[This interview was previously published in the 8th Issue of
Buzdokuz Poetry Theory Criticism Magazine,
see buzdokuz.com ]
Hello Jim. Thank you for agreeing to interview me. Let me start with my first question: I wonder how you met asemic poetry. Can you talk about it?
In 1996, I made a group of fairly extreme experimental textual poems and sent them to a friend who was primarily a visual poet. He warned me that I would wind up making asemic writing if I continued to pursue such extreme experiments. That was the first time I saw the word “asemic”.
In 1997, I intentionally made some illegible handwritten poems. I sent them to John M. Bennett, who called them “spirit writing”. The following year, Tim Gaze published in his Asemic Series a small booklet of my illegible handwritten poems entitled Spirit Writing.
Could something really be a-semic? What is the connection of asemic poetry with meaning? Is it meaningless to be wordless?
My position has always been that there is no such thing as asemic writing. All writing has meaning, and all mark-making has meaning.Practitioners of asemic writing are involved in an aspirational practice.I have never accepted the definition of a-semic as poly-semic, which is very close to the definition offered by Wikipedia. (”With the non-specificity of asemic writing there comes a vacuum of meaning, which is left for the reader to fill in and interpret.”) We may as well assert that asemic writing is the opposite of itself.
In January of 1998, I sent an email to Tim Gaze in which I stated the following: the asemic text would seem to be an ideal, an impossibility, but possibly worth pursuing for just that reason.
In June of 2011, I posted the following comment to the ASEMIC Google Group: there is no such thing as asemic writing.in fact, there is no such thing as asemic anything. everything is readable, ie., can be and will be given meaning.the asemic is an unattainable ideal.in striving toward it, many mutations of writing and drawing (and other practices: photographing, to name but one) will come into being.this is the value of the asemic. working with asemia (attempting to write it, attempting to read and/or not read it) is a training exercise, and the products of that training exist as documentation of the process.
How can we read asemic poetry? Can you evaluate asemic poetry in terms of legibilty-illegibility?
Asemic writing was never meant to encourage any kind of reader-response engagement.
Asemic writing is a kind of writing-against-itself. It is intended to thwart the production of meaning, even the process of collaboratively constructed meaning-building.
The struggle in the production of asemic writing lies in the attempt to produce a meaningless text or text/image or quasi-calligraphic drawing, and failing, continually, in every attempt.If that specific struggle is not present in the production, then what is being produced is not asemic writing. It is, most often, either abstract visual art, or some variety of visual poetry.
The struggle in the reception (reading) of asemic writing lies in the attempt to discover or collaboratively construct meaning or meanings, and failing, being thwarted, continually, in every attempt.And, if that specific struggle is not present in the reading, then what is being read is not asemic writing. It is, most often, either abstract visual art, or some variety of visual poetry.
If there is no attempt at a reading to be thwarted, then there is no writing, of the asemic variety or any other kind.
And, if there is no resistance to the meaning-building process, that is, if the reader is free to associate any array of meanings he or she desires, then there is no reason to use the term “asemic” to refer to the writing being read.
Where would it be right to look for the avant-garde aspect of asemic poetry?
When asemic writing is in fact a kind of writing, it participates in the avant-garde tradition of writing-against-itself, which we can identify at least as early as 1909 with Italian Futurism. The tradition has continued, unbroken, through Russian Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Lettrism, Cobra, Fluxus, Neoism, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing, Otherstream poetries, and others I am surely neglecting, into the present.
When asemic writing is in fact not any kind of writing, but is rather a form of visual art, then it participates in the highly-successful (and highly-lucrative, for what that’s worth) tradition of mainstream 20th century abstract art, and has no claims whatsoever to the traditions of the avant-garde.
What are the features that distinguish post-asemic poetry from asemic poetry?
I actually don’t use the term “post-asemic” — because I don’t know what it means. Unless maybe it just means “no such thing as asemic writing”, in which case it’s a kind of belated acknowledgement of my understanding of the term in the late 1990s, and ever since.
We would be much better off with a term like “desemantized writing“, which Tomaso Binga in Italy was using as early as 1974. I wish I had known the term in 1997, when Tim Gaze and I started our correspondence. Then maybe this conversation could be about desemantized, rather than asemic, writing. Desemantized is so much clearer, and so much more specific, than asemic. But I didn’t learn of the term until much later, by which time “asemic” had taken on a life of its own, developing factions and divergent trajectories, under the umbrella of an international community sometimes called The Asemic Movement. (As of June 7, 2021, the Facebook group calledAsemic Writing: The New Post-Literate had over 20 thousand members and was averaging 40 posts per day.)
