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

 

In 1991 Schneider and his mother pulled up stakes in Queens and bought a house together in Bloomington, moving in just three days before the infamous Halloween blizzard. It proved a difficult transition. He worked a long series of dead-end jobs--driving a school bus for a few weeks, working at a magazine distributor, and for a mail-handling service for a time. In 1996 he went through four different jobs, mostly "sweatshops," he says. "I'd work for a few days or a few weeks, get disgusted, and quit. I like physical labor; I dislike sitting on my ass." He wasn't having a lot of luck on the local poetry front, either.

He discovered quickly enough that his bare-knuckled, hypercritical style wasn't a good fit in a scene that seemed to pride itself on earnestness, tact, and mutual support. His advocacy was obscured by antagonism, his conviction by what was too often perceived as crassness. Many felt--and continue to feel--that the provocateur in Schneider was obscuring the poet. Within a few years of his arrival in Minneapolis, Schneider was kicked out of the Unitarian Society, barred from a poetry group, and slapped with a restraining order.

Joseph Homrich is a computer programmer who met Schneider in 1992. Today Schneider considers Homrich his closest friend. "I long ago discovered that one way to meet groups of liberal, intellectual people in a big city is to find the nearest Unitarian church," Homrich says. "Shortly after I'd moved here I started attending a social group at the First Unitarian Society, and a few months later Dan started showing up as well. He was smart, ethical, and had a great sense of humor. I found him interesting, and instantly likable. He always cut to the heart of any debate, and it was interesting to observe the different reactions that people had to him. People either love Dan or hate him--there doesn't seem to be any middle ground. To me, and others like me who love him, he's completely transparent; he is totally a guy without guile or pretension.

"The first thing you have to understand about Dan is that he cannot lie. If you understand that, a lot of other things fall into place. A lot of people would also be surprised to know that Dan is a really sensitive guy, because the most common complaint from people who hate him is that he's insensitive. But having said that, the other thing you need to understand about Dan, and it's an obvious paradox, is that he does not empathize."

Those two character traits, Homrich feels, were the reasons Schneider was asked to leave the Unitarian group a few months after he first attended. "Dan's still bitter about it," Homrich says, "and claims that his being asked to leave was a violation of the basic Unitarian tenets of freedom and tolerance. But the reason he was asked to leave had nothing to do with his beliefs or personal opinions."

It was the way that Schneider expressed those opinions that got him into trouble, Homrich says. He was helplessly, deliberately provocative, a man without a governor. "He would show up at these functions and immediately begin challenging people," Homrich remembers. "It's almost like it's unavoidable for Dan. It's part of what he is. People started leaving the group, and complaining to the Unitarian Society about him. The size of the group was cut in half by the time he was finally asked to leave."

Around the same time, Schneider had gotten involved with the Garden Crow poetry group, and managed to hang around for over a year before being ousted by apparently unanimous group decree. Schneider recounts the tale in his typically torrential and digressive fashion.

"This was another of those support groups masquerading as a poetry group," he says. Everybody in there had shit in their lives they didn't really want to deal with honestly. Basically, one out of every three women on the local poetry scene has slept with her father, but incest in and of itself isn't enough to make anybody a poet. Somebody has to be willing to point that out.

"I mean, you can write about traumatic events, but if it doesn't have artistic merit, who the fuck cares? For instance, I wrote this poem about the time I was ramrodded up the ass with some kind of a hair-curler thing as part of a gang initiation, but it wasn't just cathartic; it wasn't just a litany of suffering, your typical woe-is-me bullshit. There was a context; I was conscious of structure.

"Anyway, eventually the guy who ran the group gathered everybody together and they excommunicated me. They gave me the usual, 'You're too outspoken, your poetry is too dark, and you don't know how to deal with people,' and I thought, okay, I'll get my shoes and go. I'd written this thing about necrophilia which was a two- or three-page poem on American society, but they didn't get the symbolism and thought that I was saying that I liked to have sex with corpses."

A woman in the group eventually sought a restraining order against Schneider--"I'd given her a few love poems," he says, "What can I say? My love life has been pretty checkered"--and he ended up in court. "She brought a couple people from the group with her for support," Schneider claims. "But this judge who looked like Fred Gwynne, the guy who played Herman Munster, threw 'em out, and it was just me, this woman, Munster, and a stenographer." The judge slapped Schneider with a civil bill of restraint.

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