Part 1: Steve Roggenbuck’s Poetic Disruption

Concerned about the decline of literature in the digital age? Ever wake up in a tangled mess of USB cords and MacBook chargers, lamenting the printed word’s slow march toward obsolesce?

There is an antidote to your dread, bookish Luddite, and it exists in the unlikely form of a 27-year-old video blogger from rural Michigan. The young man—deemed “the first 21st-century poet” by the New York Times and the “Bard of the Internet” by the Atlantic—is Steve Roggenbuck, and he’s here to convince you that the Internet is ushering in a “golden age of literature.”

A leading figure in the web-based Alt-Lit community, Roggenbuck is best known for expressing his relentlessly positive poetry through a series of selfie-styled YouTube videos. The typical “poem” features shaky clips of the baby-faced, acne-ridden writer marching through the woods, celebrating the natural world with a Whitman-like intensity. Over an unfolding drone-rock ballad, Roggenbuck fires off non-sequiturs that run the gamut of absurd (“I got fucking dial-up on my kids bike”), existential (“I’m ticked off at the size of the sky. How is it this big?), and instructive (“make something beautiful before you are dead”).

But while Roggenbuck’s work always teeters on the surreally manic—think Dadaism on ecstasy—he is ultimately committed to lifting people up through his poetry. In AN INTERNET BARD AT LAST!!!, he declares that the job of the poet is to text people pictures of the sunset, to point the finger at the moon for people. His voice and body tremble, seemingly unable to contain the beauty of his epiphany, as Roggenburg shouts, “The Internet is the most effective finger pointing at the moon that we’ve ever had!”

It’s that simple vision of a world made more beautiful by the Internet that’s given Roggenbuck hero-status in online literary circles and earned him implausible acclaim from the likes of the New Yorker, the Guardian, and the New York Times. He expands on that ambition in an email interview with Gawker:

If we’re trying to move people in only 140 characters, or 6 seconds, or 500×500 pixels, our language must be charged with meaning. In that sense, the internet is a game that only poets can win. What I’m trying to do is get more poets-in the-romantic-sense to use these platforms.

In this sense, Roggenbuck may be equal parts pioneer and Renaissance man. He understands that art has always progressed alongside technology, but digital disruption represents such a quantum leap in communication technology that the corresponding next step in literature will of course be radical.

We could speculate further about the innovative poet’s vision of the future, but I think it might be more helpful to just ask him. Stay tuned for an interview with Steve Roggenbuck, who has graciously agreed to meet with me in a few weeks when he comes to Ann Arbor to read from his forthcoming book of short stories, “Calculating How Big Of A Tip to Give Is The Easiest Thing Ever, Shout Out To My Family & Friends.”

The Drawbacks of Innovation

It’s been 8 years since Amazon released its first Kindle, ushering in a new era of publishing and pushing nostalgic print purists everywhere into crisis mode. Since then, the rise of e-books and e-readers have had colossal impacts for the publishing industry, with evidence pointing to e-books as a major factor in the bankruptcy of Border’s, according to Penguin. This is a predictable outcome, yet another example of digital disruption spelling trouble for traditional industries.

Perhaps more interesting is the effect that these new digital platforms are having on the reading population. In recent years, rapid progress in the usability and affordability of tablets and e-readers, combined with more widely available Internet access, has led to a skyrocketing in screen reading, particularly among children. In some ways, the rise of e-books has had a positive impact on readers: students can now obtain textbooks for cheaper; story-lovers are now able to access a far wider range of fiction; and there is new evidence that children actually prefer reading on screens to print.

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But multiple studies are now confirming what print purists have sensed all along, that screen reading will never be able offer the same benefits as an old-fashioned book. These disadvantages go beyond the smell and feel of dusty pages. A recent study conducted at West Chester University found that middle schoolers are far less likely to retain information read on a screen than in print.

At the core of the problem, it seems, is not the need for better technology, but simply the existence of such powerful technology. Interactive interfaces, flashy gimmicks, and the capacity to leave the text to surf the web, all contribute to a trend toward distraction among e-book readers. And distraction is not the only side effect of our tablet environment. A recent Harvard study found that taking an e-book to bed could lessen the production of melatonin, a sleep hormone necessary to fall asleep quickly and experience a deep, healthy sleep.

