(ESSAY) The Ballad of the SPAM Café: An Ars Poetica, by Kirsty Dunlop & Maria Sledmere
This week saw a seismic shift in the SPAM geology. After over three years of service as editrix-in-chief, Maria Sledmere is moving down to Managing Editor, to be replaced by Kirsty Dunlop in the top role.The two sat down at a cafe on a Tuesday and wrote this collaborative essay, musing on SPAM's past and hopes for the future, and the labour and joy of running a small press. This esaay is also in many ways a love letter to Glasgow. Prepare for swerves, glitches, silkeness and a good serving of chips with poems.
We’re sitting in the Ingram Street iCafé, which is a firm SPAM favourite in recent months, it being a sort of centre amidst the weegie matrix that is our editorial scattering. Not many places you can sit for hours on a bagel these days, but we like it here. They play Silver Jews and Johnny Cash and serve spirulina smoothies for less than a fiver. Plus there’s the added bonus of being in one of the few remaining internet cafes, where you can just rock up, pay your PC slot fee and log on. We just had a visit from F., friend of SPAM, and introduced him to Gregory’s Girl. He was drinking one of those Jarritos lime sodas that are so delicious. You can’t be in Scotland for any length of time without watching Gregory’s Girl. We realised the cuts are pretty gentle in that movie and I wondered about the cuts of life in general, humorous contrasts. I love how lime sodas are real sugar and so is cinematic romance converted to poetry.
I joined SPAM at the tail end of 2016. It was Christmas Eve and I’d just finished polishing a hundred glasses ahead of a 12-hour shift the next day. I knocked half of them over in excitement. A few years later, we were drinking corona beers in an unnamed London cemetery when Denise (Bonetti, our founding editor and Capricorn queen to fellow founding editor Maebh Harper’s Cancer queen) suggested I might take over as editrix-in-chief. Three or so years after that, I asked Kirsty to do the same while trying to thrash her at table tennis. Thrashing is not the point of table tennis: it’s best played imho as a collaborative sport. As in, much more fun to rally for as long as possible than get the ball beyond your mate. I was only really trying to thrash myself and wanted the back and forth foreverie of dialogue (because I am a lifelong amateur). I was also thinking about how table tennis was the ideal ploy to lure someone into doing improv poetry IRL. The table is a stage etc. Okay okay okay maybe we were just gossiping, but we got some serious business done.
Kirsty said someone at the public library she works at told her a good analogy about how conversation works if you’re neurodivergent. Most neurotypical folks see conversation as a tennis game, a back and forth rally. We however are at the net, right up close scrabbling for the ball, constantly dropping it or like, tearing at the mesh of the net with our teeth and tongues. Sometimes when we talk to people whose minds work pretty typically, it probs feels like we’re pelting balls at them from all directions. Oops! Hello
Okay, so now Kirsty is speaking, no K is writing, no K is thinking, no K is spamming (hehe). I joined SPAM in 2019 (maybe actually early 2020, but the period before the first lockdown is blurry) but I remember having a dream the night before that I was asked to join SPAM. When I got the email, I thought I was still inside the dream. The press had been such an important aspect of my own development as a writer and collaborator before I joined - a particularly luminous memory was when I was asked to collaborate with Colin Herd on a Britney Spears inspired performance in 2018…if you know, you know. The convergence of poetics, theory, trashiness, lowbrow, experiment, technology, and the dedication to what the zine could do, and where it could go felt brand new at the time in Glasgow; it was a space for community, where everyone regardless of whether you had written or read poetry before, could join in. Never was this more obviously evident than at launches held in the early years at the Poetry Club in Glasgow: here was SPAM stuffing our faces with chips and cheese with bands, poetry readings and burger films <3 I was able to wear my prom outfit to one of their launches for goodness sake! Here was the writing scene that did not simplify words but instead danced in their complexity as a poetic force that skimmed off our screens. To be asked to be a part of this monstrous and exuberant scene was a dream, and it still is.
—-insert dial up tone of brain—-
It’s been a really zzzzzzziiiiney season. Kirsty is making zany face at me across the table. The Glasgow Zine Library has just upgraded to a bigger space, and I’ve lost track of the brilliant publications my friends, peers and students have handed me over the years. I have this IKEA desk with shelves beneath it that is positively teeming with paper pamphlets. Everyday a new one will fall out and land on the floor. That’s basically how I think all the time. Things are falling out of my deskshelf. Stray thoughts I pick up tell me to pick up. I don’t think there can be a ‘peak zine’ moment because the transience of the form itself seems resistant to the glut that is ‘data’ or ‘literature’. I can’t pour myself into a zine, but I can swap one?
