David Nilsen: Tell me about asemic writing and how this medium works for you.
Sam Roxas Chua: My approach to asemic writing is through poetry. In between stanzas of a poem, or when I can’t quite get to an image or a phrase, I pull out a piece of paper and start writing this nonsensical script. When I do this script and feel the texture of my wrist on the page, it brings me to that image that I want from time to time. The mind sees it and goes, “It was a kite you were looking for,” or “It was that time your hand was taken.”
I’ve been presenting poetry with asemic writing, and it’s teaching me so much about the invisible poem. I’ve always been interested in the invisible poem. When a poem is finished, what is the undercurrent? What is it still trying to say? The poem isn’t complete until I have that visual manifestation of it. After I create the asemic piece, I feel more complete.
DN: Do you find yourself going through that same process when you read someone else’s poetry?
SRC: Actually, yeah. A couple weeks ago I was reading Ilya Kaminsky’s “Author’s Prayer.” I found myself wanting to dialogue with it through asemic writing. I have three pieces I created from that. I wanted to dialogue with that poem not through words, but more from the depths inside of me. In Echolalia, I mention that I feel asemic writing is coming from the electricity of the heart.
DN: That process usually goes the other way. There’s plenty of poetry written in response to visual artwork, and you’re working in the opposite direction, being inspired by a written poem and then creating the visual image behind it.
SRC: Ekphrastic poems are very beautiful. There are different approaches to ekphrastic poetry, and mine has always been to associate with what I’m looking at, and sometimes a new dialogue wants to happen. It’s all feeling. That’s how I see this type of writing. It’s pure feeling.
I use a lot of materials. I use sumi ink, which is wood soot, basically, and I like to mix squid ink with it. I had a friend who gave me a bottle of squid ink to cook with, and I decided I wanted to write with it. I remember my first time using squid ink, I felt such a reverence to it. This is a creature that goes into the fathoms of the ocean that none of us will ever get to.
DN: I gather the direct, physical medium you’re working with is a big part of expression for you? You mentioned squid ink, you mention saffron in the book, and then the actual surface on which you’re creating—those are a direct part of the expression of what you’re doing?
SRC: Yes, absolutely. My mother died in 2005. She was a cook, and I make ink out the ingredients she cooked with and created a piece. Soy, peppercorns, honey. I have one in the book—the image with a silver heart. The silver heart is just acrylic, but she had this pot that she liked to cook with. I chipped the inside of the pot and mixed some of that material into the paint. It brought something else to the piece, which was more personal.
DN: Your process when you’re creating an asemic piece is not strategic and plotted out. You begin and just see where it leads you?
SRC: Yeah, it’s free form. I usually begin with putting both of my hands on the paper, and just feeling the essence of the paper. Thinking about the stanza or the poem I’m writing. Poems are difficult to write. I need that extra material to work with. I find that feeling the paper, that sheet that has no memory and on which I’m putting my memory, helps me. Then I just begin. It’s all feeling. There’s no strategic plan. It’s just putting the brush or the pen on the page and it just takes off and leads me to these other worlds that really balance out what I’m creating. One time, a woman in an audience asked me, “Could it be possible that in writing this script you’re trying to communicate with your dead?” There is a lot of truth to that. I do believe that. When someone dies, they read in a different way, they see things in a different way, they interact with the world in a different way. I dedicated this book to people abandoned at birth. This is my way of also communicating with my birth father and people in my life who have passed. I think as an adoptee, there’s always that loss that I’m trying to communicate on paper with asemic work.
Chapel, 13" x 19", Radiograph inks.
DN: The title of the book is Echolalia in Script. Echolalia is the repetition of words without necessarily recognizing their meaning. What came to mind for me with your work was the idea of glossolalia, speaking in tongues. This idea of pulling something up from the heart to communicate on a different plane without having an immediate understanding of what you’re saying. That seems to go along directly with what you’re talking about with communicating with your dead.
SRC: Absolutely. Growing up Catholic, I had rituals and memorization and repetition of words. There’s also a made-up language I use, that I don’t really talk about. There’s a way of talking to animals. There’s a way I speak to animals that is so related to asemic and to echolalic language, and I find that by communicating this way, I’m being heard.
DN: So this is an actual language that you understand for yourself?
SRC: Right. And it’s reciprocated by the animals, I feel, and they know what I’m talking about. I’m always trying to find ways to communicate. I just bought myself a pair of hydrophones for sonar equipment to listen to the ocean. I’m working on this installation that will involve suspending these hydrophones above a person on a platform, and underneath the person would be water, and in that water there’s soil. I would have the person move the soil, and then take the audio of this person being directed to move as prompts in writing.
