Asemic means ‘without meaning’. Asemic writing is marks upon a page which have no semantic meaning but are called writing because they share something of the aesthetics and visual clues of writing. Some people refer to their work in this field as Asemic Poetry, and those who take the aesthetic of their mark-making in a different direction often refer to it as Asemic Art. Asemic writing might be thought of as wordless writing: perhaps writing without letters. It is writing which abandons syntax, grammar, and the structures that create meaning, and in doing so opens a new space on the page between the writer and the reader. It also opens, I would suggest, a new reflective space between the writer and their consciousness. But I am getting ahead of myself.
All these terms are liberally interpreted, interpenetrate each other and are fluidly used. Because of this one could argue forever about whether a particular practice was, or wasn’t, asemic writing: but the community is a generous and open one and those kinds of debates are avoided for the most part in favour of exploration. Also, there is a flavour of play to much of this stuff and who wants to get into a fight when they are having such a good time.
There is now a widespread movement of people exploring these fields from all kinds of angles. Some are looking for deconstructions of language, some are looking to explore the limits of the concepts of reading and writing, some are looking to express something atavistic and ‘beyond’ or ‘before’ language, some want to examine how meaning is created and the author/reader relationship.
Motivations and indeed aesthetics are very varied. Although most asemic work is done on a flat surface using implements and materials that might also be used for more conventional writing or art, some people experiment with found objects, fabric, stitching, creating writing out of 3D materials, of course also digital creations, and so on. A few, and I think it is still a very few, have begun to explore its magical potential.
As with most things, the best way to discover what all this looks like in practice is a Google image search. Also, for a great, curated collection, check out thenewpostliterate.blogspot.com.
So, how to start? It couldn’t be easier. Take a piece of paper and a pen and make marks on the paper that look a bit like writing but actually aren’t. It’s as simple as that. But I realise that when things are simple, sometimes we need to make them a little more complex in order to be able to engage with them, so try some of these ‘ways in’:
- Choose a sentence you know by heart, nothing meaningful or substantial, “The boy stood on the burning deck” for example, or “The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea.” And write it across a page in the loosest, couldn’t-care-less version of your normal handwriting. Keep doing this until it becomes genuinely unintelligible. You are beginning to break down your mark-making.
- Draw some neat pencil lines on a piece of paper, like ruled lines in an exercise book. Once you have a block of them. Begin to doodle but keep the doodles along the lines you have drawn. When you get to the bottom of the page rub out the pencil guidelines. The lines are giving your meaningless doodles one of the general aesthetics of writing.
- Take a large, thick pen and a similarly large piece of paper. Close your eyes. Call to mind meaningless sounds: ‘Fuh’, ‘Ack’, ‘Pah’, ‘Ga-ga-ga’ and so on. And as you think of each, with your eyes still closed, make a suitably expressive mark on the paper, explosive or timid or playful.
- Print out a poem you like, or perhaps one you don’t like, and doodle over the top of it until nothing of its words or meaning remains.
These are just ideas to get your hand moving independently of the need to put down something meaningful. They really are just ideas, not a ‘how to’ of asemic writing because there isn’t such a thing, they are just exercises.
When you feel ready to have a go at your first, let’s call it an asemic poem, try this. Come up with a title: anything that you might imagine writing a poem about. Spend a moment in quiet meditation. Pick up your pen and holding the title in your mind begin to doodle marks across the page. Aim to create something which is aesthetically pleasing to you. As with all doodling, you may find that you become absorbed in particular bits of the page, and perhaps begin to ‘‘lose’’ the title. That’s fine. You might also find yourself thinking far and wide about your ‘topic’. But you are not writing down your thoughts. Or are you?
This is only an exercise as well, but I guarantee you will soon enough find yourself, as you are doing it, beginning to ask questions about meaning. Are these marks in some way related to what I am thinking? When my mind wanders and I doodle mindlessly is it still informed in some way by the topic? Are these marks in some way re-presentative of something going on in my consciousness as I make them? Is there any way that a ‘reader’ would be able to get from these marks back to some sense of my thoughts and feelings whilst making them? In setting a title or topic in the first place have you created meaning? In creating your first piece of asemic poetry you will almost certainly question whether is actually is a-semic: without meaning. And what that, in itself, might ‘mean’.
All of this is, of course, food for much philosophising and I am sure there are people doing that work but I am more interested in the doing of it and, in particular, the way in which it can become a magical practice. Which is for the next post in this series…