An Interview with Joseph S. Salemi

The interview hereunder took place at New York University’s La Maison Française in early October 2010.

Derek Burgoyne: Now that the third issue of TRINACRIA is out, can you comment a bit on how things are progressing?

Joseph S. Salemi: Sure. We’ve established ourselves as a major venue for formalist poetry, and we get plenty of excellent material.

DB: Do you have a backlog of yet-to-be-published poems?

JS: No. After my experience with that at Iambs & Trochees I swore that I would only accept enough work for each issue, and then shut the gates until I started work on the next. Backlogs of material are nightmarish, and they are a major source of discord between poets and editors.

DB: I suppose the fact that you are an invitation-only magazine makes that possible.

JS: Yes, it helps. It also helps that there’s only one editor.

DB: Has anyone refused to be in the magazine?

JS: No. In fact, I’ve gotten a number of discreet inquiries from poets hinting that they would appreciate an invitation.

DB: Did you extend invitations to them?

JS: Yes, of course. As somebody in the news recently said, “Courage is contagious.”

DB: Ha! That was one of us in Sweden: Julian Assange.

JS: I’m sure he’s the typical socialist Swede moonbat, but God bless him for throwing a monkey wrench into these vicious neocon wars that we’re waging.

DB: He’s actually an Australian, not a Swede.  And let’s not get started on your detestation of the neocons.

JS: Neocons? I react like Tybalt did in Romeo and Juliet: “I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee!” But you’re right—let’s stick with the subject of TRINACRIA.

DB: You know of course that there is an undercurrent of vicious attacks on TRINACRIA at the closed forums and the private message boards.

JS: So what else is new? These are the same old bleats of outrage from the cadre of leftist and liberal weenies, as Angelique Wellish would say. I could come out with another Iliad and they’d bad-mouth it.

DB:  Aren’t you afraid of offending too many people?

JS:  Well remember, Derek—it’s not like I’m offending the Mafia or the Colombian drug cartels. These are just a pack of narcissistic litteratteurs. What can they possibly do? Sic the Power Puff Girls on me?

DB: Yes, but Joe—we right-wing types are already at a severe disadvantage in the poetry world.  Why make things more difficult? 

JS: Derek, it isn’t going to get any better by our being polite and deferential to these scum. They count on that to maintain their hegemony. Look—it’s not just a question of gonzo leftist posturing by the usual suspects like Quincy Lehr. Jerks of that sort are predictable. You also have to remember that a great many people in the poetry world are wilting flowers. They are psychological basket-cases: emotionally needy, high-strung, vulnerable, damaged, and grossly hypersensitive. They cry easily, they have panic attacks, they react viscerally, and they are frequently on meds. Dealing with them is as exasperating as dealing with autistic children, or the severely neurotic.

DB: So are you saying that there is no way to avoid getting on the bad side of these folks?

JS: In the case of the overt left-liberal bigots, that’s correct. In the case of the wilting flowers, after a while I simply grew tired of tiptoeing around their fragile sensibilities. I decided to bring out a poetry magazine that would be as robust as a Marine boot camp. No pathetic whining, no self-pity, no complex mooning over “relationships,” no embarrassing confessional drivel. Also, there would be nothing trendy. The magazine would be unapologetically impersonal and tough.

DB: Are you saying that there won’t be any poetry of personal emotion or self-revelation in TRINACRIA?

JS: No, I don’t mean that. We have published poems of deeply felt and genuine emotion. What I do mean is that I will not let the magazine become a catch-basin for the kind of sniffling, feeling-oriented mawkishness that disfigures poetry today.

DB: Isn’t that also genuine emotion?

JS: Frankly, no. What passes for “deeply felt emotion” in a lot of contemporary poetry is just a fashion-accessory statement that one has the proper and socially accepted sensitivities.

DB: You are very strict about metrics in your magazine.

JS: Not as strict as I would like to be.  But one must make allowances for modern looseness.

DB: So you do grant an occasional liberty to your contributors.

JS: Well, as I once said about our Statement of Core Principles, the rules are not carved in granite.  But I am going to kick and scream in each individual case, so that the contributor thinks twice before trying my patience again.  

DB: Of course, an allowance for one poet might signal a flood of requests from others.

JS: I know. This is a systemic flaw in societies permeated by a democratic ideology. Special privileges are immediately perceived as unfair elitist advantages, unless the privileges are granted as universal entitlements.  In democracies, this notion influences how everyone thinks about everything. So if I grant one poet a legitimate allowance for a hypermetric line, or a justifiable indulgence for aberrant punctuation, you can bet your bottom dollar that every other poet out there will start bellowing about his “right” to have the same leeway.  Where does it stop? I will not let this thin edge of the wedge into the door.

