The HyperTexts

Salemi's Dilemma

by Michael R. Burch, editor of The HyperTexts

Note: After I published this response to Dr. Salemi's emails about our interview, he posted an article on another website in which he called me either directly or in thinly veiled ways "duplicitous," "simple-minded," "sophomoric," "desperate," "pathetic," "fanatical," "delusional," "demented," "scared," "nervous," "babyish," "infantile," "puerile," "apoplectic" and a "hillbilly" (presumably because I live in Nashville). Salemi insisted that he doesn't insult poets, then proceeded to insult me repeatedly, thus confirming what I and other poets had observed about his riot acts, which make him the Rush Limbaugh of poetry. As Sam Gwynn pointed out, Salemi is more political than poetical. A primary goal of both his poems and his essays seems to be stereotyping other people in order to ridicule them collectively. Being an ultra-conservative shock jock, his favorite targets are liberals. But because 99.9% of poets are more liberal-minded than Salemi, and because he's so offensive, he ends up insulting nearly everyone in the larger camp. Thus, he meets with either resistance or indifference, which he interprets as being symptomatic of some sort of "liberal conspiracy" against him, when really it's just people doing what people do when they've been offended. But in any case, if Salemi had real confidence in his self-alleged superiority to me, he wouldn't feel the need to insult me at all, much less so profusely. Rather than responding in kind, I will stand by what I wrote below. 

A series of contradictory emails I received from Dr. Joseph S. Salemi after our recent interview left me scratching my head. First he threatened to rip one of the most accomplished poets I know a "new asshole" if he dared to comment publicly, which gave me the impression that Salemi feared no one. But when another poet, Quincy Lehr, chimed in, Salemi complained bitterly more than once, claiming that it was "unfair" of me to publish Lehr's opinions, even though I had made it very clear before the interview began that I was reserving the right to let other poets speak their minds, if they so chose. Later, Salemi questioned whether other poets had the "balls" to address him publicly, as if challenging cowards to a duel.

These curious, sometimes furious emails support Lehr's observation that Salemi often calls other poets "a bunch of wusses, ’fraidy-cats, knock-kneed PC milquetoasts" and so on. Salemi didn't refute Lehr's charges, nor do I expect him to, since I distinctly remember reading essays in which he called other poets cowards and sissies (or equivalents) for things as innocuous as using prose-style capitalization in formal poems, or employing more slant rhymes than he deems acceptable. Indeed, if I understand one of Salemi's stranger essays correctly, using one too many slant rhymes in a formal poem produces an "ersatz obscenity" with possible soul-destroying implications. (More on this later.) But is this a literary theory or a bizarre new religion? Assuming that Salemi, a devout Roman Catholic, is not speaking as a heretical theologian intent on creating a new religion, I am left with the following questions:

• Does Salemi consider himself to be a literary critic whose ideas should be taken seriously by other poets? If so, is insulting his peers an appropriate and effective way for him to communicate those ideas? Why in his literary journal's editorial comments did Salemi call other poets and editors "gutless wonders," "sycophants," "tedious morons" and "hyperventilating freaks"? Why in his essays and elsewhere did Salemi employ highly offensive terms like "feminist bitches," "tightassed feminists" and "idiotic left-liberal parrots"? Why did he lump millions of hard-working, college-educated Americans into a "mandarin caste"? As far as I can tell, Salemi uses such terms in sweeping generalizations, so that presumably every woman who demands full equality with men is a tightassed feminist bitch and most college-educated professionals are mandarins because they don't subscribe to Salemi's extremist political views. If Salemi means something else, he hasn't bothered to leave any clues that I can discern. The reader can decide what sort of person talks about so many other people with such intense loathing.
• If Salemi really doesn't care what other people think, as he maintains, why does he bother to write and publish essays about aesthetics? Is he, perhaps, just preaching to the choir and showing off for those strict formalists who already agree with him? In other words, are his mockeries of less corseted poets self-aggrandizing affairs, rather than serious literary criticism? Is his goal in his essays the same as in his satirical poems: to stereotype people who are more moderate, then ridicule them collectively in a coarse, crass joke?
• Does Salemi make sense?