My life = butterfly slippers x trichology device x space heater x broken blinds
++++ spam us with your poetic clutter :’) ++++
I don’t think I’d still be writing poetry if it wasn’t for SPAM. Maebh and Denise, the founding editors, taught me that poetry was social possibility. It was fun and it changed the language. It was like Bernadette Mayer says working your ass off. I still think about Maebh thinking about the line about ‘these yellow socks i love them’ in a Crispin Best poem while her cat was snaking around the kitchen table and we were doing the labour theory of value applying rhinestones to issue 4: Astral Projections and Talismanic Persuasions. Don’t tell anyone but I kind of didn’t ‘get’ poetry before I met Denise and Maebh. They had this enthusiasm for the coolness of poetry which put the ‘lit’ in literature, lol. I was already obsessed with theory and its sinewy poetics but they taught me to have opinions that you could say out loud. I was a fragile lamb before all that, helplessly bleating and running up and down the valleys of Romanticism <3
—-----crash, bang, walloOOop—-------🙂
‘my autocorrect keeps displacing my selfhood’
– Ian Macartney, Operations Coordinator at SPAM Press CIC, in whatsapp correspondence with Maria
From the prom of having won silkenness at the poetry club put myself in Jim Lambie’s washing machine to come out 100% poem blushed spam pink.
Anyone who went to SPAM High knows that the experience of reading a twitter feed or a message on a printed form felt so fucking weird back in 2016 :’) the disco lights of the digital transported to the page kept us on our (golden, sumptuous) toes.
Let them eat chips.
—insert image of chips and Tom Raworth —-
poetry = air-fried raworthian smoke rings
Everyone loves chips, and 80% prefer chips to poetry, so says comrade cheeky Tom Raworth and I also love a healthy dose of poems; let them be crispy, let them be munched on a night out, the ars poetica of grease and addiction and the ridiculous. Get yourself to a Blue Lagoon, on the way to your next reading; meet me with your saltiest outside Good Press, Bonjour, MF Books, Burning House Books, Alchemy Experiment, CCA, Broadcast, Tramway, SLEAZZZZZZY’s and show me your poyums, read them to the rainy grease of Glasgow air.
Did you know that ‘chips’ comes from the Old English forcippian ‘cut off’. People think that poetry is prose that’s just cut off at the line. People like a chip. It’s simple. A poet? Ffs, what a chip off the old block. Lion lion lion. You can decorate chips with relevant geographical accoutrements such as ketchup, curry sauce, salt, vinegar and most importantly, cheese. I’m not suggesting any simple analogies between these additions and poetic techniques. But…isn’t it a coincidence the word seasoning of how we oft turn to comfort in poems?
I cut myself off writing poems about what I can’t rightly cathect into daylight.
How many printer jams, how many all-night typesetting sessions, how many hand-stapled pamphlets does it take to make a press?
What I miss is writing that feels easy. When I first started blogging and reviewing, words came super easy like fast food. There’s a pressure that comes with institutional logics, pressures of quantifiable ~excellence and expected outputs. You gotta collect your chips and know how to spend ‘em. SPAM has constantly endeavoured to remain DIY. We make our chips by hand, lovingly in the great telepathic oven of the internet. Here, poems are memes, screenshots, not-poems are poems. Everyone is a SPAM artist, tangled up in all the wires that consume us in our post-internet lives, tripping, loading, glitching.
In the future, we want to be a platform that swells at the tidal pace of its audience and friends. SPAM is for you and I. We’re in love with the spam of the earth and all its wordles. I am wordless in the face of trying to guess the next word (not true). Kirsty I’m told is very good at Wordles.
During lockdown, poems were miniature television sushi of the face platter of many people speaking or not speaking. We were so aware of the crystal facets of them bounced off the eerie silence. When I am at an IRL reading I can’t stop the way I watch people’s faces imagining zoom chats flooding from dimples. I watch the audience faces more than the speaker because I want to see people in their daydreaming and then besides I stare at my shoes (which today are battered brown brogues I bought from Clarks in 2018). Reaction is the order of the day. There’s a leaf in my latte but I’m not drinking it. I’m so in love with tiny details like the many meals in a SPAM pamphlet like pies in Sheffield or was it Mary’s motorway service station reviews, or the epic poesy of me and Douglas’ whatsapps??
