Asemic writing

asemic dot net image

Henri Michaux Narration (excerpt) 1927

‘It looks like writing, but we can’t quite read it.’ (Tim Gaze, ).

Last week I touched on the subject of asemic writing, which according to Wikipedia, means ‘writing that has no specific semantic content’. There’s lots of examples on the net and I’ve become intrigued by it, mainly because I don’t understand it (am I meant to?). I also like it because it provokes a really strong feeling of resistance in me, resistance to it as a form I suppose, a form of writing. The ‘meaning’ that it yields, if indeed it does yield meaning, isn’t the same as you’d get from a traditional poem, yet at the same time many of the examples look like poetry.

I went to the Manchester Art Gallery this weekend and saw the ‘Speech Acts’ exhibition, which includes a piece by Chris Ofili (Untitled 1996). I’ve not been able to find a picture of it on the internet so I’ll have a go at describing it: it’s a sort of intricate doodle in pencil, but when you look closely, hidden names (and therefore hidden meanings) appear. I made out Mike Tyson, Tito Jackson, Gill Scott Heron to name but a few. Maybe it wasn’t asemic writing, because it was legible to some extent, but the viewer had to work hard and really engage with it in order to arrive at some sort of reading.

I’m always interested in process, and there’s something in the process of creating  asemic writing that really appeals to me. I know because I’ve had a go at it, although I’m not happy enough with my efforts to post them yet. Anyway, the process is strange. You’re somehow working away from meaning, and at some point the mark/making becomes more important than what’s being said, if that makes sense. Cecil Touchon, whose work appears below, says: ‘I felt there was a meditational element to working with silence and illegibility to express the indescribable.’ I love this description, and I love his piece below, an overlapped and overwritten poem, beautiful in its own right.

cecil touchon a-2011-006-web

There’s a wealth of examples on the internet. I enjoyed Asemics Magazine  which I think is curated by Cecil Touchon. There’s some thought-provoking pieces on there that really challenge traditional notions of ‘writing’ and ‘poetry’ and what form it can take. Why not take a look? Maybe it will inspire you to do some asemic poetry.

Finally, a word of thanks to poets Marion New and Sue Riley, who introduced me to asemic writing after they attended a writing residential with David Morley. What a privilege to be part of such a fantastic community of local poets. I feel incredibly fortunate to write alongside them.


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