Michael Jacobson presents collections of asemic writing at his website- The New Post Literate. Interviewed by Lynn Alexander.
LA: When I think of your work, I think of the asemic writing- of course. But what else are you interested in? What other kinds of writing are you interested in?
MJ: I am interested in many forms of writing, from the beat generation writers, to the French symbolists, Graffiti, undeciphered scripts, xenolinguistics, sigils, etc. I think a lot of these different forms of writing have greatly informed & added depth & substance to my asemic writing. I consider my work to be a bead on a string with regards to the history of experimental literature, with asemic writing being the most recent bead added in a long string of avant-garde writing.
Writing, to me, is essentially coded marks on a surface, with asemic writing being an unspecified open semantic code—a code that is open to interpretation, with no fixed meaning. Breaking writing down to its most elemental form was probably first done by the Lettristes. But I see asemic writing as being a further erosion of text, down to axiom, texture, & line. If we were purely logical beings we would call it mathematics. I feel that now we are at the event horizon where language is being broken down to new forms of expression. Words, I think, don’t function as well in today’s post-literate culture as they have in the past. I believe asemic writing expresses some difficult emotions better than verbal writing. To me, there is more of a statement when somebody wears a symbol around there neck vs. the word for that symbol.
LA: How did you become interested in asemic writing, what were your influences? Whose descriptions or examples helped you in forming your own sense of it?
MJ: I have been interested in asemic writing for almost my whole life. I can remember when I was a child, that I had a nightmare where I saw the interconnection of the universe in black, purple, & blue, folds & strings. It was a nightmare at the time because of the intensity of the dream. The power of the texture in the nightmare has stayed with me all my life. It wasn’t until my teenage years though, when I had the nightmare reoccur, & that I began to understand this nightmare as a dream. I was able to see the rhythm of the dream as an architecture blueprint. So my drawings began to resemble this architecture. At first they were abstract pictorial compositions, all twisted & mazelike. Eventually I began to incorporate what I called “alien Writing” into my art. My education was purely auto-didactic. I was a voracious reader, but I didn’t learn to write until I was about 21. I was an artist before I became a writer. I began to teach myself to write by concocting a short story. The story was about some patients at a hospital that formed a religion around chloroform. It was not a very distinguished piece of writing but it got me rolling.
My earliest influence came from seeing alien writing in science fiction films. I can’t think of any names offhand, but it was probably Star Wars or Star Trek.
Max Ernst’s Maximiliana was the biggest early influence on my asemic writing. Then came Lettrisme, Mirtha Dermisache, & The Voynich Manuscript. I began to search for different writers & artists working in this style of artistic expression because I was curious to see what had been done before. I didn’t have a computer until 2005, so I was a little hampered in my research.
Then in late 2005 I came across Tim Gaze’s Asemic site & learned the word ‘asemic’. Tim has a great gallery of asemic art from many different creators (while you are there, order a copy of Asemic Magazine). I found Tim’s site around the time I was putting together The Giant’s Fence. The Giant’s Fence was originally put out as a chapbook in 2001, but in late 2005 I had the resources to make it into a book.
LA: Do you think the public understands the point of asemic writing, do you think people are open to it? Do you think people see it as abstract art, or codes, or prewriting? Is some asemic work meant to approximate text, or text patterns, or would you say that a feature of asemic writing is to move as far away from traditional texts as possible?
I don’t think the general public is very aware of asemic writing. The word ‘asemic’ is somewhat obscure. Tim & I have basically been trying to make asemic writing more widely known, but right now it is hard to measure success.
To me, all writing is asemic writing. By this I mean that there is relativity to writing. If someone can understand a piece of writing by being able to read the words, it is not asemic writing for that person. & if a person cannot read the writing the text becomes asemic. I will break it down into 2 definitions: true asemic writing, & relative asemic writing. True asemic writing is when even the creator of the piece cannot read their own writing, & relative asemic writing is a natural writing system that can be read by some people but not by everyone.
I hope people see what they want to see in asemic works & hopefully have a positive experience. For the most part, I have had positive comments on my work & asemic writing in general. Sometimes it goes over some people’s heads, others are indifferent, & one time I had The Giant’s Fence called a “mind fuck”. But for the most part, the response has been positive.
Asemic writing, some of it, does resemble text. I think text or images are good references, & good starting points. People are familiar with texts & images, & asemic writing is a natural combination of the two. I have published works at The New Post-Literate that are almost text or image but are not quite either.
