By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
You've been getting their work in your inbox for months. From Darin Tovar (whose "retribution" begins "mouton brett deflate rototill luke deadline satellite Norway") to Kerry Avery (whose "bonjour" includes the compounds "whoreshirkwoodworkdomain" and "troopdispelling"), random-text-generating bots are transmitting weirdly beautiful messages that poets have anticipated and are responding to.
Recently wedded non-bot poet-bloggers Nada Gordon and Gary Sullivan (co-authors of Swoon) were among the first to spot the increasing resemblance of spam to avant-garde poetry last December. In a post that asked "Is this paradise?" Gordon presented unmanipulated spam containing the musical observation that "Any sky can of, but it takes/a real foulmouth to nearest antimony over." Five points if you hear e.e. cummings's "anyone lived in a pretty how town," 50 if you hear the torqued splendor of Clark Coolidge's "Solution Passage."
Sullivan followed with a verbatim quotation from one of the thousands of spam messages in last year's random-word tercets: "humidifying creosote adenosine cosh boned posers ethers meticulous teacher scuffle" is one line. For admirers of John Cage, that damp-making creosote invokes the work of Cage's fellow traveler, the winner of the Academy of American Poets' Wallace Stevens Award, Jackson Mac Low. Consider this line taken by chance operation from Mac Low's "Forties 30: Troelstrup Nightmare Flare": "ticket activity fantasy answer encyclical láff-movie Rupert in serigraph rubric telepathy." Poetry, lost and found.
What's behind the sudden popularity of apparently meaningless text is the will of spammers to evade filtering software. According to the e-mail monitoring company Brightmail, 65 percent of all e-mail sent in June was spam, up from January's 60 percent. To get past filters that screen out messages with key words and phrases common in unsolicited mass e-mail marketing, spammers have been adding random strings of words at the end of vaguely worded pitches. And as anybody with an inbox knows, some spammers don't even bother trying to make a sale, sending their text out into the world just to find out whether it's being received.
It isn't only avant-garde poetry that turns out to resemble spam. This spring, hiphopmusic.com's Jay Smooth gave out prizes to readers who could correctly identify whether given lines (e.g., "coconut civilian, 87 lexicon"; "alfalfa archer, intense caramel breadwinner") were Ghostface Killah lyrics or just random spam text.
Even as spam brings hip-hop and underground poetry to the millions, some writers aren't waiting to be simulated by a robot, but are going out and mining the sometimes literate enthusiasms of Usenet discussion groups, comment fields, and instant-message transcripts for their own work. Taking Kathy Acker's experiments in plagiarism as a model, Ben Friedlander's Simulcast: Four Experiments in Criticism (Alabama) bends posts to the newsgroup alt.fan.madonna in an Onion-esque parody on literary flame wars:
I am normally a [Ron] Silliman fan to the max, but I
think I am slipping. What is the story on him
and Lyn Hejinian being terrorists? What was his
comment? Can anyone help?
"Once the rumor is started, the truth is a thing
of the past... " Apparently some disgruntled
poet who heard about the Russia trip made the
comments that Ron and Lyn were degrading humanity
and should be sent to Pakistan to be dealt with
by this terrorist group. Garbage and more. Quit
listening to everything you hear. The media is so
warped especially where Silliman is involved.
K. Silem Mohammad's 2003 collection Deer Head Nation goes even further. In his essay "Sought Poems," Mohammad explains how he Googled the short poems in that book into existence. Sidestepping Eliot's and Emerson's famous takes on authorship (summarized as great poets steal), Mohammad writes of poets who have turned to the Web, where right-wing hate groups become bunkmates with Marxist ideologues, home-repair specialists, and lonely pet-owners, and their discourses sometimes form unlikely chemical reactions in such close proximity to one another.
You've heard of (and maybe even achieved) Googlewhack, the game where you come up with a two-word Google search query yielding exactly one result. In Deer Head Nation, Mohammad's game is to put together a string of words that will yield socially stupefying results; he succeeds time after time. His secret? Just add "deer head":
if the deer are all armored like that
you may of hit the nail on the head
giant oil companies behind this
Bush scared me, because he always
sniffs at the air like a deer
("Not a War Blog")
The deer heads keep coming, sometimes accompanied by Guns N' Roses T-shirts, always unnerving. As they inventory his trophies, Mohammad's poems recall Allen Ginsberg's noun-and-adjective clusters in "Howl" and "Wichita Vortex Sutra," which, come to think of it, anticipate spam subject lines. Given that the head of the NEA is reputed to be the man behind the legendary Kool-Aid Man campaign, these may turn out to be the poems the age is seeking.
Mohammad hasn't been Googling his poems in a vortex. With Sullivan, Gordon, Drew Gardner, Katie Degentesh, Michael Magee, and others, he's a prominent member of the Flarf collective, an informal e-mail alliance the motto of which might be "Worst thought, best thought." Flarf is defined by Sullivan as "a kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying, awfulness. Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. 'Not okay.' "
Flarf began in 2000 or 2001 when Sullivan entered a deliberately offensive poem in a scam poetry contest. ("I got fire inside/my "huppa"-chimp(TM)" is, possibly, the only quotable passage.) From id-stoked overhearings more than a little derivative of Bruce Andrews's "I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up" ("If pods could talkso, how/about a sperm-a-thon?"), the movement made the switch from finding to seeking when Gardner (Sugar Pill) went to Google to see what the deliberately misspelled "Rogain bunny" search would yield. Gardner explains: "If you have a Googled/cut up poem that still has most of its social filters set too high, it may be interesting poetry but it's probably not flarfy."
Magee's small-press magazine Combo broke the flarf story first, in early 2003. A significant finding in that issue, currently required reading for Charles Bernstein's literature students at the University of Pennsylvania, is that Google searches on the phrase "aw yeah" yield more socially acceptable results as the number of w's in "aw" increases.
Of course, spam and poetry have been going together for yearsconsider Jack Collom's NEA-fellowship-winning acrostics for the tinned meat with a contraction of spiced ham for a name ("Suddenly, masked hombres seized/Petunia Pig/And/Made her into a sort of dense Jell-O.").
It will probably never be said of spam (as Blaise Cendrars did of advertising in 1927) that it is "the most beautiful expression of our epoch." It may yet serve a post-M.F.A. generation as a gateway drug to making their own accidental beauty out of words, though. Says Bernstein, "These spam poems have a purpose, unlike the great poetry which [they seem] to resemble, which has the virtue of having no purpose at all, in the great Kantian tradition of art." Or as Eve Massey put it in an e-mail of July 30, "cabot admissible chromium drive."