WHY spam?

A question for Angela Genusa

Angela Genusa is someone I have only known from afar, via Facebook and email, but I’ve been excited about her work as it engages the relationship between computer programming and writing. This, as other pieces in this column will reveal, is an in-mixing of generic aptitudes I’m excited by. Genusa is one of many writers producing works that would otherwise be impossible without the computer. She’s also the author  of a statement (as a facebook status) we like in my household, “from now on people will have to be more interesting than my iPhone,” or words to that effect. Her focus on, knowledge of, and artistic uses of technology have continued to interest me, and I think poets working in that direction are opening up all kinds of possibilities for writing, even for those of us who are less tech-savvy. Genusa’s latest project, which she describes below, is a bibliography of her spam box. I could have asked her about bibliography as a formal choice (and that’s a topic people like she and Tan Lin are interested in, so maybe one day I’ll stage a forum on the topic) but what is there to say about spam? So I asked her: Why spam? Here’s her answer:

Just as artist Kurt Schwitters said, “I don't see why (rubbish) couldn’t be used as painting materials just like factory-produced paints,” I don’t see why spam (e-mail spam, blogspam, usenet spam) can’t be used as material for poetry. My spam mailbox is the digital equivalent of the Buddhist charnel ground, which illustrates the impermance of everything, which will inevitably decompose into nothing (“messages that have been in spam more than 30 days will be automatically deleted”). “For me, however, rubbish is as eternal as life itself,” said Russian-American conceptual artist Ilya Kabakov. “Thus I already see the brightly colored poster in shreds on the ground. It transforms itself into rubbish and will exist eternally as such.” Kabakov differentiates between two eternities, however: the eternity of rubbish as the inevitable permanance of waste and the eternity of literature and art.

In the early to mid 2000s, poets such as Rob Read (O Spam Poams) began treating spam as literature using text from emails that were generated with stochastic algorithms designed to pass Bayesian spam filters by scraping literary works from Web sites such as Project Gutenberg.

My current year-long project “Spam Bibliography”—part documentary, part autobiographical, part constraint-based, and completely appropriative—is a daily bibliography of my spam mailbox. (Are bibliographies—paratextual material presented as textual—poetry? See Tan Lin’s PowerPoint works “Bibliographic Sound Track” and “The PhD Sound.”) Spammers selling everything from Russian porn sites to Canadian online pharmacies, from payday loans to “male enhancement” products, from auto insurance to weight loss programs generate emails employ a variety of methods to pass spam filters.

Most of these emails land in my spam mailbox, but some of the most creative actually reach my inbox by embedding Markov-generated phrases in the Subject line, From field, or body of the message. One recent email from a Canadian online pharmacy placed a long gibberish URL (click here!) ending with the phrase “into the bulky cumbersome pressure suitmarkov.php” in the body of the message. Googling reveals that “into the bulky cumbersome pressure suit” is a phrase from the science fiction book Voyagers by Ben Bova, whose main character happens to be named, of all things, “Markov.”

Works Cited

Lin, Tan. Bibliographic Sound Track and The Ph.D Sound. Penn Sound:Tan Lin. Penn Sound Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, University of Pennsylvania, 2012. Web. 31 Jan. 2013.

Neville, Brian, and Johanne Villeneuve. "Beyond the Archive." Waste-site Stories: The Recycling of Memory. Albany: State University of New York, 2002. 78. Print.

Read, Rob. O Spam Poams [i.e. Poems]: Selected Daily Treated Spam, September 2003-January 2005. Toronto: BookThug, 2005. Print.


Check out more of Genusa’s work using spam here and here