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Monday, June 8, 2009

The Anagram Times Interview: Jeffrey Barnes

Jeffrey BarnesAnagramming is an art as well as a science. From time to time we'll interview master anagrammers who combine the two to produce anagrams that are filled with ingenuity and display their passion and devotion to anagramming. Our first interview is with Jeffrey Barnes, a Grammy Award winning musician from Texas.

Q How did you get into anagrams?
A Circa 1980 I began writing palindroems, little "poems" whose lines are spelled the same backward as forward. Trying to make some kind of crazy sense within a very constrictive framework was fun!

Books by authors like Willard Espy showed me other ways of "making the alphabet dance", including word squares (the apotheosis of palindrome), charade ("poems" where couplet lines are spelled the same, but with the word breaks in different places), and anagrams.

Q Do you remember the first anagram you made?
A I don't remember my first, but Thursday night as I was going to sleep, my brain jumbled the word "Batman" into "Bantam". I had a short dream about a guy fighting crime in a chicken suit and woke up laughing. My wife woke up too, but not laughing.

Here's an early "poem" where every line is an anagram of the title:


X is a silent item.
Examine its list:

It's man's exile. It
is Time's tax line.

Next it is a smile
-- snail-exits Time!

Next, a missile. It
lies in state. Mix

six mentalities...
Mine is late. It's X.

Q Do you have a favorite anagram?
A Surely "Twelve + one = Eleven + two" is hard to beat!

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Q What do you do in your non-anagram life?
A I'm a musician. My wife Gina teaches dyslexic children to read. We're both interested in language.

I've played in a band called Brave Combo for 26 years. I perform on saxophones, clarinets, flutes, harmonicas and other noisemakers. We play many different musical styles, but won the Grammy for Best Polka Recording in 1999 and 2004. (Sadly, that Grammy category was discontinued several days ago.)

My band appeared on an episode of The Simpsons, called "Co-Dependence Day", for which I arranged the closing theme.

Q Describe the moment when you are working on anagramming a phrase and the last few letters just fall into place and you realize that you have an outstanding anagram on your hands.
A After choosing the source, separating and alphabetizing the vowels and consonants, putting carats on every five letters so the count is correct, finding a starting word that's rife with promise, separating the other letters and trying to use the odd ones (j,k,q,v,x,z et al,) repeating the process over and over using Anu's amazing Internet Anagram Server or little wooden letter squares or just a cocktail napkin, sometimes reaching blind alleys and disassembling words for their parts, one winds up with a small handful of letters and...*click* everything comes together! Not a word (or letter) is wasted. The result is a cogent, pithy, pertinent comment on its source -- often hilarious, but sometimes serious, or even heartbreaking. The anagrammatist has manipulated the primary elements of language with great skill. All the elements of artistic performance are there, except...the anagrammatist is not really responsible for the result. He or she is like a pythoness at the Delphic oracle -- only the conduit for a message from beyond, one of many that existed within the source before the anagrammatist even began.

Q Approximately how long do you spend on an anagram?
A Sometimes it clicks in at 15 or 20 minutes. Sometimes I'll run into all manner of blind alleys, get obsessed, work for hours, and finally (1) get a satisfactory result or (2) give up in disgust.

There is a 28-letter source, which uses only 1/2 the letters of the alphabet plus one, that I've worked on for a couple of years without exhausting. It's generated thousands of viable anagrams, which I'll put into a book eventually.

Long boring trips with the band make this sort of thing possible -- maybe inevitable.

Q Anything else you'd like to add?
A Oh, yes! Something about the ethics of anagramming:

There's a passage in Book XII of The Odyssey, where Odysseus must sail through a narrow pass between two rocks, one of which houses Scylla, a monster whose six heads devour sailors, and the other which has Charybdis, another monster whose giant mouth creates a whirlpool that can suck down a whole ship. (A less classical allusion would be "between a rock and a hard place" or "between the Devil and the deep, blue sea".)

This reminds me of our ethical plight. Remember that an anagrammatist, our "hero" surviving by virtue of his wits, is not completely in charge of what he expresses. He often risks saying something abjectly evil -- and you decide whether he's "channeling" some evil spirit or expressing a dark aspect of his own psyche -- to avoid the bottomless pit of nonsense which always threatens to engulf him.

Of course, "a little nonsense now and then, is relished by the wisest men". On the other hand, we may be tempted to say something morally reprehensible because it's often richly comical to assume the persona of a villain, but it's probably a good idea to edit yourself -- or let somebody responsible do it for you -- than to have righteous people feel offended, or wicked people feel justified.

Some of Jeffrey Barnes's recent anagrams:
Jeffrey Barnes's picture on New Year's Eve in Tampa, Florida above shows his (word)playful side. Every year he cuts out letters from a "Happy New Year" tiara, so it says "Hay ewe".
What anagrammers would you like to see interviewed here? What questions would you like to ask them? Post your questions and comments about anagrams, this interview, or The Anagram Times below.

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