Drought Resistant Strain: A Conversation With Mather Schneider
Mather Schneider’s Drought Resistant Strain is now available from Interior Noise Press. We had a great e-mail conversation about his writing, his attitude and much more.
I have to ask. Intentionally or not, you were a pretty polarizing figure on HTMLGIANT, and have been accused of being overly negative. Do you agree with the characterization? Do you think of yourself as a contrarian? How do you feel about being the only person who has ever been banned? Would you like to return to the HTMLGIANT community and if so, why?
If I see something that bothers me, like unthinking pc happy face rhetoric, frat boy backslapping, hyperbolic praise, etc. I negate it. Pretentiousness bothers me a lot, like when someone expects to be admired for getting out of bed and eating a bowl of frosties. And hypocrisy bothers me too. I have seen Blake Butler use basically the same tactics in commenting that they kicked me off for. Essentially a rude jokster tactic that refuses to take the conversation seriously. I have a negative side yes, but I have a positive side too. Most of the people who accuse me of being a contrarian only know a small part of me. As you can see from my poetry I am not all negative.
I am not sure I am the only one who has been banned from HTML GIANT. It would not surprise me if others had been banned but not many people knew about it. Either way, yes it bothers me to be banned when I have seen so many others making what I consider much worse comments than I ever made. I have been threatened by people on the net a few times, and that’s something I would never do. I also do not call people “cunts” or shit like that, which I have been called many times. In fact one guy on HTML GIANT said he was going to burn my house down, but I’m sure he’s still allowed to comment, ha ha! You stood up for me on HTML GIANT and I appreciate that. And if you’re willing to post this on there, you must know you’re going to get some backlash for it, and I respect that.
Funny thing is, just the other day Blake Butler wrote me this:
this is an open invitation for you to send a post of any nature to HTMLGIANT, to be published on the site. we will publish anything you write, about us, or anything else you like, unedited, as long as there’s no pornpics in it. if you’re game, send along whenever. thanks much.
we’re not offering you a position. we’re giving you the opportunity to post anything you want to say. one post, because it would be fun to let you say whatever you want. you’re still banned. but you can say anything in the spirit of saying and we’ll post it. call it an experiment. up to you.”
I told him no thanks. I do not covet acceptance into the HTMLGIANT crowd. I like the energy there and the enthusiasm, but the arrogance and smugness get to me on almost every post. And no matter how good a point you make, you are outnumbered. The herd mentality on that site is unbelievable. Probably because most of them are very young.
You say that pretentiousness bothers you, but isn’t that a subjective judgment? Why do you feel the need to address that sort of thing? Does it ever seem futile?
All judgements are subjective. I feel the need to address it because it is annoying, it is bullshit, and much pretentiousness has been directed at me personally. Yes, it seems futile most every minute of every day. You can’t change people just by criticizing them, by calling them pretentious or anything else. They just get pissed. I don’t know. If I feel someone is pretentious, I am going to say it. It seems there is a lot of subjectivity even concerning the definition of this word. To me it means the quality some people have where they expect to be rewarded, admired, etc. in a way that far outweighs their accomplishments.
Is Mather Schneider your real name? I’ve always wondered about that.
Mather Thomas Schneider is my real name, on my birth certificate. To use all three names seemed too precious, so I dropped the Thomas about 15 years ago. If I was going to make up a name I would have invented one that rolls off the tongue a little easier. Mather, or Mathers, is a fairly common last name and my parents turned it into a first name. No big story behind it. Some people call me Matt, my Mexican girlfriend me llama Mateo. I have found there are two different kinds of people in America: people who immediately think of Jerry Mathers from Leave it to Beaver, or people who think of Cotton Mather, the notorious Puritan witchburner. No relation to either.
I really enjoyed Drought Resistant Strain. I’m a pretty hard sell for poetry but I’ve read your book a few times now and your poetry is really interesting. I found the subjects you take up quite relatable. The word that often came to mind as I read your book was “accessible.” I know some people see that as a negative judgment but to my mind, I feel like your book gives the reader access to the lives you’re detailing in each poem. How do you feel about the idea of accessible poetry? Would you agree that your work is accessible?
Thank you, Roxane, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m a hard sell for poetry myself. I don’t consider “accessible” to be negative at all. I consider my poetry accessible. I consider all good poetry accessible. I hate intellectual/academic word play simply for the sake of word play. I hate puzzles and false mystery. I prefer Raymond Carver to David Foster Wallace, no contest. I write to tell stories and to touch people. I write for everybody. I want people to understand me.
I meant that I want people to understand what I’m writing. I don’t want people to understand me, personally. Sometimes I feel misunderstood but sometimes I think people understand me just fine, on that level. But again, that’s not what I meant. I meant simply I want people to understand my written English. I read a lot of poetry that seems like a different language.
