Friday, April 9, 2010
DROUGHT RESISTANT STRAIN- Book Review
Mather Schneider DROUGHT RESISTANT STRAIN
INTERIOR NOISE PRESS, Austin TX, 2010
This is the first full length collection of poetry by Tucson based writer and taxi-driver Mather Schneider. The poems are carefully crafted, the free verse language pared to the bone, the subject matter deeply personal yet universal and highly engaging in their insights into humanity.
There is no bull-shit in Schneider’s poetry. He writes about what he knows best- the downside of life, conversations in pubs, quirky messed-up people, fucked- sometimes wonderfully intimate relationships, but overall, he depicts through his work a sad, cynical, selfish world: In a recent interview he said, 'My overall vision is one of a basically sad human race, a cruel human race, and I have seen that people are pretty much the same wherever they live. Life is hard, creation is hard, and people don’t really care about each other very much it seems. Someone always wants to dominate you’.
The title of his collection ‘DROUGHT RESISTANT STRAIN’ is an obvious reference to the tough desert climate around Tucson in which flora has to endure, but also metaphorically, it alludes to Schneider’s tough independent stand to survive in the literary world for over fifteen years against all odds: ‘Drought Resistant Strain for me suggests the desert landscape, the imagery of which is all through the book. It is symbolic too for spiritual toughness and perseverance, which also relates to the fact that this is my first book and I am 40 years old and have been writing for a long time without much success’.
I have learnt in researching & corresponding with Schneider over the last few weeks that he is strongly passionate in his views on poetry and from his working class perspective he pulls no punches in his criticism of mainstream university taught poetry, ‘All these MFA people think they are intellectually superior… They are good mimics, like parrots, and always have friends around to insulate them. In fact some of the dumbest people I have ever met were college graduates’.
Through his poetry and from his unique perspective as a taxi-driver, bartender, laborer etc Schneider, like Bukowski and many others before him, attempts to open the minds of the general reader to new ways of thinking, of looking at things anew- be it the difficulty of communication, the madness or ambiguity of existence, the lack of resolution or purpose in life. In defining the poetics of his art Schneider says, ‘I don’t mind insecurity, confusion, I don’t mind sloppiness, in fact I prefer a few stray hairs, as long as there is energy and spirit and an individual humanity that I can feel’. It is this energy and the lack of certainty of what life is all about which makes Schneider’s poetry so compelling to read.
There are 107 poems in this collection and most are narrated presumably from the point of view of the poet. These are gritty realist poems with nothing held back. The feel and tone of the poems is amazingly consistent which adds to the overall credibility of the reading experience. The individual poems are deceptively simple but are interlocking and as we piece together the various stories, personalities and themes we are able to understand the book from more complex and broader perspectives.
Tucson and the surrounding desert is a dominant motif. ‘Our Last Sunset’ and ‘Tucson Monsoon’ are two of my favourite poems in this collection and are brilliant in their representation of the vastness and unpredictability of the desert and of humanity’s fickle place within it. The speaker reflects in ‘Our Last Sunset’:
Treking over the cliffs
of the thirsty Sonoran,
a million saguaro cacti in salute
We sit on a rock belched from a volcano
a million years ago.
Yet Schneider’s ultimate vision is always focused on people and their relationships. In ‘The Butterfly Effect’ the speaker hikes with his friend Josie up Finger Rock. At four thousand feet they see a butterfly and in ‘the crash and froth of earth’s blood’ he realizes:
I am in love for the first time
since I wrapped myself up
in a cocoon of dry saliva
and hung for ten years high in a tree with
like the brittle fingers
of men burnt alive’.
Urban Tucson and its outcasts is another central focus in this collection- the mad, the underclass, the old, Vietnam vets, barflies and drug addicts. Yet Schneider is never judgmental, he simply recounts a conversation or anecdote and passes it on to the reader. Of particular fascination for me in his representation of human nature was in ‘The Bell’. Working for a collection agency, the speaker’s boss rings a bell in the office whenever a collector has received a credit card payment. It was intended to make the workers’ jealous, to get them to work harder despite the immorality of their methods,
it dug into our hamster brains
and we worked harder and harder
to make the world miserable,
to make ourselves miserable.
