Word Salsa creates unique randomized poems at the push of a button with literary contributions from local poets.
At the push of a button, Word Salsa creates unique, randomized poems drawn from local poets' literary contributions. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Commissioned as a part of the City’s Tricentennial efforts, Word Salsa is a relatively simple robot that has been possessed by the muse, in a manner of speaking. Drawing from the works (in English and Spanish) of more than 30 San Antonio poets of diverse ages and backgrounds, the robot is programmed to offer up an original poem at the push of a button. 

Currently, the project is on view at Artpace through the end of April, a whimsical way to observe National Poetry Month. With no future installation slated at the moment, this may very well be the swan song for the artistic automaton.

A Word Salsa panel discussion is slated for 3 p.m. Saturday at Artpace. The event will feature the project’s creators and some of the contributing poets discussing poetry, participating in a Q&A, and reading from the robot’s ever-growing oeuvre.

The local poets whose works inform Word Salsa include Jenny Browne, Naomi Shihab Nye, Carmen Tafolla, Rose Catacalos, Wendy Barker, Gregg Barrios, Jacinto Jesus Cardona, and more.

Designed by Stevan Živadinovi?, director of SAY Sí’s New Media department, and Rick Stemm, a SAY Sí teaching artist, Word Salsa uses a rudimentary machine learning process to accomplish its task.

“On a certain level it’s gross, seeing what the robot makes of the thoughtful work of these poets,” Živadinovi? said, referring to the machine’s poetic output as producing work with a “techno-utopian sheen.”

“It doesn’t know what it is saying or what it has said or what it is going to say, it just uses the texts we have given it and the patterns and relationships it knows,” he added.

“If any theme emerges in [one of the robot’s] original works, it’s a total miracle.”

After hatching the idea and securing funding, the project team began soliciting work from the poets of San Antonio, Živadinovi? said. All told, they collected more than 130,000 words of poetry from the participating poets. Then they “fed the poetry to the robot” and taught it to analyze the text for basic patterns. Having mastered these patterns, the machine was ready to get creative.

Word Salsa creates unique randomized poems at the push of a button with literary contributions from established poets.
Word Salsa sometimes produces “something accidentally sublime,” one of its creators says. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The bard-bot made its debut last May at the Tricentennial Founder’s Day Gala, with Mayor Ron Nirenberg and wife Erika Prosper among the first to push its little green button and receive a poem printed on a receipt-like piece of paper.  Since then, Word Salsa has been hosted at nine places around town, including SAY Sí, Centro de Artes, the Southwest School of Art, Carver Cultural Center, and Luminaria (where it was quite in demand) before moving to Artpace.

Stemm said that “90 percent of what [the robot] produces is gibberish, but it’s gibberish created using the words of real San Antonio poets.”

“Sometimes,” he continued, “it actually produces, even if it’s just a line or two, something accidentally sublime.”

Texan poet, playwright, journalist, and critic Gregg Barrios, who contributed works in English and Spanish in an effort to make his contribution “germane to celebrating San Antonio’s own bilingual and cultural heritage,” referred to the idea of a robot poem generator as a bit “gimmicky.”

“But,” he followed up, “[it’s] also an entrée for the young writer to understand how language works in a poem.”

In Barrios’ estimation, therefore, there is value to Word Salsa as a teaching and exploratory novelty, even if a machine could never really be a poet because “poetry is personal, not random parroting.”

San Antonio poet Eddie Vega, also among the contributors, said he is “happy that [his] words are being made into poetry that people can take home with them.”

“I don’t know when else I’ll ever be able to collaborate and combine my words with the likes of some of the greatest poets in San Antonio,” he added.

“Yeah, it’s a little weird to have a computer be generating poetry (and maybe a little scary if you think about it — I mean poetry is about emotion, and emotion is one thing I definitely don’t want machines having).”

Vega is nevertheless heartened by the idea that “the interactive nature of the machine helps to bring poems to the masses of people who might not otherwise care to carry a poem with them.”

People visiting wordsalsa.com can explore some of the poems the robot has produced and even vote on the best among them, Živadinovi? and Stemm noted.

Živadinovi?, in particular, is hopeful that folks will take the time to vote, thus helping the Word Salsa team compile a sort of “best of” collection. After all, with so much input and the random nature of the machine’s use of material, the number of poems Word Salsa can produce is endless.

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James Courtney

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.