Tomorrow, Terror House Press will release its 29th book: Rhythm & Mucous by Mather Schneider, a poetry chapbook examining working-class life, Mexican culture, and other topics. A long-time contributor to Terror House Magazine, Schneider is known for his incisive, witty, and tender examination of American low-life. Rhythm & Mucous is Schneider’s second release with Terror House, following his memoir 6 to 6, released last year. I recently sat down for an interview with Schneider to discuss his book, expat life, Charles Bukowski, and other topics.
Matt Forney: You’ve been writing for many years, with numerous stories, poems, and books published by a variety of outlets. What inspired you to write Rhythm and Mucous?
Mather Schneider: Rhythm & Mucous is a collection that spans many years. There was no specific inspiration, except for the title. 25 years ago, I lived with a guy who would always say, “Life is just rhythm and mucous.” I don’t know if he made that up or if he heard it somewhere. I was just starting to send my poems out to small press journals and thinking about a book, and I thought that would make a great title. Over the next 25 years, I published 5 books and a couple chapbooks and I never used the title. I forgot all about it until I came across it in an old journal. I decided it would fit with the manuscript I put together and submitted to you.
MF: I once told you that your writing best exemplifies the vision I have for Terror House: no fluff, no pretension, just a clear-eyed, masculine view of the world. Which other writers and thinkers have had the biggest influence on your work?
MS: Thank you. I value clarity. A piece of writing can and should expand from the particular to the universal, or vice versa. It can also express confusion and wonder. But, for me, the writing itself, the words and sentences as they proceed, one from the other, should be clear and precise and simple. I’m a big fan of simplicity in writing and in life. Some of the simplest writing can be profound and even magical. Being vague or opaque never works for me. Some writers seem to think that if the writing is not clear, it somehow reflects the “chaos of life” or will “shock the reader into another realm of consciousness,” which is complete bullshit. They think a clear, simple style is a sign of the amateur and the more convoluted the better. On the other side of that, one big thing now is the idea of “write how you talk.” That’s okay, but some people talk like morons, or they talk like everybody else talks, and it’s boring. They all talk like they just walked out of an MFA workshop. I don’t think writing has to sound exactly like people talk. Except in dialogue, which is one thing many writers can’t do well. They put long-winded speeches in peoples’ mouths, using sentence structures that people never really use in speech. Or they have them say incredibly clever things that don’t fit, with strange metaphors. I do like writing that sounds not like a person writing, but like a person talking, but only if the person talking is interesting. We’ve all been bored by listening to someone talk endlessly in a bar or wherever. Most people are just not interesting.
I never thought of myself as a particularly masculine writer, but as the times change and things become more and more feminized, I look that way, I guess. I am a man, a regular guy who likes women. I’m no He-Man, no Bronze Age guy, no womanizer. But I’ve been around a little, and done some manly stuff, ha ha. My dick is average size but still works.
Early on, my influences were Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, Mark Twain, Herman Hesse, Nietzsche, J.D. Salinger, Vonnegut, even Tom Robbins. All men. Sue me. In my twenties, I discovered Raymond Carver, Henry Miller, and of course, Bukowski. These three writers are still my biggest influences and some of the few writers I go back to over and over again. Céline came a bit later and became a huge influence, a little too much so, as I found myself writing with his style, his exclamation points, his vocabulary. I love Céline and think he is bedrock. I know he was “problematic,” anti-Semitic, blah, blah. Don’t care. He’s the funniest writer I’ve ever read and his cantankerous outbursts and incredible life still make me marvel. Nobody wrote in such a rich vernacular that I know of.
MF: You’ve written a lot about the influence Charles Bukowski had on your work, which is particularly relevant given the recent attempts by woke women poets to cancel him. Many of his modern detractors seem to miss the fundamental core of his writing: Bukowski wrote not to brag about his sexual conquests (or anything else), but to chronicle the misery of his life; dead-end jobs, dead-end relationships with women and so on. What are your thoughts on Bukowski’s work and his relevance in the modern era? What is your response to the tone-deaf criticisms of him by millennial women?