—a gasp as we enter back onto the landing page with a shudder –
Where has SPAM travelled for the past seven years? The OG SPAM zines from 2016-2020, ended with the mega Megabus Themed Issue (incl. buses trotting through stanzas) —----RECENTLY Maria, fka editrix-in-chief, aka dj Misty, was abandoned by Megabus at the Preston station alongside the other practising ecopoet and the professor of petroculture. This was too good a scenario to not write a song about. When we finally get a Patreon, if we ever get a Patreon, this will be top tier blooper shit. Megabus couldn’t make the connection, which is chip off the old Ballard material. We were hanging around a parking lot of public art where the heads of consumers were replaced by giant replica dandelions. I got memory blurred singing American songs and thought I might be in Shawlandia, Land of Shaw, or the southern swamp. I really wanted a beer! (and eventually got one).
We wanted to stage a grandiose funeral for the OG zine parading through Finnieston with a styrofoam coffin of our late age’s poesy, but the apocalypse came too soon again.
As a practising steamboat of a poet (jk jk or am I?) I, (K), am humbled to be taking the masthead of the great ship SPAM as we set sail (apologies for the extended metaphor but not sorry!) into the murky waters of the political landscape that we currently find ourselves in. I’ve been thinking, the longer I’ve been involved in SPAM, about where small presses lie amidst the giant publishing houses. I’ve been completely taken with the new journal Too Little/Too Hard edited by Livia Franchini and Lucy Mercer, launched this year, which candidly and with sophisticated understanding deep dives into the labour of publishing and writing in the UK at the moment. In his brilliant essay, ‘Poetry as Late Economy’, Anthony Anaxagorou navigates how we contend with poetry as commodity, alongside financial survival as poets and small presses, and so much of this resonated with how I want to keep glitching what publishing and writing means in the SPAM sphere.
And yet, a poem is still a poem irrespective of who opposes its literary merits, or harangues its trope-laden doggerel. Capitalism wants to see The Best. It wants masses of followers which it can regard as potential consumers. It conflates popularity with preeminence. It wants a string of accolades which can be subsumed into sales. It wants hierarchies, and of course it wants losers in order to contour and elevate the pedestal status of the singular winner; it’s not interested in friendships, in mentors, in a community of vulnerable and volatile participants, or the unfettered terrain of the human imagination, it seeks and promotes competition, thriving off antagonism and aggression.
The first SPAM zines I read were not around a hierarchical view of creativity, and meaning-making in language, but instead swam through conversation, collaboration, and the copy and paste. What happens when you put a listicle beside a meme? What takes place when an internet review commingles with a haiku? They were made on Microsoft Publisher, they reminded me of funny wee projects I did as a child, they had that same energy. As we move forward, I would love to explore even more of these ideas through more collaborative projects, both in physical form and in the digital realm, taking inspiration from the post-internet net artists that have been lingering in our minds from SPAM’s beginnings. I want to find out about the niche website that has poems as gifs, about that sound artist that loves sims, about early art and code practices, about your film with automated voices, about the secret game you’ve been making for years. Let’s take back this web, use code as a creative force for poetics, manipulate the systems, make art and a joke out of the idea of poems as ‘useful’ objects, and instead revel in the ongoing play. The beginning of this traversal will take place with the launch of our Edwin Morgan Second Life publication Brilliant Vibrating Interface. Here will be a space where no medium is given hierarchy, where the digital site and its physical sister publication commingle, as separate artistic objects that comment back and forth on one another.
Okay and let’s do a dash through our history, with a LOT of cheeky reveals (:0) >>>>>>>>>>>>>>
Some highlights of the past seven years:
Epic five hour megabus zoom party culminating in bedroom dancing & Tom McCarthy seminar
Unnamed editor nearly thrown out of the club for “excessive kissing”
The Euston “Suitcase Incident”
FINALLY meeting Dan Power, Real Poetry Man & VisPo Legend
Reading with dinosaurs in Crystal Palace Park
Our first London launch at the Roebuck when we literally sold out of everything
Podcasting during that first lockdown, hearing poets read from the back catalogue - big shout out to the first zine recording out on the Astroturf!
