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Radical Assemblages: The Poetics and Politics of Going Online

Alt Lit, Illuminati Girl Gang and Porn Carnival: A Decade of Online Poetry Communities (2010-2020)

Alt Lit, Illuminati Girl Gang et Porn Carnival : une décennie de communautés poétiques en ligne (2010-2020)
Laura Marie Marciano


Le type de poésie qui, au xxie siècle, s’empare du vocabulaire du capitalisme tardif, des marques et de leurs produits et dont la syntaxe imite celle des textos, memes et commentaires laissés sur Instagram, est le fruit d’une rhétorique collective émanant d’un groupe d’écrivains de la génération Y qui ont grandi avec internet. Les publications en ligne et web-communautés apparues entre 2010 et 2016 (comme l’Alt Lit, la Poésie Internet, l’Illuminati Girl Gang et bien d’autres) ont véritablement ouvert la voie à des œuvres poétiques multimodales provocatrices telles que le recueil Porn Carnival (2019) de Rachel Rabbit White. Les écrivains de cette mouvance, pour la plupart aujourd’hui âgés de trente à trente-cinq ans, ont fondé de nouvelles communautés discursives numériques ainsi que des revues et séries de lectures en ligne qui toutes ont connu un regain d’intérêt pendant la crise du Covid-19 lorsque les lectures publiques étaient impossibles. Cet article traite de l’impact esthétique et social des web-communautés sur la production de recueils poétiques, et souligne en quoi ces communautés fonctionnent comme un projet d’écriture à part entière, à la fois continu et collectif.

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From the hearts and living rooms and bathtubs of our collective digital church, we’re very pleased to welcome you to this first issue. Our house party is your house party.

The Poetry Project, House Party #1, 26 March 2020.

Alt Lit: A Brief Review

1Alternative Literature or “Alt Lit” is a contemporary, mostly online, literary movement reflective of meme culture and often resembling social media status updates that has yet to receive the attention it deserves from scholars of American poetry. Josh Baines defines it, rather unflatteringly, in the following terms:

When I say “alt-lit”, I’m referring to a community of young writers who use the internet [sic] as their main method to promote their work. There are short story writers, novelists, poets and lots of people who make image macros worse than the kind of sincere Ben-Harper-lyrics-over-a-picture-of-a-mountain your 13-year-old cousin posts to Facebook when the boy she likes doesn’t text her back. (Baines 2013)

2Before addressing the polemical nature of the debates surrounding Alt Lit, let me provide here a brief history of the movement. A key figure of the Alt Lit movement from 2010 to 2016 was a young Internet poet and YouTube personality by the name of Steve Roggenbuck, whose rise seems representative of a milieu of late 2000s writers who unreservedly embraced the aesthetic of open-source poetry, and whose fall coincided with a historic moment in the United States when the #MeToo movement hit the world of arts, leading to an evolution of online writing communities and the emergence of new forms of poetry books.

  • 1 Roggenbuck was first featured in poet Ana Carrete’s popular online journal New Wave Vomit, which wa (...)

3Roggenbuck received lavish praise in a 2014 New Yorker review by Kenneth Goldsmith entitled “If Walt Whitman Vlogged.”1 The review hailed him as a new digital-age Walt Whitman or “a mix of Walt Whitman and Ryan Trecartin” (as Goldsmith writes later in the essay), while raising some major issues about the status of Internet poetry and the future of the poetry book:

What does it mean to be an Internet poet? Since 2010, Steve Roggenbruck, a twenty-six-year-old who lives in rural Maine, has been producing poetry that is made, distributed, and viewed almost exclusively on the Web, taking the form of tweets, Facebook posts, YouTube videos, and image macros. He became best known for a series of videos2 that are a mix of Walt Whitman and Ryan Trecartin, showing Roggenbuck either in bare apartments or out in the forest, manically improvising poems that celebrate the cosmos and our place in it. In one, he screams at a gray sky, “Make something beautiful before you are dead.… Maybe you should stand in the rain! You’re alive right now!”3 But this ain’t no tree-hugger or Iron John. There’s an intensity and an edge to his work, verging on violence, which is at once terrifying, hypnotic, and completely moving. (Goldsmith 2014)

4At the time of Goldsmith’s praise, the movement featured mostly white, heterosexual young men who reviewed each other’s work. Yet over the next few years, the Alt Lit community extended far beyond Roggenbuck or even his fiction-counterpart Tao Lin, as this essay aims to show. In fact, a diverse and intersectional community of poets were waiting in the ranks. Their work reflected their formative relationship with Alt Lit while at the same time moving beyond, both aesthetically and politically. They were connected through Tumblr, Facebook chat, blogs, and social media posts, finding a way to one another through a shared interest in writing that broke from institutional gatekeeping and expanded through self-publication and experimentations with the digital form.

  • 4 Arguably, championing Goldsmith or Roggenbuck – who have since been accused of racism (Goldsmith) a (...)

5Marjorie Perloff, whose work has become central to the study of twentieth and twenty-first century conceptual and avant-garde poetry, has written at length about the aesthetics of the digital age. Yet the younger, self-published poets of the Internet have been less of a concern to her. Given her interest in such artists as Frank O’Hara and John Cage, it is rather surprising that twenty-first century Internet writers should not quite have become an important part of her scholarly explorations. In Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, which came out in 2010 just as the Alt Lit movement was becoming increasingly known, Perloff discusses the idea of a shared practice among poets of the hyper-information age, but the book tends to foreground more established, Academy-backed poets (like Goldsmith) while overlooking the intense creativity of digital poets belonging to the Alt Lit movement (like Roggenbuck).4 Yet I would like to argue that in developing common literary practices and a shared language – characterized by the use of found-text and what Perloff calls “moving information” (Perloff 2005, 84), i.e. “the act of pushing language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process” (Goldsmith 2011, 1) –, the Alt Lit movement has significantly and uniquely contributed to a new aesthetic within twentieth-century American poetry – one that deserves to be more fully recognized by poetry scholars and literary historians.

