ongoing Notes On Asemic Writing / Jim Leftwich. 2015

ongoing Notes On Asemic Writing
Jim Leftwich
from an email to Bill Beamer (2009)
sometime in the mid-90s, probably 97, a visual poet named john byrum sent me a postcard in response to a series of poems i had sent him. the poems were letteral variations of poems by John M. Bennett. in a ps at the bottom of the card byrum wrote something like "if you continue in this vein you will soon be writing asemic poems". that was the first time i saw the word "asemic". tim gaze contacted me around the same time. i was thinking about purely textual asemia. tim was thinking about a more calligraphic form of writing. my textual work was already letteral, and my visual work was breaking the letter-forms down and becoming a poetry of quasi- or sub- letteral marks. i started making quasi-calligraphic works and sending them around to poetry magazines - and calling them asemic. tim was doing something very similar. that was the beginning of what is now being called "the asemic movement". i promoted the practice (and the word itself) very energetically for several years (8 - 10 years or so). tim has been even more energetic and ambitious, and is still going strong. there is a long and complex history preceding all of this, of course, but this is how the current "movement" got underway.

"Asemic works" made prior to 1997 were first identified by Tim Gaze in researches he conducted in the late-1990s and early 2000s.
The first issue of Asemic Magazine, published by Tim Gaze in 1998, listed Christian Dotremont and Henri Michaux as ancestors.
Somehow over the years those identified as ancestors by Gaze have become identified as practitioners. But no one made asemic writing until the term asemic writing came into use. There are always precursors and parallels, to everything that happens, in any of the arts.

from an interview of Tim Gaze by Michael Jacobson in 2008:

MJ: Is asemic writing becoming a movement?TG: A few years ago, Carlos M Luis used the term "asemic movement" in an email to me. I was dubious, at first.In 2008, considering that a post-grad architecture student has created a design titled Asemic Scapes, an artist in London has intervened with asemic writing at Deptford High Street railway station, Portuguese & Turkish translations of the term "asemic writing" are in existence, & more & more poeple are using the term "asemic", just to think of a few examples, maybe we can begin to speak of a movement.I'm thinking more of a cultural movement, a visible change in society, rather than a particular group of artists. T-shirt designs with smashed up letters have been common here for a few years. Animated curlicues which resemble writing have been used in sophisticated television advertising for a few years, as well. I consider these to be manifestations of a large-scale trend by humans away from words, & towards non-verbal forms of visual communication. The artists who designed these t-shirts & animations probably aren't aware that there's a term for what they're creating, & that it is part of a larger trend or tendency.I'm trying to stimulate a widespread explosion of awareness of & interest in asemic writing, comparable to the punk explosion in the late '70s. An unstoppable chain reaction, similar to the exponential release of neutrons when a critical mass of fissile material is assembled.


Pansemic does not mean everything is asemic,
it means nothing is  asemic.
Pansemic is not another way of saying asemic, it is not an extension of the definition to include everything, or to suggest that anything goes.
Pansemia, in my practice, in my vocabulary, has functioned as a means of moving away from asemic writing -- of moving away from thinking of writing as even potentially asemic.
Pansemia as process, as an incessant "reading" of everything, all the time, everywhere, in a world composed of constellations and alchemical correspondences.
Having or characterized by many meanings, as the words play and table.
[From Late Latin polysēmus, from Greek polusēmos : polu-, poly- + sēma, sign.]
1. (Linguistics) the fact of having only a single meaning; absence of ambiguity in a word. Compare polysemy
[from mono- + (poly)semy]asemic
a- + sema
(Greek: prefix; no, absence of, without, lack of; not)
Having or characterized by the absence of meanings


Word Origin
a combining form meaning “all,” occurring originally in loanwords from Greek ( panacea; panoply), but now used freely as a general formative(pandemic; panorama; pantheism; pantonality)
Greek pan- combining form of pâs (neuter pân) all, every, pân everythinganalogous formation to pantheism:

"belief that God and the universe are identical," from pantheist (n.), whichwas coined (1705) by Irish deist John Toland (1670-1722), from Greekpan- "all" (see pan- ) + theos "god" (see Thea ).

