Some months ago, I received a charming email from a stranger who had read and enjoyed some of my poems. The stranger’s name was David Cohen and we started following each other on Twitter, where I very quickly discovered that he posts a daily Scrabblegram.
What is a Scrabblegram, you may well ask? (I certainly hadn’t heard of them before!) Most of us are familiar with the board game Scrabble, where participants use a set of letter tiles to construct words. It’s a fun family game – we enjoyed lively contests around the dining table when I was growing up.
In the standard English version of the board game, there are 98 letter tiles plus two blank tiles, so 100 altogether. A Scrabblegram is a message that uses each of these 100 Scrabble tiles exactly once. This handy overview is pinned to David Cohen’s Twitter profile:
The first published Scrabblegram, by Phoebe Winch, appeared in The Times of London in 1975. Subsequently, wordplay enthusiasts around the world took up the challenge of writing in this constrained art form. In 1997 GAMES Magazine ran a Scrabblegram competition which was won by – you’ve guessed it – David Cohen, with his delightfully humorous limerick Out Into Mid-Air:
A clown jumps above a trapeze, Arcs over one-eighty degrees, Out into mid-air, Quite unaware Of his exiting billfold and keys.
(The blank letters David uses are E and S, marked here in bold.)
David’s interest in wordplay began at a very early age. “In first grade,” he told me, “I dropped the ball on my first show-and-tell and forgot to bring anything to class. But I had just read a book about palindromes and loved them, so when it was my time to stand in front of the class I talked about that. Afterwards my teacher took me to see the principal… because he loved wordplay too. And he showed me some wordplay puzzles from a GAMES magazine he had in his office.
“From that day forward, every day after lunch, for at least a couple of years, I would visit Mr. Myers (the principal) and he’d have a new puzzle for me. Changed my life! So of course I had a GAMES subscription for years, and it was a major goal for me to someday win one of their contests. The Scrabblegram contest was the one!”
After winning the GAMES magazine contest it would be twenty years before David returned to the form, with this beautiful meditation, A Quiet, Conscious, Empty Mind:
The average fool arrives here blind, An ego waking up to find, A quiet, conscious, empty mind. Now today I realize… Relax. Just be.
(Blanks: E, N)
Now David writes Scrabblegrams daily, sharing them on Twitter and via his website. This form of wordplay is, for him, a meditative process. “It’s the main reason I love to do them,” he told me. “I love the state of mind that it puts me in. My wish is for everyone to find some activity that makes them feel this way.”
The range of topics is vast and eclectic. David has created Scrabblegrams featuring M. C. Escher, Calvin and Hobbes, Muhammad Ali, Magic Squares, Shelley’s Ozymandias, The Wizard of Oz and a Scrabble tournament in Zambia, to name but a few. All are characterised by wit, elegance and verbal dexterity. Often there are additional constraints. A Diamond employs the 100 Scrabble tiles to form a concrete poem that is also an Oulipian snowball. The fact that David was for many years a musician is evident in the metre and melody of his exquisite sonnet The Moon, created using four sets of Scrabble tiles:
The Moon O faithful moon in heaven's silver sea, Our prized eternal geologic bride, You wax or wane adjusting ocean tide, Eclipsing pools of dark tranquility. Next daybreak came with no apology, Again I wait while you above me hide, A dim RSVP from back inside A quiet rendezvous trajectory. At dusk once more inexorably rise, Just up above horizon's water-edge, Reflecting in a wave of liquid light. Expect me in a violet sunset haze, Abandon me all day but I won't judge, Forgive a day's prerequisite for night.
[Blanks: C, D, H, I, N, S, V and Y]
In my end of year reflections last year I wrote about the positive aspects of Twitter communities. An enthusiastic and welcoming community has formed around David’s Scrabblegram posts, including a monthly challenge and contributions by wordplay enthusiasts from around the world.
David makes writing Scrabblegrams seem effortless, but they are, I’ve discovered, very hard! If you don’t have access to a set of Scrabble tiles, there’s a helpful online tool; even so, I’ve spent hours and hours trying to construct a simple, coherent, Scrabblegram.
Write one now for fun – radiate humour, be quirky, odd, imageable, erotic, sad, scintillating, zany, deep, explosive. Just have a go!
With grateful thanks to David Cohen for introducing me to Scrabblegrams, for giving me permission to share his work and for his unfailing kindness and generosity.
David has a book forthcoming with Penteract Press – details to be announced in due course.
Eric Chaikin: ‘Never Be Bored at the Board’ in Beyond Wordplay (July 28, 2020). Available at https://beyondwordplay.com/scrabblegrams-never-be-bored-at-the-board-dc142f68ae07
Eric Chaikin: ‘A Mixed Bag of Scrabblegrams from the Chairman of the Board’ in Beyond Wordplay (September 21, 2020). Available at https://beyondwordplay.com/a-mixed-bag-of-scrabblegrams-from-the-chairman-of-the-board-915dfc22fc14