I hadn’t been to Brooklyn in 22 years, but on November 9th I had the good fortune to interview the leading formalist poet and editor, Joseph Salemi, at Monte’s restaurant on Carroll Street. Joe was dressed like an elegant dandy and was exuberant because of Donald Trump’s victory the night before in the presidential election.
It’s great to be back in Brooklyn, Joe. A great election result for America, don’t you agree?
JS: Leo, I am ecstatic. The arrogant, overentitled, elitist, corporate left-liberals have been kicked in the teeth. And it was done by a guy from my home borough of Queens! This is truly a blessing for our nation. Thank God for Donald Trump! He’s taken that evil bitch out of politics.
Indeed. Now let’s change the topic to poetry and poets. Who are your greatest poetic influences?
JS: Well, there’s a difference between personal influences and public influences—that is, the in-the-flesh influences that made poetry come alive for me, and the in-print influences I encountered in my readings. The biggest personal influence was my grandfather, Rosario Previti, who from my earliest childhood made me aware of poetry and its value. Being born in 1882, he was essentially a man of the nineteenth century, and since I was trained by him I was saved from the idiocies of modernism, along with a great many other mental diseases of the twentieth century. I don’t necessarily write in his style, but his example and practice showed me that poetry was as artificially constructed and as intricate as a hand-made violin. The other personal influence was Alfred Dorn, who gave me hope again when I had pretty much come to the conclusion that formal poetry was, for all practical purposes, extinct. As for the public influence of past writers, there are far too many to list. I can only pick out a few stellar figures that immediately come to mind: Hilaire Belloc, Robert Browning, Lord Byron, John Masefield, Alexander Pope, Ernest Dowson, and of course Shakespeare. I also have a fondness for early T.S. Eliot. But the actual number is legion—ask me again tomorrow and I’ll probably come up with a totally different bunch.
Do you think poets with ethnic names, like Salemi and Yankevich, are discriminated against? Surely WASPS and Micks with names like Steele and Murphy have it easier?
JS: Absolutely so. Contempt for white ethnics is the one socially approved bigotry that remains in the United States, and it is carefully nurtured by our political ruling class. But I would add that even if you have a solidly Anglo-Saxon or Irish surname, it won’t protect you against the much deeper and more vitriolic bigotry directed against anyone with an alt-right, conservative, or even just mildly anti-leftist or non-liberal point of view. Charles Southerland has an impeccably English name, but his political heterodoxy has earned him vicious denigration at a certain poetry website.
I agree. Yet some poets are more equal than others. I’ve often been asked if I am Jewish in acceptance letters. I never reply. Why do you think so many poets are libtards, if not downright communists?
JS: That question opens a huge can of worms. First, I’m appalled that an editor would be so stupid as to ask you something of that nature. One’s ability as a creative artist is independent of one’s racial background. In the very first issue of TRINACRIA, I announced that all submissions would be judged on their intrinsic merit, and that no poet would see his work rejected on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic or national origin, or political viewpoint. Since I communicate with most of my contributors solely by mail, I don’t even know what most of them look like.
Why are so many poets leftists or left-liberals? Well, let’s begin by clearing the air—an actual examination of some of the most influential and famed poets indicates that a big chunk of them aren’t. T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, E.E. Cummings, D.H. Lawrence, Rudyard Kipling, W.H. Henley, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Charles Maurras, and dozens of others were, by any rational definition, hard-right in their political and social attitudes. My stupid colleagues at work become tongue-tied when this is pointed out.
But yes, as a general rule poets are stereotyped as being “progressives” or “radicals,” in the same way that Hollywood celebrities are so stereotyped. But even Hollywood has seen plenty of hard-right personalities: John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Ronald Reagan, Richard Boone, Ida Lupino, Adolphe Menjou, Richard Egan, Mel Gibson… I once made a list of all the politically conservative celebrities in the entertainment world, and I came up with over a hundred. Hell, the fiery Menjou was a member of the John Birch Society, and advocated shooting Communists on sight!
So why do we have the stereotypes? Simple: Because the left makes noise. Leftists and left-liberals are constantly celebrating themselves and their views with chatter, publicity, hype, posturing, and self-promotion. Naturally they set the tone, and the stereotype takes on life. And the more hoopla the left generates, the more plausible does the stereotype sound.