DN: In keeping with communicating with your dead, you have a line on page 75 of Echolalia that reads, “this is the cracking of the fontanel.” Immediately when I read that, the idea of trepanning came to mind. There was this ancient practice all around the world of drilling into the skull, and we don’t know exactly why it was done, but one theory was that it was to allow spirits to pass in and out of the brain. You use this image of the fontanel, the soft spot in an infant’s skull, and it seems you’re looking back at your infancy, at being abandoned, and the opening of the skull as a way to reconvene with your spirits of the past in a way you didn’t have the opportunity to then.
SRC: You nailed it. Once I sequenced these illustrations and this writing, I didn’t really have a plan. I just put it all together, and that’s what came to my mind when I saw it. Right before that is “found inside a red box in the middle of the throat,” and “an infant of pearls spat out by thought,” and then “this is the cracking of the fontanel, this is the birth of ego.” My Chinese grandmother died in the 1980s, and I remember a pearl being put inside of her mouth and then her mouth was closed, and that always fascinated me. Later, in my reading of Tibetan Buddhism and their thoughts on death and dying, I read there are two types of death: the physical and the spiritual. All these beings come and live inside your body and become one pearl in your chest, and at the spiritual death that pearl shoots out through the fontanel, but someone has to be there to tap it. The moment when you die, someone needs to tap your fontanel and then this pearl shoots out.
DN: You mention in your introduction you grew up speaking four languages and didn’t feel like you were able to learn any of them fluently at the time.
SRC: I was born to Filipino parents, and my birth mother abandoned me when I was about a week old. This was 1973, and she was 17. She had overheard one of the nurses say that I wasn’t going to survive. My mother was scared, and she took me away from the hospital. The Philippines is a very Catholic country, and there was this tree on which the Virgin Mary had appeared. She left me on the limb of this tree. I went to this tree in 2012. I went to meet my birth mother and just ask her what happened. I needed to see the person who gave birth to me. Three hours after she abandoned me, she came back and took me off the tree and left me on the steps of the hospital across the street. My older sister was in the hospital at that time and wanted to play with some of the kids, so they put this abandoned boy in the crib with her, and that’s how we met. When it was time for her to go, she called me her brother, and so they took me to her room with her. When my adoptive parents inquired about me, they found out I was abandoned. I was born on February 14, Valentine’s Day. My grandmother was a Chan Buddhist, and she had a son named Valentino who had died when he was twenty. Immediately, she said, “We need to adopt that boy, because he’s the reincarnation of my son.”
DN: Do you believe that you are?
SRC: I believe I am, although I’m not anything like him. I don’t know much about him. I went to a Chinese Jesuit school in the Philippines, and they taught Tagalog, English, and Mandarin, but when I would come home, we spoke a different dialect of Chinese called Hokkien. I still don’t feel that I belong to Tagalog, or Hokkien, or Mandarin, even though I speak them, because I wasn’t immersed in those for long enough. Even today with my writing, I feel like I’m on the periphery. Because I do visual art and poetry, I sense people saying, “Well, what is he? Is he a poet? Is he a visual artist?” To me, there’s no difference.
DN: I assume you were doing other forms of visual art before you were practicing asemic writing?
SRC: Yes. I did performance art and installations. Book arts are another love of mine. Projections. I love projecting things onto trees. I would do these one minute videos of the mountains and project them onto trees. Or project the ocean onto the trees, and then invite my friends to watch. I use those as prompts. What will come out from a writer when they’re exposed to something like this. To me, a lot comes out. Once in a while, I’ll go back to Morse code. You can download an app that will translate text into Morse code with lights. I’d turn off all the lights and put some poem on there and just let the Morse code flash against the wall, and use that as a prompt to see what comes out. Most of the time, something comes out.
DN: Let’s go back briefly to your birthmother. On page 45, you have the line, “my 3 a.m. Pietà”—the image of the Virgin Mary holding the body of Christ—and your asemic image looks like a dried flower. Is that a direct reference to your mother putting you into that tree, or something else?
SRC: I think it’s both. It’s the Pietà, and...well, actually, that’s a mushroom, and behind it is watercolor, to make it look like a flower. It’s about seeing shapes. When you buy ginger at the grocery store, you see shapes, like a mandrake. That’s how I approach a lot of the natural world. Seeing this mushroom, I thought something like “that’s the Pietà,” or that’s a mother holding a child. I think it’s the Catholic in me that comes out. The blue is like a halo. It’s accentuating the boring. On page 43, that’s a lily. I inverted it, and it becomes a bird to me. I’ve been enjoying that process of making them look like birds. There’s been a couple times I presented this work with a projector and people would come up to me and thank me for bridging these two mediums, poetry and visual art. No one ever said that we shouldn’t. I think it’s just academia saying those are two different disciplines.