While Salemi purports to "know" Lehr's innermost desires, motivations and thoughts, I freely admit that I lack such extrasensory superpowers myself. I am more like Clark Kent: perpetually adjusting my glasses, squinting, furrowing my brow, and depending on my ability to reason things out, because I lack x-ray vision. Thus, all I will say about the first questions other than the last is this: I can't understand why Salemi chooses to mock, ridicule and browbeat other poets, but I know that I don't like it. He has tried to defend this boorish behavior by pointing out that it isn't very successful, since other poets seldom if ever convert to his beliefs and write according to his rules. To me, this is like saying that if a playground bully tries to force other kids to play by his rules, and they run off or ignore him, he wasn't really bullying them because he didn't get his way. However, I see no point in preaching sermons that are almost certain to go unheeded, or demanding apologies that are unlikely to be offered, so I will leave the other questions for Salemi to answer, if he so chooses, in order to consider the one I feel best equipped to address, limited as I am to my Kentian powers of reason.

Does Salemi make sense?

If Salemi doesn't make sense, then perhaps we can dismiss him as a literary critic, or at the very least take everything he says with great heaping doses of skepticism. If he does make sense, the questions of civility and propriety remain, but at least his ideas merit consideration. But no, in my opinion Salemi's Dilemma is that he doesn't make sense, and this makes him unlikely to be accepted by independent-minded poets as any sort of authority. (And thus it may be a very good thing for him if he really doesn't care what other people think, since they probably won't care what he says.)

To illustrate why he doesn't make sense, I have assembled the "Ten Commandments of Dr. Joseph S. Salemi." Six were taken or adapted from his "Statement of Core Principles." Others were taken or adapted from his published essays and editorials. As bizarre as these commandments sound, I think they really do reflect the man's mindset (although I have allowed myself the leeway of some rather gentle ribbing). And because Salemi's first six Core Principles are included, if we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they don't make sense, we may have determined what to do with his advice, in general.

The Ten Commandments of Dr. Joseph S. Salemi

Thou shalt only bring Formal Metrical Verse into our Hallowed Halls. We have absolutely no tolerance for free verse. [CP#1]
Thou shalt always employ the "correct meter," or be summarily excommunicated from the High Church of Strict Formalism, for lack of regularity. [CP#2 plus essay]
Thou shalt not offer up any syllabic verse, regardless of its excellence. [CP#3]
Thou shalt not use mid-line breaks or violate typographical conventions, however minor or inconsequential. [CP#4]
Thou shalt always capitalize the first letter of a line of poetry, or be branded a coward. [CP#4 plus essay]
Thou shalt not engage in the "ersatz obscenity" of excessive end-line slant rhymes and assonance, or be mocked as "incompetents." [CP#6 plus essay]
Thou shalt not innovate, or be ridiculed as a "feckless twit." [Essay]
Thou shalt not change the tradition (i.e., don't do what Dante, Chaucer, Wyatt, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Whitman and Dickinson did). [Essay]
Thou shalt display "the severity, the asceticism, and Apollonian coldness that are essential to the pursuit of high art." [Editorial]
Thou shalt always be at war, since it is far better to tilt at windmills than to live in peace and harmony with people with more liberal tastes and aesthetics. [Inferred]

