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

 

He figures he got 40-50 responses, and sent out packets of poems to each of them. "I guess the responses were pretty predictable," he says. "I got a letter from a lonely jerk-off type in Chicago who encouraged me to write more sex poems, and another one from a guy who wrote atrocious doggerel on death row in Pennsylvania. And there was a woman in some facility in Arkansas who offered a photo of herself along with a psychotic rant. The rest were mostly women--wallflower types--looking for romance."

He also heard from a young woman from Dallas, Jessica Lester, and the two corresponded for a time. "I was working at a crappy job at a research lab," Lester remembers, "and I didn't have anyone I could talk about poetry with. I could tell from the poems he sent that he was pretty good, and I guess I contacted him as a sort of mentor thing." A few months later, Lester moved to Minneapolis and began to date Schneider. "I certainly didn't plan for this to happen," she says. "But I was pretty much at a dead end in Dallas, and with the unemployment rate here so low I knew I'd have no problem getting a job."

She professes admiration for Schneider's poetry, and she credits him with helping her to become a better writer. Schneider took her out to see Bill Moyers at a Twin Cities appearance ("Our first poetic outing as a couple," Schneider says), and she got to witness her new boyfriend in attack-dog mode for the first time. Schneider took umbrage at Moyers's suggestion that poetry was a "message in a bottle," and "art was truth." "It was one fucking cliché after another," Schneider recalls. "I was like, 'Art isn't fucking truth! Art...artifice...hello!' Ding-ding-ding! Does anybody get it?" Afterward, while Moyers was signing books, Schneider continued his assault, and presented Moyers with a collection of his poems. "I asked him to explain to me how you demonstrate a love for something by pandering to it and dumbing it down," Schneider says. "And I challenged him to apply the same critical, journalistic standards to poets as he did once upon a time to politicians."

"I thought Moyers was a bag of wind," Lester says. "He got ruffled and was rather rude." She says she does recognize, however, that Schneider can be abrasive. "When my mom met him, she was kind of taken aback," she admits. "You know, he's loud, he cusses in restaurants. We'll be in Borders and he'll be looking through books of poetry, and he's shouting out 'These motherfuckers!' and stuff like that, and I have to tell him to keep it down. I think I do tone him down quite a bit, though, I really do. But he's interesting, I'll give him that. I never get bored with him."

 

Schneider continues to moderate his Uptown Poetry Group, even though he expresses frustration at his inability to retain or attract new members. "Women, particularly, don't hold up very well in that group," he admits. "They don't come back. They cling too much to their poems. I try to tell people that we're a critique group, not a support group, but that's unfortunately not what most people want."

He also continues to try to organize readings and events, and he has launched a Web site, The List(members.xoom.com/artlist/), in which he promotes a wide range of local poetry and arts events and artists. His business card for the Uptown Poetry Group and The List says in boldface letters, beneath his name and the job title of "Poet": GET INVOLVED! "This is such a provincial, self-segregating scene," Schneider says. "Latinos, blacks, gays--there's no mixing. I don't understand why it's so hard to engage people. I'm not a bad guy; I'm not a racist or a sexist. I object to bad poetry, bad thinking, naiveté, this magnifying of the personal into Plathian melodrama. How can you call yourself an artist and object to that?"

While he waits for engagement and acceptance from a poetry establishment he professes to despise, Schneider's confidence remains unshaken. "I'm the best poet I've ever read or met," he insists. "Every artist has an ego, and I have a big one, but I also work harder than anybody out there. Rilke wrote maybe 70 great poems. Wallace Stevens and Yeats wrote maybe 40 or 50 great poems each. I've already written 280 great poems. One of the ways you define greatness in an artist is when there's more outgoing than there is incoming, and I've given more to the poetry community than I've gotten back, by far. If you told me that I was going to die tomorrow, I could rest easy knowing I was better than Walt Whitman."

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