6In her analysis of the various communities of writers forming online, Perloff identifies a shift in relation to a digital space that alters not only communication, textual correspondence and publishing practices, but also the definition of community itself. “Under these circumstances,” she writes:

[C]ommunication is likely to shift from a specific geographic location (for example, the New York of Frank O’Hara) or one’s particular local circle (e.g. the Beats) to those, wherever and whoever they are, who share a particular set of interests and allegiances. The word community thus takes on an entirely new meaning: the community now exists on particular websites or in the blogosphere – situation whose far-reaching implications we have not even begun to understand. (Perloff 2012, 4)

7Perloff points out here the emergence of new forms of poetry communities communicating swiftly through digital space via e-mail, social media, online blogs and vlogs, and online publications, as well as new forms of community space – what Perloff refers to as the “blogosphere” – all of which will affect how writers may be published and anthologized in the future. Not only will global communities of writers be easier to produce and maintain, but it also seems likely that marginalized or isolated groups of poets will circulate their work more easily among broader audiences, thus confirming Perloff’s intuition of a “changing relationship between majority and minority literature” (Perloff 2012, 6). And this breaking down of the boundaries between “majority and minority literature” is precisely what Alt Lit has been about.

8Cities worldwide from Copenhagen to Wuhan became “center[s] for avant-garde poetics, hosting festival at which poets from the United States have joined others from around the world,” many of whom began to convene online (Perloff 2012, 6). Within that broader digital community, the definition of “American poetry” also began to shift as new anthologies increasingly included poets from Canada, Mexico, and Latin America. In other words, “where poets live is less important than what they do, and mobility – whether of texts, now eminently movable, or of their authors – is the status quo” (Perloff 2012, 6). As Perloff aptly underlines, a shift in global communication transforms not only the way poetry is written, but also how literary communities are formed and maintained overtime. I believe Alt Lit is an excellent case study for both.

9As a professor of writing and a poet who was once a member of the Alt Lit community, I wanted to share my insider’s perspective. I believe it is important that the contributions of these Millennial-aged writers not be erased from academic discourse and poetry scholarship. The scrappy, underbelly, nihilistically Romantic voice of our generation has had an impact on aesthetics, education, and the future of the poetry book – as I hope to show.

10Several news articles and blogposts written over the past decade have attempted to discredit, delegitimize, and erase the Alt Lit movement from the official history of contemporary American poetry, denying it has ever had any significant or positive influence on literature. In January 2013, Vice published a piece entitled “Alt Lit is for Boring, Infantile, Narcissists” arguing that, though there were indeed “some good writers coming out of the movement,” for the most part it pertained to “narcissism…solipsism…glorification of online communication” (Baines 2013). “Artforum describes it as, ‘a kind of pointedly botched poetry whose writers cultivate bad spelling, weird punctuation, sincere statements of the obvious and a spontaneous expressivity evocative of erratic pubescent passions’, which is a very kind way to put it,” Baines even adds.

11Almost two years later, Flavorwire ran a headline about “The Living Death of Alt Lit” (Sturgeon 2014) echoing Allie Jones’s pronunciation that “Alt Lit is dead (Jones 2014) after several of its male gatekeepers such as Tao Lin and Stephen Tully Dierks were accused of rape and sexual assault. “Alt Lit is caving in on itself,” Jones wrote:

After a week of multiple rape and abuse allegations against prominent authors and editors, the earnest, internet-obsessed literary scene is in full crisis: Today, the alt lit criticism site and scene blog of record Htmlgiant announced that it’s shutting down. Meanwhile, in a private Facebook group associated with the blog Alt Lit Gossip, women writers have suggested forming an entirely new scene, ‘no boys allowed.’
(Jones 2014)

  • 5 With Roggenbuck as a leading figure of the Alt Lit community, one is reminded of the significance o (...)

12It seemed that Alt Lit had died the way many art movements had: at the hands of toxic men.5 Yet what good did come, if any, from this mostly online community of writers?

13The Alt Lit community’s rhetoric is defined by a distinct shared vernacular shaped by the textual and visual aesthetics of the World Wide Web and deeply informed by text-messaging, meme-culture, Gmail, YouTube, and Tumblr. These platforms were not just Websites in which to share poems; they also gradually altered the form of the poem itself. The digital (and social) confines within which Alt Lit first emerged may have dissipated since, but Alt Lit’s aesthetic has definitely left a mark on contemporary journals and poetry books. Writing within a digital space not only altered the audience for poetry, it also significantly expanded the forms in which they could be read and understood.

14One such distinctive form is the “image-macro” poem; just like a meme, it is characterized by the pairing of text and image shared via social media. While the pairing of text and image is not new, the specific aesthetic of the image-macro and the way it was shared expanded the landscape of digital poetry to be interchangeable with – and at first indistinguishable from – other memes being shared on social media. In this way, Alt Lit writers could share their image-macros on their broader social media feed, and they would be received both by those within the community and by the general public. This created a digital guerrilla art form, in which the social platform was co-opted by an art object in dissent of mainstream culture or ideas. The text on the macros’ language resembled a social media status update more than a poem per se, reflecting a variety of modes and moods ranging from the nihilistic and sarcastic to the ultra-positive or even bored.

15A Tumblr started by Roggenbuck in 2011 entitled “INTERNET POETRY: a publishing platform for digital art” published image-macros as well as found-text from comment sections, Wikipedia edits, and other mediums (Fig. 1 and 2). The Website still exists today and accepts submissions (via e-mail only) but Roggenbuck – who has since disappeared from the public eye due to allegations of sexual misconduct in 2018 – no longer is the masthead. In 2011, Roggenbuck posted a YouTube video of himself entitled “am i even a poet anymore” (Roggenbuck 2011) in which he mused on the aesthetic of the image-macro and the “more flowing culture” (Roggenbuck 2011, 1:23) of digital poetry, away from the typically 12-point serif font in an 80-page long poetry book:

Almost every poetry book is eighty pages long.
Almost every poetry book is twelve-point-god-dang font.
Black on white. Left-aligned.
(Roggenbuck 2011, 1:11-1:21, my transcription)

16Roggenbuck was envisioning a world in which intentional, comical and artful mass communication were the materials of the poem. These items were being shared widely with a click of a button, forgoing the need of a publisher to pre-approve the work before it reached the wider world. This was also a way for this community of 16-to-35-year-old writers to express a shared language and growing self-awareness as native users of social media. In other words, as much as Alt Lit was a literary community, it was also a massive in-joke. The anti-establishment tone that Bernie-Sanders-supporting millennials are known for – one that revels in transparency and one-upping the institution – was alive and well.