I have become interested in the contributions of women writers and artists to the current community of asemic writing, and also to the history of visual and concrete poetry.
Some of the poets included in the recently published Judith: Women Making Visual Poetry (Timglaset, May 2021) who are often associated with asemic writing are Rosaire Appel, Cinzia Farina, Satu Kaikkonen, Kerri Pullo and Lina Stern.
In an essay contextualizing the anthology, editor Amanda Earl writes:
“I see connections between the work of earlier women makers of visual poetry and contemporary practitioners. It is my hope that women today and tomorrow will be inspired to create and explore the rich history of women making visual poetry. That this visibility will lead to creating and opening spaces for women, knowing that they are not alone and that the work they are doing is valid.”
From my perspective I might add: “It is my hope that men today and tomorrow will be inspired to inform themselves and explore the rich history of women making visual poetry.”
In September of 2020, Primary Information published a book edited by Alex Balgiu and Mónica de la Torre entitled Women in Concrete Poetry: 1959-1979. Included among its poets are Tomaso Binga from Italy, Mirtha Dermisache from Brazil, and Ana Hatherly from Portugal, all of whom are very frequently mentioned in discussions of precursors, ancestors, and early practitioners of what has come to be known as asemic writing.
In 2013, Jessica Smith edited Women of Visual Poetry, and published it online at EVENING WILL COME: A MONTHLY JOURNAL OF POETICS. Included are 63 women who make works identified as visual poems. In her introduction she writes the following:
“Visual poetry as a subset of the poetry community is plagued by the same illness as poetry itself. Every time VIDA does a count of the woeful underrepresentation of female poets in major publications, editors claim that women don’t submit. Perhaps the language, and resulting practice, of “submission” is repellent. Editors, of both magazines and more cloaked periodicals like anthologies, must research writers and actively pursue the writers they want to publish, specifically request work from these writers, and create an environment in which writers feel comfortable “contributing” to the collaborative entity.Jessica Smith
Maybe the need to actively research and invite women to participate in a project will fade when periodicals are less blatantly gender biased. For now, editors can’t expect numbers trouble to magically clear up on its own. And in the meantime, projects that witness the truth of the underrepresented must continue to provide an accurate survey of the poetry scene.”
Some of the poets published in Women of Visual Poetry who are often associated with asemic writing include Rosaire Appel, Rachel Defay-Liautard, C. Mehrl Bennett, Pearl Pirie, Amanda Earl, Kiki Franceschi, Fátima Queiroz, Rosa Gravino, Donna Kuhn, and Miriam Midley.
The digitally archived series of WOMEN ASEMIC WRITERS Exhibits consists of seven galleries, beginning with the spring of 2018 exhibit, and ending with the summer of 2020 exhibit. Among many other currently active women asemic writers, the series includes Kimm Kiriako, Lina Stern, Anneke Baeten, Nicola Winborn, Marcia Brauer, Kerri Pullo, Floriana Rigo, Lucinda Sherlock, Donmay Donamayoora, Laura Ortiz, Tatiana Roumelioti, Maria Teresa Cazzaro, Renata Solimini, Tommasina Bianca Squadrito, Kristine Snodgrass, and Judith Copithorne.
In February of 2021, De Villo Sloan posted a review, including several images, of American Apparell by Kristine Snodgrass (Alien Buddha Press, 2020). Sloan says ” In recent years Kristine Snodgrass has garnered praise and gained an audience in the international asemic writing community.” I wrote him a brief note expressing my interest in Snodgrass, and in his review of her book. He published my note at his Asemic Front Two blogspot. Here is an excerpt:
It makes me happy to see work developed under the umbrella of “asemic writing” circling back towards its origins in content-driven text/image poetry.
As Kristine Snodgrass writes,
“The glitch reimagines the language, dissecting it and rearranging it in the spirit of asemics. Or pansemic. Or abstract.”Kristine Snodgrass
This approach identifies asemic writing as one component among many in the ever-expanding constellation of experimental/innovative/difficult/restless poetries.