Let's quickly examine Salemi's injunctions, to see if they make sense. Can anyone define the point where metrical verse ends and free verse begins? If not, why be so dogmatic about excluding all free verse? Who can presume to define what "correct meter" means? Should we exclude Dylan Thomas's excellent poem "In My Craft or Sullen Art" because of its syllabic meter, even though it reads wonderfully well? What on earth is wrong with mid-line breaks, if they're effective? Haven't mid-line breaks been used effectively in metrical poems and plays for centuries? Was e. e. cummings a coward, or a courageously eclectic heretic? Were Emily Dickinson and Wilfred Owen "incompetents" because as young, unknown poets they employed slant rhymes? (Would they be known and admired today if they hadn't?) Were Dante and Chaucer "feckless twits" because they innovated to the point of changing languages, when they chose to write in vernacular Italian and English rather than scholarly Latin and French? Was Anthony Hecht another "feckless twit" because in his article on sonnets for Encyclopaedia Britannica, he said that canonical forms like the sonnet invite innovation? Were Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard and Shakespeare wrong to work with an experimental form, the sonnet? (Would we have the sonnets Salemi has written himself, if they hadn't innovated long ago?) Was there something wrong with William Blake, Robert Burns and Walt Whitman because they wrote warmhearted, empathetic poems, eschewing "Apollonian coldness"? Is it better to always be at war over trivial things, than to be tolerant and live in harmony with other people in a diverse society? Is conservatism invariably good, and liberalism invariably bad?

Mind you, I'm not suggesting that there's anything wrong with an editor preferring poems that are more rhythmic, more rhyming, more traditional. I happen to enjoy and publish such poems myself. But I am questioning the premises and logic of Salemi's injunctions and the tone of his imprecations.

The Problem of Hypocrisy

And then there is problem that Salemi has hypocritically violated his own Sacred Dogma. Does he really believe what he says himself, enough to write and publish according to his commandments for other poets? I submit not.

For instance, Salemi frequently uses slant rhymes in his own poems, even though in his essay "Our Ersatz World" he called the excessive use of slant rhyme an "ersatz obscenity" which reveals its employers as "incompetents who can't get a rhyme." As examples of what he meant by ersatz, Salemi cited "tasteless margarine" for butter, "hideous plastics" for natural materials, and computer sex for real sex. To help us understand the truly terrible condition of the modern mentality that (according to Salemi) lusts after ersatz products, he used terms like "perverse," "deep-seated sickness" and "brooding soul-sickness." Okay, we definitely get the picture now. To avoid perversely destroying our own souls, we need to eat butter, not margarine. And to produce real poems, real poets need to use real rhymes, not those tasteless, hideous, cheap, artificial, fake, soul-destroying slant rhymes. The only poets who would ever consider using such horrible substitutes for the real thing are "incompetents who can't get a [perfect] rhyme." It all makes perfect sense, if one buys Salemi's a priori assumptions that slant rhymes are to perfect rhymes as margarine is to butter, and that eating margarine destroys one's soul. I for one am not buying any of this, since in the earliest English poetry slant rhymes were far more common than perfect rhymes, which would make the latter the soul-destroying entities in Salemi's highly doubtful version of the Apocalypse. (Also, I sometimes eat margarine and my soul remains intact.) But let's assume for the sake of argument that I'm wrong because Salemi is the expert here, and continue going with his flow, to see where it leads us ...

Salemi seems to have left himself a convenient out to use those hideous slant rhymes in his own poems, by inserting the modifier "excessive." But does that make any sense? If something real can greatly improve my life, while something artificial will destroy my soul, and if I am a real poet capable of producing real rhymes, why would I ever mix the hideously fake with the sublimely perfect? So let's cross out "excessive" as an error of logic, and take a quick peek at Salemi's journal ... 

Eeek!

