What Is Alt Lit?
My first exposure to ‘“Alt Lit” was about a year ago. I was idly scrolling through my Tumblr feed when I stopped at a post, offering nothing but a link labeled “make something beautiful before you are dead.” Curious, I clicked the link and was delivered to a YouTube video of a gap-toothed young man running through a wet field, exuberantly extolling the beauties of life, pastiching (or parodying?) YouTube vlogs and slinging pop-culture references to Justin Bieber and Dog the Bounty Hunter. With the camera held precariously in one hand and trained tightly on himself—often at an uncomfortably intimate distance—he shouts, “Back in my grandfather’s day, they didn’t have YOLO. We have YOLO. We have to harness this GIFT!” YOLO, of course, is acronymized shorthand for You Only Live Once. The narrator’s name is Steve Roggenbuck, and the proclamations and exhortations that fill out the remainder of the 3:05 video are similarly affirming and equally absurd.
I felt strangely uplifted. Was this poetry? Over the next year I began to see glimpses of a similar style of expression in my social media feeds. They were barely distinguishable from the white noise of Web 2.0, but just slightly more meditated and self-consciously poetic.
I’d see a “share” of a surrealist image-poem in Impact font from a Facebook group called, “Pretending to ride a dog but not hurting it just pretending.” Someone would retweet, “hi i’m one of billions of creatures ingesting and excreting matter to perpetuate my existence on a sphere floating in space, how are you?” This Internet aesthetic seemed weird, but consistently bold. Further clicking revealed webbed connections between disparate sources. I felt as though I was seeing just the surface expressions of a sizable online community.
I’d discovered Alt Lit, but defining it proved more difficult. So I sat down with Austin-based Alt Lit author No Glykon (real name: Trey Greer) to find out more about the scene.
Waylon Cunningham: How would you explain Alt Lit to a 40-year-old from Cincinnati?
No Glykon: In probably the most simple terms, it’s Internet writing. It’s using the tools of the Internet and the figures of speech of the Internet to write. You know, like typing in all caps, typing in no caps, using misspelling and those types of figures of speech in your poetry and prose.
WC: There seems to be more to it than a merely casual copy-editing style, though.
NG: I often think that punk is analogous to Alt Lit. Poetry really never had its punk. There’s no one that ever really said, “It’s okay to write shit.” But for punk, it’s “learn three chords and you have a song.” I think Alt Lit is like that. It’s crude, it’s DIY. A bunch of people who were publishing poetry on the Internet just became friends. A lot of them are timid about even using the word Alt Lit to describe themselves, myself included. I don’t even know how big it is. Sometimes I’ll see an article in The Guardian or New York Times about some character in the scene, and I’ll be like, “Hmm, that’s weird. That guy.” In my perspective, it’s just people I’ve become friends with. And you know, I think it’s just not necessarily something solid that you can add a very strict definition to. And there’s not really somebody in the community who is putting definitions on things. There’s no [Andre] Breton who’s writing manifestos on Alt Lit. Or if there are, I don’t know who they are.
WC: What about Tao Lin?
NG: He definitely got a lot of people interested in using the language of the Internet. He just got published by Vintage, too, actually. But I think he’s sort of dissociated himself with a lot of those people. And he did that before a lot of people even described their work as Alt Lit. But it would be silly to deny Tao Lin being part of the community.
WC: Would you consider Alt Lit accessible to most people? Some have accused the scene of being opaque and ambiguously ironic.
NG: I don’t think that’s true. I think a lot of these authors are shooting for honesty in a really confessional way. It’s accessible in that you don’t have to know anything about poetry to know what people are doing. It’s not accessible if you don’t know what the hashtag shit on Twitter or Tumblr is. If you have the mindset where you’re thinking that interfacing via social media is not a real way of interacting with people, if you’re that type of Luddite, then you’re gonna struggle to understand what is even being said. But I think that if you’re open and excited about the Internet, and it blows your mind all the time, then you’ll probably understand. I don’t think that the message or the themes that are being used are inaccessible. I think that the writing is actually very accessible.
WC: Your own writings do seem a little strange, though, don’t you think?
NG: I think my stuff in general is little vignettes. Not necessarily playing into a coherent story. But I wouldn’t necessarily say my stuff is indicative of the greater Alt Lit culture.
WC: What would you say is indicative of greater Alt Lit culture?
NG: I would say there are two main channels. The first type are people that are riffing off [Charles] Bukowski’s confessional-style writing. They tend to emphasize the more grotesque aspects of being a person. Lots of talking about being a piece of shit. Lots of self-loathing. The other type are people that are trying to be almost motivational speakers. Just trying to get people pumped about life. Like Steve Roggenbuck.
WC: Would you say that Texas has a large Alt Lit presence?
NG: Much more than most states, it does. I think the main saturation is in Chicago. But Alt Lit Gossip is probably the epicenter of the scene. That’s where the term is used the most. The curator of that group, Chris Dankland, lives in Houston.
WC: Has Texas had any effect on your writing?
NG: I think it’s difficult not to write from your own experiences. I live in Austin, and when I write I definitely incorporate what I hear people say and stories about my friends, stuff like that. But I think that one of the core things about Alt Lit is that it exists primarily on the Internet. It’s an Internet culture. And that’s really important to the community at large.
WC: So this is a movement not really tied to geography?
NG: Right. For example, there are plenty of people whose only means of putting writing in the world is via email. Like Peter BD, his whole thing is he sends an email to you where he writes a story about you with a bunch of weird made-up shit. And there are plenty of people who primarily write through Facebook and Tumblr.
WC: Do you think the independent publishing nature of Alt Lit gives it any advantage?
NG: It just depends on what your end goal is. If your goal is to communicate with other people, then you totally have an advantage because you can get your material out there faster and develop communications faster. If your goal is to become the poet laureate of the United States, then you’re fucked.
No Glykon recently published the sixth issue of his online Alt Lit zine, Reality Hands.