Figure 1 : Steve Roggenbuck, “your eyes are a poem and you’re,” 30 November 201.

Figure 1 : Steve Roggenbuck, “your eyes are a poem and you’re,” 30 November 201.


Figure 2 : Steve Roggenbuck, “nebula dog macros,” 12 January 2012. Image-macro pairing of an Internet comment and a stock image of a dog.

Figure 2 : Steve Roggenbuck, “nebula dog macros,” 12 January 2012. Image-macro pairing of an Internet comment and a stock image of a dog.


17Such a shift in aesthetics based on the pairing of found text and found image (i.e. the image-macro), though spearheaded by Roggenbuck, was also shared by thousands of online writers who considered themselves a part of the global Alt Lit community. In fact, the emergence of online discourse communities gave rise to a subgenre of poetry that was not possible before the onset of more widespread digital communication among poets. Writers who had had no voice or agency at home or had felt overlooked in their creative writing courses on campus could now develop an online identity by finding writerly communities outside of academia.

18In their essay “Messy Rhetoric: Identity Performance as Rhetorical Agency in Online Public Forums,” Jeffrey Grabill and Stacey Pigg note that the methods used by rhetoricians to analyze the magnitude of public interactions in digital environments have not yet fully been realized; they highlight the impact of these interactions on cultural shifts that happen at a rate faster than is calculable. Grabill and Pigg theorize the notion of “identity building” as a way for users in digital environments to gain agency and influence. They believe the agency comes through continuous correspondence within communities, as a collective empowerment rather than an individual one: “[A]gency does not lie in the hands of any one person at the proposed (digital) writing table, but rather lies in the interaction among them” (Grabill and Pigg 2012, 104).

19Even as figures like Roggenbuck reigned for a while within Alt Lit, other relationships were also forming and building between writers, on Tumblr and Twitter. Voices like those of Mira Gonzalez, Gilbert Morgan, Beach Sloth, Peter B.D., and Rachel Bell rose to significance not only through clever poetry shares but also through a distinctive aesthetic in their social media posts. The beauty of online identity is that it allows writers to curate and stylize their own voice and image, through social media platforms, diaristic posting and images, and digital group correspondence. Beach Sloth, Gilbert Morgan, and Peter B.D. all created personas that were in some ways separate from their actual selves, a kind of performance where the lines between character and person were blurred. In 2010, Peter B.D. and other poets self-published a satire that predicted the way many of the Alt Lit writers would die and reflected their online personas. The list led to the publication of an anthology, 40 Likely to Die before 40. Morgan, for instance, created the persona of a very wealthy young man, contrasting with the usual Alt Lit personas; it was intended as a satire of the “tech bro” developed by Alt Lit poets online. Beach Sloth, who would distribute awards to the best Alt Lit writers each year from his personal blog, maintained he was a sloth, and not a person.

20In 2010, while Roggenbuck was building his identity within Alt Lit, Gabby Bess (who goes by pronouns she and they) was launching a feminist Tumblr together with an online journal. A writer and a visionary, now the editor of Illuminati Girl Gang (Fig. 3), Bess created a brand that was a literary cross between the popular teen-girl aesthetic of the mid-aughts and the Riot grrrl zines of a generation before. Bess lived in an isolated Pennsylvania suburb and worked at a Target department store. She did not attend college and had few people to share her writing with. She may have lacked agency as a writer in her immediate geographical surroundings. Yet online, she was an Alt Lit pop star.

21When Bess began her Tumblr, girls and women between the ages of 15 and 35 would send her poems and artworks daily from around the world, to be featured on her website. As Perloff rightly underlines in Unoriginal Genius (Perloff 2012, 6), these literary communities were not formed from shared geography like the New York School or other poetic movements of the past. Rather, they formed online through a shared aesthetic. Members who were mostly women from the Alt Lit community came to learn about the group through Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Eventually, Bess started a journal that appeared both online and in print. The print issues evolved from cut-and-paste DIY aesthetics reminiscent of 1990s zine mail culture to high gloss magazine quality journals. Where Roggenbuck had used Helvetica font on his Tumblr and printings, Bess was known for using the font Futura. Cyber-poets, writers and artists such as Grace Miceli, Molly Soda, Melissa Broader, XtX, and Roxane Gay were featured in the issues published between 2011 and 2014. Many of the writers, such as Gay, are now well-known in the literary world beyond Alt Lit.

Figure 3: Four issue covers of Illuminati Girl Gang.

Figure 3: Four issue covers of Illuminati Girl Gang.

© 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 by Gabby Bess. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

  • 6 I had met her only through our online community of Alt Lit, but ended up picking her up at Port Aut (...)

22The aesthetics of Illuminati Girl Gang as a community within Alt Lit has been written about in Hyperallergic (Malloney 2014) and other online journals that deliberately foreground authors’ experiences in an attempt to dismantle male-driven forms. Out of a need to conquer her agency as a writer, Bess used the Internet as a gender-neutral landscape for entrepreneurship and created a discursive and material space for women and queer writers. She managed to create a lasting archive, a Website where women’s digital poetry and artworks could be preserved. Soon afterwards, she was encouraged by Illuminati Girl Gang members living in New York City to leave her home in rural Pennsylvania and relocate in the city, which she did in 2012, landing editing jobs with PAPER Magazine and Vice – a perfect illustration of how artistic relationships formed online can change the trajectory of life offline.6

Alt Lit Techniques: A Shared Language

23Of particular significance to the Alt Lit movement is the singular rhetoric shared by many of its participants. Beyond the image-macro poems that can be found both on Roggenbuck’s Internet Poetry Website and in Gabby Bess’s Illuminati Girl Gang, several techniques also define a common language within the community. First, the syntax of Alt Lit poetry embraces the mundane, jump-cut style of tweets, text-messages and social media updates, and does not apologize for the often purposeful foregoing of grammar rules in its urgency to deliver. Secondly, Alt Lit poems often display the direct naming of brands, thus reflecting the landscape of desire and desolation of late capitalism and the hyper-information age. Finally, Alt Lit poetry relies on the appropriation of existing material to build on language and images found on the Internet – typically, an Alt Lit poem can be a collage of YouTube video comments.