Pietà, 4" x 6", Mushrooms, ink, pencil on rag paper
DN: I think some of it is confidence. So much of art nowadays is done with the thought of the audience and how we’re going to get this out there and get it seen. People feel like they have to stay in their lane and don’t have the confidence to explore other things because it’s not going to be something they succeed at.
SRC: I hear you. That’s why for me, in presenting this, I’m always inviting people to try it out. Try asemic writing. Marvin Bell said, “What they say there are no words for—that’s what poetry is for.” In my introduction I suggested there might be emotions that even poetry still can’t carry. What does that look like? I think it looks like asemic work. Doing workshops with asemic work, I tell people to make one promise, which is to be a child again. I do feel that as kids, the first time we’re given a writing implement, whether it be a Crayola or a pen, we’re already telling stories through emotions. People tell me I’ve found a new form. This is not a new form. This is for everybody. When I invite people to do this, I tell them to begin with their own signature. Write your signature seven times, and then on the seventh time, just continue. Close your eyes and continue. Make that an extension of what right now is happening for you. We have the five senses, but I think there’s that other sense, which is this electricity inside of us, and we need to look at that and satisfy what it needs to say to balance everything out.
DN: How do you present this to an audience at a reading? This isn’t conventional poetry where you can just read a poem.
SRC: My book launch last week was at a vintage furniture store in town. I really wanted to read there because when I was a kid, one of the women who took care of me would tell me there’s furniture inside of my body. I’ve always been intrigued by thinking of my heart as a chandelier, the spleen as a pillow, the stomach as a room, and my lungs as windows that open. At the furniture store, I felt like, here are inanimate objects that belonged to a family and they carry a lot of memory. Poetry is like that. It’s memory and feeling. At the reading, I read the poem, and then after reading it, I would say, “See this line? After the third stanza, that’s where I stopped. Either because I can’t get to the next image, or I’m not vulnerable enough to get to the next line.” And then I’ll show that asemic piece and then refer back to the poem to show them how they can use asemic too, as a painter, as a ceramic artist. This is really applicable to anything that you’re doing. Even event planning. Stop, and take a break, and do an asemic work and see what other thoughts and images come out. When I read, I don’t like to be in front of a lectern. Poetry is already sometimes hard to connect with, and now there’s just another thing you put in front of you. When I read poetry, I want people to see my chest, see my hands, see my whole body when I’m talking.
DN: You said you don’t feel like there’s a difference between visual art and poetry, that they’re one work. Within the book, in the same way that your asemic pieces are directly evoking written language, the actual written poetry of the book is highly visual. Your poetry is dense with physical nouns, colors, and light. Those two things are being drawn in together to one center.
SRC: I’m really excited as to what happens next. This was work that I was doing last year and the year before. Now, I’m looking forward to the evolution of it. How else do I want to interpret the world? I feel that there’s going to be audio, as well.
Looking at these pieces, a lot of them are very emotional. Putting the phrases together. On page 1, it says, “I heard you in the script.” So I had this in front of me, and that’s what came out. Then the next page, I saw it was a song. The next piece is like an alphabet. There’s a line in Saying Your Name Three Times Underwater that goes, “Words found on the evening menu of apothecaries—from a detonation of stars.” That’s what came out from that poem when I paused and created this image. And then the next piece, the image looks like scripture to me. And below it says, “You said, sometimes not all light comes from above. So for two years, I wrote the recipe for my Medicine of Last Thoughts.” This scroll, it took me a year or more to do. It’s very tiny writing on a thirty foot scroll. Every time I would have anxiety, I would stop and write on the scroll. When I would wake up in the middle of the night, I would go back to the scroll and do asemic writing. Some of it is narrow, and some of it is far apart. It’s like the EKG of a year. I’ve been exploring a lot with creating this cartography of words. On page 33, that’s like cartography. That one is squid ink and sumi. I feel like each piece here has its own universe, but put together, it’s still one universe.
DN: On the cartography image, it’s operating on two different levels. You have what would be the continents of this map that are made of their own asemic writing. But then you have the labelings, the map legend, that is its own separate commentary. Neither one can we, as a reader, decipher. But it’s speaking to itself on multiple levels.