Toland's word was borrowed into French, which from it formed panthéisme(1712) which returned to English as pantheism "the doctrine that all is god"in 1732 (no evidence that Toland used pantheism).

Greek pantheios meant "common to all gods" (see pantheon ). Other words used at various times for similar notions include panentheism, "philosophy founded on the notion that all things are in God" (1874), from German(1828), coined by Karl Christian Friedrich Krause (1781-1832).


DeVillo Sloan, MinXus-Lynxus, June 3, 2015
Right now there is a great deal of interest in asemic writing in both the Eternal Network and (often overlapping) visual poetry community. Most online discussions gravitate toward the question of what makes something asemic. As we have proposed in other venues, work that is “asemically correct” (that would satisfy the most hardcore purist) cannot be read or understood using conventional modes of reading; however, that does not exclude asemic writing from being expressive. These discussions can become heated and often involve dizzying definitions and complex qualifications involving the definitions.
A constant in asemic writing, though, is the requirement that the material have “no semantic content,” an idea we present via Michael Jacobson. Some sidestep the language issue by writing about “asemic art” or claiming asemic writing is a ruse and should be considered abstract art. Even more perspectives exist, but we have already expounded too long and too far on the subject.

May 30, 2015
De Villo Sloan
6 hrs ·…/minxus-mail-bag-asem…/
MinXus Mail Bag: Asemic TLP by Jason C. Motsch (Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania, USA)
Asemic TLP (Tacky Little Pamphlet) by Jason C. Motsch (Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania, USA) We are thrilled to share with Tenderfoots another TLP recently...
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"Jason Motsch has been an enthusiastic and active member of our asemic writing group at IUOMA-Ning. He has mostly been sharing asemic-vispo hybrid work. The asemic writing in this TLP is more fundamental, purist or as some might call it: “asemically correct.” "

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Jim Leftwich what we now know as asemic writing has its origins in a frenetic anti-correctness. i remember. i was there. some folks think i am advocating for a kind of asemic correctness when i argue definitions with second- and third-generation practitioners. that is not what i am doing. not at all. i am just trying to find a clear spot in my head for all of this -- this extreme excess of semantic content surrounding the notion of the seme. correctness is shit.
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Tim Gaze, preface to The Oxygen of Truth

THIS IS A COLLECTION of improvised asemic texts. The word “asemic” means “having no semantic content.” These pieces contain handwriting gestures, letters and symbols, characters from other writing systems such as Chinese, Arabic and Korean, fragments of letters, and new symbols of my own devising. Thus, they incorporate writing, but at an infra-verbal level.

I produce these works while physically excited but mentally still. Usually late at night, when stoned and drunk, with intense music such as drum’n’bass or dub reggae playing, in a “no mind” state. That is to say, the part of my mind that composes ideas into words and sentences is not operating. Rather, I make a mark, pause and look, make another mark and so on, until the page feels complete. There is an element of dance in my movement. An intuitive, rather than logical, process. Quite similar to Zen art.
The American poet Jim Leftwich taught me the word “asemic.” His asemic work is one source of inspiration. Two Belgian poets, Henri Michaux and Christian Dotrement, produced a lot of work on this interstice between writing and visual art. The Australian poet Cornelis Vleeskens independently arrived at a related style, although he doesn’t refer to his work as “asemic.” All of these inform my work. Note that all of these people are or were practising verbal poets. Conversely, I don’t regard the work of the abstract expressionists as asemic. Their compositions tend to use free gestures rather than writing-like gestures.
Crazy Running Style Chinese calligraphy, avant-garde Japanese calligraphy such as was practised by the Gutai and Bokujin-kai groups, certain tendencies in contemporary visual poetry, and illegible graffiti lettering are all part of what I see as an asemic stream. In May 1999, 1 began publishing a little magazine titled asemic, to weave the threads of this tradition into something more coherent.
Chinese ink landscapes are said to be written. Hand-drawn Javanese batik designs are also said to be written. In Asian cultures, calligraphy, painting and poetry are intertwined. I perceive the asemic tradition as a Western attempt to generate a similar fusion of these separate streams of culture.
Asemic texts have no writer-intended meaning. If you the viewer perceive a meaning, you’ve created that meaning yourself. This is a mystery.
Many of my emotional states are unspeakable in words. Only through asemic writing can I express what’s inside me.
As a writer of prose and poetry in several styles, I feel as if I’ve arrived at the event horizon between writing and not-writing, a point on the edge of chaos. The air is sweet here. Only words lie; asemic texts cannot lie. Here is the oxygen of truth.
Adelaide, Australia
November 1999
Geof Huth, April 12, 2004