Seeing our Bad Moon pamphlet get blasted up onscreen at an ACADEMIC KEYNOTE <3
Staging an original all-star casted play, Chocolate Sprites Lost in Kaufland
The deep, vibrant satisfaction of finally completing our first tax return
Meeting our dear accountant and taking him on a HEALTHY night out
Getting knocked back from the casino because we were penniless poets circa 2017
Being supported by the Edwin Morgan Trust for Brilliant Vibrating Interface
Making friends at zine fairs
Making friends online
Working with so many goddamn amazing poets!!!!!! <3
Our hopes for the future:
Continue to foster community around experimental poetry and this place called the internet that “raised us”
Expand our publishing output to include prose, hybrid magic that doesn’t want to be reduced to one genre/form, and work that ventures into transmedial and e-literary outputs
Go international and IRL! Host events and tours away from the UK, and work with venues and platforms across the world to do exchanges both virtual and in ~~~~~(vegan)meatspace
Keep running workshops and other opportunities for poetry outreach and education - invite us 2 yr festival!
More slay merch lines to follow the success of RAT POET DAD CAP™
Up the podcast output - more conversations with creatives outside of the immediate poetry sphere, and more chats with other small presses. Cultural gossip of the 2000s and beyond etc.
Up our visual game by working with a wider net of artists and designers
Secure some funds!
Open calls interspersed with commissions from creatives we love and want to read more of 🔥 we want NEW writers!
Build a sustainable archive of poetry and digital literatures resources and recordings
A possible massive party at the ten year mark - suggested by founding editor Denise :’) - there WILL be margaritas and chips
I want to say something profound about poetry and artificial intelligence but I am saying this with the tip of my laptop touching Kirsty’s and I’m overcaffeinated like the fake air fryer I won via junk mail. I’m also writing this on the day of let’s say the 120123092875123th labour strike of my life. We just saw R. who was also working in iCafé and talked about rural microcommunities and what happens when you’re in a place long enough for people to know you. And if our place is the internet then will they know you long enough to really know you. Is there a difference between our dreams and the hallucinations of artificial intelligence? I have this kind of feminine hoarding urge for the internet akin to keeping my old makeup, girl clutter glut of the dusty old poems I love. At the weekend I threw away two big palette blocks of Urban Decay Naked eyeshadow that I’d had since 2011. I dusted my eyes instead with glitches.
Molly Soda says:
The internet is funny because we think everyone’s being vulnerable. We’re supposed to be intimate online, but obviously we’re curating ourselves, whether we’re conscious of it or not. We’re creating these mood boards of our lives.
Poetry is a little soft pile of chips kind of steaming on the internet’s windowsill. Watch out for those seagulls. Some seagulls are better fed than others: you’ve got the big guns, major labelled, and their wee gull chicks squawking for scraps and iambs. If it wasn’t for the internet I wouldn’t have known about how weird D.H. Lawrence’s poetry can really be, or really what a meme is. I wouldn’t have this awesome Derrida Doritos sweater that I’m currently wearing, thanks Emma. The internet feels funny because the line between vulnerability and curation is so vulnerable that the ‘mood boards of our lives’ belong to everyone. But do they? I mean, who owns the internet? Those guys are the real seagulls with the poet rats of language clutched in their jaws. I wake every morning and want to tweet OUCH! I want there to be a happy ending to this story of constant digital enclosure like how beloved BBC drama Monarch of the Glen ended in 2005 with the crofters doing a community buyout of the land. Sometimes I’m herding the cats of my profiles like they’re lil lambs and does it make me a digital shepherdess of my selves. The spam of myselves.
The tartan internet, as imagined in the early 2000s.
iCafé currently playing The Cure – ‘Pictures of You’.
Just as I feel vulnerable online (and can weirdly become addicted to this feeling as much as I fear it, as much as I also perform), so the digital interface itself feels vulnerable. What about the hyperobject of the information highway reimagined as chthulucore slug monstrosity, delirious of many organisms. Sites crash, memories shift, ghosts of former selves and communities reappear on a google search. We crawl into other shells and hide out under nom de plumes. What’s your name, nom nom nom. It’s the little worm in the apple logging on.