In the very first issue of TRINACRIA, the second poem, a translation of Baudelaire by Salemi's wife, Helen Palma, contained one of those hideously obscene slant rhymes. And in his own poems, for Chrissakes, the Evangelist of the High Church of Strict Formalism has rhymed Caesar/Visa, Jehovah/over, ills/corpuscles, antsy/fancy, fraud/board, propositions/mission, etc. The last four slant rhyme pairs excessively appeared in a single poem titled "A Verse Epistle to My New Students." Should it have, perhaps, been subtitled, "Don't do as I do, do as I say"? Is Salemi practicing what he preaches to other poets? Is Salemi an "incompetent" because he employed obscenities excessively in his verse epistle? Is Salemi a coward, by his own definition? And did Salemi subconsciously have himself in mind when he told his students (my italics):

If tired blood's a symbol for
Weak logic, then a metaphor
Of pedagogy's current ills
Is pale and flaccid corpuscles.
You won't find worse anemia
Than inside academia
Where brainless twits are daily stirred
To think up things that are absurd.
...
Good scholars, if they had their druthers,
Would much prefer a simple lecture
That offers facts without conjecture ...

What can be more absurd than calling slant rhymes "obscenities," then weaving advice to one's students out of such pale, flaccid, hideously obscene materials? (Well perhaps the woodenly awkward line "To think up things that are absurd" may be more absurd.) When will Dr. Salemi follow his own advice and offer facts without conjecture, abandoning the nonfactual conjecture that it is "obscene" to use slant rhymes because they're "ersatz," when in fact they are more traditional than perfect rhymes in English poetry, and thus according to Salemi's own premise and logic, more genuine? When will Salemi abandon his own weak, pedagogic logic?

Regardless of anything Salemi has written himselfgood, bad or middlingthe benefits of slant rhymes have been proven by outstanding poets like William Blake, Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, Wilfred Owen and W. H. Auden. And it makes absolutely no sense to insist that slant rhymes are inferior, ersatz materials, when superior poems have been constructed out of them for more than 1,000 years, from the kennings of Anglo Saxon scops to Louis MacNeice's wonderful "Bagpipe Music." Wilfred Owen's use of pararhyme in his great war poems may have been "excessive," as in nearly every line, but the results were so amazingly good that he leaves Salemi lacking a logical leg to stand on.

Control Issues

I submit that any poet who presumes to define the "correct meter" for other poets to employ exclusively in their poems, and who spurts venom at them over such trivial things as not using initial caps, has overstepped his bounds. I started to use the term "control freak" but I want to avoid name-calling and I don't know Salemi well enough to understand his inner nature, as he claimed to be able to do with Lehr. So I will not accuse Salemi of being a control freak. I do wonder, however, why he berates other poets so stridently. Whatever can be his goal, his purpose? Perhaps he can explain his motivations; I certainly can't. But my educated guess is that his goal in his essays, as in his satirical poems, is to insult the targets of his ireother people who are more liberal-minded—not to help poets improve their writing.

In any case, Salemi rarely if ever bothers to explain why other poets should follow his lead. To do so would require evidence and logic. Take, for example, the question of initial caps. Let's do a quick Einstein-like thought experiment. Suppose Shakespeare had chosen to use prose-style capitalization, and other poets had followed his lead. Wouldn't Salemi now be arguing just the opposite: that formalists must use prose-style capitalization, or be branded cowards? Obviously the rule is arbitrary. And if rules were made to be broken, surely the arbitrary ones should go first. Furthermore, I believe the use of initial caps in English poems was a convention invented by printers, not poets. So for all we know, Shakespeare wrote his sonnets down the normal way, and the fancy-schmancy initial caps were the brainstorm of some ink-stained, slave-wage, illiterate printer's devil who was running short of lower-case letters and decided to improvise in order to avoid his master's wrath. (Perhaps he had a boss like Salemi.)

Better Beginning Premises

A philosopher is only as good as his initial premises. I believe this is also true for literary critics, who need to avoid building on foundations of straw. I submit that if we are going to make a priori assumptions, the following assumptions are far better than Salemi's:

Civility is better than insulting one's peers.
Diversity, the alchemy of multiple traditions, is better than conformity to a single inflexible tradition.
Freedom, including the freedom to innovate, is better than irrational, arbitrary rules.
Tolerance is better than intolerance, which invariably results in unnecessary conflicts.
Equality is better than bigotry, which also invariably results in unnecessary conflicts.
The American Civil Rights Movement was a natural and expected response to racism.
The Women's Rights Movement is a natural and expected response to male chauvinism.
The Gay Rights Movement is a natural and expected response to homophobia.
Etc.