In our perpetually plugged-in society, the prevalence of e-books and e-readers seems like a natural progression. An entire generation is currently growing up with screen reading as the default method of consuming information, and it’s hard to fathom a shift back to the days of print supremacy. It’s crucial though, that the benefits of screen reading be weighed against the disadvantages, lest the joys of reading become yet another casualty of digital disruption.

Literati: a story in pictures

Literati may very well be my favorite place in Ann Arbor. It’s a gem of a book store, but it’s also so much more than that: Literati is a space for regular community gatherings, from fiction readings to feminist book clubs; it’s an encouraging harbinger for the future of independent book sellers in a town that’s lost some notable ones; and, since turning the second floor into a coffee shop earlier this year, it’s home to one of the city’s best cappuccinos. In anticipation of Literati’s two-year anniversary, I bring you:

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John Oliver and the new satirical news

As I see it, the purpose of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight is foremost to educate, then to advocate, and finally to make its viewers laugh at the absurd antics of everyday media and politics.

Take last Sunday’s episode, in which the ignorant comments of an Alabama state judge prompted Oliver’s summary—and subsequent takedown—of the manner in which judges are elected in this country. Instead of spending the segment skewering the Alabama judge (as the Daily Show would likely have done) or bringing in two pundits to debate whether the Supreme Court has the right to override a state (as most nightly news segments would), John Oliver spends 13 minutes incisively commenting on how super PACs, campaign donations, and public pandering are undermining our supposedly independent judiciary.

There’s an element of satire of course, as Oliver riffs on a series of horrendous and hilarious campaign ads, but the search for comedy is grounded by a greater commitment to distilling complex information. Oliver presents well-sourced material (he cites academic studies and the Citizens United ruling) that effectively supports his ultimate point that: “Sometimes the right decision is neither easy nor popular, and yet campaigns force judges to look over their shoulder after every ruling.”

According to some, this type of self-serious sermonizing has no place in a comedic environment, particularly coming from (gasp!) a foreigner. But Oliver’s chummy schtick shouldn’t diminish the fact that what he’s doing is hard-hitting, long-form journalism. While his kernels of wisdom may be sandwiched between Green Giant dick jokes and absurd clips of banjo-strumming judges, his ability to engage and inform viewers should be taken very seriously.

NBC Nightly News

The fact that it takes me five minutes to locate NBC on my television—despite being a Comcast subscriber in this city for almost four years now—is a testament to just how irrelevant network news is to my daily life. I eventually find the correct channel though, just in time to hear the introduction to NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams Lester Holt.

The lead story concerns a threat made Saturday by terrorist group Al Shabaab calling for an attack on Western malls. Holt cuts quickly to Kristen Welker, reporting from the Mall of America in Minnesota, who assures shoppers that traffic at the mall remains steady. We get brief interview snippets with a security guard and a Somali community leader and b-roll footage of shoppers walking through the mall alongside bomb-sniffing dogs. We then get a deeper analysis of the threat through two studio interviews with the Homeland Security Secretary and an NBC Terrorism Analyst.

It’s an informative report that addresses a variety of perspectives. The story also segues neatly into the next segment, allowing a veiled bit of editorializing from Holt: “As malls step up security based on these threats, believe it or not there’s a big fight erupting in Washington over the money to fund homeland security.”

A national weather report follows the DPH story, in which a reporter has the gall to refer to an inch of sleet and 20-degree temperatures in Dallas as “bone-chilling” and a “nightmare.” I’ve never really understand the point of non-localized weather stories, and this one is particularly unfocused, moving swiftly from news of a pile-up in Texas to a roof collapse in New Hampshire to a slushy sled race in Alaska. My disappointment with the segment may not be entirely the fault of NBC though, as this winter has permanently traumatized me to all things forecast-related.

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At this point in the broadcast my roommate walks in and tells me he’s going to Chromecast a video he found on reddit, since I’m not watching anything. I actually am watching this, I explain, as part of an assignment to watch the news on television. “Can’t you just find it online?” he asks, confused, then walks out of the room.

A seemingly unnecessary story detailing new research to help kids with peanut allergies is next, but lasts for only 30 seconds. This is followed by an “NBC News Exclusive” with the parents and brother of Kayla Mueller, the young woman recently kidnapped and murdered by ISIS. It’s obviously delicate to interview a sobbing family that’s just lost a daughter, and so I expect the reporter to be non-interrogative. Surprisingly, the interviewer is unafraid to push the envelope, asking the parents if they felt the government did enough to help their daughter and if they believed the rumors that Kayla was forced to marry an ISIS fighter.