When I try to imagine what the term post-asemic might refer to, what particular works and writers it might refer to, I think of Kristine Snodgrass, who works as Associate Professor of English and Modern Languages in the area of Creative Writing/Poetry at Florida A&M University. I like to think of her term femmeglitch from 2020, in relation to Tomaso Binga’s feminist concept of desemantized writing, from 1974. It might be fruitful to consider a trajectory for recent developments in visual poetry, beginning in the late-1960s/early-1970s, passing through a phase known as “asemic writing”, and returning, now, renewed, transformed, and mutagenic, as a variety of visual poetry (or, perhaps, visual writing) to be known, at least for a while, as”post-asemic writing”.
Is it correct to consider asemic poetry as a title under visual poetry?
I certainly think so.We have poetry, and one variety of poetry is called visual poetry.So, we have visual poetry, and one variety of visual poetry is called asemic writing.
As I wrote in an email to Peter Swenger, in November of 2017: the wheel of asemic writing has been invented many times, but only once has it led to what is now called The Asemic Movement.
Asemic writing seems always to arise from an extreme attention to the minutiae of writing. I think of Henri Michaux. His book of desemantized handwriting entitled Narration (which could perhaps be called a kind of spirit writing) was published in 1927. He started writing in 1922 and in 1924 he produced a visual work entitled”Alphabet”, which begins to establish him as an ancestor of asemic writing, or maybe as a full practitioner in all aspects other than the use of the word “asemic”.
Michaux continued to explore the possibilities of his “drawritings” (to borrow a term Marco Giovenale has used to describe his own asemic practice) for the rest of his long life (1899 – 1984). While Miserable Miracle: La Mescaline (Miserable Miracle, 1956) is probably his best known book from the eleven-year period during which he experimented with the relationship of mescaline to writing, three other books from this period have recently been combined into one book and published by City Lights. Quatre cents homme en croix (Four Hundred Men on the Cross), a collaboration with Roberto Matta entitled Vigies sur cibles (Watchtowers on Targets), and Paix dans les brisements (Peace in the Breaking) were all written between 1956 and 1959. They have been published together in an English translation by Gillian Conoley under the title Thousand Times Broken (2014). They all contain examples of thequasi-calligraphic drawing or desemanticized handwriting which is similar to some of the most prevalent and popular forms of what is now known as asemic writing.
One might also think of Christian Dotremont. Dotremont became involved with the Surrealist movement while still in his early twenties, while identifying himself primarily as a poet. Under the influence of Surrealism, he began to produce his logogrammes, a kind of text-as-image work, ornate calligraphic renditions of words and phrases in deliberately ambiguous and polysemic arrangements we might now experience as almost an exact opposite of asemic writing. For Dotremont, the calligraphic ambiguities were an extension, an intensification, of the expressivity found in some of the more conventional (at least in appearance) Surrealist writing. He titled one of his late logogrammes (1972 — he died in 1979) “Poetry must be seen and not only read”.
Foregrounding the visuality (we might say the materiality) of the poem was explored as a means of expanding the complex communicative potential characteristic of even the most traditional poetries. Dotremont’s calligraphic experiments are similar in appearance at least to much of what has been produced in the past twenty years or so under the rubric of asemic writing.
And of course we must think of the works of Tomaso Binga (the artistic pseudonym of Bianca Pucciarelli Menna), who was using the term Scrittura desemantizzata (Desemantized Writing) at least as early as 1974. Binga’s desemantized handwriting,while all but illegible as writing, was intended as very clear, precise communication of her feminist analysis of the silencing, the marginalization, the objectification, and the commodification of women in the patriarchal society of post-WWII Italy.
In a 2019 interview published in Hyperallergic, she explained some of her thinking to Francesco Dama:
“I work on writing. I don’t want to invent a new code, but I attempt a process of de-semantization of the verbal code. In my works, words grow and multiply likeliving beings, they cross over the places they are supposed to belong, they proliferate like cells, they invade the spaces that surround us.”Tomaso Binga
Until fairly recently, many of us wrote at least the first drafts of our poems by hand. Handwriting is often a little slippery in its conveyance of intended sense. Even our own handwriting can be at times ambiguous or even illegible. The potential for exploring intentionally ambiguous, and even intentionally illegible, handwriting is always present. It is always hovering, lingering, in some liminal space at the edge of conscious thought.