My Conclusions

In conclusion, if Dr. Salemi really doesn't care what other poets think, there is no reason for him to write and publish essays on aesthetics. If what he really wants is to be accepted by other poets as someone whose ideas merit consideration, in my opinion he ought to (1) test his theories to see if they make sense and can actually fly in the real world; (2) either write according to the basic premises and logic of his aesthetics, or tone down his rhetoric; and (3) consider more reasonable, civil methods of communication. But as things stand now, he strikes me as being the Rush Limbaugh of poetry: a shock jock whose only possible fans are the people who agree with him without ever questioning, much less analyzing, their shared beliefs. The only people who "know" that Limbaugh is "right" are the ones who never examined their own beliefs closely enough to realize how very wrong they are.

Granted, I have only examined ten of Salemi's ideas to this point. What I have written so far doesn't prove that he isn't an absolute genius in some other, yet-unexplored area. One reason for my relative brevity is that I don't want to wear out my welcome, or my readers' patience. But I think I may have at least spotted and pointed out a trend. Given more time, I believe I can demonstrate that there are other highly dubious ideas emanating from the same source. But for readers who are now satisfied that Salemi can be safely ignored, or that anything he says should be taken with large pinches of salt, this may be a good place to exit, and I thank them for their time. For readers interested enough to continue reading, I will provide more food for thought.

Other Areas of Disagreement

I disagree with Salemi that the failure to write "real" formal poetry (i.e., the severely corseted kind preferred by Salemi) is a manifestation of "fear." I don't write freer poetry because I'm afraid to write formal poetry. I just prefer the freedom to ignore arbitrary rules that seem nonsensical and/or counterproductive to me, such as the ones Salemi seems to specialize in.

During our interview, Salemi suggested that free verse is "experimental," as if that's a bad thing. But sonnets and blank verse were once "experimental." After great sonnets and blank verse poems had been written, the forms were no longer experimental, but tested and proven. I think it's safe to say at this stage that free verse has also been tested and proven by highly accomplished poets like Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. So it makes no sense to call all free verse "experimental" in a blanket statement, although some individual poems may fall into that category (which still doesn't make them automatically bad).

I also disagree with Salemi when he says that free verse is an "aesthetic dead end" that "was cute and interesting for a while, but hey, let's move on." After all, he admitted that free verse poets have produced masterpieces. Is it wise to write off masterpieces and the methods of their makers so cavalierly?

In his essays, satires and other public utterances, Salemi has chosen to stereotype people ("liberals") and damn them collectively. Since 99.9% of poets are presumably more liberal than Salemi, he seems to be damning other poets in general. And his tendency to ignore anything good or potentially good in the people he summarily dismisses makes him seem exceptionally close-minded and intolerant, to the point of being a bigoted church of one.

During our interview, Salemi claimed that "The real battle for New Formalism was to break free from the stranglehold of free-verse habits of thought and composition." But that seems wrong to me, as well-known problems with formal verse existed before free verse came into vogue. Modern free verse was largely a reaction against the various inertias of formal verse that had become overly formulaic and metronomic. One cannot accuse a reaction or attempted remediation of being the underlying disease, although it seems clear that some of the modernists went overboard in their proposed "solutions." But I don't think Salemi's proposed solutions are any better, as they would box poets into very narrow corners.

I disagree with Salemi's claim that art can only be truly appreciated by experts who understand how art works. He seems to believe that only someone who has studied the methods of painters can really appreciate painting, while less knowledgeable people have nothing more than a "naive appreciation" of art. To me, this is like saying that only physicists can enjoy sunrises and sunsets, since laymen don't understand how sunrises and sunsets "work." I know very little about physics, music and art, but I can still enjoy sunrises, sunsets, music and paintings.

