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

Friends like Homrich point out that unless you're really willing to engage Schneider on the level he desires, it's easy to miss his sense of humor and the more attractive, restrained aspects of his personality. One on one he's an entertaining conversationalist. He loves a debate, and beyond his blistering tirades, he can be a thoughtful and perceptive critic, although the merits of many of his grievances tend to get lost in the intensity and sheer volume of their presentation. It's obvious that he is a careful and exhaustive reader, and while he is quick to point out that his attacks are never merely ad hominem, it's also clear that criticisms that may begin with the perceived offenses of a poet's work tend to get personal in a hurry. Witness his poem "Carolyn Forché or Lose the 'Tude, Bitch!," one of a series of Schneider's "attack" poems directed at poets of prominence:

 

She is vile and fat and white. Untouched,

for years, by her loved ones, she goes leafing

through anthologies to see the photo,

taken years ago, when she was sexy

and slim, in her twenties, not an unshaved

babushka, typing meaningless verses,

into her Word 97, never

to be read, nor known, by another soul:

 

She recalls her trip to Nicaragua,

the first one, and the rest of the countries

of Central America. She poses,

for a moment, doubled chin on her fist,

pondering profundities not, unknown

of the music blowing through her earholes.

Schneider's contempt for Forché has inspired more than one such poem, as have other poets such as David Mura, Donald Hall, Ted Hughes, and Robert Bly. It seems clear from these poems that when Schneider drops his gloves he also tends to lower his own exacting standards, poetic and dialectic. He has made a habit of showing up at large public readings around town and surprising poets--and audiences--with his blunt opinions and criticism.

A few years ago he attended a reading at a local church and, during the question-and-answer period, accused Bly, pointedly, of being a bad poet. "The place was packed with the same crowd of worshipful blue-hairs you see at most of these readings," Schneider recalls. "There was maybe one non-Caucasian. Bly was up there reading his poems and explaining everything to death in that Elmer Fudd voice of his, and as bad a writer as he is, he's an even worse performer--if you can imagine that. They opened the thing up for questions and it was the usual ass-kissing inanities you always hear, and then I stood up and asked him why he was such a lousy poet. I recalled an essay he'd once written on Robert Lowell, in which he talked about the younger generation destroying the old, and how trees had to burn to save the forest, and I told him that was what I was there to do. This audience of dead white zombies just sat there in silence, and this one fat reject from a George Romero movie tried to accost me, and I told him to wipe the drool off his chin, sit down, and let me continue my discussion with Bly. Bly was completely flustered; he was off his game bigtime."

Lyle Daggett is a local poet who works for AT&T, where Schneider has also been employed as a credit representative since 1997 ("I used to enjoy shutting people off," Schneider admits. "One day we had 41 disables and I was responsible for 40 of them.") Daggett was in attendance at the Bly reading that night. "Dan asked Bly why he was writing so much crap, and this groan sort of went through the audience," he recalls. "Bly seemed relatively patient and tried to engage him a bit, and at some point in the exchange Dan offered to read a few of his own poems right then and there, at which point several people in the audience shouted out, 'No! No!'"

Daggett professes admiration for Bly, particularly his earlier work, and expresses the opinion that on that particular occasion, Schneider's points may have been obscured by the sort of culture clash he seems to traffic in. "I might share some of his opinions, but I tend to express them differently," Daggett says. "I don't think he's trying to be deliberately provocative. Here's this guy from New York who brings a completely different perspective, and sometimes I think it's just a case of different cultures rubbing up against each other. In Dan's own mind, he's just being straightforward and honest, but he encounters this more mild-mannered, reserved approach and he can come across as rude. And I also think he may sometimes be guilty of overstating his case a bit."

There have been many such public incidents--of which Schneider seems inordinately proud--and one result seems to be that scores of local poets and writers who have never read his poems are reluctant to do so simply because they find his act so tiresome. It is difficult to find established local poets--many of whom have been assailed by Schneider either publicly or in his poetry (or both)--who are willing to enter into a dialogue with him, let alone investigate his work. Dozens of phone calls and e-mail messages to people who have crossed paths with him at one time or another went unreturned in the writing of this story. Some who were contacted and declined to speak on the record expressed the opinion that a profile of Schneider smacked of "rewarding bad behavior," even while admitting that they were unfamiliar with his poetry.

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