Bukowski influenced every poet writing today, at least if they’re under the age of 60. Even if writers have never read Bukowski, they are being influenced by him and they don’t even know it. I have seen writers who claim to hate Bukowski come out with books with titles that sound like Bukowski rip-offs. Bukowski once said of William Burroughs: “We need people like Burroughs to keep the air holes clean.” Same thing can be said of Bukowski himself. He opened poetry and prose up, he let it all in. But he still made sense. He was against stilted writing, dull writing, pretentious writing, the stuff that academics make their livings on. He admitted his poetry was mainly just prose broken into lines, but asked, “What’s wrong with that?” Emotion, humor, and pain mattered more to Bukowski than careful crafting according to the current acceptable standards.
Bukowski wrote his novel Women and most women hate it, millennials or otherwise. Bukowski was no womanizer. Shit, you’ve probably had more women than Bukowski ever did. The average professional basketball player or rock star probably has more women in a month than Bukowski had his whole life. I guess he sometimes bragged about it, but when you’re as ugly as Bukowski and you get laid at all, that’s a kind of miracle. It has been explained over and over again that Bukowski wrote about most of the women he knew in the way he did because that’s who they were. If a woman was a bitch, he called her a bitch. He portrayed them honestly, for the most part. He ran with street women, whores, alkies, uglies, crazies, etc. Most any woman who ended up in Bukowski’s bed certainly had issues. So many readers today can’t seem to grasp that women like that actually exist, and that Bukowski knew them, and sometimes loved them. Bukowski was a complete loser, a suicide kid, and he never said otherwise. How you can hate a horrendously ugly guy with a terrible childhood who finally pulled himself out of the gutter is beyond my understanding. He made a lot of people happier. Me included.
Another reason people hate Bukowski now, as they did when he was alive, is because of jealousy. Bukowski lived the “American writer” dream. He actually did it! He wrote in his own way about his own life and he became famous and wealthy in his own time. He roasted academics, he laughed at them while he continued to sell books. That was as unacceptable to the establishment then as it is now. They just can’t accept that a man like that could succeed in what they perceive as their realm. Especially poetry. As I’ve said before and as Bukowski said, they have everything else, nice houses, nice complexions, nice families, health, money, friends, grants, fellowships, prizes, communities, teaching positions, pensions, the majority on their side, residencies, media engagements, but to think that a guy with nothing but a ruptured stomach and a bad attitude sells books, no, that’s unacceptable. 30 years after his death he’s still being read with a passion.
MF: Both Rhythm and Mucous and 6 to 6 incorporate anecdotes from your career as a taxi driver. While I’ve never been a cab driver, I think anyone who’s had a terrible job can relate to your experiences. Delicious Tacos, who has also written about demeaning, low-paid jobs, holds the opinion that work is inherently demeaning and dehumanizing. What are your thoughts on jobs like these? Is there any value that can come from these jobs (beyond the paycheck, obviously) or do you view work as something that’s fundamentally miserable?
MS: I’ve been working since I was 14 years old when my dad drove me to work at Fon du Lac golf course in East Peoria, Illinois. I made $2.17 per hour because I was underage. I’ve had so many jobs I can’t remember them all. Not all of them were demeaning or dehumanizing, exactly. I mean, people have to work, at least a little. Or you survive on handouts. Cab driving was the best job I’ve ever had. It provided a certain amount of freedom, and was not so routine-oriented as most jobs are. After 15 years of it, I was ready to quit, but mostly because Uber came along and devastated our earnings. Also, cab driving went from just getting a person from point A to point B to “giving that person a quality experience” and “the customer is always right,” meaning if you didn’t put on the right music, you’re a racist.
I’ve had assembly line jobs at fish processing plants and lumber mills that were completely insane and dehumanizing. You are literally just a machine, a robot, standing there doing the same thing over and over for eight hours. But I also know that there are people around the world who would kill to have a job like that. I have no idea what the ideal job would be, how to make a living in this world that is not in the end deadening. Growing tomatoes can be as much of a drag as driving a cab. Or writing for a living! Stuck at your computer ten hours a day, fucking up your back, your neck, your eyes. The only clear thought I have about this is that people want too much. They work for things that will not bring them happiness. If you can live simple and not want too much, that’s a key. Delicious Tacos said one time how much he makes from his books a year, and it was nearly twice as much as my wife and I currently make to live on. He thinks he needs millions to retire. That’s his choice. If I was single and making as much money on books as he is, I’d leave skid marks on whatever job I had.