I came to the asemic through poetry. I spent years writing syllabics, breaking the word into its syllabic components, as with all conventional poetry, but counting the number of syllables rather than the number of stresses. Eventually, inevitably, I started breaking the word into its letteral components, sometimes counting them, or counting them and the spaces between them. The next step, which also seemed inevitable, was to begin exploring permutations of the letters. That led to a sort of calligraphy, a quasi-alphabetical non-semantic writing utilizing neither syntax nor grammar, a kind of letteral and gestural handwriting. Then came page-as-field compositions consisting of letteral scrawls and squiggles, mutated geometric forms, gestural improvisations and doodling. Somewhere in this process an interest in shaped visual poems had developed, along with the exploration of text/image collage poems.
Any stopping point is also a starting point, that much is a given. It becomes very interesting when we realize that every stopping point is actually a multitude of starting points, and we have the ability to move out from wherever we are in many directions at once.On the page, or in our books, we might identify a step-by-step understanding of, for example, how textual poetry leads to visual poetry which then leads to asemic writing, but in the mind all of these variations exist simultaneously. We experience them as a swarming simultaneity, not as a causal sequence.
Have you come across a study that deals with asemic poetry in the context of psychoanalysis? Do you think asemic poems can reveal the personality and subconscious of the poet?
I haven’t read this kind of study, and I would be a little suspicious of this kind of thing from the outset. I don’t think handwriting analysis — graphology — is the direction I want to take, or advocate, or encourage, in relation to the (attempted) reading of asemic writing.We should attempt to read it in the largest, most complex, context we can find for it. Let’s begin by reading it as literature, within the history of literature, produced by a particular human being, in a specific time and place, with specific socio-economic, political and religious influences in full play. I propose this only as a sketch of a beginning.
What does asemic poetry aim to destroy and what does it promise to replace it?
As Hugo Ball proclaimed, in his Dada Manifesto of July 1916:
“A line of poetry is a chance to get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language, as if put there by stockbrokers’ hands, hands worn smooth by coins.”Hugo Ball
A hundred and five years later, we should add that a page-as-field composition is a chance to get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language, as if put there by stockbrokers’ hands, hands worn smooth by coins.
A textimagepoem is a chance to get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language, as if put there by stockbrokers’ hands, hands worn smooth by coins.Writing-against-itself is a chance to get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language, as if put there by stockbrokers’ hands, hands worn smooth by coins.An asemic poem is a chance to get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language, as if put there by stockbrokers’ hands, hands worn smooth by coins.
In the mid-1990s I was involved in some correspondence with a few poets who were, from time to time, interested in considering the practice of writing experimental poetry as a kind of spiritual discipline. The following citations are taken from an array of writers who helped to inform that kind of thinking. If not for these specific writers, and for this general line of thought, it is unlikely that my first attempts at illegible calligraphy would have been referred to as spirit writing.
Patricia Cox Miller, in her essay “In Praise of Nonsense” discusses an intriguing array of early sound poetry, along with speculations concerning the intentions of the poets. She writes:
Paul, who talks about what the magical papyri do, has in his first letter to the Corinthians described basic aspects of alphabetical language. They are aspects that carry the archaic sensibility of that language, especially as it shows itself in the magical papyri where spiritual language is best and most fully preserved. The information from Paul concerns the form and qualities of this language: it is ecstatic prayer that does not sound like normal language but rather like music (as Paul’s repeated musical metaphors suggest – gong, cymbal, flute, harp, bugle); it is not intelligible, but it is rhythmic; and it is also powerful, for it brings manifestations of the spirit. Further, those manifestations take the verbal form not of reasonable words (‘For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful’) but, as we know from other sources, of strings of letters, particularly of vowels, and these somehow give expression to ‘mysteries in the Spirit’ (1 Cor 14:2).Patricia Cox Miller
Jerome Rothenberg, writing in Technicians of The Sacred about an aboriginal rain chant, offers the following commentary:
Such special languages – meaningless &/or mysterious – are a small but nearly universal aspect of ‘primitive-&-archaic’ poetry. They may involve (1) purely invented, meaningless sounds, (2) distortion of ordinary words & syntax, (3) ancient words emptied of their (long since forgotten) meanings, (4) words borrowed from other languages & likewise emptied. And all these may, in addition, be explained as (1) spirit language, (2) animal language, (3) ancestral language – distinctions between them often being blurred.Jerome Rothenberg
In his books about the Kabbalistic practices of Abraham Abulafia, Moshe Idel provides us with descriptions of 13th century compositional practices involving letteral recombination.