Salemi also claims that children are limited in their ability to appreciate art. He said, "I've taken many classes of students to see Shakespeare, and what they get out of it is merely the enjoyment of surface phenomena." Salemi also claims that children's reactions to works of art are "essentially visceral," as if they're small, feral animals who lack intellects. I will leave the reader to judge such statements, which strike me as absurd, since not so very long ago I was a very inquisitive child who devoured hundreds of books, reading with considerable comprehension. And who knows that I didn't see and understand things Salemi may have missed? I'm sure that many children have listened to Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy, understanding what he was saying, and why he was saying it. I understood many passages of poetry when I read them at a young age. As I pointed out to Salemi, my childhood response to great writing was both emotional and intellectual. I certainly wasn't like a dog panting for a bone, or chasing its tail in circles.

But Salemi doesn't stop at speaking dismissively of children. He also casually dismisses the ideas of major poets like Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson and William Shakespeare. For instance, Salemi dismissed Frost's opinion that "Poetry begins with delight and ends in wisdom" as American "crackerbarrel" when it actually makes perfect sense, because if a poet delights me with his words, I am more receptive to his ideas. Salemi said that Dickinson "didn't say that her reaction to good poetry was actually physical" even though Dickinson used the word "physical" in her description of how poetry affected her: "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." Salemi discounted the opinions of these acknowledged masters of the English language by saying that "famous poets are notoriously undependable when it comes to giving explanations for aesthetic practices, whether their own or anyone else's." But Salemi frequently cites himself, usually without providing verifiable facts, examples or evidence of any sort. Why should anyone consider him more dependable than Shakespeare?

Salemi mentioned his "dislike of any sort of proselytizing and evangelizing," saying, "I have a viscerally negative reaction to anything that is hortatory or preachy, or that has the aim of converting strangers to one's way of doing things." I find this hard to believe, for two reasons. First, Salemi has repeatedly preached his strange vision and peculiar dogma of the "correct" way to write poetry. Second, Salemi is a devout Roman Catholic who once told me that he believes Catholic popes are capable of speaking infallibly. Well, what did those "infallible" speakers do, for the better part of two thousand years, but constantly preach that all the world should accept their beliefs and authority? Millions of people were subjected to horrific inquisitions and/or were forced to convert at the edge of a sword. While I detest Protestant evangelization as much as Salemi does, having been its victim in my youth, the simple truth is that the Roman Catholic Church has evangelized far and wide, using "hell," "purgatory," "limbo," torture and the sword to spread its highly dubious message that it knows the "will of God." Today both major Christian denominations use very similar methods to evangelize and are very hard to tell apart, except that the RCC is officially more medieval on things like celibacy and contraceptives, while right-wing Protestants are more medieval on things like creationism and evolution. But mostly they are like twin peas in a very peculiar pod.

Yes, as Salemi correctly pointed out, Protestant missionaries have "complicated and wounded the psychic lives" of their would-be converts, and no one should gloss over the psychic pain they've caused with their visions of an eternal hell and an infinitely cruel, unjust, judgmental God. But Catholic "missionaries" often tortured and slaughtered their would-be converts when they resisted conversion to belief in the same cruel, unjust, judgmental God. Protestant missionaries are the kindergartners of evangelization; Catholic popes are the professors, with a 1,500 year head start and a much larger endowment. 

Salemi claims that his "The Missionary's Position" is an "anti-liberal" poem, but it is actually an obvious condemnation of his own church, if applied honestly and equally. It's a poem about adults terrorizing children with visions of the cross and its implications: judgment, condemnation and hell. Both major denominations are guilty of child abuse, but no Christian organization has reached more children with that frightening message than the Vatican.