I have no idea if there is any “value” to working, beyond like you said, a paycheck. I got a lot of stories out of my cab driving days, a lot of “anecdotes,” met a lot of people, etc. I’m not ashamed of it or sorry I did it. Might even have to go back to it someday, though hope not.
MF: A prevalent theme in Rhythm and Mucous—as well as your work in general—is your observations on life in Mexico, where you moved some years ago. I moved to Mexico earlier this year and spent the previous four years living in various countries in Europe, so I’m acquainted with the experience of being an expat. What do you like about living in Mexico? What don’t you like about it? Has your life as an expat affected your writing and perspective, and if so, how?
My move to Mexico was not by choice. It was a dream my wife and I had, but we thought we would do it when we were much older. My wife developed some physical problems and lost her job at McDonald’s, where she’d been for 12 years. We had no luck with doctors in the states and decided to try the doctors in Hermosillo, where my wife is from and where most of her family still lives. We sold our house in Tucson and moved to Hermosillo, ugly stinking capital of Sonora, Mexico. The doctors in Hermosillo didn’t do much for her either but suck our money. But, with a year’s rest, my wife began to feel better. That’s when we had to make a decision: stay in Mexico or move back to the States. We still had about 50 grand from the sale of our house, and with this, we bought a property in Puerto Peñasco and built three apartments on it. One to live in, and two to rent to tourists. That was three years ago, and despite the pandemic, we have managed to live on that meager income of around $12,000 a year.
I wrote my first novel in Hermosillo, the one you read and expressed an interest in. I’m still working on it. At first, it was strange not writing about cab driving after 15 years of pretty much nothing but that. I never worried about how something might affect my writing. I’m not a professional writer, hardly think of myself as a writer at all. I just chronicle my life, and there’s certainly plenty of drama and conflict here in Mexico to write about.
I like living here in Mexico. Our town is small. It’s like going back in time 50 years. It’s simpler. Five minutes to the grocery, five minutes to the mom-and-pop hardware store, stuff like that. No traffic. It’s not perfect; there are always problems. They burn the trash and the whole town stinks. Sewers back up. Police and politicians are corrupt. Nothing is ever done right. Cartels control things, such as the cab service. But we stick to our own business and live okay. Even as poor as we are, we are still better off than 90 percent of the locals. Death, sickness, violence, poverty, and deprivation are a constant here. I have an extended family here, so I see these things up close.
MF: Continuing with this theme, your work has often discussed your experiences with women in both the U.S. and Mexico. Expats commonly say that women in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and other popular destinations are more attractive, easier to get along with, and more “trad” (debatable in my opinion) then women back home. What are your observations on women in Mexico versus the U.S.?
MS: Women in Mexico are wonderful. They’re not whores though, like in Southeast Asia. At least not where I live. And obesity here is rampant, due to flour tortillas and soda and other junk food from the states. So many have such beautiful faces and eyes and hair and skin, but they get fat, too fat. Although they seem to hold their fat better than white women, they’re still fat. Most women here are Catholic. They’re not gonna fuck you for fun. The only whores I see here are grotesque drug addicts, like in the States. Yes, Mexican woman are more traditional, although that too is changing due to the influence of the U.S. They are absolutely easier to get along with, laugh and smile easier, do not judge you because of some idea they saw on Twitter. They do not ask you who you voted for or what your pronouns are, they don’t give a shit. They seem to prefer their men to be men, faults and warts included. They are more tolerant. I’ve seen you say that nobody treats you badly because you are a white man from the United States, and my experiences completely affirm that. Nobody hates me because I’m from the States. They call me “gringo,” and it’s true. I’m a gringo. I have been married to my wife for 12 years. I can’t imagine ever being with an American woman again. There is no comparison.
MF: One topic lingering in the background of Rhythm & Mucous and 6 to 6 is mortality and aging. “The Swelling” and “The Tooth Monkey” detail an unpleasant hospital and dental visit, respectively; “My Woman Lies Barren” is about the tragedy of a woman who cannot have children, a death of its own kind. “The Swelling” also addresses how poor lifestyle choices often lead to serious health problems later in life, tying into America’s schizophrenic relationship with health and death; mass obesity and diabetes paired with the complete restructuring of life due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What are your thoughts on aging and mortality and the way it’s typically addressed in society?
