By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
"Poets, like whores, are only hated by each other."
--William Wycherley, The Country Wife
"All poets are mad."
--Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy
Local poet and agitator Dan Schneider answers the door of the Bloomington home he shares with his mother dressed in a baggy gray sweat suit and Oriental slippers--the sort of getup you'll still see on pudgy old boys in the calisthenics room of any senior-citizen high-rise in America. Schneider, however, is 34, and skinny and tall. He slouches a bit and wears his long blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. He has a sort of naturally pained and cocked regard, as if he is trying to study the roof of your mouth while you speak. He escorts a visitor into the kitchen, where he is watching professional wrestling on a small television.
"It's not the same as when I was a kid," he says. "I remember when George 'The Animal' Steele used to tear open the turnbuckles with his teeth." Schneider speaks in a concentrated and almost exaggerated New York accent--think Sha Na Na or a Midwestern summer-stock hotshot going for the Tony in Grease. Long, rolling dipthongs. Hard i's and abraded r's. Clipped and declamatory meter: "Mee-tuh," Schneider ("Shneye-duh") will say, "There's no such thing. Poetry flows like uh haht monituh."
Schneider snaps off the television and leads the way down the dark hallway to his study, where thousands of volumes of poetry line the walls. Poets as diverse as Marina Tsvetaeva and Eugenio Montale occupy shelf space with Henry Rollins, Leonard Nimoy, and even Phil Rizzuto. Name a poet, however obscure, and it is likely he is represented in Schneider's library, the pages of the books stuffed with notes and crabbed annotations. Every volume has been given a grade.
His own manuscripts, collections of the literally thousands of poems he has written over the years, are displayed on several rows of clipboards nailed to the wall above his desk. There is a bulletin board that is tacked with poems in progress and working notes, as well as a photograph of his cat. On the desk, beside the Brother electric typewriter with which he transcribes the poems he writes longhand are his notebooks, and tidy stacks of note cards and newspaper and magazine clippings--stories that have caught his attention and will become material for poems. Schneider is a fervent, naturally agitated character, and he seems possessed of a boundless curiosity that stretches from the most obscure backwaters of science and history to the dimmest and most short-lived pop-culture comets. His voice is his hammer; words cascade from his mouth at a breakneck pace, unmodulated, and loud.
As Schneider drags a long index finger along the spines lining his bookshelves he keeps up a running commentary: "Hack!...Hack!...Hack!" He pauses from time to time to yank a title from the shelf and offer up a more elaborate, corrosive dismissal, demonstrating the exacting standards of the fussiest line editor. He can sniff out a cliché and cry "doggerel" faster than you can say "A Cup of Christmas Tea." John Ashbury's Flow Chart inspires a brief tirade. "Random, completely disjunctive fucking nonsense!" Schneider opines. "A horror show!"
U Sam Oeur, a man who saw one of his children die in a Khmer Rouge work camp, gets no sympathy from Schneider. "This is crap. It's not poetry; there's no artistic quality, no music, nothing formally interesting, no grand metaphor--it's nothing more than a litany of suffering. 'One day I woke up and they killed my wife....One day I saw them feed dead children to aardvarks.' Not that there are aardvarks in Vietnam, but you get the idea. Intent means nothing, result is everything! Shit is shit! Why do I feel like I'm always the kid who has to point out that the emperor's not wearing any clothes?"
By the time Schneider manages to locate a book of Naomi Shihab Nye's poems on a shelf, he is almost trembling. He cracks open the book and directs a visitor's attention to a poem he finds particularly offensive, "The Mother Writes to the Murderer: A Letter." Schneider is despairing, and it is clear he can barely stand to look at the offending poem; he is practically collapsing with rage as he reads the lines: "To you whose face I never saw but now see/everywhere the rest of my life/You don't know where she hid her buttons!" The exclamation point is Schneider's--he can't help himself. "Come on!" he shouts. "This is bullshit! This is insulting! You have to tell me that a murderer is a bad person, that it's terrible to lose a child? This is exactly what's wrong with poetry! Do you know how much shit I have to wade through to find one surprise? One Judith Wright or James Emmanuel? Look at these books--it's virtually all just cookie-cutter bullshit! Almost every single one of these books anymore is exactly the same: 40 to 60 pages, three sections, all left margin, and a pompous fucking epigraph that has absolutely nothing to do with the terrible poems that follow. Not to mention the obligatory jacket photo and the usual cocksucking blurbs!"
