By Evan Mantyk

In the sea of free verse, drifting downward into the bottomless whirlpool of aesthetic relativism, it is hard to not get lost; but poet, editor, and professor Joseph S. Salemi seems to have found the other shore. He has stood firm on the bedrock of rhyme and meter and, in addition to publishing five poetry books of his own, acted as a beacon for others by editing TRINACRIA, a vanguard of poetry and art.

Question: Why is poetry in rhyme and meter—which are very much ignored and in some cases looked down upon by the poetry establishment—still important?

Salemi: It’s important for the same reason that figurative painting, opera, ballet, tonal music, and intelligible discursive philosophy are important. They are all part of the European tradition, and touchstones of Western identity. Even more significantly, they speak to rational human beings in ways that the garbage art of today does not, and never can. The purveyors of dominant garbage art (and their flacks in the academic establishment) are well aware of this, which is why they despise and denigrate traditional poetry in rhyme and meter. The prejudice—especially in the little magazines—is intense and visceral.

Question: How did you first get started as a poet?

Salemi: I began as a child, with the strong influence of my grandfather Rosario Previti, a Sicilian poet and newspaper columnist, and the translator of FitzGerald’s version of the Rubaiyat. His Sicilian and Italian poems were omnipresent in my childhood, and his love for FitzGerald drew me into the magic circle of excellent English verse. My mother (his daughter) was also a profound source of encouragement. She read a translation of Beowulf to her children that was enchanting, and she frequently would read us selections from Oscar Williams’ wonderful A Treasury of Light Verse. She also would read us Poe, Edward Lear, and John Masefield. By the time I was eight, I knew a good deal about how poetry worked. And some passages of poetry had indelibly inscribed themselves on my soul. I am still powerfully moved by these lines from Joaquin Miller’s “Columbus”:

Behind him lay the gray Azores,
Behind the Gates of Hercules;
Before him not the ghost of shores,
Before him only shoreless seas…

I don’t know anyone who can write with that kind of rhetorical power today.

Question: I’ve read that the sonnet originated from Sicily. Is there something especially poetical or romantic about Sicily? Have you been there?

Salemi: No, I’ve not been to Sicily, although all four of my grandparents came from the island.  According to tradition, the sonnet was invented by the Sicilian Giacomo da Lentini in the early 13th century.  His original texts were in pure Sicilian, and not Italian.  Giacomo was a member of the court of the Emperor Frederick II (himself a poet in Sicilian), and as a ruler Frederick’s skill in warfare, diplomacy, and things literary earned him the sobriquet “Stupor Mundi,” or “The World’s Wonder.”  Sicily is well known for its deep poetic heritage, going back to Greek days.  The entire mature tradition of bucolic poetry (which gives rise to the European-wide genre of the pastoral) has its roots in the work of Theocritus and Moschus, both from the Sicilian city-state of Syracuse.  Probably the most famous Sicilian poet was Giovanni Meli (1740-1815), who had a stellar reputation far beyond Sicily and Italy.  He wrote in the very beautiful and prestigious Palermitan dialect.  And the vitality of Sicilian poetry (in many dialects) continues right up to today.  There’s a common saying in Italy: “If you want to hear good poetry, come to Sicily, because she holds the banner of victory.”

Question: Who are your three favorite pre-modern poets? (You can add a list of runners-up too if you like).

Salemi: I can’t name just three. There are too many to enumerate. Going way back in time, I love Chaucer and the Gawain Poet. Spenser, Marlowe, and Shakespeare are utterly magnificent. Dryden and Pope are great favorites of mine, and later on Lord Byron. Browning is wonderful and much of Tennyson, though I loathe the gaseous In Memoriam. I always return to Swinburne, Ernest Dowson, Praed, and John Masefield.

Question: What inspires you most to write your own poetry?

Salemi: That’s a tough question. Different motives inspire different individual poems. Many of my satiric pieces are written out of sheer anger and hatred, while other poems might be inspired by a desire to capture a lost memory, or by a need to explain some abstruse point, or by a desire to present an exemplum in the medieval manner. To be quite honest, however, many of my poems have their beginning in a single perfect line in perfect meter that comes into my head, and from that perfect line the rest of the poem grows, as if from a seedling.

Question: What inspires you to put out a poetry journal?

Answer: I’ve been involved in the production of three poetry magazines: Poetry New York with Burt Kimmelman, Pivot with Arthur Mortensen, and Iambs & Trochees with William Carlson. I began TRINACRIA in 2009 because I wanted a publication in which I was the only editorial voice and authority. But even more than that, I wanted to bring out a magazine that was consciously in opposition to what I call Mainstream Mediocrity, or the now ubiquitous poetry of shapelessness, brainless enthusiasm, and glassy-eyed emotionalizing. That’s why the Statement of Core Principles in every issue of TRINACRIA is largely negative—it tells readers and prospective submitters what I don’t want. In addition, I started TRINACRIA because I was infuriated over the fact that left-wing political correctness was consciously excluding from print many poems by conservative or right-wing writers. Despite all the lying hype about “diversity” and “openness” and “inclusion,” American poetry was becoming a closed corporation for a rather narrow bandwidth of sociopolitical opinion.

Question: Please describe your creative process. Is it like there truly is a Muse? Do poems come out perfect or near perfect the first time?

