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

NOTE TO READERS: If you enjoyed this poem or other content, please consider making a donation to the Society of Classical Poets.

The Society of Classical Poets does not endorse any views expressed in individual poems or commentary.

CODEC Stories:

8 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, 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.

  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.

    • Wilson Pike

      Hi, I’m just watched a video that looked at Bob Dylan’s, Hwy 61 Revisited. I don’t know, but if this interpretation hadn’t been published, my only question is, how can that be? I came here hoping to contact Prof. Salemi but I could not find any contact info. Well, I’ve been trying to find out more about this interpretation of this Dylan poem, but no luck so far. I just don’t get it. I mean, I think Bob is pretty popular, and I think he won a Nobel, so how can this be the first time I’ve seen, or why isn’t this something I can find online? The video is:

      I think it takes about 10 minutes before the poem is analysed. You can skip the first part, as I’m not sure what that is all about.

  3. Evan

    Looking back over my materials from teaching Middle School U.S. History, I found the whole poem from which Mr. Salemi quotes. Every U.S. history classroom should be reading it!

    Columbus by Joaquin Miller
    BEHIND him lay the gray Azores ,
    Behind the Gates of Hercules ;
    Before him not the ghost of shores,
    Before him only shoreless seas.
    The good mate said: “Now must we pray,
    For lo! the very stars are gone.
    Brave Admiral, speak, what shall I say?”
    “Why, say, ‘Sail on! sail on! and on!’”

    “My men grow mutinous day by day;
    My men grow ghastly wan and weak.”
    The stout mate thought of home; a spray
    Of salt wave washed his swarthy cheek.
    “What shall I say, brave Admiral, say,
    If we sight naught but seas at dawn?”
    “Why, you shall say at break of day,
    ‘Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!’”

    They sailed and sailed, as winds might blow,
    Until at last the blanched mate said:
    “Why, now not even God would know
    Should I and all my men fall dead.
    These very winds forget their way,
    For God from these dread seas is gone.
    Now speak, brave Admiral, speak and say”—
    He said: “Sail on! sail on! and on!”

    They sailed. They sailed. Then spake the mate:
    “This mad sea shows his teeth to-night.
    He curls his lip, he lies in wait,
    With lifted teeth, as if to bite!
    Brave Admiral, say but one good word:
    What shall we do when hope is gone?”
    The words leapt like a leaping sword:
    “Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!”

    Then, pale and worn, he kept his deck,
    And peered through darkness. Ah, that night
    Of all dark nights! And then a speck—
    A light! A light! A light! A light!
    It grew, a starlit flag unfurled!
    It grew to be Time’s burst of dawn.
    He gained a world; he gave that world
    Its grandest lesson: “On! sail on!”

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      In New Mexico, we have retained the ancient custom of saying a brief Latin prayer and signing ourselves whenever we set off on a trip of any kind:

      “Jesus cum Maria, sit nobis in via!” Jesus and Mary we, pray, be with us on our way…

      …the very same prayer Columbus said as he set out on the Santa Maria (which he captained) in 1492. Columbus is part of our cultural memory here.

      While we can all admire Joaquin Miller’s poem on many levels, it seems to me essentially empty—the more so in consideration of Columbus’s friendship with Fr. Juan Perez, the Franciscan priest who was the confessor of Isabella La Católica herself.

      Was it not for the constant interventions of Fr. Perez at the court of Castille on Columbus’s behalf, the entire Age of Discovery would never have occurred at all.

      The one true friend in Columbus’s life was, indeed, Fr. Perez, at least since 1485. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Fr. Perez had wielded tremendous influence as a director of conscience and political adviser for Columbus. The two were such very good friends that Perez joined the second expedition of 1493.

      After the party landed on Haiti, it was Fr. Perez who offered the very first Mass in the New World, on December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception (yes, it was already a feast in the Latin Church since the 8th century, although the dogma was not yet defined). The place of the landing was therefore given the name Point Conception.

      In 1854, the Bishops of Baltimore unanimously declared the Blessed Virgin Mary conceived without sin, that is, the Immaculate Conception, patroness of the United States of America.

      In one of his letters to the Queen, Columbus speaks of the myriad Christian souls who would occupy the New World long after both queen and explorer were gone.

      The Christian voyage always has a destination; Miller’s poem, none.

      “Sail on!” where, for what reason, to what end? Why do we sail? What is our commission? In fact, Miller’s poem could literally apply to any ship whatever. The grey Azores and the Gates of Hercules by no means provide the necessary specificity.

      Miller wishes to entertain us.

      A true poet would have drawn us into Columbus’s act of faith as the first seaman not to follow a shoreline, or, at very least, described the heaviness of the hearts of the people of Palos in witnessing the departure of two of their noblest sons on an expedition everyone considered doomed—and certainly Our Lady would have played an enormous part in a real poem on the subject.

  4. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    As to my comment above, let me say that Dr. Salemi has personally given me an insight into this kind of poetry by speaking of poetry as a “license of hyper-reality.” So, there is way of appreciating the poem on that simple gratuitous level.

    Of course a Catholic might have given depth to the theme, but this in no way diminishes the worthiness of the poem as a poem, and in that, I am grateful to Dr. Salemi.

    For, I, too, believe that we have lost the simple pleasure of reading, a loss imposed by modernism, and am pleased to be reminded of that.

  5. Alexander Ream

    five minutes into your poem from my email, then into this interview – my whole day has been turned about for the better. Thanks President Evan; thanks Dr Salemi.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Captcha loading...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.