Schneider could go on, and he usually does. He has a shitlist longer than Louis Zukofsky's colossus A, which, incidentally, he despises. And what Schneider despises he despises loudly, volubly, exhaustively, in obsessive, cutthroat detail. His loathing extends from individuals (and individual poems) to local literary institutions such as the Loft ("Six weeks and you, too, can be Emily Dickinson," he says. "A bunch of white, middle-class housewives looking to exorcise their demons.") and S.A.S.E. Poetry has certainly had its fair share of polymath creeps--e.g., Ezra Pound, Arthur Rimbaud, and Philip Larkin--but Schneider's peculiar temperament has more in common with unregenerate early punk rockers like Lou Reed and John Lydon.
Since he moved here from his native Queens, New York, in 1991, Schneider has assumed for himself the role of the local poetry scene's loose-cannon prosecutor and provocateur, strident, ballistic even, so intense that he can seem irrational even when he is speaking the plain truth. His in-your-face passion has frightened and alienated people even as he has attracted a small group of loyalists and admirers.
Turning his attention to his own poetry, Schneider proffers a copy of his Siamese Reflection, a complicated double-star sonnet. "If 10,000 Maya Angelous banged on 10,000 typewriters for 10,000 years, they couldn't produce a poem with this greatness," he declares. "If my poetry isn't widely known and disseminated in 100 years, it will be a crime against literature."
Daniel Schneider, born in 1965, was an adopted child who grew up in a working-class family in the tough Glendale-Ridgewood area of Queens, where he attended Franklin K. Lane high school ("The school was named after the undersecretary to Seward, the guy who bought Alaska," he says. "Red Holtzman, the old basketball coach, was the most famous alumni."). His childhood and adolescence were turbulent, and he ran with a gang for a time in high school. He was six years old, he remembers, when he first saw someone murdered.
"It was a Rilkean moment," he recalls. "I watched the life go out of him. I was reminded of it when I assailed Robert Bly at a reading a few years ago." After high school there was no money for college, and Schneider went to work in a Finast supermarket, where he stuck around for eight years and eventually worked his way up to the position of dairy manager. Somewhere in there he remembers discovering poetry.
"My introduction to poetry was driven by poon," he says. "I was already writing bad Neil Young-like rock lyrics, and I had a crush on this girl. I was watching the Phil Donahue show one day and they were talking about romancing a woman, and this guy on there said that poetry always worked. I remember that I had to look up the word in the dictionary."
Shortly thereafter he made his way to a B. Dalton bookstore and picked up a volume of Walt Whitman's poems. "I discovered that poetry didn't have to rhyme," he recalls. "For a few years after that, I wrote bad Whitman-styled doggerel." Schneider eventually paid Carlton Press in New York to publish 2,000 copies of a "real bad long poem" called Od Infinitum. "I figured that was how Whitman published his first book," he says. "It was a failure--highly imitative of many famous poems--but you can see that there's some talent there. I sold a couple copies to people at the supermarket, and I think I made $13 in royalties."
He also sent copies to poets Donald Hall, Allen Ginsberg, and Amy Clampitt, soliciting feedback. "Ginsberg's secretary sent me a catalog of his books," Schneider recalls. "Hall sent back a two- or three-line response that basically said it sucked. I didn't understand why he couldn't apply the same critical thinking to his own work." These days the remaining books are stashed in Schneider's basement somewhere. Although he's no longer proud of the work, he did recently give a copy to his current girlfriend, as an "act of intimacy," and he figures that it will surface again some day in the juvenilia section of his collected poems.
Schneider's last years in New York were spent working in the grocery store and hibernating, reading and writing poetry. "I was writing like mad," he says. "I wrote thousands of poems, mostly crap. I was still in the first-thought, best-thought stage, but I could see that I was getting better, and I knew that I had more raw talent than any of these old farts I'd see at readings around New York. I was learning that the whole poetry scene was built around developing incestuous relationships with other poets who could help you get ahead, which was complete bullshit."
Schneider's adoptive father had died in 1983, and around that time he had started looking for his natural family. "I heard about the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association on Oprah," he says. "It's this organization run by a woman who's a real shrew and believes that adoption is akin to slavery." He eventually tracked his birth parents to Superior, Wisconsin, and discovered that he still had family living in Minnesota, in Staples and Edina.
"I found out that I had insanity on one side of my family and serious inbreeding on the other," he seems almost happy to disclose. "Every few branchlets of the family tree--going all the way back to Norway--there was someone who was crazy or institutionalized." He also learned that his natural mother had since died, but a trip to Minnesota to meet the rest of his birth family provided the eventual impetus for the move to Minnesota.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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."