I want to ensure we do not lose the archive of SPAM, and that will be something that can be survived. I’m thinking about this particularly in line with how small presses are going left, right and centre at the moment as it feels increasingly impossible to keep running things with the shitty financial state of this country. As SPAM is voluntary (for now…..could there be funding in the future?), it has always commingled with other aspects of our lives. I am running from my job in the library to the uni where I teach, to my own writing, to a SPAM meeting to a launch, but having SPAM amidst all of these things has helped me to think through all these other spheres of life and creativity and desire. The ‘what is post-internet?’ page on our site seems to reflect this jagged energy of our lives, the internet’s life and continual evolution and changing perspectives on what SPAM can be and do for the community; where it situates itself amidst a history that is constantly re-loading, again, again. I’m not talking about optimisation here, I’m talking about swerves. When brilliant co-editor Mau suggested starting up an Archive Fever section of the plaza, I was overjoyed: here was an opportunity to resuscitate the internet art that gets lost amidst the Big Tech giants. The same goes for SPAM’s past, present and future: I want to create an index of everyone who has ever been involved with SPAM, whether that’s a tiny meme poem back in Issue 2: #glitch or has published a pamphlet or collection with us. I am humbled to be a part of it and consistently surprised at the support SPAM continues to receive.
I remember one of my favourite writers Iphgenia Baal saying to me that a lot of people don’t think they read or write but they do, we all do: if you put all the words that you’ve ever typed in text form throughout your life so far, you would have written a novel. If you combine all the words you scroll through everyday, they would combine to be a whole library of literature. When we put this on the page, how can we de-familiarise ourselves from our screens? Here, the virtual and the actual are no longer distinguishable, as poet-internet artist Cécile B. Evans advocates; or as glitch feminist Legacy Russell writes it is now more accurate to state we are AFK (away-from-keyboard) rather than IRL (in-real-life). Our digital is our real.
one from the instagram vault
‘(The constant question: what things can be known only by means of poetry?)’
– Joan Retallack, ‘What is Experimental Poetry & Why Do We Need It?’
I remember running adrenaline into the air after recording the pod in lockdown.
I remember the fuckups of printing
I remember stapling myself to the zine
I remember chatting shite at sunset
I remember lava lamps
I remember beanie photoshoots up by the art school
I remember kicking over the fibre optic trochee
I remember when a certain popstar was papped reading With the Boys
I remember we got profiled in Dazed
I remember the exoskeleton of poesy broke from my iPhone
I remember so many beautiful emails!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I remember forgetting 2 reply 2 so many beautiful emails!!!!!!!!!!
I remember re-reading SPAMpamphlets and being like, how did they do that? Lines that burst forth in hungry memory when charging across town. The line ‘we still cry asphyxia’ in Lizzie McC’s Glitterbawl, buying cargo pants from primark with Hannah Read in Poems Written by my Imaginary Boyfriend…’, Daisy Lafarge’s heavy leaves keep falling from a delicate capriccio, Anjeli Caderamanpulle and all the Boys, chris-hemsworth-pine- and who the heck is the other one again?! The robotic voice of Hannah McDonald’s Compulsive Searching in SPAM001 will not leave my head as google searches become enjambment. ‘Entymology and etymology//one was bugs, the other was words.’
at the moment Kirsty’s laptop forcibly restarts, Maria needs to be (somewhere?) and it’s 16:30.
Heyhey, I’m back <3
Rolling around the floor in poetry’s cargo pants crying the news. Calling my firstborn son ‘Website’. Selling my digital footprint on usenet. Working on pisstime.
Press play nostalgia.
I can sense it Something important Is about to happen It's coming up It takes courage to enjoy it The hardcore and the gentle
Björk, Big Time Sensuality
I forgot everything because it was on another server.
breathing my air contributing nothing to profit
Why do we keep doing the voluntary work of small press publishing? This year, we faced a lot of significant obstacles in our personal and professional lives. In the past, we’ve kept posting and publishing through breakups, grief, academic deadlines, dystopian strandings, funding applications, injuries, parties and hospital visits. People are outside smoking and what am I doing, I’m answering gmails. What is this labour and is it good for us?
For a while this year, I couldn’t do anything, in the throes of grief. The first thing I could do was edit essays for SPAM, collaborate with Ian and Loll on Brilliant Vibrating Interface, and drink beers out the back of Loll’s place. A sense of self slowly returning through care, friendship, laughter, beautiful words sent into our inbox, the understanding of writers as we slowly came back to the surface. SPAM has continued to sustain me.
I can’t stop helping myself to the chip shop logic of SPAM’s neon continuum. If poetry is to survive the scarcity of 2023 and beyond, from cost of living crisis to climate crisis, it better be cheap as chips. We’re in the want of a generous portion of air, and good air at that, my friend.
Text: Kirsty Dunlop & Maria Sledmere Images: Various constasting content taken from Maria & Kirsty's phones, both screenshots and photos Published: 22/09/2023