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Exquisite Corpse
Issue 8A Journal of Letters and Life

Julian Semilian in Profile
by S. Leigh Somerville
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I had a nightmare recently that I was playing Scrabble with Julian Semilian. In reality, I rarely lose a game of Scrabble, and one would think that playing a game of English words with a Romanian would be a sure bet, but in my dream he spelled "valkyrie" and "priapic," and I got stuck with the letter "q" on the last play.
     No doubt, the dream was inspired by an evening last fall at Reynolda House, where I heard Semilian read his poem "Transgender Organ Grinder." Earlier in the year, I had heard him give a reading at the Rainbow News & Cafe, and once again I delighted in such colorful phrases as "amber tarantula butter," and "fulgurant fingers," but was eager to get home to my dictionary.
     Much like his poetry, Semilian's office at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he teaches film editing, is a world of its own. The institutional decor is disguised with a Mexican rug, spread wrong side up to hide the worn surface underneath. An Indian cloth, haggled for $20 from a street hawker, blocks out any rays of light that might squeeze through the standard issue venetian blinds.
     In this international cocoon, copies of Death Wish 2, Scanner Cop, The Landlady, and Daddy's Girl are just a few of the films that stand as memorials to his 24 years in Hollywood. After editing more than 50 movies and television shows, Semilian says that his transition to teaching two years ago was the best move that he has made.
     "I had finished a phase of my life there, and I felt teaching was far more valuable. I wanted to make a contribution to the future rather than the past," says Semilian, who also taught film editing in the '80s at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and to prisoners in Chino, California.
     He tells the story of strolling around L.A. at lunchtime one day and seeing an ad in the paper for a job teaching film editing in North Carolina.
     "Something inside me clicked, and I wanted this job. It's serendipitous and yet, on the other hand, I had been concerned with the fact that film editing as an art was in danger of disappearing. I felt that I was very good at what I did, but that the assistants I had were not concerned with learning from me. They were primarily concerned with technical issues rather than artistic issues."
     Kelly Donnellan, a fourth year NCSA film student, has been in Semilian's editing classes for the past two years and considers him her mentor. "When I first met him, I was intimidated because he is so well-read and in touch with so many processes. He's not just an editor; he's an artist who is open and intuitive about what makes something work in the editing room. As a teacher, he is very supportive and gives his students the freedom to try anything."
     Semilian's own formal education is limited to a bachelor of fine arts degree, which he received from the University of Minnesota "sometime in '72 or '73. I barely made it through college. It was the '60s. You didn't go to college to study," he laughs, twirling his long gray ponytail for emphasis.
     Explaining the connection between teaching filmmaking and writing poetry, Semilian says, "There are poetic elements in some movies. The poetic element, most of the time, is expressed in editing, which can create interesting dissonance and juxtapositions that are endemic to surrealism."
     Semilian says that being a poet is laying claim to one's true identity. He describes his poems as narratives that "go on inside you, but that you're not aware of" and says that he is interested in writing about the person who exists apart from the socialized human being.
     "I use words like the painter uses paint. Words are full of meaning - even made up words create meanings at different psychic levels. Sometimes words form themselves in a very delightful and imaginative way and are entrancing to me, so I write them down."
     The noted Los Angeles poet Will Alexander says this of Semilian's work: "Under a veil of anthracite and various locust drillings, Julian Semilian arrives from pure Romanian vapor, kinetic, his arms far flung like the wings of a falcon, anxious to reclaim ore with his beak, anxious to tear open stone and poetically fly into citadels of mystery."
     In addition to writing and teaching, Semilian also translates the work of Romanian poets, concentrating chiefly on avantgarde writers such as Paul Celan and Tristan Tzara. In May of 1999 he was honored for his work at the Romanian Cultural Center in New York City.
     Andrei Codrescu, NPR commentator and editor of Exquisite Corpse, says of Semilian's translations of Celan: "Celan would have been proud to be thus refreshed."
     Semilian remembers meeting Codrescu in 1965 when they left their native Romania on the same plane.
     "We stopped in Naples and were walking around, discussing the differences between Coca Cola and Pepsi and enjoying the fawning of the local ladies. We knew we had to take some action. We went up on some rocks and decided to take our clothes off so that some beautiful women would notice us and be so thrilled by what we did that we would have girlfriends that evening. Nobody paid any attention to us. It was our first lesson in capitalism."
     Although Semilian speaks of being "embraced" in his travels by the international long hair set, poets, philosophers and gypsies, he is equally enchanted by his life now in Winston-Salem, where he makes his home in an Ardmore "half house" with his cat Sabrina.
     "I love this area. It has in parts the feeling of a fairy tale. I was driving down Reynolda Road one Sunday afternoon, and the sun was out, the leaves were red, and I felt happy for the first time in many years."
     Julian Semilian inhales deeply, pauses and, in one sentence, explains why he has not returned to Romania during the 35 years since he left the country with his parents. "There is a local writer, Thomas Wolfe, who said you can't go home again."


Semilian has an upcoming book of poetry, Imponderable Amber Contraband, to be published this year by Beyond Baroque Press. His poems have been published in Exquisite Corpse, Suitcase, Arshile, World Letter, Syllogism, Romania Libera and Vatra.

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