This appeared in Guardian Books on 1 July 2008:
Spam Lit: The Silver Lining of Junk Mail?
Ever since the dawn of the world wide web, to give it its old-fashioned moniker, our communications have been beset by spam. We ignore it almost as much as we receive it, but around the turn of the century Mammon’s pursuit of our attention led to an extraordinary coupling with the Muse.
Here’s what happened. In order to bypass increasingly efficient filters, spammers began embedding blocks of text — often pilfered from great literary works via Project Gutenberg — in their junk mail. Techniques like the Dissociated Press algorithm were employed to randomly generate new, essentially meaningless texts or text collages (“word salads”) so that each message would seem unique. Lee Ranaldo has compared the outcome to a “dictionary exploded”. Another early aficionado, Ben Myers, observed that “it was as if the text had somehow been remixed and shat out down the wires of modernity”. “Spam Lit”, as Jesse Glass dubbed it in 2002, uncannily mirrored bona fide literary experiments that were taking place simultaneously: Jeff Noon‘s exploration — through textual sampling and remixing — of “metamorphiction” in Cobralingus; Jeff Harrison‘s aleatoric poems based on Markov chains; or even Kenji Siratori‘s baffling cyber-gibberish.
Equally intriguing was the trend Wired magazine identified in 2006 as “empty spam”: Spam Lit messages that were, paradoxically, all lit and no spam. The consensus among geeks is that they were probably due to faulty server connections. To their recipients, however, these instances of “misfires”found poetry — often containing nuggets of unwitting but unalloyed beauty — seemed, in Myers’ words, like “scriptures from the future” or “postcards from another planet”. Discovering them in your inbox made you feel like Cocteau‘s Orpheus picking up cryptic poetic messages from the underworld on his car radio.
No wonder, then, that Spam Lit should have inspired the only new literary genre of the early 21st century (if we exclude crimping). The earliest examples of spoetry on record date back to 1999. A pioneering annual competition was even established by Satire Wire the following year. By 2003, when the BBC picked up on the phenomenon, it was already quite clear that writers were approaching spoetry in very different ways – an observation confirmed by Morton Hurley‘s Anthology of Spam Poetry (2007). Some, like Kristin Thomas only used the subject lines of spam messages; others were content to cut, paste and add their names à la Duchamp. Myers, who has just published a collection entitled Spam (Email Inspired Poetry) believes, for his part, that the secret lies in the editing: “A spam poet is as much an editor as a bard“. Sonic Youth co-founder Lee Ranaldo, who has also just released an anthology (Hello From the American Desert), uses spam emails as a source of inspiration for his own work rather than as a raw material. Mark Amerika, meanwhile, describes the composition of his 29 Inches as a “spam collage” and a “narrative remix”.
Although published last year, Amerika’s work was written in 2004, which also happens to be the year when Myers and Ranaldo penned their first spoems. None of them were aware that others were doing similar things at the same time. There must have been something in the air. If my inbox is anything to go by, however, Spam Lit is now on the wane, so the time may have come to assess the merits of spoetry, its literary by-product. Beyond the genre’s obvious affinities with automatic writing, cut-ups, constrained writing (of the Oulipian variety) and found poetry, is it any cop?