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For 2002, a Word From Palindromists: Yay

Backward-and-forward aficionados are excited about the oh-so reversible year--'a thing of beauty.'

January 01, 2002|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You get a bit punchy in Jon Agee's through-the-looking-glass kind of world. He peruses the New Yorker from back cover to front. He flips over the cool reversible name, Anuta Catuna. (She won the New York City Marathon's women's title in 1996.) He throws a party and gets the band to play songs with melodies and lyrics that read the same, forward and backward--a play on words known as a palindrome.

Which means that Agee, the author of noted collections of original palindromes, is celebrating--really seeing the happy backwardness in--the year 2002. "This year has to be the killer party," says Agee, who also collects palindromes. (Someone, quick, come up with tunes besides the Spanish song "Somos o No Somos," which means "We Are or We Aren't"; the song's melody and lyrics also are reversible.)

If you think Agee is partying, think about that wacky subset, the "numbers palindromists," who have to be reveling in the thrilling proximity of 1991 and 2002. The last time two palindromic years occurred so close together was in 999 and 1001. This is their time to go crazy on us; the next reversible year isn't until 2112.

In the past few months, the Palindromist magazine (www .realchange.org/pal) has received hundreds of e-mails, including submissions and buzz about the upcoming banner year. Its Portland-based editor, Mark Saltveit, attributes the upswing to the look of "2002"--so symmetrical, so rounded in a pleasing Rubens-esque way. "2002 just speaks for itself," says Saltveit, a stand-up comedian and computer-skills trainer. "It's a thing of beauty. An aesthetic joy."

The 5-year-old magazine, which has 200 to 500 subscribers around the world, is published once or twice a year. Saltveit also has published a 2002 date book that includes his palindromes, as well as the work of others, such as Leigh Mercer's 1914 classic: "A man, a plan, a canal--Panama!"

The calendar features trivia--the oldest known palindrome is in Latin and dates back to 79 AD--and historical tidbits about, say, the former Yreka Bakery in Yreka, Calif. Notable events in the palindromic world are pointed out on the appropriate day; the Oct. 8 entry notes the 1991 release date for an EP by the dark Seattle grunge band, Soundgarden: "Satan, Oscillate My Metallic Sonatas." Saltveit also spotlights recent favorites such as the one for May 21, National Waitstaff Day: "Stressed? No Tips? Spit on Desserts," written by Tom Comerford.

Silly, yes, Saltveit says. But maybe the coming year's hoopla will encourage wordplay enthusiasts to create not just funny palindromes but ones that are more like haikus, thought provoking or imbued with meaning.

A fan sent this deep palindrome to author Agee: "Do geese see God?" It's hard to come up with such a sentence, Agee says. "It's almost like carving out a little jewel." (Tips are available in books such as Michael Donner's palindrome encyclopedia, published in 1996 by Algonquin Books, with the tricky title: "I Love Me, Vol. I.")

Agee, who lives in New York City, is an acclaimed illustrator and writer of children's books (" ... unidirectional picture books," he specifies on one book jacket). His recent offering, "Milo's Hat Trick" (Hyperion/di Capua), is on The Times' list of Best Books of 2001 for children. "I love words," he says. "The palindrome is the perfect kind of recreational, mind-bending, visually stimulating phenomenon for me."

Agee uses illustrations to bring his palindromes to life. In one cartoon, he shows two nuns in a bar. One nun, who has a golf club, says to the other, who is about to sip her gin: "Flo, gin is a sin. I golf."

In talks at schools, Agee shows students samples from his three illustrated collections of palindromes as a way "to get kids excited about language.... It's sort of like a magic trick." His collections include, "So Many Dynamos!" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1994), which sells for, guess what, $13.31.

His book, "Palindromania!" is due in fall 2002.

"I'm kicking myself, wishing it came out earlier," Agee says. "There'll be so many things about palindromes that people will be sick of them."

(Or maybe they will hold out for the next volume that he is considering of off-color palindromes: "Sex at Noon Taxes." )

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