24The naming of brands – a technique frequently encountered in student poems and creative writing workshops – is one that older poets tend to find maddening. Already in his 1991 essay “On Lyric Poetry and Society,” however, Theodor Adorno challenged the assumption of a hiatus between lyric poetry and society:

You experience lyric poetry as something opposed to society, something wholly individual. Your feelings insist that it remain so, that lyric expression, having escaped from the weight of material existence, evoke the image of a life free from the coercion of reigning practices, of utility, of the relentless pressures of self-preservation. This demand, however, the demand that the lyric word be virginal, is itself social in nature. (Adorno 1991, 39)

25According to Adorno, a subjective poem can be translated into objectivity or universality in that it reveals, through the power of its aesthetic, the alienated figure at the heart of a commodity-driven society. Art can be a mirror that reifies culture or paints an ambitious view of an ideal society through poetic representation of personal anecdotes, with or without the writer being aware of it: “In its protest, the poem expresses the dream of a world in which things would be different” (Adorno 1991, 39). In a way, the poem becomes a resistance to a commodity-dominated world:

The lyric spirit’s idiosyncratic opposition to the superior power of material things is a form of reaction to the reification of the world, to the domination of human beings by commodities that has developed since the beginning of the modern era, since the industrial revolution became the dominant force in life. (Adorno 1991, 39)

26When poets mention objects and “material things” in their poems, it is because commodities have been the dominant force since the industrial revolution. Yet in the early twenty-first century when Alt Lit writers were coming of age, the center of capitalism switched from the value of the commodity itself, to the value of the brand that makes the product. This shift from what Karl Marx once described as commodity-fetishism to what we now know as brand-fetishism began to happen in the 1980s, when the mediation of brands expanded beyond the TV into our lived landscapes. This was the world the Alt Lit poet was born into.

27When Marx revealed the lynchpins of capitalist economy – a model expanding enormously through the mass production of goods, creating social forms that would tie human labor to production and dictate meaning for the lives of workers –, he was hoping to awaken workers to their own wage-slavery to foster a revolution. Within that economic model, from the beginning of the industrial revolution through the 1970s, the culture industry worked through the commodity, the good, the result of production – a reality that, in Adorno’s view, was then reflected in poetry and art. In Global Culture Industries (2007), however, Celia Lury and Scott Lash argue that today’s capitalism works mainly through brands. Contrary to commodity, which works through a “logic of identity,” a brand works through a “logic of difference” (Lury and Lash 2007, 5). While in the past a certain identity was achievable through one’s commodities, today this identity is built through one’s proximity to brands. This cultural shift is certainly observable in the work of Alt Lit poets and their poetry collections.

28Most US-based Alt Lit writers were teenagers during the 1999 Columbine school shooting or the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and, upon graduating high school or college in 2008, faced one of the largest economic recessions in history. It was not until about 2010, however, that the Romantic voice of early-2000s bands like Mates of State – who suggested everything would “Get Better” in their 2008 hit – started to be replaced with a nihilistic, self-aware sarcasm in art, more reminiscent of the 1990s Grunge scene. As Adorno had guessed, these writers were well aware of the devolution of capitalism and the downward mobility of their generation and this awareness started to show in their work. On the one hand, mediated brand advertisements populated their mobile devices; on the other hand, they could not afford anything that was being sold to them.

29The listing of brands by Alt Lit poets is often understood in connection with the confessional “I want” trope characteristic of so many Alt Lit poems. The poet’s wistful desire to own something in the recession is often coupled with a tone of hyperrealism. Lines taken from Gabby Bess’s 2013 collection Alone with Other People: Poems illustrate this technique:

While she was going through her spam inbox trying to figure out how to get off all of these subscription lists (Macy’s, PETA, Sierra Club, ModCloth, Urban Outfitters) that she thought were a good idea to sign up for at the time […]. (Bess 2013, 57)

30The lists of commercial brands often displayed in Bess’s poems reflect the presence of branded content and commerce that users encounter when scrolling the Internet. A writer using found text from the digital space as a material or form in the poem will naturally incorporate branded language in their work, even as a way to allow the rejection of the capitalist imperative, as when Bess writes:

Though I know that we are just animal machines that will one day leave
a final task uncompleted,
I want to gather a crowd of strangers to smash and
break objects with their hands.
(Bess 2013, 87)

31The use of “I want,” conveying a sense of desire and wish-fulfillment, is a way for Millennial writers in general and Alt Lit writers in particular to take some economic power back through their writing. Interestingly, the invitation to “smash and break objects” further illustrates the ambivalence at the heart of Alt Lit poets’ relationship with consumerism and materialism. In another stanza, the grammatical object of “I want” is not a material thing anymore but an action associated with the recovery of a sense of community and togetherness: “After I incite the crowd of strangers into smashing / and breaking objects with their hands I want to / encourage them to just hug and feel calm” (Bess 2013, 87).

32Years before Alt Lit emerged, Adorno suggested that lyric poems featuring commodities tend to create a “cult of the thing” in an attempt to “assimilate even alien objects to pure subjective expression and to dissolve them, to give them metaphysical credit for their alienness” (Adorno 1991, 40). This “lyrical halo” surrounding objects should no longer be “gilded,” he argued (Adorno 1991, 40); rather, it should reveal the total takeover of industry in our lives. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the paradigm shifted from physical commodities to mediated brand advertisements on mobile devices, which became the typical backdrop for Internet poetry. Alt Lit poets took objects in only to smash them to pieces as in Bess’s poem. While a purist view might reject the naming of brands in lyric poems altogether, the technique actually explores the relationship between humans and the physical world in a new, emotive way. What makes Alt Lit poets interesting to the history of contemporary poetry is that they move between a pro-capitalist tone and a tone of anti-establishment protest based on the rejection of false promises, while barely making it out of bed and off of their iPhones.