We told mothers their sons
and we told grandmothers if they didn’t
pay their bills before they died
they’d go to hell.
The miserableness of existence is also skillfully and boldly played out in ‘The Self Medicater’ about a drug freak who waits for his hit to take effect:
He waits/like a picture plant
with his toxin-filled bathtub,
his nerve-veined leaves, his trembling
Other highlights in the skid row tradition are the poems ‘Once You’ve Paid’ about the speaker’s changing relationship with a call-girl and ‘The Last Will and Testicle’ about a guy the speaker met at a bar whose friend willed his ten thousand dollar penile implant.
Some poems which stand out in ‘Drought Resistant Strain’ are driven by metaphoric or philosophical ruminations. You first get a taste of this in the book’s epigram by Emerson, ‘There is a crack in everything God has made.’ The collection is full of flawed and deeply broken people who are searching for meaning in their lives.
In ‘We Are’ the speaker wants to find a spiritual place beyond ‘the sad and beaten’ sitting in Church on Sundays ‘crying like cats at/ the doorways of strangers’:
I want to be aroused
in the hour of no cities
the placental flame gulping
eyes staring into it
on the precipice of insight,
a strange hot wind
in my face.
In ‘My Hat Is Starting to Stink’ the speaker says that in the face of absurdity it is sometimes easier just to let go:
it is easier to let go
to fall from concrete mountain
to concrete sea
the self and all those others swimming
in the banal sand of absurdity
tripping on the emotions like shoelaces
lost in the mess
and the myopia of the brain-body
The poem ends with a stoical acceptance of the difficulty there is in piecing it all together:
Fear pulls like gravity in the blackness
with just a spark of time
too see by
each moment bursting like a pomegranate
in a mind-propeller
until the splatter
or it doesn’t.
I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Schneider’s book and highly recommend that you purchase the book. Click on the link above to Schneider’s web page and follow the link to Interior Noise Press.
If you are interested I have included below a full transcript of a recent interview I had with Schneider. It gives you keen insights into the man and his writing.
INTERVIEW WITH MATHER SCHNEIDER 6 APRIL 2010
Q1: There is no direct reference to the title of your book ‘DROUGHT RESISTANT STRAIN’. Can you clarify the title’s intended meaning? How is this played out in your cover artwork?
A1: We went through a bunch of titles before I came up with Drought Resistant Strain. I didn’t want to simply lift a title of an individual poem and use that. I also didn’t want my title to sound like any other title of any other book. Google helped assure me that it was an original book title, though a common phrase. Many titles these days sound derivative or like downright rip-offs. I didn’t want my title to sound like Raymond Carver or Bukowski and I didn’t want my title to be a one word thing like Stephen King and I didn’t want it to be some precious kindygarten thing like “I CUT OFF MY FOOT AND ATE IT WITH SALT AND NOW I AM FLOATING IN THE CLOUDS HAPPY AS A BEE IN MARDI GRAS”. Drought Resistant Strain for me suggests the desert landscape, the imagery of which is all through the book. It is symbolic too for spiritual toughness and perseverance, which also relates to the fact that this is my first book and I am 40 years old and have been writing for a long time without much success. The word “strain” also has multiple meanings and connotations that I think make it a strong title. There are several poems in the book involving plants, but the closest one to a “title” poem is probably “YOU CAN’T GET AWAY FROM NATURE”.
The cover art is of two javelinas fighting. Javelinas are wild pig-like creatures who inhabit the desert here, and are very successful. They are not very intimidated by humans or society. They eat prickly pear cactus as their main food source and they bite the needles out of each others’ snouts as a social grooming. They are musky, ornery, hairy, ugly, stinky and smart. They are decidedly unglamorous. They are some tough sons of bitches and they don’t get much respect.
Q2: You are a self taught writer who currently drives a cab for a living. Can you tell me about how you initially become interested in poetry and writing for the small press? What has kept you going for fifteen years?
