Date: March 14, 2012
Byline: Kelly House
Portland's Mark Saltveit to battle for title of world's best palindromist
In the first battle of the world's palindrome masters, an Oregonian will compete for the title.
Local comedian, freelance writer and palindromist Mark Saltveit has spent weeks preparing for Friday's World Palindrome Championship in Brooklyn, N.Y., an event run in conjunction with the larger American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
World Palindrome Championship
What is a palindrome?
A word, number, or group of words that reads the same backward and forward, like this one Mark Saltveit penned for The Oregonian: I'm a lass. (Purr.) It's now, old nag, I beg. Am I sin? Ai! No, Geronimo. O, doom in Oregonian is image: big and low on stirrups, salami.
The championship: Friday in Brooklyn, N.Y. It won't be televised, but results will be posted at crosswordtournament.com and palindromist.org.
Oregon angle: Mark Saltveit isn't the only Oregonian at the championship. Portlander Matt Ginsberg's computer program that solves crossword puzzles — the best ever created, Will Shortz says — will be on display during the crossword puzzle tournament.
"I'm training furiously," he says. "You've got to be at the top of your game in every way."
Each day, Saltveit sits down at the dining room of his Northwest Portland home, a cup of coffee in his hand and a homemade palindrome dictionary by his side, and starts writing.
No, Geronimo! O, doom in Oregon!
Ai! Rot," said I — "Astoria!
Suburb? Beaverton's snot, Reva. Ebb! Rub us.
Palindromes can be as simple as "dad" or as complicated as entire novels written in palindromic form.
Saltveit admits this type of wordplay — words or groups of words that read the same backward and forward — is an unusual pastime for a grown man.
Children can go through a palindrome-writing phase after learning about the concept in school, but most abandon the fad far before adulthood.
So did Saltveit, after he and his brothers discovered their coveted dirty palindrome, eat poop tea, was imperfect (though close, eat and tea are not inverse).
"We were crushed," he says. But during a bout of insomnia in his late 20s, the now 50-year-old father of two rediscovered the pastime. He's written thousands since.
Degree? Beer, GED.
"It turns out, it's a lot easier as an adult than it was as a kid," he says.
Though the palindromist ranks are few, Saltveit is in good company. Oregon, it turns out, is home to the most respected names in the obscure world of palindrome penning.
A Sweet Home shingle-mill worker named Howard Bergerson published one of the most popular books about palindromes (and yes, there are multiple), "Palindromes and Anagrams," in 1973, gaining legendary status in the world of wordplay.
"He is considered one of the all-time great palindrome writers," says wordplay guru Will Shortz, editor of The New York Times crossword and host of the upcoming championships.
Oregon's palindromist ranks also include Monmouth physician Tim Van Ert, 58, who runs the website mockok.com, the world's most complete treasury of attributed palindromes.
And then there's Saltveit, who hosts free palindrome writing workshops for area schoolkids, regularly uses palindromes in his stand-up routine, and publishes the nation's only palindrome magazine, The Palindromist. He has 200 subscribers worldwide.
No panic — I nap on.
Even when considered on a global scale, the palindromist community is small.
palindroms2.JPGView full sizeMotoya Nakamura/ The OregonianMark Saltveit has been preparing for Fridayâ??s World Palindrome Championship for weeks, penning practice sets of the phrases that read the same backward and forward.
"If you had the (world championship) outside the crossword tournament, I don't know how many people would come," Shortz says.
But once they witness the palindromists at work, he says, people are endlessly fascinated by the craft.
"There's all sorts of wordplay that average people find esoteric and have no interest in," he says. "But there's something about palindromes and anagrams that strikes a chord with everyone. Maybe it's the perfection."
You've got to have a quirky brain to do it well, Saltveit says, though he, Shortz and Van Ert cannot put a finger on the specific qualities that make a good palindromist.
"My theory is that there are certain brains that are just wired for it," Van Ert says.
Rot! I art a traitor.
Bergerson, who died last year at age 87, is a good example. A classically trained opera singer, self-taught mathematician and true eccentric, he spent his adulthood stacking shingles for a living and sleeping under a leaky roof.
"He was definitely something of a renaissance man," says his daughter, Merlla McLaughlin, 48, of Woodinville, Wash. "He was very interesting, really intense and very passionate."
Were he alive today, Saltveit says, Bergerson probably would compete in the championship. Instead, Saltveit will face off against four others from around the globe, plus one winning audience member. An audience vote will decide the winner.
If he wins, Saltveit won't get much — top prize is $500 — but he is more interested in the opportunity to make history. No matter if his world championship title doesn't change his social status.
"It's somewhat of a small community," he says, smirking.