For many seniors, post-thesis life is quiet and calm. But not for Patrick Roche ’14, the slam poet whose performance of “21,” a poem about witnessing his father’s alcoholism, gained more than 3 million views on YouTube in a two-week span and was featured on prominent social-media websites.
“It’s overwhelming, but it’s all been positive,” Roche said. “The fact that people have stated that it has helped them in some way has made this worth all of the chaos.”
It started with the less-than-three-minute video, filmed in March at the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) in Boulder, Colo., where Roche helped Princeton’s spoken-word student group, the Ellipses Slam Team, place third out of 50 competitors.
Team members spent weeks revising their poems, but “21” mostly stayed the same. Roche wrote the poem in one sitting last summer, after his father was in a car accident. The resulting poem is structured as a countdown, from age 21 to Roche’s birth, that details his relationship with his father.
What’s special about Roche, said Ellipses co-president Alec Lowman’16, is that “he can speak frankly about really personal struggles. I’ve been doing spoken word for almost five years now, and I have yet to attain the level of frankness that Patrick has.”
Roche said his family was very supportive when “21” was posted online, “since they didn’t think, like me, that it was going to become what it did.” Now that their history is out in the open, “it’s uncomfortable,” he said, “but it’s not necessarily something we should be ashamed of.”
Openness in public hasn’t come easily, Roche said. His first performance was in March 2013, when, teammate Jenesis Fonseca ’14 recalled, “he was holding his poem in his hands, not making any eye contact with his audience.” Now, according to one website, his performing style “will give you chills ... goosebumps and tears are guaranteed.”
Roche, a classics major, has been approached by publishers about a book of his poems and invited to perform at other colleges, and he is considering a career in poetry. His Facebook page is a reflection of his growing audience, with more than 29,000 “likes” and hundreds of posts from fans. “For those of you who have either struggled with substance abuse or been affected by it in some way through family members or loved ones ... your stories have really touched me,” he wrote in a Facebook update.
“He has grown so much,” Lowman said. “We feel like such hipsters now. We knew him before he was famous!”
WATCH: Patrick Roche ’14 performs his poem “21,” courtesy Button Poetry.