On American Metamodernism (Contemporary Poetry Reviews #26)

Each edition in this series selects recent poetry collections to recommend. These collections are drawn from a pool of more than two thousand books of supplied and already-held contemporary poetry. A full list of books reviewed and a partial list of titles held can be found here. Publishers and poets interested in submitting review copies to either this series or the Best American Experimental Writing series can contact the author of this article using this form. All submitted books remain eligible for inclusion in the series for a ten-year period.


Roggenbuck, Steve. IF YOU DONT LOVE THE MOON YOUR AN ASS HOLE (self-published, 2013). $10 (print) or variable donation (e-book).

The metamodern tendency in North American verse is most readily identified by two features: oscillation and transcendence. The first of these traits corresponds to the first definition of the prefix "meta-", that being "mid" or "middle." Metamodern verse, in its European conception, oscillates rapidly between those qualities generally associated with modernism (including allusive complexity, an ambition of wholeness, and a studied optimism) and those generally associated with postmodernism (degenerative language, theory-oriented conceptualism, and a reflexive cynicism), and in this sense lies somewhere in the vast expanse that both separates and joins the two. American Metamodernism oscillates in a similar manner but also--in keeping with the self-mythologizing drive that typifies the American ethos and much of American history--makes use of the other definition of the prefix "meta-", that being the idea of the "beyond."

As a cultural paradigm rather than a series of craft techniques or even a poetics, metamodernism offers a way of experiencing and processing our present period in history. In its American iteration, it offers the "beyond" as a sort of transcendent state contemporary humans can aspire toward and inhabit via oscillation between poles. The poles most commonly discussed by metamodernists are these six: knowledge versus ignorance, truth versus falsehood, sincerity versus irony, Life versus Art, optimism versus cynicism, and reality versus unreality. Most metamodern verse in North America exhibits both the tension between and the supersession of these poles. The idea reified by American Metamodernism is that it's possible to overleap these polar spectra altogether by juxtaposing their poles so violently that they disappear entirely.


Steve Roggenbuck is one of the most accomplished metamodern poets writing in America today, and his accomplishment (typical for an American metamodernist) is not merely artistic but thoroughly democratized. Because American Metamodernism carries with it an implicit DIY self-improvement ethos, its expressions tend to be not just critically endearing but imbued with a populist tinge as well. A number of the craft techniques one might reasonably associate with American Metamodernism--for instance, third-party misappropriation (reverse plagiarism), hyper-accumulative autobiography, and the re-mixing and mashing up of extant intimate data--are techniques anyone could use, and unlike many other recent avant-garde movements require no lengthy study of either theory or literary history to enact. While the biographies of many of the American Metamodernists suggest substantial intersections with the Academy, often these are marked by negations rather than embraces: Perhaps the chief export of contemporary graduate creative writing programs, for instance, is a dissatisfaction with both the bulk of the poetry now being published by mainstream magazines and presses, and with the reading technologies that the "workshop" enforces partly as a way of testing the creative resolve of its participants.


While there are as many ways to express the "structure of feeling" encapsulated by metamodernism as there are metamodernists, in many respects Steve Roggenbuck presents as the consummate American Metamodernist. Not only is he an MFA-program dropout (apparently, for some of the same reasons cited above), he's also one of contemporary poetry's chief proponents of transcendence through exposure to Art. But it's how he takes his readers toward that transcendence--in other words, how his poetics (broadly speaking) and craft (narrowly speaking) collide on the page--that confirms his status as one of this continent's foremost metamodernists.

Every Roggenbuck poem is a bewildering mélange of earnest content and affected form: usually, inspirational or merely naively spirited language delivered with the sort of grammatical and typographical errors one knows a writer of Roggenbuck's talent can't fail to miss. The whole presentation is impossible to peg as either sincere or ironic, with the result that most readers give up that question altogether and accept that Roggenbuck's language is suspended in a transcendent space most of us slogging through the Internet Age can only speculate upon. But the work does much more than this: by utilizing hyper-accumulative autobiography--essentially, so much self-expressive, first person-oriented data thrown at the reader so quickly it can't possibly be processed, but instead sits on the page as non-absorptive tactile material--Roggenbuck puts into play the truth-falsehood and knowledge-ignorance spectra as well. The typical Roggenbuck poem makes so many claims about the thoughts, beliefs, and values of its author (some of which are at first blush preposterously childish or merely improbable) that only the most credulous reader could credit them all as being "true" to the author's experience, let alone the product of earned wisdom rather than indulgent ignorance. While on the face of it no contemporary poetry now being written is more optimistic than Roggenbuck's, the pole of cynicism is nevertheless ever-present in the work because its author clearly recognizes the expectations his work subverts--and even acknowledging these expectations as implicitly as Roggenbuck does suggests a capacity for cynicism almost as great as the work's predilection for conspicuous optimism.