Why the title Drought Resistant Strain? That title feels a bit incongruous with the poetry in this collection and yet, the title intrigues me.
The title was a struggle. I didn’t want to simply lift a title from an individual poem, though I have done that before. I also didn’t want my title to sound like any other book title, I didn’t want it to sound like Bukowski or Raymond Carver or anyone else. I live in the desert, and so there is that theme running through the whole book, and several poems about plants and nature and weather. I also like the connotations of toughness and perseverence. The word “strain” also has multiple meanings that I like. It also relates to the fact that I am 40 years old and am only now getting a full length book out. Trust me, the feeling is much sweeter than it would have been at 24.
How did you assemble this collection? What kind of shape did you want this book to have?
I sent about 200 poems from the last 12 years to David Bates at Interior Noise Press. He whittled down his favorites into the 90 poems or so in the book. I agreed to the choices. I didn’t think too much about the shape of the book, I just wanted it to be readable and strong all the way through. It is not a book of connected poems, but I think that’s ok.
I found that these poems are personal and yet they aren’t, that there’s a certain emotional distance, that these poems are written with, perhaps what might best be termed, an omniscience. How much of your work is autobiographical and is that distance intentional?
I do not try for emotional distance, in fact I try for just the opposite, emotional immediacy, so your statement disheartens me a little. But I understand what you are saying, I think. Many of the poems in this book are in the past tense, and some of them from the very distant past. “Omniscience” is a word I don’t use and never even think about when writing. Much of my work is autobiographical, but many of my stories come to me second hand, but always from the mouths of real people. I do not like writing about photographs or something I’ve read in some newspaper or history book.
I read somewhere that you’re a cab driver. Do you enjoy that work? Is driving a cab at all like it seems on Taxicab Confessions? What’s the strangest thing a passenger has confessed to you?
I’ve never seen that show. People do tell me incredibly personal details and I’m never quite sure why. If a person has to work, I don’t mind driving a taxi. The strangest cab trip I ever had didn’t really involve a confession, per se. I picked up a guy who claimed to be a Mexican gangster. I believed him and still believe him to this day. He had a pistol which he brought out of his coat and put on the seat beside him. He made me drive him around for 4 hours, going to certain places on the Mexican side of town, apparently collecting protection money. Finally he paid me and let me go. He even tipped me, though not much. He told me if I ever told anyone about him he would find me. It scared me shitless. But after a few years I finally wrote a story about it which has been rejected a few times.
I cannot help but notice that several poems involve sex workers and that there was a real… empathy in how you depicted these working girls. Do you have a fondness for whores? Why do sex workers make for such interesting literary fodder?
I was single for many years and had my share of experiences with prostitutes. I don’t have a particular fondness for them, no, but some of them have interesting stories. It’s a different lifestyle, not something you hear about everyday. Yes I have empathy for them, I have empathy for a lot of people, and I think empathy and compassion are important in the best poetry.
Of the “sex worker” poems, I loved Sharon the most because it so perfectly captured the empathy I allude to in the previous question and because even though this poem is telling the story of an aging hooker, I think it also tells the story of an aging woman–those struggles are pretty universal regardless of how you earn a living. As a man, do you find it challenging to write about women authentically? Where does such insight come from?
Thank you very much. The story of Sharon is true, though that’s not her real name. I write about women the same as I do about men, we are not so different deep down. Of course the superficial differences are there and funny sometimes. I just try to write honestly about the interesting people I meet or hear about. Sharon was one of those. I try to make all of my poems as universal as possible, and am glad that this one seemed to work that way for you, because it doesn’t matter what she did for a living, or even that she was a woman, what matters is that she was a human being struggling and suffering. Say what you want about whores but you can’t deny they suffer.
Your poetry has a really strong narrative quality. Do you think of yourself as a storyteller?
Yes I think of myself as a storyteller. I do get lyrical sometimes, dreamy, but less and less as time goes on. I think the story is what’s most important, the meat of reality, the movement and conflict, I think that’s what grabs people and makes people remember it. I think real life stories, strange stories but believable stories, strike a lot deeper and last a lot longer than ethereal boogy-woogies or solipsistic caterwauling. I think metaphor and all literary device should be subordinate to the story. I feel this way about poetry and prose both.
Arizona is a really interesting place given its proximity to the Mexican border and having lived there, I distinctly remember the tensions of living in a borderland. In several of the poems in Drought Resistant Strain, you start to get at some of these tensions. How much does place influence your work? As a white man, how do you negotiate those borderland tensions in your poetry?
Tucson has really gotten into my poetry more and more, the landscape and the Mexican influence. The border tension never really got to me much until I started dating my Mexican girlfriend. I am not a political writer but if I can allude to a larger political situation in a personal story, I think that adds to the universality of the poem. As a white man I have been mostly insulated from these things, but with my girlfriend now I am suddenly in the middle of it. I have learned Spanish too, which has been very difficult but rewarding, though I am not completely fluent yet.