Like Salemi, I have a "strong distaste" for American puritanism, "the half-assed idea that the United States is a 'city upon a hill' and somehow morally 'exceptional'" ... but let's get real ... what the hell has the Vatican been saying about itself, its doctrines, its popes, and its "saints" (some of whom tortured and murdered "heretics"), for nearly two millennia? To my knowledge, no American Puritan has ever claimed to be able to speak infallibly, but Catholic popes certainly have, while essentially murdering poor, uneducated people in AIDS-stricken nations by convincing them that it's a "sin" to use condoms.

I disagree with Salemi that there is anything wrong with making "the planet safe for equality, feminism, gay rights, democracy," etc.

Salemi said that if "free verse poetry and formal poetry are qualitatively different, and if they work by using rules of a singularly different nature, then neither one can be used as a yardstick for judging the other." He claims that it is "a peculiarly bad habit of contemporary persons that they are always trying to create a synthesis or a union or a harmony where no essential synthesis is possible or desirable." But that's a big initial "if" and if, in the end, there is only good poetry and bad poetry, then perhaps it's the people who create artificial divisions where none actually exist who ought to rethink their positions.

Salemi claims that it is an "absurd proposition" that formalists "need to write poetry that rivals the work of free verse poets like Whitman, Eliot, Stevens and Crane, if they want to be taken seriously." But I think this is only common sense, as a hundred years from now all the formalists who are no longer being read will be dead, in literary terms, compared to the great free verse poets who continue to be read.

The History of this Unfortunate Episode

Before the interview I had been thinking about what my colleague Tom Merrill has called the Great Poetic Divide, a longstanding, still-impressive rift which continues to separate many formal and free verse poets from each other. I had also been considering what I call the "Formalism Schism," a similar rift between formalists who want nothing to do with free verse, and those who like and write it themselves. I was intrigued by the fact that some formalists seem to be intent on burning T. S. Eliot at the stake, while others prefer to adopt him as a fellow formalist. After the interview, which touched on these matters, I engaged other poets in discussions about the two divides, venturing my opinion that they are unnecessary and unhelpful. When I asked for submissions related to the interview, one of the poets, Quincy Lehr, submitted an essay. When I asked if he'd ever written anything specifically about Dr. Salemi and his pro-division views, Lehr submitted another essay in which he accused Salemi of calling other poets various nasty names for not adhering to formal methods to his satisfaction. The rest, as they say, is history.

Salemi tried to evade or at least deflect Lehr's criticism by claiming he's a left-wing ideologue envious of Salemi's success with his literary journal TRINACRIA. After saying during our interview that "name-dropping doesn't constitute an argument," Salemi dropped the names of poets he's published in a not-very-credible attempt to prove that Lehr "envies" him. But even if this were true, it wouldn't invalidate Lehr's charges, since he was either quoting or paraphrasing things Salemi wrote and distributed to the public in the form of his published essays. And Salemi's claims to somehow know Lehr's innermost thoughts, desires and motivations, as if he has ESP, cannot be taken seriously. In my opinion, Salemi should have stuck to answering Lehr's allegations. Now I am also accusing Salemi of mocking other poets and no one can legitimately accuse me of being an envious left-wing ideologue. I was a Reagan Republican and still admire the man today, although I refuse to vote for far-right morons and lunatics like George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Bishop Romney. While it may be a cliché, I didn't leave the Republican party; the party left me when it lost the last of its loose marbles. Nor am I envious of Salemi. When he told me several years ago that he was being censored by other editors, I offered to publish him and have done so a number of times, shining our website's spotlight on him seven times since 2009 (more, I believe, than for any other non-affiliated poet). I am not envious of Salemi's success; rather I have tried to help him succeed.