“If it be night, kindle many lights, until all be bright.Abraham Abulafia
Then take ink, pen, and a table to thy hand and remember that thou art about to serve God in joy of the gladness of heart.
Now begin to combine a few or many letters, to permute and to combine them until thy heart be warm.
Then be mindful of their movements and of what thou canst bring forth by moving them.
And when thou feelest that thy heart is already warm and when thou seest that by combinations of letters thou canst grasp new things which by human tradition or by thyself thou wouldst not be able to know and when thou art thus prepared to receive the influx of divine power which flows into thee, then turn all thy true thought to imagine the Name and His exalted angels in thy heart as if they were human beings sitting or standing about thee.”
In his discussion of Abulafia’s process of recombining the letters of the sacred name, a practice the name of which has been transliterated as zerufe otiot or tzeruf otiyot, Moshe Idel describes the radical poetics of this particular version of the Prophetic Kabbalah.
This technique of breaking-down or atomizing the Name is the most distinctive characteristic of Abulafia’s technique; the Holy Name contains within itself ‘scientific’ readings of the structure of the world and its activities, thereby possessing both an ‘informative’ character and magical powers. It is reasonable to assume that both qualities are associated with the peculiar structure of the Name. However, in Abulafia’s view this structure must be destroyed in order to exploit the ‘prophetic’ potential of these Names and to create a series of new structures by means of letter-combinations. In the course of the changes taking place in the structure of the Name, the structure of human consciousness likewise changes. As Abulafia indicated in a number of places, the Divine Name is inscribed upon man’s soul, making it reasonable to assume that the process of letter-combinations worked upon the Name is understood as occurring simultaneously in the human soul.
Moshe Idel again:
Abulafia’s way is an original one in terms of the psychological mechanism by which the new consciousness that it reaches is activated. While in the other known techniques – Yoga, Sufism and hesychasm – the goal is to attain the maximum degree of concentration by means of a generally simple formula, to be repeated over and over again, Abulafia’s method is based upon the contemplation of a constantly changing object: one must combine the letters and their vowel signs, ‘sing’ and move the head in accordance with the vocalization, and even lift one’s hands in the gesture of Priestly Blessing. This combination of constantly changing components is entirely different from what we know of these other techniques. Abulafia is not interested in relaxing the consciousness by means of concentration on a ‘point,’ but in purifying it by the necessity to concentrate intensely on such a large number of activities that it is almost impossible at that moment to think about any other subject. By this means, the consciousness is purified of every subject apart from the names being uttered.
So, that is some of what I was reading and considering during the years in which the word “asemic” came to be included in my vocabulary. My personal beliefs are probably closer to the technicians of the sacred than they are to 13th century prophetic kabbalah, but it was and is good to know about precursors and ancestors of asemic writing who had things on their mind other than the creation of aesthetic or even philosophical works of verbal art.
When I saw the asemic poem below, I had the thought that the existing was covered up and given it a new form and meaning, maybe a new reality. I’m curious about the background of this poem.
Overprinting is a form of collage. Overprinting is a form of erasure poetry. Ride a bus through a city. Drive in a car, almost anywhere. Walk along a sidewalk, past fast-food franchises and strip-malls. Sit in a waiting room and flip through a magazine.
Overprinting is realism. Fragments are how much of what, whenever encountered, mostly elsewhere? Seeger as was his the genteel tradition both men four what to do before he to deal with the mystic populist American Society New York American Indian music Washington). Overprinting is the cut-up method, a writing of a kind of research poetry to produce a kind of training manual.
10. You made the following asemic poem with sticky tape. I have come across other works made with sticky tape. It’s like incorporating the material into the poem. Regarding this, what would you like to say about the following work?
You are exactly right. I use tape, instead of glue, because the tape becomes part of the composition, part of it’s texture, the intrusion of an unnecessary surface among all of the other essential surfaces. Tape is a proletarian version of the motto: Be here, now. It is Rimbaud telling us “I is another” and William Blake telling us “The eye altering, alters all”. We use tape to tell ourselves a timeless truism: all art is a lie. William Burroughs told us, probably more than once: “Truth may appear only once; it may not be repeatable.” So the tape is a glimpse of the real, which in real time, in real life, in the real world, is always experienced as a Zen-slap in the face.
Thank you for your questions, Burak. I appreciate being given this opportunity.
Jim Leftwich June 2021
previously published in the 8th Issue of
Buzdokuz Poetry Theory Criticism Magazine
optimised for screen readability by NKdeE