Chin Wag At The Slaughterhouse: Interview With Salvatore Buttaci

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Most of you will know his name.

Salvatore Buttaci is a retired English teacher who has been writing since childhood.  His first published work, an essay entitled “Presidential Timber,” appeared in the Sunday New York News when he was sixteen. Since then his poems, letters, short stories, and articles have been widely published in The New York Times, Newsday, U.S.A. Today, The Writer, Cats Magazine, and elsewhere in America and overseas.

He has lectured on Sicilian-American pride and conducted poetry workshops and readings.

Sal is professional and friendly and one of the most popular writers on the net, for a good reason. He tells great stories that are human and real and he is a kind and supportive friend.

SalButtaci_FlashingMyShorts.jpg picture by Richard_Godwin

If you haven’t read his wonderful collection of stories ‘Flashing My Shorts’, go and buy a copy now. Here, at All Things That Matter Press , at The Poem Factory, or at Sal’s WordPress and Blogspot sites.

And while you’re at it, have a look at Sal’s chapbook ‘Boy on a Swing’. It’s over at Big Table Publishing.

Sal met me at The Slaughterhouse and we talked about politics, writing, Italy and food.


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Tell us about ‘Flashing My Shorts’.

The title came first.  Flashing My Shorts sounded like a good attention-getter for prospective book buyers.  Next, the cover came to me: men’s boxer shorts strung on a clothesline between two buildings.  All I needed now were the 164 short-short stories to fill the pages!

Nancy Shrader, a poet friend of mine, suggested I contact her publisher, All Things That Matter Press.  The company had published two of her haiku collections.  When I did, it was with my own poetry collection in mind.  ATTMP Phil Harris wasn’t interested, so I presented him with my idea for a flash-fiction book.  I sent him a few quick writes.  He liked them and asked for about 160 more!

Flashing My Shorts is the kind of book I myself enjoy reading.  None of the 164 stories exceeds 1,000 words, a maximum of three pages, and some are no longer than 100 words.  They run the gamut from humor to horror and everything in between.  It’s the kind of book a reader can take anywhere, catching a story or two or three in the cafeteria line, the checkout line, at a red light, in the john.  As I mentioned, anywhere.  Like patrons at a smorgasbord, who can taste a little of this fine dish and a little of that, readers of my book can do the same.  I’ve had several purchasers of my book tell me they have read my book several times.  Based on their comments and many other positive ones at Amazon.com, I would say the book is being well received.

Here is a sample story:

Despots

“So it wasn’t enough those years we spent pulling the wool over each other’s eyes, we had to meet up here and share the same damn fiery pit,” Josef Stalin says with a pit soul’s usual malodorous brimstone breath.
“I just needed a little time, a few more victories,” says Hitler, “less ass smoochers telling me what they thought I wanted to hear!  Dictating is not as easy as it looked.”
“Of course, Herr Head!  You could’ve ruled the world like the old Caesars with their Pax Romana bull crap in one hand, and a sharp dagger in the other!”
“You sack of horse dung, I wrote Mein Kampf!”
“Kampf Shmapf!”
The two old warriors, genocidal megalomaniacs, whose demise gifted the world some respite from terror, sit eternally at lakeside chatting, hurling diatribes, revising history, comparing moustaches, arguing who killed more undesirables, and dipping assless-naked in Satan’s largest Lake of Fire.
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As a Sicilian and an American citizen do you share Sicily’s feelings about Mussolini?

Truth is, Benito Mussolini had those who supported his fascist regime and those who opposed it.  My paternal uncle Giovanni Buttaci was a staunch supporter and my maternal uncle Francesco Amico was a member of the opposing party, the Christian Democrats.

To add to this dichotomy, a good number of those who loved “Il Duce,” learned to quietly distance themselves from him when his alliance with Hitler became too friendly.  In fact, all Sicilians will admit Mussolini’s downfall can be attributed to this dictatorial alliance.  When he accepted Hitler’s Jewish Solution and many Italian Jews were deported to concentration camps, it became quite apparent that Mussolini was not the benevolent Caesar he pretended to be.  His was a pick-and-choose kind of nationalism that favored Christians and condemned Jews.

