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Palindrome Champ Sees The World Backwards And Forwards


Mark Saltveit sees the world backwards and forwards. He's got to. He is a competitive palindromist - that is, he's won a contest creating a sentence that read the same from either end. Mr. Saltveit, what was that sentence?

MARK SALTVEIT: It was, Devil Kay fixes trapeze part, sex if yak lived.

SIEGEL: Now it is true that (laughter) that sentence does read the same backwards and forwards. Depth of meaning there, a little light.

SALTVEIT: It's a little shaky. I actually wrote three palindromes for the competition, and I consider a second one better as a piece of art.


SALTVEIT: But it was a crowd vote, and naturally the crowd voted for the sex yak.

SIEGEL: Well, let's hear the one that you think has more content to it.

SALTVEIT: OK, these were written for prompts. So the first prompt that the sex yak was written for was, write a palindrome with an X and a Z in it. And I threw in a Y just to show off. The second prompt was write a palindrome about someone who's famous in the news the last 12 months. So I wrote one about our president. (Reading) I tan. I mull. In a way, Obama, I am a boy - a wan illuminati.

SIEGEL: Several of our listeners will tell us that illuminati is a plural not a singular, but apart from that fact, well done.

SALTVEIT: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That one has a lot more to it than...

SALTVEIT: It's more conversational.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) Depends what kind of conversations you're accustomed to.

SALTVEIT: (Laughter) Yes, absolutely.

SIEGEL: Tell us more about how a palindrome contest actually unfolds. Time limits - judges?

SALTVEIT: This was the first live palindrome contest, and we had 75 minutes to create entirely new palindromes to fit prompts.

SIEGEL: And are you allowed to have any tools with you or...

SALTVEIT: Yeah, we all had notes and dictionaries, of course. You weren't allowed to call a friend for help or - in these days I suppose you could crowdsource it - put it out on the Internet and have your friends all suggest things, but that was not allowed.

SIEGEL: Well, I think the chess players are way ahead of you is what we've learned.

SALTVEIT: (Laughter) Absolutely.

SIEGEL: Now, we learned about you because a filmmaker, Vince Clemente, has a short documentary about the World Palindrome Champion called, "A Man, A Plan, A Palindrome." In fact, he's launched a Kickstarter to get funding to turn it into a feature-length documentary. And in that, you explain how you got started thinking about sentences that make sense in both directions.

SALTVEIT: That's right. When I was a kid, we learned in school about palindromes, which teachers often use to motivate children to play with language. And my family went on these very long camping trips where my brothers and I got extremely bored in the back of the car. My dad, for some reason, thought it was wise to drive 500 miles with three boys between 8 and 10 in the back of a car. And so one of the ways we passed the time was to try to come up with our own palindromes.

SIEGEL: When you're not under the pressure of competition, I gather you still noodle around with words. What's your thought process in creating a palindrome?

SALTVEIT: Good question. Generally when you write a palindrome, you see a word that has at least part of a sentence in it going backwards, like your name, Siegel. When I look at that, immediately I see leg, but then there's an extra E, which is problematic, and then is. So if I push a little farther, I think, OK, well, there's some words that end with L, E, G, E, and then I have is, so that works great. And the first one I came up with was college. If I have Siegel, O, C, then backwards that's college is. And start playing around with it, you have the two L's, which gives you an opportunity to split that and add another word, so mucking around with it, I came up with Siegel loco, no college is.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) Well, I think as they would say in the ice-skating competitions, technical merit, high...

SALTVEIT: (Laughter) Yeah.

SIEGEL: ...It is a palindrome. As for artistic - a little low on that side.

SALTVEIT: Well, if I had more time, I would work on - I think the word sacrilege is really the way to go with you. I've got, Siegel, I crash, sacrilege is - that's a very promising start.

SIEGEL: That is promising.

SALTVEIT: But it takes a while to finish off the ends.

SIEGEL: Well, I'm proud to have contributed to so much of your time on this.

SALTVEIT: (Laughter) I'll work on it some more. I'll get you a good one there.

SIEGEL: Mark Saltveit, thanks a lot for talking with us.

SALTVEIT: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: That's Mark Saltveit who's the World Palindrome Champion, and he's to be featured in the film "A Man, A Plan, A Palindrome," now raising funds through Kickstarter.


I think, Robert, we're - you and I are going to be sitting here for the rest of the program trying to do some palindromes in our head. I think my friend Mark would have a hard time, though, with my last name. The CK, I think, is just a dealbreaker.

SIEGEL: Oh, cobble something, yes.

BLOCK: Maybe in a foreign language.

SIEGEL: That's right. As Floyd Mayweather would say, KO?

BLOCK: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: OK. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.