A2: I started reading literature at about 13. Herman Hesse and Vonnegut and Salinger, etc. Philosphers and religious books about Zen and stuff came a little later. I wrote poetry in the style of Robert Frost and Thomas Hardy at first. Then I wrote poems for girls when I got a little older to try to get dates. I always hated school but I managed to graduate from high school, and then I did try to go to college. Over a 15 year span I attended two universities and 2 community colleges, in 3 different states, but I never even sniffed a degree. I hate school, everything about it, but kept going back because of social pressure. In my twenties I stopped writing poetry and started about 3 novels, always petering out around page 50 or 100 and never finishing them. Then I started writing poetry again. I discovered Bukowski and Henry Miller and Raymond Carver, common influences on writers my age. I discovered the small press in about 1994 when I bought the POET’S MARKET, and I started submitting my poems. I got my first poem published shortly in a zine called NERVE BUNDLE REVIEW, which is now defunct. I have seen many magazines go under. The little acceptances I have gotten over the years have helped keep me going. I have had maybe 500 poems published in over 300 different places, to go along with probably 5000 rejections, though I do not save them or wallpaper my room with them. Alcohol and pot and sex have also helped keep me going.
Q3: Much of your book focuses on capturing quirky people, conversations in pubs, relationships, reflections on life, Tucson and surrounding area. How long have you lived in Tucson and what do you like best about the place? How has its sense of place shaped your overall vision?
A3: I have lived in Tucson for 13 years, after moving here with an ex girlfriend from rainy Bellingham, Washington. We both got tired of mushrooms growing in our ears. We broke up years ago but I stayed here, I love this place. I love the Mexican culture that influences it, in fact my girlfriend is Mexican, and I mean really Mexican, speaking very little English. I have learned much Spanish though I am not fluent yet. There is no ocean here but there is a vast sea of desert and cactus and it is very soothing on the spirit when you are out in it. There are also mountains, and I am out hiking quite a bit. There is a nice mix of urban and rural in Tucson. There are horse ranches literally two minutes from downtown, and you can see coyotes and javelinas right in town, even though there are close to a million people in the area. There are bears, birds, insects and reptiles of all kinds. The heat and sun find their way into my poetry now too, it is an inevitability. The sun is a real presence here, much like Australia I would imagine. I don’t know if the desert has shaped my overall vision, because my overall vision is one of a basically sad human race, a cruel human race, and I have seen that people are pretty much the same wherever they live. Life is hard, creation is hard, and people don’t really care about each other very much it seems. Someone always wants to dominate you.
Q4: You brilliantly evoke the desert landscape and variable seasons of Arizona in a couple of your best poems ‘Our Last Sunset’ and ‘Tucson Monsoon’. You also state elsewhere that you like to write about what you know. Why haven’t you written more descriptions of the landscape and about the writing process?
A4: Thank you. I think the desert is beautiful. However, a lot of people would disagree with you, because they think nature poems are old fashioned or sentimental or romantic or just boring. It is much more hip to be urban. I personally like both of those poems you mentioned, but I don’t write too much of that because I like to write primarily about people. I have written so many poems about the writing process I can’t tell you, but most of them have not been published and are not in the book because I don’t send them out anymore. Poems about poems, or about the writing process, are some of the most common types of poems you see, and I just don’t want to be known as someone who writes those. I prefer other subject matter, I prefer poems written by someone who doesn’t SEEM to be a poet, who isn’t constantly thinking “I’m a poet, I’m a poet, see me being a poet, see me poeticizing life, see how clever I am, see how much smarter and morally superior and wise I am than you”. This kind of self consciousness gets old and I have criticized it before. To me the best poems are stories told from a point of view of someone outside the poetry world. I don’t mind insecurity, confusion, I don’t mind sloppiness, in fact I prefer a few stray hairs, as long as there is energy and spirit and an individual humanity that I can feel. It’s hard to say. Emotional depth and honesty to me are very important.
Q5: What are the most significant things you have you learn about writing poetry and the publishing industry in the last fifteen years?
A5: I guess the main thing I’ve learned about writing is that you have to be an experienced person. I don’t believe you have to be necessarily well read or educated to tell good stories, but a rich array of experiences is necessary. Usually, a vast array of experiences will not only make you more interesting, but also more humble. Not always, but usually. Humility, as well as humor, I find lacking in most modern poetry. You have to have the pretentiousness beaten out of you, you have to have your preconceived notions smashed, before you can start from ground level.
