Like many obsessions, my preoccupation with anagrams began by accident. I am writing my doctoral thesis at the moment, and had been struggling with my topic: alter egos in elliptical poetry. To put it bluntly: all of the alter ego poetry that I was writing for the creative section of my thesis was terrible; not so terrible that it was not even recognisable as poetry, but that uglier low level kind of terrible you get when you’re mining an area that has been all mined out and the work that results is simply boring. So I was on the lookout for inspiration, trawling for ideas that were more interesting than my thesis “starter idea”, when U.S. poet Dora Malech’s latest collection of poetry, Stet (2018), landed on our veranda in an Amazon package. My first thought on reading the poems was, “Huh?”; second thought, “What even is this?”; and then a series of thoughts that tumbled out on top of each other such as, “How does she do this?” “This is amazing!”, and “Wow, I’m so jealous, I wanna write anagram poems, too.”
Stet is a book of poetry which is composed primarily of anagrams, with a side of erasures. Malech states that she is influenced by the German artist and poet, Urnica Zurn, who wrote a series of vivid and disquieting anagram poems in the 1950s , as well as the French school of poetry Oulipo, which uses various restrictive forms to enable creativity, of which the anagram is one.
Thus began my obsession with this form–and the way that you can mine a single sentence or word or, in the case of the third section of Malech’s book, an entire poem (she writes a series of poems which are anagrams of the Sylvia Plath poem “Metaphors”)–and resulting questions (some of which Malech explores in Stet), such as: How can lyric subjectivity survive within such a tight machine? Is this kind of poetry too sterile and fragmented to really connect with a reader? I am at the beginnings of my explorations in this area, so don’t have any firm answers yet. But writing anagram poems (in which, for example, an entire poem may be made out of a single line, re-arranged) is kind of like build-your-own-nightmare. You get to choose the particular brand of nightmare, and that ambit of it, but within very tight parameters. To put it more another way, it’s like performing back flips in a very tight space; but if you pull it off, the thrill is real.
Johanna Aitchison is a doctoral student at Massey University, Palmerston North, examining anagrams and erasures in hybrid poetry. Her most recent volume of poems, Miss Dust (2015), was described by reviewer Sarah Quigley as “Emily Dickinson for the 21st century”. Her poetry has appeared in anthologies such as Best New Zealand Poems 2008 and 2009, and Best of Best New Zealand Poems (2011). She was a 2015 resident at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa and the 2012 Visiting Artist at Massey University.