The acknowledged pioneer of reversible artistry, Barry Duncan is the subject of the upcoming documentary film The Master Palindromist (www.masterpalindromist.com). Since 2011, he has received a good deal of attention: landing commissions, appearing on NPR, being anthologized, collaborating with dancers and visual artists. Barry lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.
What’s a brief overview of what you do? (Feel free to give a few examples.)
I write palindromes at a very high level, which is why I'm known as the master palindromist. (For those unfamiliar with the concept, a palindrome is any phrase – letters, numbers, symbols, or some combination – that reads the same forward and backward.) Anything that anyone can express in one direction, I can probably express in two directions.
Here's a small sample of my strange and potent art, a reversible tribute to the courageous Pakistani schoolgirl Malala:
PALINDROME FROM A BIRMINGHAM HOSPITAL
Now one – vile, lame – fired.
No! Wrong is astir.
A fate Malala met afar?
It's a sign, or wonder.
I, female, live – no, won.
Are there some past projects you’d like to mention in more detail?
In November of last year, I had a show in Bushwick, Brooklyn (“Making Nothing Happen”) at the gallery ArtHelix. In March of this year, there was the premiere of Back Going No Going Back, a collaboration with local dance company Monkeyhouse. My “Greenward Palindrome” appeared in the 2012 edition of The Best American Nonrequired Reading. It's worth mentioning that the middle of the 1,291-character Greenward Palindrome is the “z” in Taza – as in Somerville's own Taza Chocolate.
Is there anything new you’re working on, or an event that’s coming up?
At the moment, I'm going through my palindromes from 2009 to 2013 for a book manuscript, and I expect that I'll soon be looking for a publisher. I'll have a couple of speaking engagements at schools this fall, and I hope to get more: Talking to kids about palindromes is the most fun I have. For the last two and a half years, filmmaker Michael Rossi has been making a documentary about me; that continues. And I'm always accepting commissions.
Why do you do what you do? What’s something you get out of it?
The need for reversal seems to come from a very deep place within me. Genetic predisposition? Archetypal desire? I spend most of my time writing palindromes, and it gives me profound pleasure. My goal is to convince readers that there is such a thing as palindromic literature, two-way poetry, reversible art. In addition, I hope to use reversibility to change the world.
What got you involved in doing what you do? Is there someone or something that was important in getting you on your way? (A big break you got, or a mentor who helped you, etc.)
I started writing palindromes in 1981. But it wasn't until 2009, when Harvard showed me the door, that I was able to give my full attention to reversibility, and to make breakthrough after breakthrough. So I have to thank Harvard, both for being a great employer and for laying me off. The first person to introduce my work to a wider audience was Gregory Kornbluh, with his 2011 Believer profile of me. Thank you, Greg. Thank you, Andi Mudd and everyone at The Believer.
Any thoughts on the local Somerville, or Boston-area creative scene?
I've lived in Somerville since August of '94. I'm not from Massachusetts, I came up here to take a job at Harvard, and I must confess that I used to think of Somerville as Cambridge's poor relation. Now I know better. It's wonderful to see a community with such a commitment to the arts, and with so many artists. I mean, we're talking about a town that is home to both Emily Arkin and Steph Melikian. This must be the coolest place on the planet!