As for me, an American who loves freedom, I can only say that Sicily throughout its history has been conquered by no less than thirteen great powers, including the fascist Mussolini.  The Sicilian people culled from the invaders all that was good  (poetry, mathematics, and agriculture, to name a few) and learned to forget what was detrimental to their own survival.
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Friedrich Nietzsche visited Sicily and wrote that behind the brightest noon day sun lies the darkest mystery. What do you think of this comment on Sicily?

Nietzsche was himself one of the mystery men of his time!  We’ve all heard of his philosophy, his call to humanity that “God is dead,” so rise up, divest yourselves of morality and become the superman you were meant to be.  For him, acquisition of power was a stronger human need than the practice of morality. Mankind should live separate lives, apart from a world he considered “in ruins.”

A year before he began writing Thus Spake Zarathustra, for three weeks he visited Sicily, the island of which Frederick II (1194 – 1250), King of Sicily, said, “If God had seen Sicily, he would have made it the true Jerusalem.”

Nietzsche, who was born in Prussia, did a lot of traveling during his life.  Sicily was one of his favorite stops, as were cities in Italy and Switzerland.  What did he find compelling about Sicily?  For one thing, its people had been victims of countless invasions and yet seemed resilient enough to go on with their lives.  Perhaps the mystery he alludes to is peculiar to the Sicilian people: to suffer in silence, to keep hidden, from all but their own families, the injustices hurled against them.  And it could have been to Nietzsche that here was an island where the poor toiled away in often fallow fields, and yet they rose above it all.  He might have marveled how that bright noonday sun blinded all who came to Sicily from seeing into the heart of its people.  Being a philosopher, Nietzsche spent his life incessantly delving into life’s mysteries, which no doubt led to his mental breakdown and, a decade later, his death.  Many others besides Nietzsche have been awed by Sicily’s dark mysteries.
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Thinking of the popularity of a series like The Sopranos, do you think that Italian Americans are stereotyped in contemporary drama and what do you see as the remedy to that?

The Sopranos
, as well as the current TV travesty, New Jersey Shore, and the myriad films depicting Italian Americans as connected members of the Mafia, have done inestimable harm to our ethnicity.  One might argue that these media portrayals should not to be taken seriously, that those slighted Italian Americans, who rant and rave about how detrimental these shows are, ought to lighten up, see these gangster figures as mere caricatures, not monsters on the wall, innocent caricatures made by simple hand movements meant to entertain viewers, not insult them.  I strongly disagree.

Viewers in metropolitan areas where the Italian American population is substantial might shrug off this kind of media ethnic bias as comical but not rooted in truth, but there are those viewers who have never in their entire lives seen an Italian American up close, and don’t want to.  Once hearing the telltale vowel at the end of his last name, they surmise the man is dangerous.  When I lived in New Jersey, perhaps non-Italian Americans might have wondered if there was a Mafioso in the Buttaci woodpile, but where we now live in West Virginia, some have come right out and asked!

What most disturbs me is this: so many Italian Americans see nothing wrong with being typecast as Mafiosi.  They patronize the viewing of the shows.  They sit back on their living-room couches and laugh raucously when Paulie Walnuts says something one might not expect from such a meticulously dressed man.  They are unaware that the media has posted on the rear ends of all Italian Americans, their supporters as well, a sign that reads, “Kick my ass.  I’m Italian.”  As a consequence, Italian American groups lack the numbers with which to make this fight against ethnic bias viable enough to get results.  There is dissension in our ranks.  We become our own worst enemy.  We do not have that solidarity which the Jews, the Hispanics, and the African Americans have and are not afraid to use to their rightful benefit.  Until Italian Americans see the light, there will be no solution to this injustice.

Those who fight the good fight media discrimination against Italian Americans will continue to do so.  They will go on seeing more of these put-down shows televising throughout America.  More products, Italian and otherwise, will be sold within the context of mafia behavior like “I’ll break your legs if you don’t run out and buy such-and-such.”  Or “Wanna get whacked?  Eat our competitor’s hamburger!”

I am editing a novel I wrote called Carmelu the Sicilian, my small part in fighting media bias.  When it’s done, I will try to interest a publisher to help me reach the Italian American community in particular and everyone else in general.  In my book Carmelu Saccomanni, born in Sicily, immigrates to America and through a series of events makes it to Hollywood and becomes a movie star.  The films he is most famous for are gangster movies.  They earn him fame and fortune, but then when things go wrong, he returns to live out his days in Sicily.  When his epiphany comes, he decides in his old age to stand up to the media bias of which he was once a part.  He does so non-violently.  Carmelu becomes the hero of Italians everywhere.
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How would you like to be perceived as a writer?