33During the high Modernist era which coincided with an early industrial economy, Gertrude Stein published Tender Buttons (1914), whose subtitle “Objects; Food; Rooms” immediately foregrounds the material world. Sianne Ngai in “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde” looks at Tender Buttons and argues that there is both a distancing from and an adoration of commodity to be found in the way Stein describes objects, that reveals a happy participation in society, a flaneur-like quality, a “Warholism” that recalls Adorno’s “halo”. Likewise, for the Alt Lit writer, the participation in over-consumption tends to concern practices more than physical objects, with narcotics and sex as their standard way to fight boredom and the death wish.

34In fact poets from the Black Mountain and New York Schools onward have lyrically represented commodities, often putting forward “small, concrete, and everyday things” which Ngai proposes to reclaim through the notion of “cuteness”: “William Carlos Williams’s plums and strips of copper, Lorine Niedecker’s granite pail, Robert Creeley’s rocks, John Ashbery’s cocoa tins, Bernadette Mayer’s puffed wheat cereal; Thomas Sayer Ellis’s balloon dog” being typical examples (Ngai 2005, 816). “For as a literary genre predominantly if not always correctly associated with small and compact texts,” Ngai argues, “lyric poetry has always been forced to negotiate its relationship to cuteness in a way that other literary forms and genres, such as the novel, have not” (Ngai 2005, 816). But while these earlier poets focused on material objects, Alt Lit poets focus on brands and their digital circulation. The Internet is indeed a brand-and-advert saturated space, which means that both posting and reading poems online is an experience framed by commercial content. That is the new space that Internet poets are writing within.

35Although she does not directly mention Alt Lit by name, Perloff speaks of Internet poetry’s digital space as having “no editor, no peer review, no critique for which one might be held accountable by anyone outside one’s own community” (Perloff 2012, xi). Through techniques such as digital collage, copying, and appropriation, the Alt Lit aesthetics reclaims the digital space to give vehicle and visibility to authors outside of traditional nodes of publication and thus, emphasizes conceptual writing and unoriginality. Perloff in Unoriginal Genius argues that the isolated genius is now an obsolete, Romantic notion. The new digital-age genius has a mastery of information and resource and, as Perloff notes, its dissemination. Similarly, in Uncreative Writing, Goldsmith notes that the Internet has swiftly and drastically altered the writing of poetry: “The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more” (Goldsmith 2011, 1). Perloff’s concept of “moving information” places the moving around of existing language – through found text, collage, and conceptual practice – as well as the notion of being emotionally moved by the process, at the center of these new poetic practices (Goldsmith 2011, 2). One can easily identify the named technique of “moving information” in the image-macros so typical of Alt Lit.

36Though these material practices have existed before in Dada-related movements, late postmodernism and Alt-Lit have relied more specifically on Internet-based intertextual conceits and have produced altered forms through collaboration with this digital space, including cyber-poetics, Flarf, and digital text collage. As Goldsmith writes:

Today, technology has exacerbated these mechanistic tendencies in writing, […] inciting younger writers to take their cues from the workings of technology and the Web as ways of constructing literature. As a result, writers are exploring ways of writing that have been thought, traditionally, to be outside of literary practice: word processing, databasing, recycling, appropriation, intentional plagiarism, identity ciphering, and intensive programming, to name just a few. (Goldsmith 2011, 2)

37The term intertextuality, as theorized by Jacques Derrida in his 1976 essay Of Grammatology, reads texts not as a reference to external reality, but rather, in relation to other texts. What is different in Alt Lit is that the texts are being created in relation to cyber-texts, mobile technology, social media, and instant messaging applications, creating a new aesthetic that builds on these techniques.

38To consider predecessors of these forms, Perloff points back to T.S. Eliot’s original publication of The Waste Land criticized for utilizing excessive citation and superficial pastiche of other texts to construct the poem. Goldsmith mentions the constraint-based methods of the Oulipo as well as Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a collection of his notes and citations for a book never realized. Goldsmith himself often uses straight appropriation and direct plagiarism as in Weather (2005), where he transcribes a year’s worth of daily weather reports for the New York area. Goldsmith calls his own work “boring” and “uncreative,” according to Perloff: “Goldsmith himself has repeatedly insisted that his aim is to be as ‘uncreative’ as possible, indeed downright ‘boring’” (Perloff 2005, 85). To Goldsmith, language is “junk” or “material,” and conceptual writing is intentionally “ego effacing”:

Conceptual writing obstinately makes no claims on originality. On the contrary, it employs intentionally self and ego effacing tactics using uncreativity, unoriginality, illegibility, appropriation, plagiarism, fraud, theft, and falsification as its precepts; information management, word processing, databasing, and extreme process as its methodologies; and boredom, valuelessness, and nutritionlessness as its ethos. Language as junk, language as detritus. Nutritionless language, meaningless language, unloved language, entartete sprache, everyday speech, illegibility, unreadability, machinistic repetition. Obsessive archiving & cataloging, the debased language of media & advertising; language more concerned with quantity than quality. (Goldsmith 2008)

39Goldsmith defines conceptual writing as a “fusing [of] the avant-garde impulses of the last century with the technologies of the present” (Goldsmith 2008) and he recognizes that the appropriation and recontextualizing of the mundane or quotidian (weather reports, traffic reports) renders the familiar strange. The Alt Lit poets grew from this, as they collaged with each other in a digital space, as well as with the specific aesthetics of branded content online.

40Although Perloff and Goldsmith are important voices in the field of late postmodernism, and though they write in support of Alt Lit, they should not be the only ones we hear from. In fact, Goldsmith became increasingly controversial in the Spring of 2015 when he took appropriation to the level of offense by reading word for word the autopsy of Michael Brown, a Black teenager murdered by police, at a conference called Interuptt3 at Brown University. He called the work “The Body of Michael Brown,” eliciting major and far-spread criticism, thus violently revealing the ethical limits of appropriating language and erasing contexts.

41Alt Lit’s experimentation with digital techniques coupled with a desire to move beyond toxic men and the harmful exclusion of BIPOC and LGBTIQIA voices has eventually allowed their best literary practices to emerge and find a way as a shared language into the present and future of poetry books.

