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

David Mura, a Minnesota-based poet and writer who has been a frequent Schneider target, declined the opportunity to comment publicly on his poems. "You pick your battles, what you want to give your energy to," Mura says. "The battles that upset me at the moment are things like George W.'s candidacy or whatever Trent Lott or Representative DeLay is pushing. The energy I reserve for poetry is generally a different type of energy, more contemplative and self-reflective, more internal and unconscious. As Yeats said, we make rhetoric out of our arguments with others, we make poetry out of our arguments with ourselves. It does strike me as ironic that Mr. Schneider will have an article in City Pages, while I can't recall any articles about poets like Tom McGrath or John Engman, either while they were alive or when they died. Perhaps they should have spent more time attacking other poets instead of writing their own excellent poems."

"Mura's atrocious," Schneider says. "He's absolutely predictable. He's hiding behind that Sansei shtick. Multiculturalism in art is fine, but without excellence it's just bad poetry. Mura writes nothing but guilty, intellectually vapid bullshit."

 

I slipt into Bedlam, where I saw several poor miserable creatures in chains; one of them was mad about making verses.

--John Evelyn, Diary, 1657.

 

By his own estimates, Schneider has written more than 10,000 poems in his lifetime. He has published 41 poems, mostly in the usual small journals and poetry reviews, and he recently had a piece included in a book titled GRRRRR, a collection of poems about bears. He tries to write five new poems a week, and he diligently mails out dozens of submissions every month. He continues to submit to the American Poetry Review ("The People magazine of poetry," he says), even though he figures their repeated rejections are probably a blessing in disguise. "They haven't published anything of consequence in 20 years," he says.

In Schneider's poems his instinctive curiosity ranges as widely and as wildly as his passion does in conversation. He has sprawling, structurally and thematically ambitious long poems that are crammed with history, science, and pop culture, and employ fragments from other sources, quotes, and regional dialects. Many of his better long pieces recall the work of another literary outsider, Paul Metcalf, whose writing was also full of curious analogs and correspondences, and the intersections of real and imagined history. In "Aesop in a Modern Box," a five-page poem inspired by Rod Serling, Schneider compellingly weaves biography and poetry with snippets of Aesop and fragments from Twilight Zone transcripts, creating in the process a memorable portrait of a man whose triumphs are all long behind him. Elsewhere he dedicates poems, in a similar fashion, to characters as diverse as Satanist Anton LaVey, wrestler Superstar Billy Graham, Ted Kaczynski, Jewel, and Nat Turner. Many of Schneider's longer poems get bogged down in information overload, clumsy dialect, and his admitted propensity for visual effects.

"I churn out a lot of stuff," he admits. "A great poet has to demonstrate quality, quantity, and diversity. I like to actively churn and throw things into the mix. I have this great fear of being stagnant; I have to play with things, play with themes and ideas. Modern poetry is often so fucking lazy. It's no fun; there's no spontaneity, no joy. When was the last time you picked up a book of poems and thought, 'This person really loves language, loves playing with words'? I'm more consistently surprising than Whitman or Rilke; you know how they're going to approach a poem, but you never know how I'll approach a subject or how it's going to look on the page."

It's surprising how many of Schneider's poems reveal a frequently poignant strain of sentimentality and nostalgia, a continued fascination with the lost pop culture of his childhood. He is also an obsessive sonneteer, and can write tight, carefully crafted short poems that demonstrate the emotional sensitivity that many of his admirers suspect he doesn't entirely trust.

Schneider's sheer productivity--his restlessness and exhausting stylistic and thematic range--often works against him; in the welter of voices, structures, and ideas there is no distinctive voice that is recognizable as his own. For the moment, Schneider says, that's not what he's striving to achieve. "I want to be the first great cosmic poet," he says. "If I live another 40 years, I'll have a body of work that will have a familiar ring to it." He has already prepared a huge empty binder, bearing a title, for what he hopes will be his life's work: Once Upon America. "This will be a group of poems--from the Big Bang right through the future, a history of America not as a place, but as an idea," he says.

 

Fed up with his inability to make any kind of rewarding inroads on the local poetry scene, Schneider took out a classified ad in Poets & Writers magazine this last summer:

Great, internationally published poet, 34, slim, SWM, seeks correspondence with artists of all backgrounds, especially poets, on all subjects, and if a SF, perhaps have something more to share.

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