Once somebody asked me at a Borders poetry reading if I considered myself a poet.  I had been reading from one of my collections called Promising the Moon.  I told her I preferred being called “a guy who writes poems.”  Calling oneself a “poet” always struck me as bordering on pomposity.  Millions of people write poems.  Are we all poets?  To me, “poet” is a designation reserved for the master guys and gals who wrote and write poetry.  And yet I don’t extend that to, let’s say, fiction writer or even novelist.  I suppose you can tell how highly I place poetry on the literature ladder!

I would like people to consider me a writer worth reading.  I’ve worked hard learning the writing craft, as well as teaching it on all levels of education: elementary school right on through college.  Writing has been my passion, the inner urge I satisfy daily.  I’ve conducted writing workshops and lectured on writing subjects.  I believe words have the power to change minds, elevate readers, elicit emotion, offer vicarious thrills, and express oftentimes mutual feelings of writer and reader.  A student of mine in seventh grade once said to me, “Nobody understands me except this book!”

Because I believe in my writings, I work hard to promote them.  Right now it’s my new book, Flashing My Shorts, that has my nearly full attention.  Second to that, I am editing a follow-up collection of short-short fiction.  The question of whether or not readers will perceive me as I hope they will can only be answered in the reading of my work.  At the expense of sounding somewhat big-headed, I consider myself an entertaining writer whose stories are worth the price of the book.  I don’t lock myself into writing only one type of story to the exclusion of others.  I have as much fun writing humor as I do horror.  I like to write character-driven stories and plot-driven ones.  To see a character come to life on a page is thrilling to me.

How I want to be perceived as a writer?  A guy who takes the writing craft seriously, pens the best he can, is unafraid of rewrites and criticism, and will go on writing for as long as God wants me to!
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What do you think it is about the poetry of Lorca that still appeals and do you think that poetry is music without song?

Poetry is written all over the world, but in my estimation, no one writes better, more powerful poems than the Spanish-speaking poets.  I say that because they have a handle on maximum use of the metaphor and simile.  They know how to inject into their lines top-notch imagery, a definite requirement for excellent poetry.  I find this quality to a lesser degree with Italian poets, but their language is a song while the Spanish language is often a dirge.  Even when it speaks of joy, there is a hint of sorrow.  And they are unafraid to give voice to flowers or wings to that which cannot fly.

Lorca is a favorite of mine because his writings, like those of Vallejo and Neruda, come directly from the heart.  I can see the words shake off the afterbirth as the poet in honest language delivers them to the white page.  When we read Lorca, our own hearts are made lighter.  The writing of the poem and the reading of the poem are heart-generated and heart-welcomed.  The two acts are joined somehow.  The reader becomes privy to the heart secrets of Lorca and is uplifted.  What greater way to fill passing time!

I think poetry goes beyond music.  It is music in its highest form.  A college professor who taught creative writing once told the class, “A poem holds more power in its brevity than any book.  It may unleash itself as a song, dance across the page in a kind of choreographed rhythm, but it reality it is a small miracle of words taking their rightful places and shouting its observations to the world.”
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How did you find the transition from New Jersey to West Virginia?

When I was sixteen, my brother Alphonse and his new bride Celia Ann took me to visit her parents in Crab Orchard, West Virginia.  I was a city boy from Lyndhurst, New Jersey.  I had never seen green mountains or slept with a blanket in late August.  I had never walked down a street and greeted strangers, passing the time of day with them in friendly conversation.  I loved this mountain state so much I made one of the few predictions in my life that came true:  “One day I’ll be living here!”

Except for a year in Sicily when I graduated from college, I spent most of my life in New York and New Jersey.  True, I also lived in Miami and Detroit, but only for very short periods of time, surely not long enough to call them home.  My prediction notwithstanding, I felt certain I’d live out my days in New Jersey.  Like my sister-in-law Celia Ann, Sharon, prior to our marriage, had lived in West Virginia.  When I retired in July 2007, she was very surprised when I told her I wanted to move to West Virginia.  Had I said, Palermo, Sicily, she could not have been more surprised.

