Backstory: Spam-ku, the poetry in your in-box

As I grabbed a half hour recently to chip away at the messages piled up in my e-mail box, a piece of spam caught my eye, escaping my normal instantaneous deletion. The random words formed bizarre sentences, but they drew me in as if bathed in some kind of Zen glow. I printed out the message and pinned it up near my computer.

Its quasi-poetic qualities sparked some cross-cubicle banter with my co-workers, but it didn't stop there. A few weeks later I had the sudden urge to turn the message into haiku. Something compelled me to impose a structure on this smattering of words – as if I could make sense out of nonsense.

First I scanned the text for phrases with the right number of syllables (five for each first and last line, seven for each line in the middle). Then I set about fitting them togetherlike a word puzzle inspired by Salvador Dali's surrealism. I smiled as five haiku sprang to life:

Do these poems speak to your deepest self? Or is spam by any other name just as ... annoying?

(If you're the spammer in question and want a share of the credit for these magnificent creations, feel free to contact me. Many people would love to know your name.)

***

For a while I enjoyed the illusion that I was the first person to be clever in this particular way. But thanks to Google (and probing editors), we can now easily discover how few of our original ideas are actually original.

A few years ago, SatireWire.com ran spam poetry contests. And since 2003, blogger Kristin Thomas has been posting poems made up solely of spam subject lines ( www.spam-poetry.com).

Ms. Thomas was inspired by anger – the anger stirred by 400-plus messages a day that evaded her spam filters. But her anger faded when she started writing poems and receiving positive responses from readers.

"There are tons of crazy people out there that are passionate about this," says Thomas, now working on a master's degree in education policy in Chicago. One writer told her of holding impromptu readings of "spam-ku" at work.

"I get a lot of really distasteful items sent to me, and it's nice to repurpose it. It becomes very hopeful love poetry, actually," she says with a giggle. Dental ads are especially good fodder, she says. "Look at her gleaming smile," one of her favorite spam poems begins.

I've found a kindred spirit in the found-art movement. Instead of artists picking up leaves, shells, and curious trash, we're picking up the throwaway elements of our screen-saturated world.

"It just seems like a natural response to a frustrating culture," says Fox Harrell, a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, who has developed computer programs that people interact with to generate stories and poetry. "Maybe in this data-driven information environment ... it helps us ... to be able to thwart these things that tend to overwhelm our environment."

***

Poetry is nice and all, but let's get to the cold, hard facts. Who sent this message? Why didn't my filters stop it? And what happens if I click on that JPEG picture embedded in the surreal text about polar bears and avocado pits?

With a little research I discovered I was caught up in a wave of spam designed to get past filters by using a combination of text and image files that mimic a normal person's e-mail.

Assured by an expert that clicking to open the image file wouldn't sabotage my computer, I found a one-page ad for the stock of Southridge Ethanol Inc. in Dallas. Spammers send these ads in hope of tricking people into buying a stock, temporarily boosting the price so they can cash in before it falls again. Someone has actually tracked a correlation between these waves of e-mails and the sales of stocks.

According to the "From" line, the e-mail was sent by Chris Perry. But even I know enough about spam to realize that's just an alias. It happens to be shared by a Cincinnati Bengals player, but the team's spokesman is confident that even if lots of people got the same message I did, "95 percent wouldn't make a connection" between it and the player. I opted to not waste his time by mentioning the odd coincidence that the text included the phrase "hypnotic football."

To learn more, I talked to Richard Cox, chief information officer at Spamhaus, an independent nonprofit organization that crusades against spam from its headquarters in Wales. "It didn't come from the IP address shown in the headers," he says of my stock spam. The computer or network device identified by the Internet Protocol address "is a zombie that has been taken over by a Russian gang and resold to the spammer who wants to send you that mail."

Most spam is originated by Americans, he explains, "the Russians are merely the delivery mechanism.... It's rather like somebody walking around in a [parking lot] with skeleton keys, finding out which cars they can open, and once they've opened them, they sell that information to somebody who wants to drive a car, only it's not a car, it's e-mail."

According to Spamhaus, 80 percent of the spam we receive in North America can be traced to about 200 such "spam gangs." I wonder if any of them write poetry.

***

With spam on my mind, I became more suspicious of e-mails. Especially the one that arrived recently from Michael J. Reilly, ostensibly my former guidance counselor. The name didn't sound familiar, but he flattered me: "You work for a great paper. Congratulations!"

Mmhmmm. Just like a smart spammer to lure me in with a message that seems so personal, I thought. But the plot went astray when he told me, "I left Manalapan in 6/88." Aha! I've never heard of Manalapan.

"He" included a phone number and e-mail address and said he'd try to call me. I Googled him. That's when I freaked out a little. One link was to a principal at a school affiliated with an organization I'd recently written about in the Monitor.

See? Some evil algorithm is searching my work and then searching the Web and then composing messages to me pretending to be someone I know!

I even told my computer savvy fiancé my saga, but we were in a rush, so he didn't tell me until later that my theory was completely off the wall.

In the meantime, my "spammer" called me. I'm not sure if I said it silently or out loud: "You're a real person?"

Turns out that Michael J. Reilly really did counsel Stacy Teicher ... in New Jersey ... where ... I all of a sudden remembered ... I have a distant cousin ... whose name I share.

If I can find the other Stacy Teicher's e-mail address, I'll have to drop her a line. I just hope she's not so paranoid.

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