The second half of the broadcast is about 60/40 split between commercials and actual stories, and those stories alternate between hard-hitting and not-so-hard-hitting. We get a quick report on a toxic batch of Molly circulating through Wesleyan followed by a commercial break, an illuminating investigation into the need for new technology in 911 call centers followed by a commercial break, then a brief piece on lottery winners followed by a commercial break.

The last few minutes of the broadcast are devoted to recapping the Oscars. I didn’t watch the Oscars last night, but as someone with an Internet connection I was of course receiving second-by-second updates across multiple social media platforms. In the 24 hours between the Oscars and nightly news, I, along with most people of my generation, have digested 1000s of tweets, think pieces, and Facebook posts about the event, and so NBC’s recap feels almost obsolete.

But while NBC Nightly News may not be ideal for breaking the latest entertainment scoop, I did find myself more informed for this rare occasion of network news watching. I appreciated not being able to click away to a related post as soon as a story got boring, and the relatively short length of the segments made it so I was engaged most of the time. While I can read 10 stories on the internet and feel like I still need to read 100 more, the network newscast made me feel as though I had digested a substantial variety of hard and soft news, which in a way left me feeling more content than I ever do after skimming through pieces online.

Visualizing Data

It’s been over a year since the New York Times ran it’s five-part ‘Invisible Child’ story, yet the piece remains the most memorable and stirring piece of long form multimedia journalism that I’ve come across. At its core, the 28,000-word story is an exhaustive profile of Dasani, a homeless 12-year-old caring for her 7 siblings and drug-addled parents in the single room of a shelter in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The five-part series, reported by Andrea Elliott, seeks to uncover “the human effects of the Great Recession,” and relies primarily on eloquently constructed anecdotes of Dasani’s life—a special relationship with a teacher, the dying screams of a neglected infant across the hall.

The success of this piece, though, rests on the data visualization tools that serve to contextualize Dasani’s gut wrenching struggles within the broader issue of rising income inequality. The first of these data tools is an annotated time plot, tracking different policies and their impact on children living in New York City shelters. It’s a straightforward infographic requiring minimal digital literacy that could have easily appeared in a print edition of the piece.

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The next set of graphics we encounter is slightly more hands-on and portrays the massive divide in rent prices surrounding the neighborhood shelter. The graphic is again straightforward, but it succeeds in giving the reader both a set of data and an image of Dasani’s neighborhood.

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UntitledThe above visualizations are useful to understanding the micro-level story of Dasani’s family, but offer little in the way of broad information. This shortcoming is remedied through an interactive video comparing Brooklyn’s prosperous areas (median income greater than 100,000) against its most impoverished (median income less than 10,000).

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This video does a great job of providing a visual to the text’s analysis of Brooklyn’s rapid transformation. It’s not necessarily complex, but it’s certainly the type of interactive only possible in a web piece, with a great deal of research likely made available by the Internet’s vast collection of data. It’s a well-researched and sleek graphic with a good deal of evidence, but the information is layered minimally so that the average reader need only watch the video once to understand its content.

Overall, the ‘Invisible Children’ piece thrives for its ability to compliment a highly specific narrative with a broad discussion of wealth inequality, gentrification, and government missteps. The capacity of journalists to tell these macro-level stories will only increase—thanks to new web platforms and an ever-growing accumulation of data—and the tools of data visualization will prove indispensible in pursuing this goal successfully.

A Review of NPR One

A few months ago I joined the 21st century and removed my immense CD collection from my car, consigning the discs to the obsolete section of the attic beside the fax machine and phone directories. To replace the void of my old mix tapes, and because I now have an aux cord—hence the CD evacuation—I’ve become an enthusiastic convert to podcasts and talk radio. So I was eager to explore NPR One, a new audio app that streams public radio news and stories.

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After logging into the app through Facebook, I’m presented with an Hourly Newscast from Jack Speer. The nationally produced segment is 3 minutes long and includes a report of violence in Israel, a farewell to Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary, and some gibberish about the Dow Jones.

Speer’s broadcast is followed by the familiar voice of Jennifer White, Michigan Radio’s All Things Considered host, whose 3 minute Local Newscast covers inflated home assessments in Detroit, water purity in Flint, and a dispute over the repair costs of Ford’s new truck. It’s not earth-shattering information, but it’s a nice way to keep abreast of local and statewide news—something I’m trying harder to do.