So I don't think anyone can accuse me of having a bias against Salemi, being envious of him, or bearing him a grudge. Nor do I think I can be accused of treating him unfairly now, unless it is somehow "unfair" to discuss and criticize what he has written himself. In poetry circles that's par-for-the-course literary criticism. My main criticism of Salemi is this: I believe it is wrong for a poet to insult, mock and browbeat other poets for not writing the way he prefers, even if he is correct in his aesthetics.

And there are other very obvious problems with what Salemi says, and how he says it. Here's what one accomplished poet said in an email after reading his responses to Lehr's essay: "What a bore he is. None of his given reasons for Lehr's alleged animus are necessary; just reading Salemi will suffice. Salemi's attitude alone, whatever he happens to be perorating about, his invective, his contumely, his palpable animus toward anyone who doesn't share his views, whatever those may be, is more than enough reason for me to flick him off. Who cares to hear such fulminant bilge. If he had a single shred of charm or wit he might be able to seduce a reader, but his words are like a viper's spit."

I have to agree, albeit reluctantly, since I have tried to be a friend to Salemi since he told me he was being censored. But as soon as he began answering my questions during our interview, I felt my hackles rising. Why? Primarily because he was so incredibly dismissive of other people and so disdainful of their abilities and opinions. He dismissed everyone from schoolchildren attending performances of Shakespeare's plays, to Shakespeare himself. Again, it's not just what he says, it's the way he says it. When Salemi descends to the level of insulting and berating people who choose not to play by his rules, he seems more like a surly playground bully than a teacher worthy of our attention and regard. Unless he's willing to be more reasonable and civil, what he says will continue to go in one ear and out the other, leaving him with little or no influence on the literary world. And since he claims not to care what anyone else thinks, perhaps what he says and does is part of a self-fulfilling death wish.

Michael R. Burch
Editor, The HyperTexts
November 7, 2013

PS — After I posted this page, the poet I cited immediately above shared his thoughts with me. I believe they are germane and warrant consideration:

     ... My own remarks, the few you quote near the end, are perhaps the harshest-sounding ones in the piece. But who knows, maybe hearing his words compared to "a viper's spit" will please him. I remember his declaring in one of his off-site essays that hate is the right emotion to fuel satire; and apparently he likes regarding himself as an aptly hate-driven satirist. Presumably he believes that the satirist's objective is to ignite that same emotion, or some cognate one like contempt, in others. But Lehr aptly questioned whether he really has the makings of a satirist. Satirists, after all, don't resort to invective and name-calling; they are much too clever for that. Wit is their customary weapon for skewering whatever they regard as ludicrous, and wit is the means by which they get others to appreciate their point of view and join in the fun-making chorus. Effective satirists don't bring people over to their side by heaping abuse; they bring them over by irony, by humorous representation of what things really amount to. Salemi's version of satire falls short because it can never draw anyone in, but on the contrary is bound to repel. Salemi is what one might call a backfiring satirist (if any kind at all): the kind of satirist who comes out looking less attractive, and more ridiculous and risible, than his targets. And any hate he ends up generating is more likely to be directed against a target he never intended: i.e., himself. 
     I liked how you closed your piece, suggesting that what might account for the good doctor's style is a self-fulfilling death wish. He will never expand his party's ranks by "satirizing" people the way he does. Who could desire to belong to a party that specializes in the fine art of belittlement, except other small-minded people. He elicits no chuckles from intelligent readers by calling Lehr's magazine The Draindown Review; he only exposes another symptom of his smallness, and makes them feel a vague disgust. He elicits about the same reaction when he talks about Lehr's political attitudes deriving from his "mommy and daddy." This is very cheap, very immature talk indeed, and should be given short shrift, which is what Lehr gave it in his second bout with the good doctor. The reader is left thinking that the "arrested adolescence" Salemi talks about is perhaps more applicable to his own personality than to anyone else's. That's the thought that stuck with this reader anyway.
     But your piece also seems to be pulling for him in a way, almost pleading with him, it sounded at one point, to wake up and come out of his hypnotic state. 

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