Cartographia .01, 22" x 30", Sumi-e ink on watercolor paper
SRC: They do look like marginalia.
DN: It sounds like the inspiration process between the English language writing and the asemic images goes both directions?
SRC: Yes. It started out with poetry, and then the image. And lately it’s been the image and then the poem. I’ll do asemic work and then sit with it and study it and use it as a prompt. I have new work in front of me now, and putting it in front of me and studying it, I’m wondering what image is coming out, and what story is wanting to be told. They’re becoming this new thing that I have to translate. It’s exciting and also scary. Some of the asemic work is shocking to me. Some of it is pleasant to look at. What is wanting to communicate? I’m really interested in how a poem interacts with the world. How would a poem open a door? How would a poem sit down, or drive a car? How would a poem react if it got into a car accident? How would a poem receive news of an illness? To me, when I’m writing, it’s one of the times I feel really healthy. I’d like to be in that world. I want to be in that place of feeling, but with awareness.
DN: In Echolalia, your asemic work shows a tremendous variation in form. Some of the ones I was most interested in were ones in which the actual script is a minor part of the full image. It’s just connective or interstitial tissue, or it’s trailing away from the image. You have two back to back where one references your father and one your mother, and they’re mostly just large black shapes, and then there are tendrils hanging down that look like script. How do images in which the bulk of the image is not asemic script work, and how does that script interact with those shapes?
SRC: Most of the time when I do these types of shapes, they’re very birdlike. These in particular, with the lines “I saw my father / carrying my mother,” with the background of being adopted, it’s a very black landscape. I wanted to transform that black landscape into something, and maybe they become birds. Or I’ll immerse my foot in ink, and do that sort of print of my foot, or my hand, and then add the asemic, so it can tell me the story of transformation. It’s not such a black, dead landscape then. There’s actually story behind it to humanize what’s happened. I don’t want to go to a place where I don’t see my birth parents as human, but the closest I could put them in was shapes, just these bold, black shapes of these birds or a print of my hand or arm or foot or torso.
I did a work recently where I took one of those big maps we used to have in grade school that you would pull down from the chalkboard, and I immersed my entire body in ink and I tried to make a print of my entire body on the map. It didn’t work. What I learned is that if I force something, it doesn’t work out. I laid down on the map and then looked at the image and I just heard, No. It literally spoke to me and was just like, What are you doing? There’s a lot of conversation that happens. In the process of doing this [piece that didn’t work], there was a volume of teaching in it. The very bold images with asemic help when creating a narrative I’m not ready for to still give me a glimpse, to keep the door open to discovering more about what’s happened to me.
When I met my birth father’s wife in 2012, she couldn’t look at me. In Tagalog, she said, It’s as if I’m looking at a ghost. Going back to my hotel room, I looked in the mirror, and wondered who was in there. That looking into my pupil, I really associate that with the bold images in my asemic work. The asemic is just a hint. I think another story is coming out from that.
DN: I loved the isolation of individual lines of poetry in Echolalia. It forced attention to every word. When you read the entire poem, it’s beautiful, but you’re trying to take in the entire thing at once. Instead, you’re spending time with each line here. Is that missing from other forms of poetry? Do we go too quickly?
SRC: I think so. When I’m working on a poem, the critique I’ll hear my mentor say is, Slow down here. You gave us an image, and then you gave us another image right after it. I’m not done yet. Let’s stay there for a while. If I have a line in a poem, where I feel like it’s the heart of the poem, you have to spend time with it, instead of having it be very disposable. When I received my first chapbook, Found Language, in the mail, I felt like I’d put them in a prison cell. It was either Pessoa or Neruda who said they didn’t believe in books because it was like putting poems in prisons. I felt like I’d imprisoned my kids. When I received that first box, I took one and I tore all of the poems out of it. Now that’s a ritual for me when I publish a new book, to say to my poems, This is how you really are. You are not bound. I like the idea that a poem is never finished, that you can go back to later it on and add to it. It’s the same with asemic. You can add on to it.
Cantata, 9" x 12", India ink on sheet music
This and other images reprinted from Echolalia in Script: A Collection of Asemic Writing,
copyright © 2017 by Sam Roxas-Chua, by permission of Orison Books, Inc. www.orisonbooks.com.
David Nilsen is a writer living in western Ohio. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, and his writing has been published in The Rumpus, The Millions, Rain Taxi, The Georgia Review, Southern Indiana Review, Bright Wall Dark Room, and numerous other publications. When he isn’t doing literary writing, he works as a beer and food journalist and educator, and is a Certified Cicerone. You can find him online at davidnilsenwriter.com.