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The app promises that “News of your community is seamlessly woven into your listening experience” and it seems to deliver on that promise. I tag Jennifer White’s newscast as “interesting” (uninteresting is not an option), and wonder how much control I’ll have in deciding how the differing news segment are woven together.

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Next up I listen to an absolutely horrifying segment on the Koch network’s plan to spend $900 million on political activities in 2016. This hard-hitting report (also 3 minutes) is followed, naturally, by a 7-minute investigation into the origins of kazoos. I skip this and listen to a segment detailing a breakthrough in why we need sleep and then proceed to coverage of a hostage negotiation in Jordan. Everything thus far has been in the 3-7 minute range, until I’m brought to a 38-minute health podcast discussing the science behind moody teenagers.

Over the next hour, it becomes increasingly clear that the app is not so much a personally customizable radio station but a series of newscasts curated by NPR. The option of tagging something as “interesting” seems to have minimal effect, and you don’t have the option of creating your own channel of preferred podcasts and segments. There also doesn’t seem to be a way to save stories and listen to them later without Wi-Fi, which is something that definitely needs to be addressed in updated versions.

Still, the mix of local and national news bursts with in-depth reporting is great, especially given the ease of access one has to skip around. You can also see what’s coming up next, making the listening experience markedly different from tuning into a local NPR station.

It might not be the perfect app, but NPR One offers a great way to catch up on news and podcasts while also finding stories that you might otherwise ignore.

Live Tweeting Chang-Rae Lee

As I mention in the last blog post, I attended a lecture last Thursday from Alison Bechdel, which I had intended to live tweet as part of an assignment for this class. After arriving at the Michigan Theatre, I learned my first lesson about live tweeting: you can’t really do it without internet access.

I tried again today, this time during a fiction reading from the novelist Chang-Rae Lee, and had a bit more success. As I note in the tweets, the intimacy (and general humorlessness) of a fiction reading does not really lend itself to live tweeting. There are worse offenders though, and if nothing else, being forced to live tweet kept me fully immersed and in the moment.

This dig at twitter-less old people is my most popular tweet of the week, coming in at an impressive 3 favorites.

Here’s the part where I scramble to accurately transcribe bits of Lee’s reading. This was actually pretty hard, as Lee is a kind of a rambler whose sentences often exceed 140 characters.

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A quick note: I was under the impression that Lee was reading from his 2014 novel On Such a Full Sea. After tweeting this assumption, I learned (midway through) that he was actually reading from an unpublished piece. I went back and deleted the first tweet, but didn’t think to post a tweet correcting myself or to mention that the quotes were coming from unpublished and untitled work. Lesson number two: Always give the necessary context to your live tweets

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I quickly grow tired of trying to pack his words into tweets, and instead offer some basic guidelines for the eager reading attendant.

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Here’s a photo I snapped. It’s much less empty than this picture makes it seem, as the entire front rows are occupied.

And finally, the reception and book signing. I wanted to speak with Lee about the reading but I had to run to my next class. I did somehow find time to decimate those cheese and brownie platters.

Alison Bechdel and the Art of the Comic

I had the opportunity to hear the great cartoonist and graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel speak at the Michigan Theatre yesterday. She’s the artist behind the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and the author of the best-selling graphic memoir Fun Home. She’s also the creator of the Bechdel test, a metric for evaluating gender imbalance in film. The rules of the test are laid out in this 1985 comic:

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In addition to being an adept commentator of gender and sexuality, Bechdel is, in my view, an enviable purveyor of great literary taste. Hearing her speak makes you want to study Virginia Woolf’s whole catalogue just so that, in the unlikely scenario that you two cross paths at a later date, you’ll be able to add something worthwhile to the conversation.

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Listening to her discuss her craft was fascinating for so many reasons. Her work is intensely personal–Fun Home explores her dad’s life as a closeted high school English teacher secretly having sex with his students–and she’s the type of writer who doesn’t create characters but simply plucks them from real life.

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Bechdel depicts these faithful characters as cartoons, she explains, as a way of negotiating the “slippage of authenticity” that occurs when we try and pin something down with language. I liked this idea a lot, that the merging of words and illustrations can yield a narrative in a way that these elements on their own cannot.

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I’m an incompetent artist/doodler (faces and hands have always been particularly elusive), but I’d never considered the appeal of cartooning in the way that Bechdel described. Hey, maybe someone will be interested in my forthcoming comic strip exploring the adventures of sticky and his buddy cube?

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