Asemic writing seems to be a new breed of animal, though sometimes it is still referred to as poetry or fiction. The multi-verse that asemic writing inhabits sits between art & literature. There are no definite boundaries. I think that someday, asemic writing will have its own section in libraries & bookstores. Until then, I am going to push to make it happen.
LA: Do you talk about the creative and technical processes involved with producing your books, do you explain the medium, process, presentation decisions to people, and do you think those aspects matter in the ways you hope people approach the pages?
MJ: All my books are hand drawn to begin with. I write my books with 2 things: paper & pen. I like to start off with extremely basic ingredients because for years that was all I had to work with (my Grandma’s typewriter was broken). Lately I have produced some work on the computer. I do think digital images & even animations are the future of asemic writing.
My novella, The Giant’s Fence, was a challenge to write because of the endurance needed to write the book. I thought I was going to get arthritis. I also went through countless pens. The main difficulty with writing TGF though, was to keep the style consistent over the 2 years it took to write the book. I don’t think I have the ability or the stamina to recreate a work like it. TGF is filled with a new type of script that I call ‘trans-symbolic’. I use the word ‘trans-symbolic’ literally to mean “across, through, or beyond” symbolic writing. Trans-symbolic script is the form of TGF, with asemic writing being the function.
I also create machine poetry, my most well known poem being The Paranoia Machine. The PM is a device for reading asemic writing by peripheral vision. I have also created other machine poems based on early cinematic devices like the zoetrope, all of which use asemic writing in some form. I got rid of a bunch of my machine poems when I moved out of my art studio.
I hope that people approach my work with a sense of the history of writing. I feel a great connection with writers of the past, weather it’s cave painted proto-writing, hieroglyphs, illuminated manuscripts, or William S. Burroughs cut-ups. I believe asemic writing to be descended from all forms of writing, and that it carries on the fundamental experience of our world in a new way. I think asemic writing also captures the techno-anxiety & information overload of a post-literate culture better than traditional forms of literary expression. Maybe we could even consider asemic writing as a truly universal language.
LA: Were there challenges unique to publishing books of asemic writing?
MJ: The main challenge is to create a readership & audience for asemic writing; it is expanding, mainly because of the internet, but there is still a ways to go. Asemic writing is a very personal form of writing, & to get from the personal to the universal isn’t an easy thing to do. I would like to see more support from literary & art institutions. Some arts funding would be nice.
LA: Some might ask why it is called “writing” at all. Some might liken it to abstract art, or to something else entirely- is it fair to look at it like that, or would you argue about those terms?
MJ: Asemic writing seems to be a subjective experience; some will call it art & some will call it writing & some will call it scribbling. I feel as if we are inside a house & trying to describe the outside of the house without ever having seen it.
It is important to call it “writing” because most asemic writing references traditional writing practices, so there is a historical connection. I think that by calling it “writing” there is a new sense of freedom & exploration in this type of writing. With asemic writing there is room to grow; there are only a handful of books that could be described as asemic, I would like to see 100.
Brion Gysin said “writing is 50 years behind painting”. I believe this statement is not true anymore. The experiments being produced today by asemic writers have caught up to painting & in some ways surpassed painting. I believe asemic writing has an edge on painting because it ‘IS writing’! Painting is due for a revolution by the way.
LA: What’s next for Michael Jacobson? What are you working on?
Right now I am promoting my new book Action Figures. I am also promoting my weblog The New Post-Literate: A Gallery of Asemic Writing. I say I am working on a new book, when actually I am working on 3: One with words (my symbolic autobiography as I call it), an owners manual for The Paranoia Machine (my nightmare machine), and a book of asemic hieroglyphs (?). The book of asemic hieroglyphs is sort of on hold because the style reminded me too much of Keith Haring’s work.
One of the principal things I am working on is to create a new asemic culture for a post-literate society. I don’t think writing will die out, but I think writing will go through some challenging times ahead & become more specialized. I read somewhere that reading levels & interest in literature have been declining for decades now. I believe asemic writing can be a gateway to literacy by appealing to people who would rather get their information from multi-media sources. Asemic writing will be a new experience to most people, & with this new experience comes excitement about books & reading in general.
In the beyond, I believe asemic writing will be an important influence on the next thousand years of writing. Fin.