Asemia Becomes You

[reporting from North Easter Island Circle, Englewood, Florida]

Jim Leftwich explained asemic writing to Tim Gaze this way in a note he sent on 27 Jan 1998: “A seme is a unit of meaning, or the smallest unit of meaning (also known as a sememe, analogous with phoneme). An asemic text, then, might be involved with units of language for reasons other than that of producing meaning.”

A history of deliberately asemic writing would be an interesting one to consider. Certainly, it stretches back to theVoynich Manuscript created probably in the 1600s. In modern times, the Lettrists (a vibrant and often overlooked group of visual poetry practictioners that, in its latter years, devolved into the Situationist International, a political movement of no particular import) were eager proponents of asemia, of the power of the symbol without an accepted meaning. The pre-concretist Brion Gysin was one of the first to fiddle with the concept of asemic texts during the early part of the last century.

But the real flowering of this art began at the very end of the 1990s, when visual poets and calligraphers were, more and more frequently, creating texts that no-one could read. Instead, the reader faced a text that had an imbalance of information versus esthetics. As Tim Gaze says, “Writing does not just contain semantic information. It also contains aesthetic information (when seen as a shape or image) and emotional information (such as a graphologist would analyze). Because it eliminates the semantic information, asemic writing brings the emotional and aesthetic content to the foreground.”

There are many reasons for this movement towards asemia. One reason must be that the last quarter of the twentieth century was a roiling cauldron of experimentation in the world of visual poetry. More styles and methods of creating verbo-visual works were common then (and now) than ever before. Another reason is that visual poetry, in general, has been trending more towards the visual and away from the verbal. Asemia retains the shape of some possible verbal content, but it is otherwise completely visual. As with the Lettrists, asemic writers of our time may simply be revolting against the dominance of the word, which is virtually omnipresent in our increasingly networked and electronic world. Finally, since asemic writing tends to be calligraphic, this style of writing marks a return to the simple, talismanic page. As Asemic magazine # 3 notes on its title page, “Paper has more presence than electronic media.”

So let’s take a look at Asemic magazine # 3, which is Tim Gaze’s magazine of writing that “tends towards the asemic.”

First, on its title page it assigns each author an identifying code, usually the author’s initials. (I am struck that I naturally chose the term “author,” rather than the more general “artist” to describe these creators of asemic texts.) These codes appear unobtrusively under each text, thereby achieving two effects: forcing the reader to pay more attention to the work than to the creator, and adding another layer of opacity between the reader and the text.

A few of the pieces in this zine do not suggest textness to my eye. They are either drawings or shapes, but not possible texts. Also, I might have decided that a few of the texts (including, most notably, a few in French) didn’t come close enough to asemia to include. But all of these are editorial decisions that deal with the margins of our interest. Our real concern is how beautiful and affecting these texts are as a group.

In general, these pieces are delicious enigmas, starting with the cover image by Billy Mavreas, who has a few other texts within these pages. Mavreas’ work here often combines bold text-like humanoid figures with texts created of plausible alien characters. Each text hits me like a rock. The cover image includes a sharp-pointed three-armed, two-legged figure that forms, at almost every juncture of two lines, bold arrows—the largest of which points right towards a simple black circle. Underneath this figure are four words that form some unreadable text. The entire effect of this gestalt suggests oppressive political propaganda.

The richness of possibility of asemic writing is what interests me. Hassan Massoudy (a master calligrapher whose work I haven’t seen in years) produces beautiful professional asemic works; his calligraphy is sharp but not overly so—this is a man in control of his brush even when he is creating not a single readable word. Some people write asemic texts over fields of semic text (Theo Breuer), and some write pure asemic texts within a semic boundary or frame such as that of a formal piece of correspondence (James W. Felter). Others write texts that suggest they were written in a rushed hand, thereby explaining away their lack of sense (Nancy Brush-Burr.) A couple design beautiful overwritten texts using different styles of writing and suggesting diagrams and layers of meaning (D.E.C.robbins and Andrew Topel). Some write texts that suggest Asian calligraphy (HKH and Tim Gaze).

