Getting To Know Barry Duncan: Part 2

By Courtney Wagner

C: Do you have the same process for each one you write?  Are you inspired by anything?  I find in choreography artists sometimes have a type of process or "formula" of things they need to be able to work.That can be a certain space, a piece of music that drives the creation, an idea, etc  Is it at all similar for your work?
B: Each palindrome I write is unique – they're usually written for a specific person or event – and lately it seems that I make a technical breakthrough in just about every one.  But a master palindromist is as much a creature of habit as anyone else.
If I'm in my apartment, I'll grab a legal pad, write the alphabet across the top of the page, and sit down on the couch in my living room.  The couch is my favorite place to work because there's the possibility of lying down, putting the legal pad on my face, falling asleep.  If I'm up against a deadline and have no time to waste, I'll move to the kitchen table.  Less comfortable, but no chance that I'll lie down and doze off.
Writing palindromes requires a good deal of creativity, of course, but I also have to know the patterns and combinations that will get me out of a tight spot.  That's why I always say that palindrome writing is both creative and formulaic.

C: Technical breakthroughs are exciting!  What would you count as a breakthrough?
B: Let's talk about dance!  In April of this year, I went with some Monkeyhouse people (including you) to see Quicksilver Dance's performance of “Tempest in a Teacup” at MIT.  Here's a brief description of the six dances in the order in which they were performed:

Caesar and Cleopatra – Smuggled into the palace in a burlap sack, Cleopatra becomes Caesar's partner and equal.
Looking Through Windows – Mariah dances with a laptop computer.
Good Soil – Teachers as gardeners.
Tern's Landing – From a carefree young adulthood to an arranged marriage.  Inspired by the Jhumpa Lahiri book Unaccustomed Earth.
No Sugar, Please – The cultural history of tea.
Muses Anonymous – A re-imagining of five women depicted in Simon and Garfunkel lyrics.

I was so knocked out by Mariah and Hans and the rest of the company that I was determined to pay tribute to them palindromically.  The first section I tackled was “No Sugar, Please,” probably because it included spoken text.

Pots tip. I sit. One. We owe caffeine power. Boss? Oh, tea! Even, mutual, lit. Set? Sate. (Note lines: Aso, Yosa, Sen.) I let one taste still autumn eve. A ethos. So? Brew. Open, I efface woe. We, not I, sip it, stop.

Now I faced a dilemma.  Would I compose five more palindromes of approximately the same length about the other dances?  Or should I just write one long palindrome?  Or maybe a series of short palindromes, one for each dance?  I agonized over it (and filled many pages with notes) for more than a week.  Then the solution was revealed to me.  I ended up going with one long palindrome broken up into six lines:

Tempest in a Teacup

'Tis a wise sum. Gasp. Asp. One Roma, etc.

Is, um, sir, a saga: RAM is too rare. I'm all...It's...
Oh, what lovers!

I till a few as I tend. Net is awe. Fall it is.

Revolt? Ah, who (still) am I? Era. Roots. I'm a raga, saris, music.

Tea. More? No?

P.S. A PS, AG. Muses? I was it.

It would have been perfectly acceptable to have one palindrome for each dance.  But making one
continuous palindrome in which the six pieces are discussed in the exact order of performance was, for me, a breakthrough.  Shortly after that, I wrote a rhyming palindromic poem (my first ever), and I'm now much better at maintaining a strict chronology in my biographical palindromes.  Thank you, Quicksilver Dance!

C: Can you describe the formulaic part of palindrome writing?  Is the alphabet written across the top of the page part of the habit or formula?
B: Writing the alphabet across the top of a page of canary yellow legal paper is definitely part of my routine for composition.  When I talk about palindrome writing being formulaic, though, I'm referring more to patterns I use, words that repeatedly come in handy, combinations I can exploit.  If you had a concordance to my work, you would see that certain words and combinations show up again and again:  still / it's, one / no, now / on, eh, ah, oh, uh, and so on.  I went through a time this year where I kept using the word “apt.”  So, my palette will be different for each one, I'll mine a vocabulary that's appropriate to that subject, but there are always things I can fall back on.

C: You've mentioned working alone and/or in solitude twice.  Do you know anyone else who writes palindromes?  Are you familiar with other work (other than the word play book from Encore Books)?  I only ask because I was surprised by the number of forums I found on the subject!
B: I'm probably familiar with most palindrome books that have been published since 1979, when I started in the book business.  There are many people who write palindromes (and opine on the subject), as you've seen online.  In March, I participated in the (so-called) World Palindrome Championship – which, by the way, I lost by a very wide margin –  so I also met some people there who had an interest in palindrome writing.

It's always a mistake to think that you have nothing to learn and that you can't benefit from seeing what other people are doing.  If you browse through palindromes, there's a chance that you'll discover combinations that hadn't occurred to you; clustering tendencies are distinctive and instructive.  Anyway, I've seen enough to know that what I'm writing is different.

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