But I agree—a great many contemporary members of the literary world are indeed left-liberals, and much of this can be explained by the fact that they make their living as academics, or aspire to do so. Academia today is a festering sinkhole of poisonous left-wing identity politics, gender-feminist absurdity, reflexive anti-Christian bigotry, Gramscian agenda-pushing, and a very real hatred of white males and what is called “white privilege.” If a poet lives and thrives in that toxic stew, what can you expect him to be like?
I believe that some editors published me back in the 1990s because they were Jewish and assumed I was also. As you know, I am not. That’s why I evoked Orwell: “Some poets are more equal than others.” The egregious Bob Dylan is an example.
We can agree, though, that the liberal aesthetic is dominant in contemporary poetry and to get published one must abide by it. Once I had one of my poems published in an e-zine next to a poem about anal sex in which its author stated that “when he takes it in the . . . he sees god.” I requested that my poem be removed from the e-zine in protest. I found or created my own venues as have you. Can you tell me a little about the genesis of TRINACRIA and its subsequent evolution?
JS: Well, sure… some editors will naturally favor their own ethnic group out of blood loyalty. That’s just a normal human failing. I’m always happy to publish poets with Italian surnames in TRINACRIA. But I insist that the submitted poetry be valuable on its own merits. I don’t cut slack to anybody just for being a paisan.
TRINACRIA got its start for precisely the same reasons that you mention in regard to your own various venues. I was simply fed up with Mainstream Mediocrity and its brainlessness, and its stifling, politically correct inhibitions. The celebration of “diversity” and “globalism” and “multiculturalism” sickened me. I decided to publish a magazine that would suit my criteria, and not anybody else’s. And I resolved that I would listen to no advice or suggestions or complaints or criticism. It was difficult at first, as I do not have your formidable computer skills. I had to learn slowly and painfully. But after three issues, things began to go smoothly.
The magazine evolved by becoming bigger (we are now usually 140 pages or more per issue), and we also include more prose, in the form of essays, reprints, and reviews, than was originally the case. Our color reproductions have become integral to the issue, and not mere decorative additions as they were at first. We are still primarily an invitation-only magazine, but I do read unsolicited submissions whenever they come in, and sometimes I accept them for publication.
Another change is the fact that we regularly print the work of major formalist or form-friendly poets: X.J. Kennedy, Frederick Turner, John Whitworth, Jennifer Reeser, Jared Carter, and others. I don’t lust after famous names for promotional reasons, but it’s nice to have them in TRINACRIA. A publication can’t be dismissed as “marginal” when prominent poets appear in it. And because our sixteenth issue is now in preparation, in circles where formalist poetry is important we are the elephant in the drawing room. We’re hard to ignore at this point.
Certainly TRINACRIA is the crown jewel of formalist publications, towering over rags like Measure. Joe, can we expect a new book from you, and if so, who will be the publisher?
JS: Actually, I owe a book to Greg Johnson at Counter-Currents, and it’s overdue. This last year has been utterly hectic, and I’ve never had a moment’s peace to put it together. That’s my very next job. I’m also trying to put the last few finishing touches on A Gallery of Ethopaths, my long satiric work, and that opus has been promised to Arthur Mortensen of Pivot Press.
Both very prestigious venues. Have you thought of putting out a volume of Selected or Collected Poems?
JS: Yes, but it really would be a big job. Perhaps when I retire from teaching. At the present time I’m still composing new poems, so that kind of omnibus volume is not yet something I’m planning. I have a great many more poems and translations that I want to write, and of course TRINACRIA has to be continued and maintained.
I’ve enjoyed interviewing you, Joe. I am going to give you the last word. Do you think Trump will keep his campaign promises?
JS: A political campaign is like a courtship and a marriage; you promise a lot of things that you aren’t necessarily going to follow through on immediately. But if Donald Trump merely keeps half of his commitments, I’ll remain ecstatic. What we have to remember is that he will be subject to the most vicious media and Establishment attacks in American history. The left-liberal scum that we have just beaten don’t accept defeat gracefully, the way cuckservative Republicans do. They are diabolically driven, and will stop at nothing. The war is only beginning.