna die, we will be more conscious about how we live. The Buddhism I practice is very much about appreciating your life and being conscious of how your decisions affect others. #yolo seems like the reason to practice something like Buddhism. If we only have a limited amount of time to live, we should be deliberate and fearless and fully here for it.
What is boost? Can you tell me more about boost? A lot of my work is post-ironic in that I’m using jokes to communicate something serious. “Boost” is a fun/goofy way to talk about helping other people, making people happy, or inspiring others. It’s about spreading positive energy to others. My life is an effort to boost others, that is a more concise explanation than what I said earlier. The culture and community building is really just a means to boost people. Boosting others is the ultimate goal.
Text: Harry Burke
Photography: Sam Hessamian