Make Something Beautiful Before You Are Dead by Steve Roggenbuck

reviewed by Dan Holloway

A rich literary town…

In Oxford, we are very spoiled for spoken word of the highest quality. Very occasionally, events go beyond even that description and into that realm which critics and commentators struggle to describe but whose closest approximation would be some ghastly term such as “important”. I have been in the extremely lucky position of having been able to report on two such events for Sabotage in recent years – Kate Tempest’s headline show at Hammer and Tongue in 2012 and, just a few months ago, Simon Armitage’s inaugural lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry. As soon as Oxford University Poetry Society announced its calendar for early 2016, it was clear that something else equally “important” was about to happen.

At the heart of Alt Lit…

Alt Lit is one of the most influential and interesting (and a lot of the time infuriating) movements in literature right now. Arguably it stands alongside Brutalism and the Offbeat as the only literary movement of any significance in the digital age so far (admittedly in part because it is so broad and syncretic that when it sees something online it will swallow it as its own). Despite its breadth, if you ask anyone about Alt Lit, one name will come up every time. Steve Roggenbuck is a poet, raconteur, publisher and videocaster. When Alt Lit’s wiki has been finally whittled away, his will be the one name left.

On February 12th, Steve Roggenbuck performed in the UK for the first time. In a free gig in an inconspicuous room tucked away at the back of Balliol College. And by the time he started you could barely breathe the room was so full of bodies and excited talk. I should add here, there were four very good supporting readers from Oxford, all of whom owe something to Alt Lit – Lucy Diver, Steve Wright, Leo Mercer, and Camille Ralphs (whose superb sequence about the Pendle witch trials, Malkin, is out with the fabulous Emma Press).

An impossible performance…

I will confess I was nervous. Steve’s poetry shouldn’t work. And a performance should work even less. In a way the reason is obvious. This is someone for whom expression and the internet are synonymous. He uses, as Leo Mercer put it in a recent presentation on the future of art, the camera as his pen and the landscape as his canvas creating an experience that is neither found poem nor stream of consciousness nor documentary nor performance but depends on all those things coming together. So just him, standing in front of some people, shouldn’t work.

But it does.

The first clue to the fact Roggenbuck is more than just about the internet is in his books. They are the most beautifully-produced self-published art books. Live my Lief is like a piece of Modernist design, all square, black and white covered, sharp-edged and full of Helvetica type all laid out painfully beautifully in acres of negative space. His story collection Calculating How Big of a Tip to Give is the Easiest Thing Ever, Shout Out to My Family and Friends looks and feels like a Faber classic. Roggenbuck cares about things, the beauty of things and the craft of things. In fact, beauty is pretty much his one note manifesto. The beauty of the world. The beauty of being. The beauty of the fact that you exist right now, and what that means.

And that brings me back to why his poetry shouldn’t work. If Bruce Nauman is still making art in 20 years’ time, he will be commissioned to produce the definitive commentary of Alt Lt and he will make a 20 metre tall neon icon that says #yolo. Yolo (you only live once), with its immediacy, its libertarian sense of entitlement, and its plain pretentious ridiculousness, embodies Alt Lit. And a whole swathe of poets who take it utterly serious epitomise what makes Alt Lit infuriating. And no one takes it more seriously than Roggenbuck. No one is more committed to immediacy than Roggenbuck. But Roggenbuck is not libertarian – he lives in the artistic commune, Boost House, he established in order to create a collective, creative way of life. Nor is he entitled. We spoke for a long time afterwards. I have rarely met someone who is, in both his art and his person, more humble. He, and his poetry, values commonality, veganism, the collective endeavour of looking for beauty, gentle self-mockery, and doing things well.

Sincerity is the new cynicism…

Most of all, he is not pretentious. Roggenbuck embodies, in a way virtually no other Alt Lit wordsmith does, the new sincerity. An utter lack of cynicism. Things come out of his mouth that from anyone else would be accompanied by a vomitous stream of scare quotes, full-on emoji, and SEO-optimised tumblr keywords, and they come out with an absolute naiveté.

Add one more ingredient to that utter sincerity and you all the background reasons why this was the best spoken word performance I have ever seen.

The moment Steve walked into the packed room, it was clear that he is a star. He has that thing, you know, the thing that critics find about as easy to describe as the word “important”, the thing that’s more about what happens in the rest of a room when they’re in it than about them, the thing where you listen differently to what a person has to say as though somehow your brain has reacted to them by pre-programming itself to be more attentive, to get more of its neurons ready to fire up more associations. Kate Tempest has it. Vanessa Kisuule has it. Simon Armitage is a lovely man and a lovely poet, but he doesn’t have it.

The readings themselves were a wonderful mix of the utterly surreal whimsy and the utterly sincere. We had the story of Shanna, the “postmodern mechanic” who builds “satanist fucking dirtbikes”. And when the narrator wonders “how do you even know if you’re hailing Satan with your bike?” the answer seems to be that when God offers you Vin Diesel as the reward for building a bike for Jesus, you say no. There were bananas. Lots of bananas, actually, such that by the time he got there the throwaway segue “I was reading a banana facts page” seemed perfectly normal.

The cliché is a feature, not a bug…

And then there was the sincere. That stuff that really really really shouldn’t work. But did. Many of the stories and poems feel like they are simply layer on layer of the kind of trope you would find plastered over a beautiful background picture:

we are born, we have problems, we die” (from Twist My Poop Into a Fractal)


we can achieve for free the fulfilment that corporations are trying to sell us” (from Freeze My Poop Using Colder Poop)

That’s because they are. Roggenbuck makes image macros, photos overlayed with inspirational words, the way NaPoWrimoers make haiku. But the layering is so thick, and so consistent, and delivered with such a lack of irony, that the effect is remarkable. It serves to disarm any scorn before it arrives and make us think about what he is actually saying. Roggenbuck does what we are always told great art should do– he makes us see the absolutely familiar in a way we haven’t done before. At least not since we were kids, since before we learned how to be cynical and ironic and cool. So when he delivers his most famous line, “Make something beautiful before you are dead” or another line from the same poem, “you know who you can’t hug when you’re dead? Everyone” you actually realise that these seemingly trite lines are trite because what they say is just about the truest and most significant thing any piece of writing can say. This is not triteness devoid of meaning, this is absolute simplicity in service to a creative mind who has grasped something essential.

Roggenbuck doesn’t use cliché because he is unoriginal – his remarkable surreal stories show us just how much his imagination can do. He uses cliché because it is true. Only the way he says it, the way he contextualizes it with his beautifully crafted books and his charm and his immediate performance, it is never quite cliché.

I leave wanting to scream, to anyone who will listen, the simple message all of us who write should hear more often:

Fuck any poet that won’t tell their audience ‘I love you’ because it’s a cliché.

The difference between coming out of Kate Tempest’s stunning headline set at Hammer and Tongue and emerging from seeing Steve Roggenbuck is best summed up as this. Kate Tempest made me want to be a better poet. Steve Roggenbuck made me want to be a better human being.