Steve Roggenbuck

by Morgan Myers

To paraphrase Jay-Z, Steve Roggenbuck isn’t a businessman, he’s a business, man. Or maybe it would be better to say he’s a business model—one of the first to attempt to fully reimagine the promotion and distribution of poetry for the web. One of poetry’s first generation of digital natives, he seems to have little interest in the approval of institutional gate-keepers, and few illusions about poetry’s mainstream cultural profile. Instead, his work is proudly self-published, stylishly self-designed, marketed exclusively through personal blogs and social media, and sold strictly over the Internet.

But business is probably the wrong word, too. The first poem in DOWNLOAD HELVETICA FOR FREE.COM reads, “I MAY GO INTO / ADVERTISING / BUT I DON’T / LIKE THE / COMMERCIAL / ASPECT,” and that might be more than just a joke. Roggenbuck seems to thrive on promotion—via reader contests (the source of his book’s cover image), SEO-based stunts (the motivation behind its title), and relentless social networking—but ultimately he has nothing to sell. You can buy DOWNLOAD HELVETICA FOR FREE.COM for $12 if you want a hard copy, but you can also read it for free online, with fifty extra poems thrown in (the book’s title is also its url). Or you can highjack its contents and do whatever you want with them: like all Roggenbuck’s work, it’s been released into the public domain.

The same tension between selling and sharing runs through the poems themselves. Each is composed of one or two sentences boldly set in large-print Helvetica, a pervasive marketing font that may be most associated with ads for the clothing brand American Apparel. In isolation, the individual poems look very much like minimalist billboards, but read together they feel more like what they actually are: excerpts from a conversation, mostly from old IM exchanges between Roggenbuck and his girlfriend. The subject matter is decidedly naïve, humble, even kitschy: love notes, pop music, homework, spelling questions (“IS THIS HOW YOU / SPELL THIS? / ‘ATREYU’”)— the authentic stuff of a banal, if literate and sincere, high-school love affair.

The book is slight by design, but it’s also clever, sweet, and oddly thoughtful. It’s the language of our everyday electronic lives—not held up to critique from without, as in much Flarf and conceptual poetry, but returned to us at a scale that demands attention, placed at the intersection of two uniquely auratic discourses, poetry and advertising. The book isn’t without ironic bite (“THE SKY IS / BEAUTIFUL . . . / NICE WORK / CAPTURING IT / IN YOUR / PHOTOGRAPH”), but mostly it feels like a gesture of generosity and inclusiveness. Whatever the future of poetry as an online enterprise might be, those are qualities that always seem revolutionary.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011