A Covid-19 House Party: Online Poetry Community During the Pandemic

  • 7 The exact figure on 7 June 2021 is 597,628, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Cen (...)

42Since March 2020, people across the world have been inside their homes, self-quarantining and obeying the requests of government officials to stop the spread of Covid-19, a virus that has killed close to 600,000 people in the United States and almost 4 million across the world as I write.7 It was during this time that the legacy of the Alt Lit online community became increasingly important to the way in which we receive, write, and share poetry in the twenty-first century.

43My argument on collaborative writing and online literary communities draws on the work of Malea Powell and the multi-authored article “Our Story Begins Here: Constellating Cultural Rhetorics” (2014). Written in the form of a three-act play between six writers (including Powell) who go by the name of “The Cultural Rhetorics Theory Lab,” the essay refers to “the making of cultures” as “relational and constellated” and ultimately argues that all writing and theory is produced by and within communities. For a decade, I have been a part of an online community of writers many of whom found one another through Alt Lit. We are constantly writing together, contributing to a ten-year collaborative writing project over the years. Since 2010, not a day has gone by in which I have not engaged with my online writing community by publishing writing online, exchanging digital poems, or simply sharing memes and selfies. In 2014, I expanded my own platform to include Gemstone Readings, a media collective that publishes video poems by queer writers. With roots in Alt Lit, the project is one of several that were helpful in sustaining space for community during the pandemic. Online publications such as Peach Mag and Wonder, which reflect a growth toward a queer and inclusive future in poetry, share a digital aesthetic with that of early Alt Lit communities, except that we have left behind the misogyny, sexism, and exclusion of the earlier period. A reader of our collective work might recognize it as coming from a shared space and shared belief. On this, Powell and his coauthors stated:

All cultural practices are built, shaped, and dismantled based on the encounters people have with one another within and across particular systems of shared belief. In other words, people make things (texts, baskets, performances), people make relationships, people make culture. […] The practice of constellating gives us a visual metaphor for those relationships that honor all possible realities. (Powell et al. 2014)

44Among the things that the online poetry community was missing during the Covid-19 crisis were the bountiful occasions in which the cyber-community normally comes together in real life for readings, events and performances. Yet thanks to digital sharing, an alternative was quickly installed. Wonder – the New York based online publisher – hosted a Sunday night reading called “Club Wonder,” with Zoom links shared through their Instagram handle (Fig. 4 and 5). Each week, new poets were hosted to read work that was always inclusive and mindful of the social uprisings and protests occurring nationally for Black lives. Among them, on 29 March 2020, was Rachel Rabbit White:

Figure 4: An Instagram post from [at] advertising a Sunday night Zoom reading, 25 March 2020.

Figure 4: An Instagram post from [at] advertising a Sunday night Zoom reading, 25 March 2020.

Figure 5: Sketch of the 29 March 2020 Club Wonder Zoom reading posted by an attendee on 30 March 2020

Figure 5: Sketch of the 29 March 2020 Club Wonder Zoom reading posted by an attendee on 30 March 2020

45Another, more established institution that also partook in online poetry readings and events was New York City’s legacy organization Poetry Project, with their Web-based performance series House Party.

Figure 6: House Party Web series home page, The Poetry Project, 26 March 2020.

Figure 6: House Party Web series home page, The Poetry Project, 26 March 2020.

46The Web-events, stylized with flashing neon-gifs as party lights (Fig. 6), incorporated mutual-aid and funding opportunities for those economically hurt by Covid-19 alongside poetry events. In a message to viewers, the website reads:

House Party is a new digital performance and publication series out of The Poetry Project with readings, songs, dances, writings and prompts from the past, present, and future. Within each issue, we’ll also be sharing a living list of resources, emergency grants, and other recommendations.
We know that sociality and home are shifting through this uncertain moment. We also know that poets are impresarios of constraint, looting and improvising from all the means available. From the hearts and living rooms and bathtubs of our collective digital church, we’re very pleased to welcome you to this first issue. Our house party is your house party.
(The Poetry Project, House Party #1.)

47Taking hospitality as its central trope (“Our house party is your house party”), the project was political from the first: House Party #7, for instance, called on Governor Cuomo to cancel rent to relieve unemployed tenants and prevent eviction in the New York area and asked readers to contribute to an emergency aid for sex workers, as the following paragraphs make clear:

STRIKE. CANCEL RENT. FREE THEM ALL. House Party #7: MAY DAY ISSUE assembles incendiary music, videopoems and stories, and art practice works that have risen throughout these wide calls to cancel rent, free all prisoners, shut down COVID-19 infected work sites, demand hazard pay and to stand with striking workers. In our biggest issue to date, we imagine togetherness through the vastness of art practices of that contributors gathered here, and hope for a post COVID-19 world where we can once again, return to the street in celebration of MAY DAY.
For this issue, we’re specifically calling on readers to direct $5, $10, and $20 donations as able to the fund for Emergency COVID Relief for Sex Workers in New York. We are in solidarity with this community of workers who have been entirely shut out from state provisions of relief and care. (The Poetry Project, House Party #7)

48Meanwhile at the bottom of the same page were links to various poetry readings and performances, in either video or audio formats, filmed or recorded by individual poets at home while quarantining, sometimes alongside archival material showing live public performances now impossible.

49The new digital space that emerged between poets and artists during the health crisis clearly had its roots in Alt Lit; but it had also grown beyond it, decolonizing the field, and separating itself from the toxic social practices of early Alt Lit poets who had wanted to break from the nepotism and exclusion of big publishing houses while actually recreating a factory of fear, through sexist, racist, and oppressive attitudes that buried some of its more tender voices.

50The legacy of Illuminati Girl Gang carries on through an even more inclusive spirit in a decade-long collaborative writing project reminiscent of Fred Moten and Stefano Harvey’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, an essay questioning the emancipating role of the university:

But certainly, this much is true in the United States: it cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment. In the face of these conditions one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can. To abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refugee colony, its gypsy encampment, to be in but not of – this is the path of the subversive intellectual in the modern university. (Moten and Harvey 2013, 26)

51Moten and Harney lament the focus on grading and other deadening forms of regulation. Why is it so hard to have new discussions in a place that is ostensibly designed to foster them, they ask? Instead they encourage the voice of “the Undercommons,” i.e. the “underground of the university” (Moten and Harvey 2013, 28). They suggest bringing community-birthed alternatives into institutional or established spaces: to gather with friends and talk about whatever you want to talk about, to have a barbecue or a dance – all forms of unrestricted sociality that they slyly call “study.”

