Interview with Michael Jacobson—Poet and Asemic Writer

Michael Jacobson is best known for his asemic writing—writing that uses invented letters that are in no known alphabet. The idea is to create abstract letters to look at and ponder, much the way we might ponder abstract art. Professor Peter Schwenger in his recent book Asemic: The Art of Writing devotes part of a chapter to Michael's asemic books and movies, calling him "creator of some of the most noteworthy work in contemporary asemic." You can see and purchase Michael's books at Amazon.

Michael's latest work is not asemic; it is poetry. Hei Kuu is a book of over 400 haiku that present short, fractured scenes from his life. What follows is an email interview with Michael, who is a good friend of mine.

JP: In your introductory note you describe the poems as "senryu." What’s that?

MJ: Senryu are similar to haiku but the boundary is blurry between the two forms of poetry. Haiku are more focused on nature where senryu is more focused on the human condition and are often darkly humorous or cynical and erotic. Senryu was founded by Karai Senryu who lived back in the 18th century in Japan. The word senryu means “river willow” in Japanese. Life in the flow is my personal idea of senryu. I am very much an outside admirer of senryu and have only shared a few of my poems to a limited audience. But it is a form I quickly became addicted to. My understanding is that senryu were often written by common people and were often expressed anonymously because of the often risqué subject matter. My new book Hei Kuu is my personal interpretation of senryu and contains 409 poems. In Hei Kuu I tried to stick to a 5-7-5 syllable/morae pattern as an OuLiPo constraint but was not entirely successful. A few of the poems just would not quite fit into a 5-7-5 syllable pattern. "Hei Kuu" is from the Finnish language and means “Hello Moon,” and is also a play on the word "haiku." My friend, the visual poet Scott Helmes, writes asemic haiku, so maybe I was inspired by him. Right now, I am reading The Woman Without A Hole which is a collection of 18th and 19th century senryu translated by Robin D. Gill.

JP: What drew you to the haiku form? 

MJ: I like that you can recite the whole poem in a single breath. The poems are also like social media and you can scroll through them quickly and jump from poem to poem. I discovered senryu through haiku, and then found I had a knack for it, and it clicked with me. I wanted to write something autobiographical and senryu came along at the perfect time. I have a strange story, one that I want to get out, even though I am not the most prolific writer. I was getting a little burnt out with asemic writing even though I still love asemics. I am someone who was a fan of poetry before I got serious about writing any poems down. I wrote song lyrics in punk rock bands 27 years ago, but then stopped writing with words for a few decades to develop my asemic writing. Words and asemics seem to swirl around each other like Yin and Yang. I returned to University recently to study art and writing and I plan on synthesizing the two together in future art/literary works. I made up my own interpretation of haiga, which is another Japanese art form where haiku and painting are combined. I have been doing abstract versions of haiga on my ello page where I combine my hieroglyphic creatures with asemic writing into a hypergraphic form; sometimes I even animate them.

JP: Since I know you, I know some of the events you reference in these haikus. Yet I realize that other readers, not familiar with the event, can only get a very fragmentary notion of what happened. In your mind, how does this fragmentation work?

MJ: My life is a shattered puzzle that I have had to rise above. I am often my own worst enemy when it comes to my relationships. Hei Kuu is confessional in that I talk about the main events of my life, the good, bad, and ugly, along with some mythology thrown in, and miscellaneous events that affected me and marked my spot in time. For example, I have poems on the Fukushima disaster, the Amazon burning, Covid, the George Floyd murder, Prince dying, and another on 9/11. Even though I am separated by these events by a great distance, they are events that have saddened me. I feel powerless to do anything about them, but they jolted my spirit to poetic action. The book does not go in a chronological order; I jump around a lot, though I tried to get the awkward sexy parts mostly covered in the first part of the book. The main subject in Hei Kuu is myself because I am not much of a fiction writer, but I do have quite a bit of material to work from. Poetry and asemics are the most natural ways for me to write, though lately I have been writing essays, too. I am unsure where my essays will end up being published but they will probably appear in the next incarnation of my book Works & Interviews.

JP: #243 reads

I learned the hard way
History of writing ends
Afterlife ghost poems

This is a highly resonant piece. It deals with suffering—“hard way”—, the end of the history of writing, and a kind of afterlife in ghost poems. It seems to be a compact comment on how writing both ends and goes on in various ways. What do you think about this poem?

MJ: That poem is about how I think that I am an echo of a Michael Jacobson that lived a long time ago and now just keeps his head down and tries to write the best material possible. I came to writing first through song lyrics but then became interested in the history of writing. I am an amateur paleographer, and I am fascinated by the totality of writing and think that it is humanity’s greatest invention, or it is a virus from outer space as Burroughs was fond of saying. I also think that my soul has died and been resurrected. It’s a poem about dying as a writer and then just getting back up, and with tenacity or Sisu as Finnlanders call it, just keep on writing and writing. 

JP: Since this is Schizoaffective Blog, I want to ask you about the numerous times you mention schizophrenia and schizoaffective in the book. How has your history with mental health affected your writing?

MJ: My mind is trying to kill me. I have been schizoaffective for about 15 years now and on medication for about 12 years. It has greatly messed up my life and is like having the mental experience of going through total mind rape hell 24/7. I used to believe in a higher spirit but now I am a lot more cynical about the concept of god. I will still bail him out if he ever shows up on Earth again, but I am tired and just don’t care as much as I used to. My cynicism is evident in my poetry. I am living for family and friends and that is where I would like to focus any positive energy that I still have left, on the here and now, and not on some cosmic videogame afterlife. I hid and suppressed the fact that I am schizoaffective for many years and only in the past year or two admitted to even having it. I wrote my book Action Figures when I was in the deepest pit of an untreated schizoaffective nightmare; they are the internal spirits that helped guide me through my blasted out mind before I got any help from psychiatrists or received any medication. My advice to people going through psychosis is to get on anti-psychotic medication as soon as possible. The medication does make life more tolerable even though there are side effects, and unfortunately, they are not a cure. I think schizophrenia is caused by a combination of internal and external factors. Through my art I am trying to find an end to schizoaffective and schizophrenic illnesses and the evil spirits trying to control minds and devour souls.

JP: Is there anything else you would like to say?

MJ: Here is the link to my new book Hei Kuu, out now from Post-Asemic Press. It is available now at Amazon worldwide. I started writing it when I was still drinking alcohol, but now, I have been sober almost a half of a year. So, I am a different person and less of a mess than the character in the book. Now I drink soda water and stay off the beer and am losing weight, but schizoaffective disorder still sucks. I realized that it is something I will have to face head-on instead of trying to drink it away. So check out my book Hei Kuu if you would like to hear more about the person behind all of the asemic writing magick; it’s a poetic tale that I tried to tell in an entertaining and engaging way, and I hope people will find it interesting. Peace.