Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Flarfs, spoetry and spambot literature

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Flarfs, spoetry and spambot literature

Every second on the Internet, an invisible textual war is underway. Spammers are those wonderful folks who want to jam your inboxes with come-ons for discount Viagara, inform you that you've won a non-existent lottery, or launder some hidden African millions through your bank account. They create or use spam-bots (bots are automated programs, such as a search engine uses to trawl cyberspace for new websites and add them to its directory of sites) that randomly generate text in the hopes of slipping their messages under the barrier of the spam filters on your incoming mail.
These spam filters, of course, are set to reject messages containing obvious key words like "discount Cialis" or "Internet lottery," so the spammers have to find text that sounds more like the email you usually get.
I noticed a few years ago that some spam messages I received appeared to contain random cut-ups (a la William Burroughs and Brion Gysin) of text, while others were inserting sizable quotes from classical literature such as Gibbons or Dickens.
Well, this is all very interesting, John, but what's it got to do with literature?
According to BC academic/performance poet Kedrick James (, quite a bit. He's been researching spam text as a form of literature: "I would boldly assert the spam texts used to foil spam filters are poetic in nature and taken as a totality (and herein we'd need to recognize that billions of messages are sent every day) it is the largest cut-up poem every created, and the most multi-authored work of literature in the English language."
James goes on to point out that poets working in forms loosely known as "flarf" and "spoetry" over the last decade have been using fragments of spam text and the lists generated by giving a search engine unlikely combinations of terms. The resulting poems have appeared in readings, books and periodicals. Some time ago, a book that won a New Brunswick poetry content was revealed to have been written, in part, with a random text-generating program. There was some controversy about the award, but an interesting question is: if the poet programmed the text-generation algorithm, can we then say she "wrote" the text that resulted?
A more crucial issue, of course, it whether it's good poetry. Flarfer Gary Sullivan describes the form as having "a kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying awfulness. Wrong. Un P-C. Out of control. Not 'Okay.'" If the author is willing to edit and strengthen the raw material, there's no reason why text generated by spambots, other programs, or search engines cannot be as least as intriguing as that in the well-known genre of "found poetry."
Here are a couple of examples. You decide.
Twitter users can sign up for "data_bot" a program dedicated to the great experimental artist and poet Kurt Schwitters. Data_bot says it "makes dada from data. There's no difference anyway." A recent tweet said, and I quote, "up unlike of field of time the with nightmare for retain with inner meat certain solemn the toothed." Well, that's at least as coherent as some of Paris Hilton's tweets.

Here's a flarf I created by searching with the terms "melisma" and "pineapple" and doing a little editing:

Melisma Systems provide dynamic image displays
Melisma Constella. Female / 22;
Omaha, Nebraska Watching: Rainbows fall; Listening: Radiohead; Drinking: Pineapple Juice; Eating: Potato Pancakes and
down the hall, Her Ladyship the Empress
Melisma Ramijozana was playing Immortal
he suggested using the words "apple"
and "pineapple" to divide the
sparse instrumentation beyond percussion
(and lots of melisma)
pineapple ice bucket retro Pineapple Queen
“Pineapple Princess” led off the Surf Era
and her skillful Jazz hesitation
and Blues melismas indicate she's one.

Of course, that's totally copyright 2010 and I will spam you if you reproduce it without sending me a winning ticket for an imaginary lottery.
Below is Gary Sullivan at a flarf festival.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

John Oughton

John Oughton is the author of several books, including Time Slip: New and Selected Poems, published by Guernica Editions.

Go to John Oughton’s Author Page