That poems like Roggenbuck's blur and ultimately erase the line between Life and Art almost goes without saying, given that a typical line from a Roggenbuck poem reads like a tweet wrapped inside a Facebook status wrapped inside an email excerpt, the whole then quite self-consciously packaged (whether in e-book form or in one of the poet's ubiquitous YouTube videos) as Art.


Recently, Roggenbuck has been miscast as a "Conceptualist," which is unfortunate given that group's penchant for bulk appropriation, uncreative curation, lit-theory sponsorship and a way of being in the contemporary poetry community that relies much more on old-guard institutional patronage than the sort of DIY ethos evident in a poet who's self-published nearly all his work and lives (if rumors are true) largely off tee-shirt sales and other similarly bohemian ephemera.

A more likely precursor to Roggenbuck is the proto-metamodern (and counter-Conceptualist) literary phenomenon of the aughts, "flarf", which like Roggenbuck revels in the joy of objectively "bad" verse (craft-wise) and celebrates the hybridity of online texts and discourse modes, but unlike Roggenbuck eschews creative writing, emphasizes impersonal data, deliberately skirts sense, implicitly fosters cliquishness (via its "Flarf Collective"), and by and large maintains conventional lyric form.

The above distinctions may well be the most telling signs that Roggenbuck is an American metamodernist par excellence; not only is metamodernism devoutly committed to creative writing, creative curation, creative appropriation, and creative editing, it also sponsors creative approaches to authorial self-identity. Unlike the deeply entrenched "serious poets" (sometimes self-serious poets) of Conceptualism, or the unserious but also pathologically evasive poets of the late Flarf Collective, Roggenbuck, like most metamodernists, approaches Art as inextricable from Life and therefore his self-identity as a poet as inextricable from a basic humanity. It all sounds very touchy-feely, but American Metamodernism is nothing if not a jubilant return to the tactile, to treating even minute parcels of esoteric personal data (as opposed to confessional revelations or found poetry transported only in bulk) as a basis for Art.


The best place to start with Roggenbuck is with his most recent self-published collection, IF YOU DONT LOVE THE MOON YOUR AN ASS HOLE (2013), which can be found in e-book form here. But you shouldn't stop there; once you've seen how a Roggenbuck poem looks on the page--chunky blocks of typographically frenetic and grammatically suspect prose interspersed with selfies of the author and other indicia of daily living--you'll find his YouTube videos all the more sublime. Start with "STOP PRETENDING IT'S BORING TO BE ALIVE", a cunningly edited humanist call to arms, and continue on to Roggenbuck's "We're Alive at the Same Time", which simulates the dizzying experience of being exposed all at once to multiple personalities online (all or none of which may originate from the same psyche, an appropriate twist given the haunting anonymity, unpredictability, and adaptability of the Internet and its denizens).

Love it or hate it, the poetry of Steve Roggenbuck bears the mark of hybridic ambitions unfamiliar to either modernism or postmodernism as they've lately been discussed (or even the myriad other "modernisms" now seen as adjuncts to literary-historical modernism). That we can term this ambition metamodernistic in no way limits the work; rather, it places it squarely in a new sphere of literature that has already in Europe--and shortly will in North America--take its place between and beyond its already-revered modernist and postmodernist cousins.

{NB: Stay tuned to this series for more on metamodernism generally and American Metamodernism specifically. As the vaunted scholarly archive, JSTOR, presently displays only one mention of "metamodernism" in the thousands of documents it has aggregated over the past decade--and that a brief look at metamodern fiction as an adjunct to a broadly defined modernism--American Metamodernist verse is clearly a subject that deserves significantly more attention, both creatively and critically.}

A graduate of Harvard Law School and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013), winner of the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize, and Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose. A regular contributor to both Poets & Writers and Indiewire, he is also Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing, whose first edition will be published by Omnidawn in 2014. He is presently a doctoral candidate (ABD) in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.