By Vish KhannaIn his new poetry book, Hello From the American Desert, Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo tweaks the phenomenon of email spam-based poetry. Instead of copy-and-paste word puzzles, Ranaldo draws ideas and imagery from internet spam he’s compiled since 2004 to write wholly original poems.
Lee, I’ve come across a couple of other examples of poetry inspired by or drawn from internet spam. What exactly drew you to formulate, what is presumably an entire volume of such poems derived from spam? Well you know, it’s funny because it’s only since the book came out that I had any notion that anybody else was treading in this area. I had no idea that there was a group of people working on this out there. There’s even a book called the Anthology of Spam Poetry or something. I don’t know if you’ve come across that?
Yeah, among other things. You know, I started doing these things back in 2004. At that time, I started getting all of these weird emails that just started to intrigue me, partly because they had these really weird subject headings, but also because, more than that even, after the body of the message there’s just this profusion of random words at the bottom of the email. It looks like a dictionary exploded or something. I was kind of fascinated by that and I immediately started looking at it with some kind of a poetic eye or ear, thinking that a lot of these words go together and make beautiful sounding poetry, even the scrambled subject headings. So I started collecting the stuff. At this point, I have a couple of huge files of this stuff — one of just subject headings and one of all these different things in the body of the text. The ones that I love the most are just these crazy lists of words but there would also be emails that had what looked like little excerpts of stories. It was hard to figure out where they were from but I got the impression that some of them were like economic reports, and others were short, fictional stories. If you got ten emails in a row, you’d actually find different bits of the same story with the same characters. I just started collecting all that stuff with the idea of using it as a jumping off point for poetry. Mostly what I do is, I’ll find a good block of text that I’m intrigued by a lot of the words in, and then I’ll just start free associating, combining words — there’ll be three or four in a row that I like and then a couple I won’t so I’ll cross them out and add a word or two of my own — and they just start to shape into stories. Some of them are more narrative, some more abstract, and some of these actually have these little fictions with characters in them and I’ll work them from there, using them as a jumping off point.
Out of context, the book’s connection to the internet and junk messages seems kind of loose. Like the choice of words and their order seem entirely abstract. You’ve explained this a bit already but can you discuss your process here, like what prompts you to piece these messages together to form these poems? Well, like I said, I have these huge Word files with all these things copied and pasted in them. Usually, if I’m in the mood to start a new poem, I’ll just go through my files and find a few blocks in a row — the equivalent of a few paragraphs — that intrigue me and then just start bouncing off ideas. I think I start by crossing out words I don’t like to get weird combinations to come up. From there, general poetry principles take over, trying to get some kind of abstract, imagistic thing going and I free associate until I find something I like.
I see, so it’s not just spam, it’s your voice in these poems? Oh, most definitely; I would say almost 100 percent. Actually this is interesting because when I finally got a hold of that spam Anthology recently, most of that stuff is pretty much just taken from those emails and left alone — that Viagra and penis enlargement sort of stuff. So I didn’t feel too much kinship with that Anthology just because with mine, it’s a jumping off point but, in the end, they are as much my poems as any other poems I’ve published, and less indebted to the original emails except in the fact that, you read these subject headings — like one of my poems is called "Consumptive Detente Closeup” and it’s this whole little world of crazy images right there. So, I kind of go from there and work off the subject matter inherent in those words but, by the time they’re done, I’ve definitely put a lot of my own work in and really shaped them into poems in a traditional sense.
Okay, that explains it because it really doesn’t seem like you were just copying and pasting them together. You know it’s interesting because, like I said I started these in 2004, and some time later, The New York Times actually did an article about these weird spams that had this stuff in them. I guess the "stories” help them elude the anti-spam programs because it looks like a real email with the body of text. I didn’t realise that at first — that that was the ploy they were using and why they existed in the first place. I just thought they were great. I loved reading them even as they were, even though I transformed mine. I’ve done a lot of poems in the past that I call shopping list poems that are just one or two words in a line and they free-associate with each other. So, I immediately found some kinship with what I was reading in these spams and those poems of my own for a number of years and it just seemed like a natural extension.
I’m wondering if there’s a particular message you’re trying to convey here. It seems to me that the notion of the book and poems really has a lot to do with language and maybe how it relates to our current cultural landscape or wasteland. Are you making any kind of comment on the content and flow of information we’re now bombarded with? Well, I think there’s a little bit of a comment, just in terms of lifting some of these subjects that are floating around in these emails. Whether they be financial notions or just notions of what’s coming into our computers and therefore our minds via the internet in general. I’m not exactly going for any specific focused comment, as much as just presenting the subject matter of the day, as provided by the most random of sources — these internet spams.
And it seems to be coming from a place of appreciation rather than exasperation. Some of the other spam poems I’ve read seem to be about taking these words back. Like, "We’re so sick of this spam, we’re gonna do something creative with it,” like some kind of empowering stance. You seem to actually find it somewhat endearing. Oh, I definitely do. When you’re in the mood to read that kind of stuff, I find it a joy to open those things just because they’re just so out there. I mean they’re farther out there than most of the so-called language poets. That’s one thing that I love about them is that it gives you the liberty to play around with language and brings up words that wouldn’t normally come into your head immediately to use in a poem, yet they’re perfect. They’re abstract to begin with so I’m just taking them out of one context and using them in another basically.