Marilyn Dammann provides us with one of the most affecting works, a shimmering chiaroscuro of text that moves from wiry black text on a white field, to thick white on a black field, to heavy black text on what has become a black field. This dramatic triptych surges towards us then backs away. Its three sections are not clearly defined but indefinite; their boundaries are like the edge of the sea. And this piece is just one reason to find a copy of this magazine.

You can procure your own copy of Asemic magazine # 3 for $10 cash (postpaid). Send your request off to Asemic, Box 1011, Kent Town, SA 5071, Australia, or e-mail Tim Gaze directly. And ask about possible trades; even in this electronic world, the old rules of networking still apply.

Posted 12th April 2004 by Geof Huth

review by Michael Basinski, The Hold, February 2004

Asemia - by Tim Gaze and Jim Leftwich and Louise Tourney and Joe Maneri and Abdourahamane Diarra.
2003. 96 pages. Anabasis. Xtant, 1512Mountianside Ct. Charlottesville, VA 22903-9707. Write for price.

A form or branch of verbo-visual poetry, Asemic writing is an original progression within this genre. Thank the Gods (and Pixies) some poets are getting beyond the 1960s and into something other than simulations of Finlay or Cobbing, although, thank the Gods if these had a proto-generator it might be Cobbing. But, nevertheless, Asemia strikes out boldly into a form of writing that locates itself in primitive emotive states, pre-aural, pre-intellectual, when the sound of emotions took forms like these. Carefully rendered glyphs of proto or other writing the works ask the reader to fully engage them via what senses might be strongest in their particular reading field. They are not puzzles. Not riddles waiting to be solved but works that form a state of being that might be or should be the imaginative state. Like keyholes into the substructure of the spiritual life of letters and words enter and enjoy. Maneri writes a sequence of 24 spirit poems – sort of a form of spiritually dictated or guided automatic poetry! Poet as medium – I like it. Not seen this! And Diarra is from Mali – my first read of a vis-poet from that continent. We speak to each other with a poetry form from the other! Wow again. Wow.

review by Michael Basinski, The Hold, June 2004

Asemic Magazine. No. 3. - Tim Gaze, editor.
P.O. Box 1011, Kent Town, SA 5071, Australia. You gotta write to Tim for the price or send some dollars – I understand he is outta work so he needs support. Ya can’t expect something for nothing. See – being a poet means you be broke and broke – down-under or up-under – don’t matter. Maybe send a lettuce!

Now… why a magazine? – ? “Paper has more presence than electronic media” that’s a quote from Tim Gaze – I mean you gotta like this poet – him being Australia’s and world’s inonavigator and flashlight light into the darkness. Visual poets and poets or all stripes gotta wish there were more Gazes. And you see Asemic is the best new brand new nude thing coming in visual poetry in twenty years! Let me quote, “The world “asemic” means having no semantic content.” That means it is not writing but writing that demands improvisation to translate. This means there is no arrogance of learned poet. This means sound improvisation is always a possibility – all works sing! This means pagan – pre meaning. Ah! What joy. All favorites of visual poetry work within this one like Ross Priddle, Jim Leftwich, Jack Berry, Ficus! And more endless. And I was happy to find a Brion Gysin work in the mag also. He was once colleague of William Burroughs. And when I saw it, I said, why yes, Gysin was into this in the 1960s. Now it is asemic and Tim Gaze on his non semantic eastern dragon bakes the cake of this brand new writing form. A fat issue. You need it. You gotta get with it. Remember that small press ushered in visual poetry 40 years ago. Time to reinvigorate this genre again you of small press, you who are gods and goddesses and humble slices of peach pie and black coffee poem.


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  • G-man

    "Pansemia as process, as an incessant "reading" of everything, all the
    time, everywhere, in a world composed of constellations and alchemical
    correspondences." This process has already a name: semiosis.