Getting to Know Barry Duncan: Part 1

by Courtney Wagner

C: For those who don't know, what is a palindrome?          
B: A palindrome is any phrase – letters, numbers, symbols – that reads the same forward as backward.  Though I'm more comfortable with letters, numbers can be surprisingly versatile and useful.

C: When do you use numbers in palindromes? Do you do all number palindromes or use them within a longer one with words/letters?
B: While I'm sure I've never written a palindrome of any length with only numbers, I've become more confident with numbers since 2010.  The most common use for them is probably a person's age or a date.  When my friend LeeAnn started a new job on the 29th of September, I made “9-29” the middle of the congratulatory palindrome I presented to her.  In my palindrome about Greenward, I give the street address (1764), which becomes the amount of a transaction (46.71) when it comes back the other way.  But sometimes I get a little more daring.  

My most creative use of numbers (Arabic and Roman) is in a series of palindromes I composed late last year.  Harvard University celebrated its 375th anniversary in 2011, and one of the celebratory events was an exhibition (and a book) of photos by five photographers from the Harvard News Office.  I wrote 6 PALINDROMES FOR 10 EYES:  A TRIBUTE TO 5 HARVARD PHOTOGRAPHERS.  There was one palindrome for each photographer; the sixth palindrome (the only one with numbers) was about the reception for the opening night of the exhibition at 1730 Cambridge Street on the 3rd of November.  Here it is:

5, eh? Two wine. Pix I spot. No? Visit. It's 1730. Sit? Never. It's as time was in a f-stop's eye. I made, “Wow!” I saw it on 11-3-11, not? I. Was I wowed? Am I! Eye spots fan. I saw 'em. It's astir.  Event is 0371st? (It is IV on top.) Six I pen, I. Wow: The 5.

It starts and ends with a number (as well as containing the words “two” and “six”), and the date is a natural middle.  I remember being very pleased with “It is IV on top.”  IV (4) added to 371 makes 375. IV can also be pronounced as “Ivy.”

C: When and how did you become interested in writing palindromes?

B: In 1981, I was working at Encore Books in Philadelphia.  I saw a wordplay book (by Willard Espy?) that had a section on palindromes.  Something just clicked when I read them.  I thought to myself, “I can do this.”

C: How would you compare the palindromes you wrote in 1981 to work you have now?  I imagine it is the type of skill that develops with time?
B: Oh, there's no comparison.  In 1981, when I was just beginning to learn about reversibility, I was like a baby making its first gurgling and sputtering attempts at language.  Now, thirty-one years later, I have achieved fluency in the language.  If I was a baby then, now I'm the chatty old windbag who sits behind you on the bus and just won't shut up and makes you desperate to reach your stop.  

Palindrome writing is like any exacting discipline, like any craft that demands a long apprenticeship. First, you learn how to build the machinery.  Next, you learn how to operate the machinery.  Finally, you learn how to hide the machinery.

C: I did some googling and was reading some blogs about palindrome communities in forums and other such websites...what is the palindrome community like?  How would you describe it?  Where do you fit into or how are you involved in it?
B: If there is a palindrome community, I'm definitely not involved in it.  Or, to put it another way:  I belong to a palindrome community of one.  I've always followed my own path, and the results have been gratifying.  I guess it's the same in every field.  If you hope to achieve real excellence, it's usually necessary to break away from the pack, go your own way, rise above the prevailing mediocrity.

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