I take many nuts and bolts lessons from the fiction writers: keep with action verbs and make sure your poem does something or goes somewhere. Let the action and dialogue show the reader something, rather than just telling him something. I also feel it’s important to be loose when writing. I am always drinking beer and smoking pot when I write. I put a very small emphasis on craft. I do revise, but for me revising is a matter of taking out all the bullshit, whereas some people seem to think revising means just polishing the bullshit to an amber glow. I do like metaphors and use them a lot, but I don’t like forced metaphors, I don’t like them to get in the way, or to be a way of showing off, but only to illuminate.
As far as the publishing industry goes, the internet is just like the mimeo revolution 60 years ago, in that it just makes publishing very easy. It is replete with writers with nothing to say, no stories to tell. They love to huddle in groups and rub against each other and pat each other on the back and act as if they have invented the world. The university system and MFA programs have become so numerous it’s like a cancer. People think of poetry as a CAREER. I have learned that marketing does work, and that poor writers can sell books, make money, get famous and die famous and never know the truth about their wormy souls or their half ass talent. It is hard to blame someone for writing a bad book, unless they are all over the place telling people how great it is. I mostly blame the publishers and the sycophants for furthering bad literature in the name of making money or of being cool. This is what turns people into egomaniacs, too many premature compliments. If you get too many compliments, especially when you are young, you are finished.
Q6: In researching your work I have learnt that you have had a few run-ins with editors and have been banned from some social network sites because of your passionate critical commentary of some of the inept poems and comments posted there. Your column ‘Drought Resistant Strain’ on the site ‘Girls With Insurance’ http://girlswithinsurance.com/index.php/columns is particularly humorous & scathing in its view of mainstream poetry. Can you give us a brief summary of what you hate most about the state of poetry today?
A7: I do try to be humorous in that column. I think criticism without humor is dull reading and sounds too cocky. I get in arguments on the net because I am argumentative and people just don’t like criticism and don’t get my sense of humor. Criticism nowadays is a fucking fo paw. I dislike the herd mentality in all of its manifestations, and in the poetry world it is just as noticeable and detestable as it is in the many religious communities. I dislike pretentiousness, which is like people expecting to be admired for getting out of bed. All these MFA people think they are intellectually superior. Besides the fact that I don’t think good poetry depends primarily on intellect, it is also clear to me that these same people who pride themselves on their intellects really just aren’t that bright. At most they are of average intelligence. They are good mimics, like parrots, and always have friends around to insulate them. In fact some of the dumbest people I have ever met were college graduates. I also dislike the incredible hyperbole that I see everywhere, especially in reviews and blurbs about books. How many “must reads” can there be? How many “thunderous new novels” can there be? It’s a joke. I believe the biggest problem with modern poetry is the same problem with American society: people are lazy, spoiled and uninspired, they don’t want to suffer, they want it easy. They want a cushy life, skinny jeans, rad shoes, health insurance, good love, sushi, etc., but at the same time they want to be lauded as revolutionary poets and artists. They are in love with the image of the artist, they are in love with themselves.
Q7: Many viewers of this review will be young aspiring writers. Imagine you were asked to tutor a promising young poet. What advice would you give to him/her?
A7: The only thing you can do is watch and wait and keep trying. The evolution of a person’s art is the evolution of a person’s character. I don’t believe in the PERFECTION of character, but I do believe in the building of a more complex character. I would never tutor anyone or pretend that I am a guru or teacher or anything like that. I am capable of giving some nuts and bolts advice, but that kind of thing becomes pretty obvious to anyone who can read and takes some time with the art. You can’t teach creativity. The only thing I could say is that creative work is a solitary labor. If you have to go to college don’t study literature. I do believe that a certain amount of suffering in life is necessary, although writers who have never suffered will argue, in their prosaic self-righteousness, that this is a false and stupid thing to say. They will usually make this argument while they are having their green tea and scones on the balconies of their condos. Also, don’t automatically capitulate to someone just because they have won an award or are famous. In fact, distrust them all the more.