By Katy Steinmetz
April 4, 2015

Eat poop tea.

When he was a kid, Mark Saltveit would sit in the car with his two young brothers, bored silly during 500-mile drives on family trips. Eventually he and his siblings turned to palindromes to pass the time. They had learned about these delightful strings of wordplay in school, a row of letters that read the same backwards as forwards. Poop, to the grade-school boys, was of course the consummate example. And when they worked out “Eat poop tea,” they felt like the Albert Einsteins of palindromy—until they realized that it didn’t quite work.

“We were crushed,” laughs Saltveit, now 53, as he recalls the cruel realization that the actual mirror image would be Eat poop tae. But during a bout of insomnia during his 20s, he remembered how he had filled the hours in the family car. Saltveit broke out the dictionary and embarked on what would become his life’s work. Within hours, he had written his first palindrome, at a length that most people couldn’t achieve in a month, or maybe ever. He called it “The Brag of the Vain Lawyer:”

Resoled in Saratoga, riveting in a wide wale suit, I use law, Ed. I, wan, ignite virago, tar a snide loser.

Within three decades, he would become the reigning world palindrome champion.

Saltveit is the star of a new documentary short that filmmaker Vince Clemente is hoping will inspire people to pay for making the feature-length version, as he follows the world’s leading palindromists up to their showdown at the next world championship in 2017. A Kickstarter campaign to fund the initial stages of A Man, a Plan, a Palindrome went live this week. The short debuted in March at—where else—the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, an annual gathering of people who like to debate whether puzzles are better solved using .3 mm or .7 mm lead in mechanical pencils.

“I am drawn to niche worlds. I feel that they need to be explored,” Clemente says. “If you are a palindromist, you are an artist and a genius. There is no doubt. The amount of skill that goes into each one is beyond calculation. Sure, when one is done anyone could look at it and say, ‘Duh, that was easy.’ And I think that is a sign of great artistry.”

Doc, note, I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.

In a rare cultural moment, some of the world’s greatest palindromists have just been given the Hollywood treatment — even if palindromes aren’t even mentioned in the film.

These men are the stars of The Imitation Game, which tells the story of the mathematicians who unraveled Nazi codes during World War II. Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), plays a background character in a biopic that focuses on Alan Turing, but he is the stuff of palindrome legend. Taking a break from his work, Hilton puzzled out the above palindrome over five hours. The skills these men brought to code-breaking, says Saltveit—who may know more about the cultural history of palindromes than any other living person—are the same skills one needs to mentally run through all the possible letter combinations that might build out a grammatical, coherent sentence in opposite directions.

“The amazing thing about Peter Hilton is he did this all in his head,” Saltveit says. “But that was his gift. That’s why he was famous even among the code breakers, because he had that ability.”

Constructing a palindrome starts with the middle, Saltveit explains. In the case of Hilton’s famous work, that was:

never prevents

That leaves a “ts” dangling on one end that must become “st” at the end of a word on the other. So one runs through all the words they can think of that end in “st”—last, vast, past, amast. When Hilton decides that a fast jibes well with never prevents he then knows he has to work with this:

a fast never prevents a fa

And on he goes, running through his mental Rolodex of words that being “fa,” until he has created the deceptively straightforward three-sentence masterpiece, without so much as a pencil or a piece of paper.

As an avid student of palindrome history, Saltveit was bequeathed rare copies of the journals of British mathematician and word-artist Leigh Mercer, who died in 1977. While people don’t generally know his name, they’re probably familiar with his most famous palindromic creation:

A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!

In the journals, it’s clear that he also worked from the middle outward. On one page, Saltveit says, is this revealing fragment:

Panama, a man a p

Saltveit, of course, used this same method when he took home the world’s first World Palindrome Championship title.

He and the other few but proud souls who can call themselves true palindromists (pronounced pal-IN-droh-MISTS) gathered in Brooklyn, New York in March 2012. Each was called to the front of a ballroom at the Marriott, in front of about 700 or so eager audience members, and given a choice of three challenges: write a palindrome that contains an x and a z; write a palindrome about someone who has been in the news in the past year; or write a palindrome about this competition.

They were given 75 minutes to craft up to three palindromes off-stage, as the audience was entertained with other wordplay. The winner was to be decided by audience vote. Each attendee had a little sign they could use to convey their approval or disapproval: It read “huh?” on one side and “wow!” on the other.

Saltveit, who is also a freelance writer, stand-up comedian and editor of the Palindromist magazine, was going up against the likes of cartoonist Jon Agee, who Saltveit describes as the only person to ever make money off this art. Agee was and is a formidable foe, a man who understands how to balance the ridiculous and sensical in just the right measure. He is the author of this book and its famed, eponymous palindrome:

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A great palindrome, in Saltveit’s estimation, is a little weird. It should be basically grammatical and follow some rules of natural language, but more important is telling a story or creating an absurd image in the reader’s head. Take this example, he says:

Enid and Edna dine.

“It’s a perfectly good palindrome. There’s nothing flawed with the English. It’s just boring,” he says. Now tweak it just a little bit, swap a verb and a name, and you’ve got this:

Dennis and Edna sinned.

That’s basically the same palindrome, he says, “but it’s a heck of a lot more interesting.” Much like this one:

Sit on a potato pan, Otis.

“There’s no such thing as a potato pan and nobody has ever told anybody to sit on a pan anyway. So the absurdity of it is its strength,” Saltveit explains. “You’re almost kind of showing off how far you had to jump to make this work, like you really had to push yourself to heroic bits of cleverness to pound your way through. And that’s the trade-off, versus being smooth. You can be too smooth.”

So when Saltveit sat down for his 75 minutes, he started with the already silly, vivid phrase trapeze part. Like other palindromists, he keeps his own “dictionary,” a collection of tens of thousands of mirror-image fragments that he encounters in daily life—reading every sign, advertisement and text message forwards and backwards. Sometimes, in fact, he so busy inverting letters that he neglects to read them forwards at all. It can become so distracting that he makes himself stop for a time.

When he emerged with the six other contestants, Saltveit revealed a palindrome that—in its charming, barely sensible senselessness—could not be beat:

Devil Kay fixes trapeze part; sex if yak lived.

The “wow!” signs sprung into the air. “The audience went for the dirty one, which is not surprising,” says Saltveit. “I threw in a y just to show off.”

Part of what Clemente’s documentary seeks to record is the training that Saltveit and other palindromists are already doing in advance of the 2017 championship, with about two years left on the clock. In Portland, Ore., Saltveit is already running himself through timed trials, asking his wife to throw him a topic—any topic—and seeing what he can come up with. (I asked him how she felt about this hobby of his. “I was completely open about my palindromy before the marriage.”) Unlike most palindromists, Saltveit also has a personal trainer who has crafted a regimen of progressive exercises designed to increase the blood flow to his brain.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who professes to love words not donating a few dollars to see what else these brains get up to—and whether Saltveit can defend his title. There is a rich history of palindromes to weave into the tapestry. Saltveit has traced their origins back to the Hellenistic era, when people stood in the shadow of the world’s first library and stumbled across these magical, symmetrical strings of letters that they believed must be the blessings of god and the curses of demons. As God tells Moses from the burning bush when a man dares to challenge his identity, in what is a word-unit palindrome in Hebrew: I am who I am.

“There’s so much more to explore and share,” says Clemente. To donate to the campaign, visit the Kickstarter page here.

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