I am no one to talk about how to live a healthy lifestyle. I drink a lot of beer and smoke cigarettes. I have been blessed by good genes, but I’ve had my problems. I’m 51 and the body breaks down eventually. Poco a poco, little by little, or all at once. America’s lifestyle and health system is a complete joke. Big news there! In the cab driving business, at least the way is used to be, we would transport medical patients to and from doctors, for free, paid for by the state. In 15 years, I don’t think I ever heard one story where a doctor really helped a patient. It was always a nightmare story. The medical system doesn’t help that many people. Sure, antibiotics are good, hip replacements are good, and they help. But people run to the doctor for every little thing. Most things that go wrong with the body will either heal themselves in time, or they won’t; not a thing a doctor can do about it except pump you full of costly drugs with side-effects. That being said, I’ve found that most people in Mexico treat doctors like gods. They bow down to them as if they were priests or judges. And sometimes just hearing a doctor say “You’re gonna be okay,” is enough to cure them.
My wife’s uncle just died of COVID, alone in his house at age 63. I mean, they said it was COVID, but who knows? My wife has had several health issues. One thing that is glaring to me is the idea of “lifespan” and how high it is in the States. Well, no shit; we keep our 90-year-olds in nursing homes, cared for every minute, completely isolated from life, gently blowing on them to keep the flame alive. Most of the time this doesn’t happen in Mexico. People hit 75, break a bone, or get bit by a spider and die. Nobody likes it, but honestly, it’s probably closer to nature just to let it happen. Not too much life-support system to keep bloated corpses alive to pad the statistics.
As far as the pandemic goes, Mexico just goes with the flow of the U.S. Whatever happens in the U.S., they do it, too. They are now talking about closing the beaches again, because I guess beaches are a big “spreader.” I’m sick of it. Tired of hearing about it. It’s lunacy. The doctor’s offices and hospitals are empty here. The effects of “shutdowns” here are infinitely worse than shutdowns in the states. No relief checks. No nothing. They just shut down businesses and say fuck you. Lives are ruined. All for some kind of global acceptance. Mexico is no different than any other country: the idiots are running things.
The only thing I can say is, eat vegetables and fruit and don’t worry too much. Take care of your teeth. Worry and stress (especially if it is all in the mind) is a real killer. My wife worries a lot about all kinds of things she can’t control, and her family tells her she shouldn’t worry so much. They say she spent too much time in the U.S. I think they’re right. Learning not to worry is really the goal of wisdom, I think.
MF: You’ve written much about the deplorable state of modern poetry, both in your own poems and in essays such as “Notes on the Tucson Poetry Festival.” Given your experience writing and the numerous books you’ve had published, do you have any advice for aspiring writers? What future books and projects do you have planned?
My criticisms of poetry are not so much about the poetry itself, but about the game, the culture surrounding it, which is just a part of our culture in general. Most poetry sucks, that’s a given, just as most prose sucks and most movies suck and most restaurant food sucks. No poem is going to be universally loved. But when the culture dictates that nobody should ever say that the poetry sucks, that’s when I have a problem. When everything is about how wonderful and stunning and brave a poet is, no matter what, that’s fucked up. When you can’t say a woman’s poem was bad without being accused of hating all women, it gets depressing. Or a poem by a black person. Or a poem by a trans person. Poets sometimes gang up and get a poem deleted from a publication. And the publication submits and “unpublishes” the poem and says, “We’re sorry, we made a huge mistake. We’ll do better.” As if that’s not absurd enough, they have to nerve to say that’s not censorship, because censorship only comes from the government. As if these people wouldn’t applaud a government mandate against “offensive poetry” if it ever came up. If these attitudes persist, soon these very same people will be in government. I think that’s inevitable, and don’t see it turning around in my lifetime. Everybody is afraid.
I have no advice for writers that hasn’t been said a million times before: if you want to, keep doing it. I’ve made pennies on my books and don’t pretend to be qualified to tell someone how to succeed. Make friends with people with connections, I guess.
I have two books of poetry I’m working on and the before-mentioned novel. I write and put my stuff on Medium now, which makes me about 20 bucks a month. That’s 400 pesos, which comes in handy.
MF: Thank you for your time.
Rhythm & Mucous is out now: you can buy it by clicking here.