We are very happy in Princeton, West Virginia.  We’ve become active in our church.  We’ve made a lot of friends.  Of course, I miss the family I left behind in New Jersey: my mother, two sisters, cousins, friends, and colleagues, but not New Jersey, persae.  At least in Bergen County where Sharon and I lived, no one was friendly.  Everyone seemed to be rushing through their lives with no time to spare for a little laughter.  Perhaps because of the diversity of religions in our New Jersey area, we rarely heard the mention of Jesus, whereas here in Princeton, our daily newspaper posts on its pages a Bible quote, and folks are not afraid to shout out “Praise the Lord!“

We’ve made six visits back since living here, but it’s always the return trip we prefer.
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There has been a shift of power recently in Sicily and Italy with the capture of Bernardo Provenzano, known as the capo di tutti capi after Berlusconi’s fall from power. Prior to him Giulio Andreotti revealed before the Chamber of Deputies the existence of Operazione Gladio, a secret anti-communist structure. To what extent do you think the power shift is part of an alignment towards the centre in Italian politics and do you believe this is possible given the range of Berlusconi’s media empire?

Silvio Berlusconi, despite what many critics will argue, is like the good man you cannot keep down. Despite scandal and accusations that he’s been underhanded in his fight against corruption, he seems to becoming a fixture in Italian politics.  Everyone is familiar with the absurd number of governments Italy has had since post-World War II when De Gasperi served as Italy’s first prime minister.  Since 1946, there have been about 80 elections for that post!  Berlusconi’s party, named Forza Italia, after the cry of his own soccer team, AC Milan, “Go Italy!“ which Berlusconi owns has now morphed into The People of Freedom in Berlusconi’s most recent successful bid for power.

A man of the right, albeit center, he is the enemy of Communism and by whatever means, he does what he can to change the fact that Italy has a huge Communist segment of the over-all population.  His enemies insist that Mussolini too was a rightist and that Berlusconi, with his wealth in the billions, his control of three TV stations, his underhandedness in following his agendas, cannot be trusted to lead Italy.  Many of his businesses, they claim, are tainted with Mafia involvement, and despite Berlusconi’s grandstand play at bringing down the infamous Mafiosi Bernardo Provenzano, the prime minister is no better than him or any of his henchmen.

My feeling is that Italians do not regard Berlusconi as their savior.  The man has too much money!  That alone makes him suspect.  Moreover, he’s been at the center of too many scandals, and like former President George W. Bush,  he closes his eyes to greedy Big Business that holds out its hands for more and more tax relief at the expense of the middle class.  I suspect he will serve out his term and fail in any further attempts to recapture such a lofty position in Italian government.
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You admire Jack London. His writings are often regarded as examples of Social Darwinism, do you think that the forces of social competition are any fewer today?

Social Darwinism was best illustrated by Hitler’s Nazism, which attempted to elevate the Aryans to the top rung of the social ladder while murdering the millions whom he designated as inferior.  And, of course, genocide has decimated other populations in recent memory in Rwanda, Iraq, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Sudan.

We saw Mussolini try to re-establish Italy as the new Roman Empire, beginning with an “Italy-for-Italians-Only” policy which he took to absurd lengths as when he ordered the British department store in Italy to change its name from “Standard” to “Standa.”

In America we now witness the continued growth of neo-Nazi groups like the White Aryan Brotherhood whose mission is to white-wash the nation.

I believe what encourages this national chavinism in America today is the rampant influx of millions entering America illegally, most from Mexico.  States like Arizona and several others who have taken a stand against this illegal practice have been admonished by many, starting with the federal government, because it violates the nation’s sense of tolerance for diverse peoples.  It is also because the practice has been allowed to go on for so long, there seems no solution in sight.  Either a nation closes its eyes to it or they pass laws to either deport illegal aliens or require stringent requirements to remain here and possibly earn citizenship.

We Americans need to keep in mind that the causes that toppled the 500-year Roman Empire are being shared now within our own recent history!  Constant wars, natural disasters, decline in morality, failing economy, political corruption, unemployment, and invasions from those who entered the empire illegally!
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What is the secret ingredient in Tiramisu?

