Stephin Merritt

Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields (as drawn by New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast) will be at the Wisconsin Book Festival.

If Stephin Merritt invites you to play Words With Friends, you might want to think carefully about that. The singer-songwriter of the band Magnetic Fields is already formidable with wordplay — the Magnetic Fields’ 2004 album “i” features nothing but song titles beginning with the letter “i.”

But Merritt’s Achilles heel at Words With Friends was remembering obscure two-letter words, without which it’s hard to come up with big-scoring multi-word combinations. So he decided to put his skills as a lyricist to his advantage: His new book “Two-Letter Words” contains four-line poems for each of the 101 two-letter words allowable in Scrabble and Words With Friends, each with an illustration by New York cartoonist Roz Chast.

Merritt is coming to Madison to read from the book as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival. He talked to the Cap Times about the book, his Words With Friends strategies, and whether a book of three-letter words is next.

Tell me about two letter words. Do you like them because of their usefulness in Words With Friends and Scrabble, or is there some aesthetic value to them?

I’m generally a fan of miniature things. I have a ukulele, I drive a Mini, etc. So I already have an album with same-letter titles. There are only two, arguably three, one-letter words, but there are over a hundred two-letter words.

What prompted me to do the book is that I couldn’t remember words while playing Words With Friends and Scrabble, without which you can barely play. For whatever reason, most of my friends are writers, damn them, and they know a lot more two-letter words than I do. Or they did. Now I know all the two-letter words and they don’t.

I always feel like I’m cheating on some level when, like, I play “za” or “qi” on a triple-letter score for 31 points. I always prefer to do a longer, cooler word. You don’t have those issues?

Hmm. Do you feel like you’re cheating when you use an “s” for a plural?

No, I feel that’s totally kosher.

The rules of Scrabble were worked out decades ago over the course of many years. So the two-letter words are definitely planned for and built in. In The New York Times crossword, you only have two-letter words on Thursdays when they’re doing some planned effect. I think, on Thursday, sometimes you get squares that are only barely connected, but those are for tricky things. Still, two-letter words are, at least on Thursdays, admissible in crossword puzzles. Because of that, in theory two-letter words are useful outside of Scrabble, if only in another word game, closely related.

Do you find yourself using some of these words in everyday conversation?

Some of them more than others. I am probably too old to use the word “za” casually. But I do use “qi,” the Chinese word, to talk about Chinese medicine. My mother is big into Asian everything, and particularly Asian medicines, and so I’ve heard the word "qi" all my life, although usually spelled "chi.”

Do you have any other favorites?

People always ask me my favorite such-and-such. I don’t have favorites. No. The do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do, these are nonsense syllables. So doesn’t that mean they’re not words? If those are words, then surely "sha-la-la” is a word, so “sha” is a word. But it isn’t. I’m not really convinced that all of these should be in the Scrabble dictionary.

Those are my least favorite, but since I’m a musician, I had some things to say about them.

When you’re playing Words With Friends or Scrabble, and you have the option of playing a great word but that might open up a triple for your opponent, or playing more cautiously, which would you tend to go for?

It depends on how much the score is of my great words, how many letters are left in my opponent’s hand, because I may not be concerned about the triple-word score, et cetera. There are a lot of variables.

Do you count letters, like people count cards? Are you mentally keeping track of the “J” or the “X”?

I do not literally count letters as a lot of people do, but I am aware of whether the Q, Z, J have been played yet. I don’t even have to think about that. I’m not good with keeping track of the blanks, because that’s harder to see on the board.

Do you have a preference between Scrabble and Words With Friends?

I think there is what I call an “acoustic version” of Words With Friends where you can play it on an actual physical board, but I’ve never seen it or played it. My strong preference for the physical world is Scrabble, and my strong preference for the electronic world is Words With Friends, because I can’t get my Scrabble app to function well enough to actually finish a single game. Every time they update it, it’s useless again. Clearly Hasbro has no interest in Scrabble working on the iPhone, which I find bizarre.

What was it like turning these into poems? Did some come more easily than others?

I wrote some of them on the spot and liked them enough to never need to change them very much, and others went through many, many iterations. The really hard ones were the nonsense syllables, making them different from each other.

Did you feel the shadow of “The Sound of Music” looming over your shoulder as you wrote those “do-re-mi” poems?

Absolutely. I was not going to do “ti – a drink with German bread.” Oh, I did it again. All my life I’ve said “a drink with German bread,” when of course it’s “a drink with jam and bread.” I always thought they just said it in a funny accent.

What was it like working with Roz Chast on the illustrations?

She happened to write me a fan letter two or three days before I needed an illustrator. It was kismet. We didn’t work together in any way. I wrote the whole book. Then she illustrated the whole book, and sent it back. My only quibble is that she misspelled “artisanal” on the box of “fe,” and other than that I thought it was brilliant.

She had worked on a book of alternate alphabet letters with Steve Martin. Did you feel you were one-upping him in some way?

No, I didn’t realize at the time she had done that, so this could be easily be seen as a sequel to that, completely unintentional, and completely lacking the letters "C" and "V." If they are ever packaged together in the Complete Works of Roz Chast, the Chast opera omnia, I think they should be back-to-back.

It does leave the door open to do a three-letter tome down the line.

It would be quite a tome. I think there’s 1,083. If I didn’t have anything else to do, I’d love to memorize all the three-letter words. Although I’d be particularly frustrated when they changed and a new edition of the Scrabble dictionary came out.

You seem to really enjoy a challenge, whether it’s poems about two-letter words, or an album where every song begins with ‘i,’ or the mini-opera you’re writing for “This American Life.”

I love it. I like doing crossword puzzles. I like having complex rhyme schemes. I enjoy the challenge, and I feel like the listener can hear me enjoying the challenge.


Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.