Dan Schneider vs. the Rest of the World

The never-ending showdown between a relentless poetic provocateur and the back-patting literary establishment that shudders at the very sound of his name

"Poets, like whores, are only hated by each other."

--William Wycherley, The Country Wife

 

"All poets are mad."

--Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy

 

Local poet and agitator Dan Schneider answers the door of the Bloomington home he shares with his mother dressed in a baggy gray sweat suit and Oriental slippers--the sort of getup you'll still see on pudgy old boys in the calisthenics room of any senior-citizen high-rise in America. Schneider, however, is 34, and skinny and tall. He slouches a bit and wears his long blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. He has a sort of naturally pained and cocked regard, as if he is trying to study the roof of your mouth while you speak. He escorts a visitor into the kitchen, where he is watching professional wrestling on a small television.

"It's not the same as when I was a kid," he says. "I remember when George 'The Animal' Steele used to tear open the turnbuckles with his teeth." Schneider speaks in a concentrated and almost exaggerated New York accent--think Sha Na Na or a Midwestern summer-stock hotshot going for the Tony in Grease. Long, rolling dipthongs. Hard i's and abraded r's. Clipped and declamatory meter: "Mee-tuh," Schneider ("Shneye-duh") will say, "There's no such thing. Poetry flows like uh haht monituh."

Schneider snaps off the television and leads the way down the dark hallway to his study, where thousands of volumes of poetry line the walls. Poets as diverse as Marina Tsvetaeva and Eugenio Montale occupy shelf space with Henry Rollins, Leonard Nimoy, and even Phil Rizzuto. Name a poet, however obscure, and it is likely he is represented in Schneider's library, the pages of the books stuffed with notes and crabbed annotations. Every volume has been given a grade.

His own manuscripts, collections of the literally thousands of poems he has written over the years, are displayed on several rows of clipboards nailed to the wall above his desk. There is a bulletin board that is tacked with poems in progress and working notes, as well as a photograph of his cat. On the desk, beside the Brother electric typewriter with which he transcribes the poems he writes longhand are his notebooks, and tidy stacks of note cards and newspaper and magazine clippings--stories that have caught his attention and will become material for poems. Schneider is a fervent, naturally agitated character, and he seems possessed of a boundless curiosity that stretches from the most obscure backwaters of science and history to the dimmest and most short-lived pop-culture comets. His voice is his hammer; words cascade from his mouth at a breakneck pace, unmodulated, and loud.

As Schneider drags a long index finger along the spines lining his bookshelves he keeps up a running commentary: "Hack!...Hack!...Hack!" He pauses from time to time to yank a title from the shelf and offer up a more elaborate, corrosive dismissal, demonstrating the exacting standards of the fussiest line editor. He can sniff out a cliché and cry "doggerel" faster than you can say "A Cup of Christmas Tea." John Ashbury's Flow Chart inspires a brief tirade. "Random, completely disjunctive fucking nonsense!" Schneider opines. "A horror show!"

U Sam Oeur, a man who saw one of his children die in a Khmer Rouge work camp, gets no sympathy from Schneider. "This is crap. It's not poetry; there's no artistic quality, no music, nothing formally interesting, no grand metaphor--it's nothing more than a litany of suffering. 'One day I woke up and they killed my wife....One day I saw them feed dead children to aardvarks.' Not that there are aardvarks in Vietnam, but you get the idea. Intent means nothing, result is everything! Shit is shit! Why do I feel like I'm always the kid who has to point out that the emperor's not wearing any clothes?"

By the time Schneider manages to locate a book of Naomi Shihab Nye's poems on a shelf, he is almost trembling. He cracks open the book and directs a visitor's attention to a poem he finds particularly offensive, "The Mother Writes to the Murderer: A Letter." Schneider is despairing, and it is clear he can barely stand to look at the offending poem; he is practically collapsing with rage as he reads the lines: "To you whose face I never saw but now see/everywhere the rest of my life/You don't know where she hid her buttons!" The exclamation point is Schneider's--he can't help himself. "Come on!" he shouts. "This is bullshit! This is insulting! You have to tell me that a murderer is a bad person, that it's terrible to lose a child? This is exactly what's wrong with poetry! Do you know how much shit I have to wade through to find one surprise? One Judith Wright or James Emmanuel? Look at these books--it's virtually all just cookie-cutter bullshit! Almost every single one of these books anymore is exactly the same: 40 to 60 pages, three sections, all left margin, and a pompous fucking epigraph that has absolutely nothing to do with the terrible poems that follow. Not to mention the obligatory jacket photo and the usual cocksucking blurbs!"

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