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Filtering Out Art

For some poets, inspiration comes in anonymous mass-marketing

 

‘A fruit cake around another chestnut meditates, and a pork chop panics,” an e-mail message informs me. “However, a line dancer from the crank case finds subtle faults with an ocean. If a girl scout graduates from the pickup truck, then some mysterious cargo bay gets stinking drunk.”

These messages, dozens of which I delete daily, remind me of a game I used to play as a kid in which sentences are stripped of certain words and fleshed out with words picked at random.

These ever-present e-mail messages, hawking viagra and penny stock, are spam. We have been living with them for almost as long as we have been living with the World Wide Web. But what exactly is spam?

That isn’t an easy question, says Michael Sofka, senior systems programmer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Sofka runs the e-mail servers at RPI and says that when you are talking about spam in his field, you have to be very clear what you mean.

“Not all unwanted e-mail is spam,” he says. “What most people think of when they talk about spam is marketing e-mail in the broad. . . . They are talking about ads for anything, whether they want the ads or not. I try to be more specific. There is in fact marketing e-mail people do want. They may order things from a catalog, and sign up for a mailing list from the company. That’s not spam. They signed up for that.”

“Spam is when you didn’t ask for it, don’t want it, and can’t stop it,” he says. “They are going out in multiple messages that are slight variations of each other in the hopes of getting past filters.”

These spam filters are often referred to as Bayesian filters, after the 19th-century statistician Rev. Thomas Bayes. Basically, Bayesian filters, or statistical filters, calculate the probability that any word included in an e-mail indicates spam and assign the words points. And if the score for a message reaches a threshold, he says, then it is filtered out as spam.

“It is very effective,” Sofka says. “What spammers are trying to do, is to get around the filter. One way is to include a bunch of these random words in the hope that they will come across the magic word to make it look like non-spam.”

Hence, the crazy collections of unrelated words. For some people, these word-salads are just another annoyance, and for some, like Sofka, another obstacle. But for an intrepid few poets, they offer up an amusingly absurd treasure trove. For some poets, these words can be a liberating, unexpected pallette, and they for years have been shaping and forming unwanted spam into works of dada-like art, such as the opening stanza to Electricity Bitterness by Ms. Yanochka K.:

 

Non-bolshevist mulatto

following haunted neo-roman

looking for change about suffered grounds

in between sips of a martini.

(The complete poem can be found online at the Anthology of Spam Poetry.)

Literary magazines have devoted issues to the phenomenon of spam poetry. Contests, such as the Barrelhouse invitational, have been opened to poems written solely by the spam poet. One of the earliest such competitions was held way back in 2000 by SatireWire.com.

This all makes sense to Pierre Joris, a poet and University at Albany English professor. A random collection of words will always be tempting fodder for the poetically inclined.

“There is no reason why human agency shouldn’t come and say, ‘Wow, this is interesting. This blows me away,’ ” he says. “That is exactly the same as writing a poem with great foresight, where you choose your words and make them coherent in relationship to something.”

You can go back to 1917, to a cabaret in Zurich, Joris says, where Tristan Tzara helped found dada.

“Tzara was making poems by cutting up newspapers, and putting them in a hat, and then pulling them out and arranging them by the chance of pulling them out,” he says. “Dada was a very political movement. There was a war going on, which had misused language to convince millions of young guys to go and get killed in the trenches. Dada was a reaction to that.”

The poets were essentially saying, Joris says, that another way to use language needed to be found.

Joris points to Flarf, a poetry movement that embraces the randomness offered by modern technology by employing the results of Google searches to construct poems. Flarf is defined on the Web site Flarf Files as, “A quality of intentional or unintentional ‘flarfiness.’ A kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying, awfulness. Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. . . . Heavy usage of Google search results in the creation of poems, plays, etc., though not exclusively Google-based. . . . Poems created, revised, changed by others, incorporated, plagiarized, etc., in semi- public.”

A taste of Flarf poetry can be gained from a segment of Drew Gardner’s As Dolphins Languor:

 

awe yea I open a photo album I found under my bed

uhhuh, The dusty, leather cover decaying and smelling of the years

awe yea baby Regrets mingling with my tears

as I methodically turn the pages, you see

I like to dress up in REALLY tight underwater pumpkin beavers . . . .

“There are many great poets working today,” he says, “that want to stay true to the complexity of the world around, who don’t want to reduce it to an old lyric, the feeling of love or hate or whatever. You can’t really write a sonnet about the war in Iraq. It is not a form that can hold that thing anymore.”

“We don’t go out and skin a sheep, dry the skin to write on it. We use everything.”

If these modern poets, who twist spam into art and Google search results into epiphanies, are simply reacting to their environment, answering to the demands and technologies of the cyber age, then the most notable trait to this movement is its humorous dismissal of original intent. In a culture bombarded by a cynical marketing sector that constantly changes, manipulating technology, and adapts to meet the public’s growing sophistication, this act of subversion is refreshing.

—Chet Hardin

chardin@metroland.net


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