Another theme I picked up in your poetry are these portraits of interesting, elderly people like the poem “Old Gene,” being rolled in and out of the bar where you write He lives right across the street/from the bar/and he’s got a pretty good thing going/if you don’t think about it too much. Where do those poems come from?
Those poems come from my life. The story of Gene is completely true. I drank with him many times. He’s dead now. Rest his soul.
I’m melancholy and happy and many other things depending on a million daily factors. Predominately I am happy, I think. Who knows? I didn’t mean to seem obsessed with my age. It’s just a fact.
How has your writing changed as you’ve gotten older?
I think it has gotten clearer and richer, with more real detail, and more outward looking. I’ve learned to show and not to tell. I can recognize bullshit quicker, meaning derivative stuff, showboating, cliche, superiority, in my own writing and others. When I was younger I had spirit but no stories. My poetry was weak, watery and full of my own ego. I tried to write a novel like Tom Robbins, I tried to write a novel like Charles Bukowski, I tried to write a novel like J.D. Salinger. I didn’t learn until much later to listen to other people in
You are pretty widely published and your bio never seems to be the same. Do you come up with something different every time you’re asked to summarize your accomplishments for a biographical note?
I change my bio every once in a while, but I’m still me. I assume you’re talking about the net bios. Even in the short time I’ve been on the net I’ve grown, moved and changed. Over all I’ve had about 500 poems and prose pieces published in over 350 places for 17 years now. I’ve had different jobs, girlfriends, etc. That’s a strange question.
Speaking of your prolificness, how do you maintain such a high creative output both in terms of quality and quantity? What is your writing process?
I thank you for that but I don’t think I am prolific at all. It’s just that I am 40 years old and have been writing for a long time. Currently I only write on my days off from work, probably two days a week. I sit down in the morning and I drink coffee, then beer, and I brainstorm on my typewriter. I work from memory or from notes, many of which I’ve scribbled in the middle of the night or during the day on the backs of our taxi company business cards. Then I let a stack of poems build up and age for a month or so. Then I look them over again and take the poems I think have the most potential, and put them in the computer. Then I work them for a week or two, usually working a file of 20 poems or so at the same time, just reading them over and over again, looking for bullshit to delete or places to tighten or expand. And that’s it. I write a lot of crap that never sees the light of day. And sometimes I send out crap, and sometimes it gets published.
When I’m writing, I often imagine a soundtrack to a given piece. What songs would complement Drought Resistant Strain?
I generally listen to classical music when I write because there are no words to influence my left brain. I never thought about what song would complement my book. I think someone else would have to decide that. I do like the blues, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash.
My favorite poem (if I have to pick just one) is Hot Iron. What are three of your favorite pieces in this collection? Why?
Thank you again. Hot Iron is one of my favorites. It is really hard for me to say what my ultimate favorite is, because that changes with my mood. I think ME AND JOSIE GO TO THE ZOO is probably my favorite, right now. It was published in River Styx. I like it because it came together very easily and has some good lines, graceful metaphor and a easy flow, if I do say so myself. It came from a true tenderness I feel for my girlfriend combined with the feeling I always have of insecurity, and even of the necessity of accepting insecurity as a fact of life. The ending is fictional but I don’t think it seems forced. I also like YOU CAN’T GET AWAY FROM NATURE for the humor of it and THE BELL for its social commentary. I write a lot about the jobs I’ve had and being a collection agent was easily the worst one.
What’s next for Mather Schneider?
New York Quarterly Press is going to publish a book of my poems either this fall or next spring. I have already sent Raymond Hammond a manuscript and we will start whittling it and perfecting it sometime soon, I hope. It will be new poems, poems that I kept out of Drought Resistant Strain and poems that I have written since then. It will be heavy on narrative, cab driving poems and I think it will be a very good book. I am excited as hell about it.
My other goal is to publish more fiction and a book of stories. I have written many stories but have not pushed them on the market as feverishly, but I think I have some quality stories that will find homes and I think a book is likely some day. I hope so.
Other than that, just keep writing and submitting and fighting with the lit-nazis. I write a critical column for Girls With Insurance as you know. That is every three weeks and it gives me a place to vent.
What do you love most about your writing?
I love the alone time. I love getting a beer buzz and letting my soul flow. I love it when people tell me they like my stuff. Who doesn’t? I love feeling like I am growing as a writer and not stuck or complacent. I am not romantic about writing and I don’t think of it as an overly spiritual thing and I am no zen monk. But it is an activity that taps into your whole brain, or it should be, and that is the challenge and the reward. It is the easiest and the hardest thing in the world to do. But it’s fun. I can’t explain it. You understand.