The best Tiramisu I ever ate was in Agrigento, Sicily, at a sweets shop down the road apiece from the Grecian temples.  What made it so good, according to the waiter who brought it to our table and to me who ate it, was the Marsala wine and the mascarpone cheese.  In American restaurants they substitute rum for the Marsala wine.
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Sal, thank you for giving such an in-depth and engaging interview, it’s been great having you at The Slaughterhouse.
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SalButtaci.jpg picture by Richard_Godwin

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20 Responses to Chin Wag At The Slaughterhouse: Interview With Salvatore Buttaci

  1. Sal writes with such feeling, such emotion and such a sense of place that his readers immediately identify with his work. It is genuine, fiercely loyal and rings with truth. Though I’ve never met Sal, I suspect he embodies those very same characteristics. He has been an online friend and mentor offering his editing heft to my work and is always there with encouragement and support. Richard, once again you’ve gotten the goods and delved below the surface into this amazingly talented writer. Well done.

    • Salvatore Buttaci says:

      No, Michael, we’ve never met, but I feel as though we’ve been acquainted for years and years! I am honored to share friendship with you.

  2. Jen Knox says:

    Great interview. I had the pleasure of reviewing Sal’s latest book, and I’m here to say the work inside is poignant, eclectic and smartly funny.

    • Salvatore Buttaci says:

      Jen, thank you for your kind words. It’s good that we believe in each other and understand the writer’s mission: to write and share our work with the greatest number of readers!

  3. Salvatore Buttaci says:

    Thanks, Michael and Jen for your kind praise. I appreciate it, coming from writers I highly admire.
    And I want to say thank you also to Richard Godwin for interviewing me. He did a great job, as always.

  4. Its always great to read about the interconnected cultures and to get a lesson in politics that aren’t always our own.

    This was wonderful insite to a man who writes some of my favorites!

    • Salvatore Buttaci says:

      Nicki, thanks for your comment. I believe what helps a writer tremendously is that readers encourage them to keep on writing. This is what our writer community does best, wearing the two hats of writer and reader!

  5. Deb Harris says:

    Sal, you’re Italian??? Kidding!
    You never cease to amaze me with the depth of your being. It was truly a great day when our paths crossed and became intertwined. You are an incredible, multi-talented person, and one that I’m very, very proud to call friend. Being your publisher has brought us the unbelievable joy of knowing you! Much Love, Deb

    • Salvatore Buttaci says:

      Deb, I am still thanking God for your recovery, and, of course, for our friendship. You are the kind of publisher–you and Phil–who work hard to make your company a family. I am proud to be counted among you.

  6. Jodi MacArthur says:

    Sal,
    I could read your words all day, whether it be fiction, history, or opinion. I don’t even know what to comment on because I loved this whole interview so much. However, I do love this quote from you,

    “I believe words have the power to change minds, elevate readers, elicit emotion, offer vicarious thrills, and express oftentimes mutual feelings of writer and reader.”

    I also like how you say at the end of the day you are just a guy who likes to write. (AND may I say what you write kicks arse?)

    This is by far my favorite interview at the Slaughterhouse. Fantastic questions, Richard.

    • Salvatore Buttaci says:

      Oh, Jodi, you are such a dear person! I am so glad the Internet gave us the opportunity to meet and share our writings with each other. I know I’ve been blessed because of it.

  7. Miss Alister says:

    I do know the name. And now I know much about the man. Richard has a knack for striking great veins of gold in a person. And to me, the depth of such a vein was stuck in Sal by the Lorca question. That’s the answer that made my heart go pitter-pat, anyway. I found the Nietzsche and Berlusconi Q&As and Sal’s vision as a writer particularly interesting. And the injection of tradition into my favorite dessert made a perfect ending : )

    • Salvatore Buttaci says:

      Miss Alister, Richard is a remarkable interviewer! He came up with all the challenging questions that allowed me to comment, including the one about Lorca, one of my favorite poets who’s inspired me since childhood to write from the heart and soul. Thank you for enjoying this interview.

  8. callan says:

    Sal- I agree with you about spaniosh being a wonderful lang. 4 poetry- after years of study i can not speak it as well as i would like but i have always felt it was a lang. filled with a great deal of passion and longing.

    • Salvatore Buttaci says:

      Callan, Spanish poetry is adept at describing emotions with outrageous imagery and getting away with it!

  9. Sal. great interview.

  10. Thank you Sal for this great interview and to everyone for your comments.

  11. phibby says:

    wonderful, Sal! you are such a talented man.

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