Offbeat San Antonio Tricentennial project: Word Salsa
What is the sound of an original poem being generated? Try Word Salsa as part of San Antonio's Tricentennial celebration
By DEBORAH MARTIN
San Antonio Express-News
Thursday, November 1, 2018
SAN ANTONIO (AP) — What is the sound of an original poem being generated?
The San Antonio Express-News reports in the case of Word Salsa, it’s a mechanical whirring that evokes a garage door opening. A Tricentennial literary project, the tall, magenta kiosk is programmed to pluck words from 300 years of San Antonio poetry and create something new.
It’s the brainchild of Rick Stemm and Stevan Zivadinovic.
“We feel like it’s the perfect Tricentennial thing,” said Stemm, a playwright and game designer who wrangled the poetry side of the project. “It’s old and new, it’s historical/contemporary, it’s tech and it’s physical.”
Word Salsa has been roving the city the past few months. It debuted at the Tricentennial gala in May, where Mayor Ron Nirenberg and his wife, Erika Prosper Nirenberg, were the first to avail themselves.
It now can be found in the lobby of the Carver Community Cultural Center. It will be at Luminaria, the downtown arts festival, on Nov. 10, and will move to another site after that.
It has its very own website — wordsalsa.com — where fans can find out its current location.
To get a poem, you simply press the lime-green button on Word Salsa’s front panel, then wait a few seconds while it’s generated, emerging on a slim strip of paper like a receipt.
A robotic voice then reads the text aloud. A bell dings when it’s done.
“Sometimes, it’s just nonsense,” said Stemm, who teaches with Zivadinovic in the new media program at SAY Sí, a nonprofit arts program for middle and high school students. “And then sometimes, it’s really sublime: ‘Why do it, heavy boulders, Mexico-style, with the milk made pregnant but love me.‘”
Word Salsa so far has surpassed 1,400 poems, most of them in the seven-sentence range. They are titled by number. Word Salsa No. 1437 is on the shorter side. It reads, in its entirety: “If it all: when you took my soul by mecate tied with another state.”
The poems are generated by a computer program loaded with “130,000 words of San Antonio poetry that went into teaching this robot so it knows how to speak San Antonio,” said Zivadinovic, an artist and game designer who built the kiosk and programmed the computer.
That includes works of living and long-dead poets. Half of the works are in English and half are in Spanish.
Once the button is pushed, the computer program basically selects a word at random to start, then determines the next logical word to follow. It keeps going until the poem is complete.
“It’s a little random, a little rough,” Zivadinovic said.
One of Stemm’s favorites consists almost entirely of the names of San Antonio Spurs players.
“Because of the nature of the algorithm, whenever it accidentally got to the first name, the only choice was to rattle off the rest,” Zivadinovic said.
About 50,000 of the words in the program came from the poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye. She said yes right away when Stemm and Zivadinovic approached her about the project, handing over PDFs of all of her published work for them to use.
“I loved their enthusiasm for the possibilities in art,” Nye said. “It’s what many of us like to believe that art can be in our lives, a way to open boundaries between things and shake things up.”
As a thank you, Zivadinovic gave her a thick stack of new poems the algorithm had generated from words in her work. The pages remain on her desk months later, she said, and she finds herself drawn to them over and over.
“When I look at these pages, they’re words that I recognize that I have used in my life, but they have taken on completely new personalities, and so it’s something so innovative that I keep staring at it,” she said. “That’s why I haven’t put it in a file yet. I keep looking at it, thinking, maybe I should work with these lines. They would be new places to begin.”
Other poets who contributed to the project include Jenny Browne, Victoria Garcia-Zapata, Wendy Barker, Gregg Barrios, Jim LaVilla-Havelin, Carmen Tafolla and Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson.
After Luminaria, Word Salsa will keep moving from venue to venue through next May. After that, there’s no plan just yet.
“We may repurpose the parts, we may donate it to the library,” Stemm said. “We’re not sure.”
Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com