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

 

Undaunted, and fed up with what he considered the basic circle-jerk format of most local poetry gatherings, Schneider started his own Uptown Poetry Group, and continued to make the rounds of local readings, open mics, and slams, often presenting his frequently complex and occasionally confrontational poems to a decidedly mixed response.

Pam Haas is a Minneapolis social worker and graduate student who first encountered Schneider at a coffee-shop reading. "I thought that his poetry was light-years ahead of the other readers'," she recalls. "I was impressed with the quality of his stuff. He has a really unique voice, literally and poetically. I've always been surprised by his themes and the range of subjects he writes about. A lot of coffee-shop poets write from personal experience; it's very confessional, and you feel like you know their life story. With Dan you know his perspective, but there's no sense of his personal life. I like that about his poetry."

Hugh D'Andrade

Haas also recognized that other people didn't seem to know quite what to make of Schneider, and that he seemed to go out of his way to court ambivalence, and even antagonism. She remembers a time that Schneider was asked to participate in a reading being held by a group of lesbians who were celebrating a chapbook publication.

"He'd been very supportive of these women, and so was asked to read at their event," Haas says. "He proceeded to read the most violent, pornographic, woman-hating poem imaginable. It was like something you'd see in Hustler. I was just shocked, and the whole room was silent. Everyone was sitting there with their mouths open, and Dan just left the stage, gathered his things, and left. He later said that the whole point was that women can write about vaginas and desire and sexual violence all the time, but if a man does it, it's condemned. And that may have been his point, but it really wasn't quite clear."

Haas has gotten to know Schneider, and says that, "as a friend and as a woman, I really believe that he respects women. In his one-on-one interactions with people and his personal dealings, I definitely don't feel that he's a sexist or a racist, but he does seem to like to deal with such provocative issues in his poetry. He's a straight-shooting, working-class New York guy, very intense, and when he gets on these crusades of his, he seems to lose track of things around him."

Dylan Wahl is a local poet and writer who has hosted the Gallery 7 arts program on cable-access television. He first encountered Schneider at a reading at the old Susan's Coffeehouse in the Midway, and he remembers "this Queens accent flowing across the room. Dan reads too quickly. He's an extremely unemotional reader, and sometimes I think maybe his accent gets in his way. But I think he's absolutely brilliant--certainly one of the top poets in the Twin Cities. He's extremely prolific, and subjectively I don't think he knows his best work."

Wahl has noticed that Schneider has a tendency to promote some of his most deliberately offensive poetry at the expense of some of his more measured and tender work. "He loves shocking people," Wahl says. "It seems like he likes to feel people out with the rougher stuff. I can almost guarantee you that if most people read through a hundred of his poems and stumbled across one line like All women are cunts, they're going to walk away and remember that one line and not all the other great poems. He can be an incredibly tender, heartfelt writer--he writes beautiful love sonnets--but because of the more shocking stuff people tend to get the wrong impression. I remember once he told me that in 500 years women were going to be sitting around in college libraries, teary-eyed, reading collections of his love poems and wondering why there aren't men like him anymore."

Wahl likes and admires Schneider; they have become good friends and occasional collaborators, but he readily acknowledges that Schneider is an enigma. "He's definitely very quick to put other poets down," he says. "Sometimes it's because they need it, but other times it's clearly for his own ego. He spends too much energy trying to find other poets he can tear apart. So many people have gone to his Uptown Poetry Group, been torn apart by him, and never gone back. For every friend he's probably made 30 enemies."

Schneider acknowledges the criticisms of his personal style but is unrepentant. "I'm a human barometer," he says. "If you don't like yourself or you're not self-assured, you probably aren't going to like me. It's like the riddle of the seven blind men and the elephant: Everyone who looks at me will see something different. But I'm not infallible. There's no burning bush behind me, and I don't have any imperatives. These are just my opinions, but if I tell you I think something's bad, it's because I've read it. I come from a family that loves dialectic; we love to argue. My only desire is to connect, to actively engage people and get them to discuss things and defend their positions."

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