52The kind of inclusive study envisioned by Moten and Harvey – one that calls for a migration from “the within and against towards the with and for” (Moten and Harvey 2013, 148) – exists in the digital communities of House Party, Wonder, Peach Mag, Gemstone Readings and Blush Lit. It lives in Elaine Kahn’s Poetry Field School and Lara Warman’s Warman School, both of which are open-access online poetry workshops and writing courses with a common aim to decolonize higher education and introduce empathy into teaching.8 A generation of writers who came of age online looking to rage with – not against – the machine have grown up and outwards, and generation-Z poets behind them are teaching and leading the way into new avenues of shared language and community via the digital space.

Welcome to Porn Carnival: The 2020 Poetry Book

53In Literature in the Digital Age: An Introduction, Adam Hammond refers to Alt Lit as a utopia to its members and a “nightmare scenario to outsiders” because “in a world of unfettered access to publication, what rises to the top of the literary brew is not the best writing but the cleverest marketing strategies” (Hammond 2016, 145). Hammond’s tone towards self-publication is skeptical at best. But resourcefulness and self-promotion are, if nothing else, the markers of a generation of millennials who graduated from college into a major recession and traded New Romanticism for nihilism and scrappy, underdog professionalism. The Alt Lit movement, though problematic in many ways, tried to squash the nepotism that plagues big name publishers and established journals, by giving a diplomatic edge to who can become a star. It is my contention that this democracy existed outside of the institution on the Internet, and that the legacy of this open-source gusto continues to flourish in the small online presses of today.

54Rachel Rabbit White, the author of Porn Carnival, is a poet and activist, but also a brand. Her first full-length poetry book came out after years of marketing and self-promotion via Instagram thanks to a press founded by poet Ben Fama, Wonder. The launching of Rabbit White into the poetry sphere resembles more the signing of a boy band than the traditional routes taken by other writers. The difference between poets and pop stars often lies in the margin-profit afforded to literature, yet Rabbit White is willing to make a bet at changing this dynamic.

  • 9 The book was featured twice in Vogue between November 2019 and January 2020 – the latter being a fu (...)

55In the early winter of 2019, my partner and I dressed for Rachel Rabbit White’s book party in Brooklyn. The event was named Porn Carnival like the book and took place in a night club, where we soon found ourselves surrounded by writers who had met over the Internet and were now gathered in-person in support of Rabbit White, a poet introduced in a review of the event as “The ‘Hooker Laureate’ of the Dirtbag Left” (Phillips 2019). The space was filled with femmes, sex workers, leftists, failsons, and people of various genders. Hot dogs and fries were served, poems were read, and the night ended with a fetish cake-sitting. Rabbit White’s book, which explores both her queer identity and her life in support of a sex worker community, was reviewed in Vogue, Vice, and everything in between.9

56A year after the initial printing, Wonder released an extended version of the book entitled Porn Carnival: Paradise Edition, which included more love poems and was marketed with a signature one-of-a-kind perfume. In the meantime, Rabbit White was reported to have married the veteran-turned-convict-turned-novelist Nico Walker, author of Cherry (2018). In this way, online consumers could follow Rabbit White’s personal romance online and buy the products associated with the evolution of her narrative and brand – exactly like a pop star. Combining Walt Whitman’s self-promotional skills with Sylvia Plath’s iconic life and extraordinary popularity, Rabbit White’s publishing model had the additional benefit of the Internet and a digital readership acquired over many years, to help perfect her brand and launch her poetry book, incidentally now sold out. The form of the poems in Porn Carnival evokes an Instagram-based diaristic look into a hidden world, recorded in group text messages, while its hype suggests that poetry and queer aesthetics can gain traction and agency within dominant publications with the right digital marketing behind the work.

57Porn Carnival is a 202-page print and digital poetry book with a title written in rhinestones across a glossy cover (Fig. 7) and purple-to-pink ombre pages between poems. Just before it came out, Rabbit White had self-published a chapbook entitled Poetry Is So Lesbian that was marketed at the MoMa PS1 Book Fair in September 2019 alongside thongs, tank-tops, sweatshirts, and post-cards bearing quotes from her poems such as “wages for dating” and “more lana than lana.” Rabbit White’s aesthetic and lifestyle is one of luxury communism and pro sex-workers’ rights as she combines an anti-establishment vibe with dangerous night-life glamour. The early contradictions at the heart of Alt Lit, whereby capitalism tends to be both desired and vilified, are still very much present.

58Rabbit White’s collection points to a future for poetry books with solid roots in Alt Lit. The Internet and social media are where she built her voice, her image and her audience. She has exercised the entrepreneurial skills of Roggenbuck and Bess and tried to break the cycle of austerity for young poets. Most importantly, her poems capture the shared language of a decade of online discourse and collaborative creation.

Figure 7: Rachel Rabbit White’s Porn Carnival (2019).

Figure 7: Rachel Rabbit White’s Porn Carnival (2019).

© Cover design by Paul Glover, used with permission.

59Rabbit White’s use of branded language in several of her poems echoes the popular Alt Lit technique mentioned earlier in this essay. Her poem “Monistat Seven Day” (Rabbit White 2019, 55) is named after the over-the-counter yeast infection remedy, implicitly calling out to sex workers; likewise, she recalls the over-consumption of drugs by listing their names throughout her poems – k-spray, ketamine, Adderall, fentanyl, cocaine. The speaker’s desire and that of her nihilistic millennial reader are now fulfilled through a less realistic, more sublime diaristic recording of her day-to-day life; but through allusions to group-chats and friends’ names, the in-joke aesthetic of the online community still lingers.

