It slips past computer filtering systems, entering the inbox by stealth-unwanted, plentiful and potentially dangerous. It comes from strangers with names like "Blake Bliss" and courts the target recipient's attention through intriguing subject lines like "circumsphere anisotropic" and "greenware chameleon." Cloaked within are shameless pitches for such wonders as effortless income and anatomy enhancement, which are usually deleted into immediate cyber-oblivion.
Although the term "spam" was not widely applied to unsolicited commercial e-mail until the mid-1990s, one online writer's etymological research suggests the shift in spam's primary definition from a canned ham product to thing of incredibly irritating repetition initiated with a 1970s Monty Python sketch.
Today, however, most people fail to find the humor when it comes to spam, which has been identified as the No. 1 shared annoyance of all who use the Internet regularly. It's been estimated that spam comprised anywhere from 60 to 79 percent of all e-mail traffic during the first 30 days of 2004, when the federal Can-Spam (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing) Act became effective.
In drafting its Restrictions On Unsolicited Commercial E-mail Advertisers for the California Business and Professions Code last fall, the state Legislature noted: "Many spammers have become so adept at masking their tracks that they are rarely found, and are so technologically sophisticated" that not only can they counter spam barriers but they also can "even electronically commandeer unprotected computers, turning them into spam-launching weapons of mass production."
With no clear end to the deluge in sight, some unwilling recipients, rather than sue or resort to "spam rage," have sought creative inspiration in junk e-mail in a manner many compare to the 20th century dadaists, who often incorporated castoff objects or random snippets of printed text into their artwork.
A February exhibit, "Reimaging the Ordivician Gothic: Fossils from the Golden Age of Spam," at Manhattan's Spaceworks Gallery featured art installations using thousands of spam e-mails, excerpts from which were used to cover a stairwell in graffiti and to create haiku.
Bloggers have also taken to creating and posting spam verse. The works of one such poet, Kristin Thomas, have attracted attention from tech writers in the both the United States and the United Kingdom.
Via e-mail, Thomas told CityBeat, "For years I have watched my inbox clog up this stuff-offers for Viagra, amphetamines and porn-while my spam filtering accidentally deleted e-mails from my friends and family. At my wit's end last year, I realized that I either had to find a peaceful way to co-exist with this plague, or go crazy, and I started re-purposing it as a sort of found art."
One day, watching the roughly 500 to 600 spam messages she receives per day download from the server to her inbox, Thomas suddenly became aware of some "great spoken rhythms" and "astonishing vocabulary" in the subject lines.
"I started reading it out loud," Thomas recalled. "Then the compulsive in me started rearranging the order of the lines, and then I started writing them down.... Embracing spam is lowering my blood pressure, I think :)" she emoticoned.
Describing her approach to spam poetry, Thomas said, "Sometimes I have a specific idea in mind, after reading one subject line, and then troll through the headers of my "deleted items' mailbox for other headers that could follow, narratively," she explained. For one poem, she started with the line "Dear Vicodin," then searched for "lines that would support a love poem to Vicodin."
She also seeks words and syncopation that intrigue her. She said her favorite line, ""Genitian, titian, titans, tits,' is actually the subject lines of four different pieces of spam, sent over a two-month period, from different spammers-combined, and read aloud."
Thomas compared spam poetry to "an amusing new form of Cento-selections from different authors disposed in a new order," and she said she's currently working on a spam poem based on a form called "pantoum" and wants to build "a properly rhythmic sonnet out of spam headers."
She added that reader responses to her work usually fall into one of three categories: people who really love it and consider it an example of fluxus style, or found art; those who hate it, and point out that "regurgitation is not creation"; and still others who think the whole concept is a bit of a hoot.
As for the flurry of international anti-spam initiatives launched since the beginning of this year, Thomas opined, "In theory, I love the idea that spam could be legislated away, but... I doubt we will see the end of spam any time soon. And if we do, I have all faith in the phenomenal creativity of Internet savvy writers to come up with new and innovative ways to use the web as a creative tool."