DB: How would you respond to those who say that a little more freedom would make TRINACRIA more open to innovation and experimentation?

JS: I would respond that a great many silly poets salivate like Pavlov’s dogs when they hear those two words.  As William Gaddis said, people who are into innovation and experimentation are usually those who can’t do things the right way, so they insist on doing things their own way.

DB: Well, you know that once you are labeled a “conservative” journal you suffer pariah status in the po-biz world.

JS: Yes—ironic, isn’t it? The most fatuous and dimwitted charge brought against TRINACRIA is the one that calls us “hidebound” or “conservative” or “rigid.” There isn’t another poetry journal in the country that would have the audacity or sheer gumption to publish some of the poems that we have published. They would be scared shitless—as all suck-ups are—of offending someone influential.

DB: OK, but that’s a question of subject matter. I was talking about prosody.

JS: Well, as you know Derek, I don’t privilege subject matter over any other element that goes into the construction of a poem.

DB: Yes, that’s quite a radical position. Can you explain it?

JS: A poem is just a verbal artifact. It is a construct of words and idiom, just as a wall is a construct of bricks and mortar.

DB: And what about the poem’s subject?

JS: That’s just one more component in the edifice. It isn’t anything special. No element of a brick wall is more important than any other. The only thing that matters is the finished product—the wall itself.

DB: Well, Ben Jonson was a bricklayer before he was a poet, so I suppose there is something to that.  But surely it is a natural human tendency to separate the what of a statement from the how of a statement.

JS: In the real world, yes. But poetry, being fictive mimesis, is a special case and an exception. We would never say that a poorly composed poem is acceptable because of the validity of its logos. Argument, idiom, style, tone, diction, and subject are inextricably linked in poetry. Any reader who says “I like what you say in this poem but I hate the way you say it” is an idiot. The purpose of a poem is to provide you with an indivisible literary-aesthetic experience.

DB: So you’re saying that it is an illicit distinction to try separating the idea-content of a poem from its verbal expression.

JS: It’s perhaps tolerable in after-the-fact criticism, but it’s not tolerable in one’s primary aesthetic encounter with the text. Sophisticated readers come to poetry for pleasure, not information. As I said once to Esther Cameron, thinking that people read poems to ferret out facts and opinions and ideas is like thinking that men make love to women to learn about gynecology.

DB: Well, you can’t help learning a little gynecology when you make love to a woman.

JS: True, but that only happens per accidens, as Mephistophilis said to Faustus.

DB: I notice that you have several poems in TRINACRIA that come from a hard-right perspective.

JS: Yes. Those poets are not going to be silenced. Not by me, at least.

DB: So could you call TRINACRIA a hard-right journal?

JS:  No, we’re just a poetry journal with a hard-right editor. Most of what we publish is completely apolitical. But if you accept the bizarre leftist notion that the personal is political, then you’re going to read a political agenda into every poem. I can’t help people with that delusion.

DB: The poem of Melissa Peralta on the killing of Che Guevara seems to have gotten quite a few people angry.

JS: Yes. The geriatric hippies from the soixante-huitard generation were infuriated. And a lot of younger poets today had those people as parents. But Melissa comes from a Spanish Falangist family that was deeply scarred by the Spanish Civil War, so she was very happy and proud to help our government kill Che Guevara in 1967. I think she won’t mind me revealing that she tried for years to get that powerful poem published, and of course the prissy little leftist dweebs who edit poetry magazines in this country wouldn’t touch it. 

DB: There was also a poem in the voice of a transsexual, I believe. 

JS: That was Paige’s “The Song of the Trannie.” I got hate mail from San Francisco and Ann Arbor over that one.

DB: Two of my colleagues stopped speaking to me after I showed them that issue of TRINACRIA. But then again, I live and work in Sweden, which is progressive liberalism’s Shangri-La.  Che Guevara is a god there. 

JS: How do you stand it? 

DB:  Oh, it’s not too bad. And you can always hop the border into Germany if things get overly crazed. Well, I think we’ve got enough material for the printed interview. Many thanks, Joe. 

JS:  You’re welcome any time, Derek. 

Derek Burgoyne is a Canadian expatriate poet and inventor who lives and teaches in Uppsala, Sweden. He is currently working on a book about Nikola Tesla.