Barry Duncan -- Master Palindromist, Fraud, or Mediocrity?

by Mark Saltveit
December, 2011

Barry Duncan picture
This fall, Barry Duncan burst on to the palindrome scene, talking smack and riding a wave of major outlet publicity – features in The Believer magazine and on national public radio shows Here and Now and All Things Considered.  There is even a documentary about him in production.  

Duncan is billed as "quite possibly the world's first master palindromist" – a bold claim for a genre invented 2,300 years ago – and warned The Believer that "you shouldn’t confuse me with any of those garden-variety, ‘Madam I’m Adam’ hacks who couldn’t paint my shadow.

What's puzzling is how little work Duncan has actually published.  There are three main outlets where many writers have published dozens of palindromes each:  The Palindromist magazine, Word Ways magazine, and the website MockOK.com. Though he claims in the Believer that "I write hundreds a day, probably," he had published only one 3-page article in Word Ways magazine, back in February 1995, and one single palindrome online (for a store called Greenward, this year), before the Believer feature came out. As I write this, in mid-December 2011, his output has grown to a total of 8 palindromes. Yes, eight.

Duncan has never submitted any palindromes to MockOK.com or The Palindromist, and has not been in Word Ways since 1995.   There is nothing under his name in any of the leading periodical or book databases, and Michael Rossi, who is filming the documentary about him, did not know of any other published works.  (Duncan has not responded to numerous requests for information or interviews.)

But what about "Assorted Palindromes and One Song," the April, 1994 collection he describes in the Believer article as "The Relationship Killer" because those he showed it to would stop talking to him? This is almost certainly the article that appeared in Word Ways ten months later,  also titled "Assorted Palindromes," though there's no sign of the song, and there aren't many palindromes either for that matter.  A "semi-erotic poem" palindrome of Duncan's, which appeared in poet Dave Morice's 1997 book "Alphabet Avenue," also turns out to be one of three "Assorted Palindromes" in the Word Ways piece.

To sum up, then: Duncan has two palindromes in the Believer feature; one he created for each of those public radio shows, on their websites; three in the Word Ways article, along with some fragments he calls "49 Shades of Red"  (see below); and the Greenward piece, for a grand total of 8 palindromes and 49 fragments in over 30 years of palindromy.

Luckily, this allows the quality of his work to be reviewed in depth, and prolific palindromist Martin Clear does exactly that in the new issue #8 of The Palindromist.  (Clear himself is the subject of a review in the new issue. Many examples of Clear's work can be found in the New Palindromes forum of this website, as well as on MockOK.com.)

Though he faces considerable skepticism about his brash claims, Duncan has a perfect chance to prove himself this spring.  Puzzle master Will Shortz, the New York Times crossword editor and NPR personality, has scheduled the first annual World Palindrome Championship for March 16th, 2012 during the American Crossword Puzzle tournament in Brooklyn.  Duncan, Demetri Martin, Martin Clear, Jon Agee, John Connett, Nick Montfort and Palindromist editor Mark Saltveit have been invited.  So far, the latter 4 have accepted, and Clear -- who lives in Australia -- is trying to arrange travel and time off work. 

As of mid-December 2011, Barry Duncan has not responded to repeated invitations made directly and through intermediaries. An invitation left as a comment on his website has not been approved by the moderator to appear there.  .

Update: After much dithering, Barry Duncan showed up at the last minute to the first World Palindrome Championship, with a documentary filmmaker in tow. He finished dead last among the seven participants. Contestants were allowed to create up to 3 palindromes in 75 minutes; he produced one (below).

Five years later, there is no sign of the documentary film, and Duncan ignored several invitations to the second World Palindrome Championship in March, 2017.

[Issue #8 of The Palindromist magazine, a print-only publication, has the full results of the first World Palindrome Championship, as well as Martin Clear's review of Barry Duncan's work.]

Barry Duncan's entry in the first World Palindrome Championship (2012):

"7, no? Do! Past I? How? Oh, now I spat! Fired, no?
Will: a foe? Not! Ah, then a fair event now (i.e., solid).
One tilt on Sat (oh!), Sun. It is “7 across: Orca.”
7 sit in. Us. Hot as not. Lite. Nod.
I lose? I won't! Never!
I: a fan, eh? That one, of all.*
I wonder if: Taps? I won? How?
(Oh, it's “a pod” on 7.)"

*He pointed to Will Shortz when he read this line.

 

Links:

The Palindromist Magazine, http://www.palindromist.org

Believer article, "Doubling in the Middle"  http://www.believermag.com/issues/201109/?read=article_kornbluh

Here and Now radio story  http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2011/10/17/palindrome-madam-word

All Things Considered radio story  http://www.npr.org/2011/10/23/141569914/was-it-a-cat-i-saw-nope-it-was-a-palindrome

Michael Rossi Film's web page for "Master Palindromist," an unfinished film documentary about Duncan  http://masterpalindromist.com/

Barry Duncan's blog, created at the time of the Here and Now interview  http://www.reversiblelife.com/

MockOK.com http://www.mockok.com

Word Ways Magazine  http://www.wordways.com/

2012 American Crossword Puzzle tournament  http://www.crosswordtournament.com/

Barry Duncan's "49 Shades of Red"