I received the nicest e-mail last week from Daisy Larkin Pritchard, telling me my order had been approved. Later that day, the happy news was repeated by Janice Accuracy Hutchinson and Davina Bovine Shoemaker, and again that night by Carmella Iniquitous Stovall and Iva Cowhide Dahl. These e-mails intrigued me not only because of the names of their senders but because I hadn't placed any order.
They arrived in my AOL "spam" folder, where they joined similarly uninvited correspondence from Vince Episodic Trujillo, Christian Bite Fernandez and Rigoberto Handset Prince, plus two dozen other notes, some written in Cyrillic and promising Russian delights, and others in Japanese kanji and katakana.
I have to inspect my spam folder regularly because my spam filter routinely collects e-mails that are not spam. So once or twice a week, I look to make sure nothing un-spammy has been snagged. Often, something has. Just as often, nothing has. Either way, there are thousands of proposals and pitches begging to be noticed.
For a couple of years, I've been tracking this unsolicited traffic and recording the most interesting names and the offers. I've become a connoisseur - while suffering through offers of bank loans, hair replacement formulas and penis enlargement pills - of the peculiarly artful language of the spam come-on.
How else can one react to the offer of a "masochist quench" or a "cowboy binge"? Who can resist the idea of a "no hexagram chiffon" or a "duet timetable"? What offer is behind "Go fly it, cotton-tail pickle" or "Go, Yank starlight"? Who's writing this stuff? And why?
There is no way of knowing. When I opened the e-mails, there were nothing more than generic offers for stock deals, prescription drugs or designer wristwatches. But the come-ons were pure poetry.
Years ago, when I lived in Japan, I collected T-shirts printed with English-language sayings, illiterate and nonsensical in my language but apparently attractive to the teenage girls and boys of my host country. They bore messages such as "Let's Enjoy With Me!" and "Think Testicles!" An urban myth held that the T-shirts were designed by a pair of drug-deranged cultural revolutionaries, British or American, who sat in an airless apartment in some Tokyo high-rise, ginning up confusing sentences such as "Being Delicious Is Not Everything" and "Let's Begin To Love Myself Over Again."
I wondered if the missives in my spam folder were from a similarly mad e-mail writer, penning inanities for some obscure, artistic purpose. So I wrote back to some of the more creative addresses in my spam folder. I opened letters from Martha Thermofax Yarbrough, Dallas Lifeguard Klein, Charlie Gunsling Peters and even Reinaldo Chungking Hooper, and sent replies, asking, "Who are you, and why are you writing to me?"
The only answer I had was from the sinister-sounding AOL "mailer daemon," which wrote to say that "service is unavailable" and that the addresses I was writing to had "permanent fatal errors." So I'll probably never know the identities of the poets behind these anonymous lines.
Charles Fleming is an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication. This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.