Answer: The image of “the Muse” is just a metaphor. No one really knows how inspiration works, and I’m sure it works differently for various poets. My own creative process is not complicated—it starts with either a phrase or a line which I jot down, and afterwards I’ll develop that phrase or line fairly quickly into a nearly perfect rough draft of a poem. I leave it for a few days, and then give it a bit of revision. Frequently I get an idea from something that I am reading—one of my best recent poems came as a result of reading the Burgundian Law Code from sixth-century France. I’ve never had a completely perfect poem come to me all at once, though in rare cases (when I was composing light verse) a poem came to me nearly perfect, and just needed a small touch here and there.

Question: You have been publishing a journal dedicated to poetry in rhyme and/or meter, TRINACRIA, since 2009. Being in the trenches of poetry can be an ugly business. What positive lessons have you drawn?

Answer: The po-biz world is indeed rather nasty and ugly. It’s populated by all sorts of careerists, phonies, hangers-on, incompetents, and grant-scroungers. Then there are all the delicate little snowflakes, the political bullies, and the angry partisans of group identity. Shelley once fatuously called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” All I can say in response is that I’m very glad they are unacknowledged. Having poets in any kind of position of authority would be as horrific as Jurassic Park. The main lessons I have learned from running TRINACRIA are that you must follow your own aesthetic taste and principles ruthlessly and unswervingly; that you must ignore all negative criticism and much ill-advised positive advice; and that you must be utterly unafraid to say or print anything.

Question: What is the future of TRINACRIA? What future publications do you have forthcoming?

Salemi: I’ll publish TRINACRIA as long as I have the energy to do so. I’ve brought out sixteen packed issues so far, and that is way beyond the normal lifespan of a little magazine today. There’s been so much material published in TRINACRIA that I have had to print two indexes (in Issues #8 and #16) to serve as guides for future researchers. TRINACRIA has published material that no other literary review would dare to publish. I’m fiercely proud of that, and I intend to continue doing the same in the future. We are, as I like to say, The Elephant in the Drawing Room that nobody wants to talk about. As for my own work, I’m trying to wrap up my lengthy satire A Gallery of Ethopaths for Pivot Press, and I owe a new collection of poetry to another publisher.

 

Joseph S. Salemi Poetry Published by the Society

‘A Note on Rumi to the Global Diversity Committee’ by Joseph S. Salemi

‘Susan B. Anthony Upbraids Elizabeth Cady Stanton’ by Joseph S. Salemi

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2 Responses

  1. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    Let me please say, in the immediacy of my first reading of this interview, that Joseph Salemi typifies the atypical, to speak of those members of the Ars Poetica Nova now emerging as veritable men of letters, supremely refined and catholic in their tastes, impeccably educated, and faithful to the highest exigencies of their art. We can only congratulate Mr. Mantyk for publishing a perfect interview with one of our nation’s most important editors of fine poetry. For, TRINACRIA, since 2009, has represented the purest possible application of those immemorial principles which underlie the entire tradition of Western European poetry in its noblest and most enduring manifestations. I can say that I have been reverentially fearful even of approaching so intransigent a publication as TRINACRIA whose delightfully sniffy, unyielding standards are the very salvation of English verse and the future of Anglophone poetry in general. Indeed, I have stated in my own interview with Mr. Mantyk that no one has the right to compose a sonnet in English who has not first recited one in Italian. Joseph Salemi’s intellectual breadth and depth include this fundamental knowledge of the sonnet’s venerable history without which the New Lyric Poetry is virtually impossible. TRINACRIA not only defends and illustrates these principles, but defines them on a technical level with aught of clarity, insight, and magisterial wit. In those samples of Salemi’s own poetic practice which gild the pages of ClassicalPoets.org, we see that ebullient wit in joyful abundance. Salemi’s unforgettable poem entitled “Note on Rumi to the Global Diversity Committee” turns in well-deserved derision an overrated, pseudo-mystical pantheist of Persia who has become the idol of what Salemi calls Mainstream Mediocrity. When considering this and the anti-feminist poem entitled “Susan B. Anthony Upbraids Elizabeth Cady Stanton” we seem in Salemi a modern Horace or Juvenal, one who is profoundly engaged in the satiric side of the Nouvelle Poésie which is no less worthy of our attention, as it is no less elegant and certainly no less elevated than the productions of the movement’s more lyrical poets. One might even say that these two aspects are dependent on each other, as very similar standards of concision and craftsmanship must be satisfied in both. This greatest of editors is not only a supreme essayist and critic, but a poet in his own right producing exquisite works which will long endure. Put in another way, Joseph Salemi is a “poet’s poet,” one we can all of us respect without the least hesitation. History shall record him as one of the outstanding fathers of the Ars Poetica Nova. Until then, TRINACRIA is one of the last stolen pleasures left on earth, to be savored like a 60-year old Armagnac.

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  2. James Sale

    This is a great interview and Joseph Salemi is one – helluva! – truculent guy, poet and editor. It’s nice to find someone more virulent than myself about the ‘garbage’ posing as poetry (and in the other arts too we find the same phenomenon – I have just been last weekend to the British Museum in London where there is a major post-modern exhibition of American art on display – Warhol et al – simultaneously fascinating because so appalling – the easy road to destruction, ‘taken’ as it were). Most interesting for me of all his points is the one about the hypocrisy about ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’: whenever one hears these cant phrases one knows that we are not dealing with poetry or anything else that could remotely be construed as creative; pure and simple, we are in the realms of politics; and we also know that that means there is an oligarchy controlling all the alleged diversity and inclusion with its own elitist agenda. It’s important, collectively, to work against these elites, for they are the antithesis of all art.

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