60While the poems embrace the confessional mode, the singular “I” used throughout belongs to a relational space and a shared digital collective, ultimately turning into the plural “we”. The familiar aesthetic of oversharing so typical of Twitter is apparent from the first poem in the collection, with the lines “i go to the bathroom / they notice how often / i weight it out” (Rabbit White 2019, 1). Rabbit White typically speaks with the collective anti-establishment rage of her generation in her two-line poem “Wages for Dating” which reads: “‘Did you really occupy Wall Street’ he asks, / I tell him ‘Cowboy, all I do is occupy Wall Street’” (Rabbit White 2019, 128). Earlier in “Porn Carousel,” the speaker recalls again the push against late capitalism with the lines “in fully automated luxury communism / everyone gets free plastic surgery / to do with, as they wish.” (Rabbit White 2019, 75).

61Overall Rabbit White is an Internet poet, all grown up and fully realized. She has utilized the tools of social media to make her voice and image big. As a long-time member of a digital community, she is easily recognized as part of an extended family – a shared language, digital agency, and a need to work against the established norms of traditional publishing and poetry. Though Hammond sees this model as a nightmare, we have worked together to make it a future.

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Adorno, Theodor W. “On Lyric, Poetry and Society” [1957]. Notes to Literature, vol. 1, ed. Rolf Tiedemann. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991, pp. 37-54.

Baines, Josh. “Alt-Lit Is for Boring, Infantile Narcissists.” Vice, 16 January 2013,

Bess, Gabby. Alone with Other People: Poems. Fairfax, VA: Civil Coping Mechanism Press, 2013.

Bess, Gabby. Illuminati Girl Gang.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology [1976]. Corrected edition, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

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hart gin, and mal young. “Poetry Is Play: Rachel Rabbit White Interviewed by gin hart and mal young.” BOMB Magazine, 2 February 2020,

Jones, Allie. “Alt Lit Is Dead and Its Women Writers Are Creating Their Own Scene.” Gawker, 3 October 2014,

Kemp, Sophie. “Poet Rachel Rabbit White Is a Student of Romance, True Love, and Sex.” Vogue, 17 January 2020,

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1 Roggenbuck was first featured in poet Ana Carrete’s popular online journal New Wave Vomit, which was one of the places where the Alt Lit community first formed. Carrete published hundreds of Alt Lit voices and can be credited with being a pioneer of and central figure to the movement.

2 See his YouTube channel:

3 See Roggenbuck 2012.

4 Arguably, championing Goldsmith or Roggenbuck – who have since been accused of racism (Goldsmith) and sexual misconduct (Roggenbuck) – would later prove a sour choice, as the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements broke through toxic echo chambers on Twitter, rippling through the artistic and academic worlds.

5 With Roggenbuck as a leading figure of the Alt Lit community, one is reminded of the significance of the #MeToo movement in accurately archiving our history. Though Roggenbuck contributed much to the thought behind Internet-based poetry, his legacy is deeply troubled by the accusations called against him by former members of the community, pointing to an act of “grooming” under-aged teen girls for sexual relations in private message conversations. His years of championing writers through ultra-positive rhetoric, and a liberal re-sharing of poems, is now rightly overshadowed by a Twitter post he made in 2018 that stated: “Hi Everybody. Today some really disgusting things have been publicly exposed about past actions of mine…” and went on to both subtly deny but also confirm the accusations. Gabby Bess, on the other hand, remains a symbol of the community that stood in counteraction to misogyny and toxic-masculine leadership that has served to damage the reputation and contributions of Alt Lit in the minds of its members.

6 I had met her only through our online community of Alt Lit, but ended up picking her up at Port Authority and bringing her to stay on my couch until she found a place of her own.

7 The exact figure on 7 June 2021 is 597,628, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center (source:

8 For the Poetry Field School, see A brief presentation of the Warman School project can be found on its home page: “The Warman School exists counter to every other school. We are not a school. We are a group of people who gather. We share with each other. There is no hierarchy in the Warman School: we guide and are guided. No credits are offered. Nothing must be completed or achieved to be considered a graduate of the Warman School” (source:

9 The book was featured twice in Vogue between November 2019 and January 2020 – the latter being a full profile of the author by Sophie Kemp entitled “Poet Rachel Rabbit White Is a Student of Romance, True Love, and Sex” (Kemp 2020) – and once in Vice (Duncan 2019). Rabbit White was also interviewed for BOMB Magazine (hart and young 2020).

10 All Web sources last consulted 1 September 2022.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1 : Steve Roggenbuck, “your eyes are a poem and you’re,” 30 November 201.
Crédits Source:​image/​13568330456
Fichier image/jpeg, 56k
Titre Figure 2 : Steve Roggenbuck, “nebula dog macros,” 12 January 2012. Image-macro pairing of an Internet comment and a stock image of a dog.
Crédits Source:​post/​15737824966
Fichier image/png, 356k
Titre Figure 3: Four issue covers of Illuminati Girl Gang.
Crédits © 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 by Gabby Bess. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Fichier image/jpeg, 196k
Titre Figure 4: An Instagram post from [at] advertising a Sunday night Zoom reading, 25 March 2020.
Fichier image/jpeg, 52k
Titre Figure 5: Sketch of the 29 March 2020 Club Wonder Zoom reading posted by an attendee on 30 March 2020
Fichier image/jpeg, 60k
Titre Figure 6: House Party Web series home page, The Poetry Project, 26 March 2020.
Fichier image/jpeg, 32k
Titre Figure 7: Rachel Rabbit White’s Porn Carnival (2019).
Crédits © Cover design by Paul Glover, used with permission.
Fichier image/jpeg, 67k
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Référence électronique

Laura Marie Marciano, « Alt Lit, Illuminati Girl Gang and Porn Carnival: A Decade of Online Poetry Communities (2010-2020) »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 33 | 2022, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2022, consulté le 01 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Laura Marie Marciano

Lehigh University

Laura Marie Marciano (Laura.Marie.marciano[at] is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Lehigh University. She is the author of Mall Brat (CCM, 2016) and the founder of Gemstone Readings, a videopoem archive for women and queer poets. Her work has been featured in Poetry and on National Public Radio, and her production design in film has been presented with Tribeca Film Festival. She is interested in archiving digital poetry, practicing queer futurity, and writing workshops, where she teaches students to outwrite their internal editor.

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