Patricia Sweeney loves contests. She loves them almost as much as she loves books, shelves of books, rows of inviting titles.
Now that a new game has come to the Tacoma Public Library system, she’s loving all of that, and summer, too.
Sweeney is a sucker for, and an adept at, Book Spine Poetry. In the Tacoma library version, players arrange book titles into poems, stack them and take a picture of the free verse they make. They can enter them for weekly prize drawings through Aug. 4 by emailing their photos, name and contact information to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The library, by virtue of sheer volume, is the ideal book spine poetry atelier. The ambiance is right, too. It is rife with fascinating people to inspire, and be photographed with, poems.
Story time, for example, could be the background for Sweeney’s eight-title composition:
“The Not-Just-Anybody Family
Archy and Mehitabel
Red and Rover
Beezus and Ramona
Vanessa and Virginia
Man, Woman and Child.”
Then there is the convenience. At the library, you don’t have to put away the books.
“You can leave them out,” said library spokesman David Domkoski. “We have pages who shelve books.”
They have pages who wrap books in plain brown paper, too, for Blind Date With a Book, which also runs through Aug. 4. Patrons check out a wrapped book – the blind introduction – take it home, then rate the date after they’ve spent time Between the Covers.
That last phrase, Shocked Reader, is the theme of the adult summer reading challenge, with fabulous prizes; it’s online at www.tacomapubliclibrary.org.
Not that Patricia Sweeney needs a contest (or a coupon for Narrows Plaza Bowl, one of those fabulous prizes) to read five books. The 73-year-old reads books out of heedless, sweeping love. She earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of California-Berkeley in 1967.
“I specialized in Victorian fiction. Victorian fiction tends to be lengthy,” said the Empress of Understatement.
It never occurred to her that people, most people, could resist the 500-page charms of George Meredith, Samuel Butler or William Makepeace Thackeray. Instead of teaching long books to impatient students, she married into academia. Harold E. Sweeney Jr. made his career as a political science professor.
“I was a Jill of many trades. A teacher, a writer, a professional editor, retail manager, nanny, secretary, etc.,” she said.
Where contests were concerned, she is an artist. She heard a theory once that life is water sloshing around, and art is the ice cube tray that gives it shape. “That’s why I like contests,” she said. “OK, these are the boundaries.”
She’s entered National Public Radio’s three-minute fiction and The Peanut Shack limerick competitions. She’s played the poetic emphasis of the newspaper puzzle Double Dactyls and admires John Updike’s way with sonnets applied to ordinary objects, especially bugs.
“He just made himself up a contest,” she said of the poems’ constraints. “He was the only contestant.”
On an Alaskan cruise, she took a photo of the ship’s pool and the glacier toward which they were steaming. “I saw a contest that wanted a photo that exemplified civilization, and I said ‘Aha! My swimming pool picture!’ I won a digital camera,” she said.
In the spring of 2011, the Sweeneys moved from Boise to Tacoma Lutheran Home to be close, but not too close, to their daughter in Seattle.
“I’m so impressed with Tacoma,” Sweeney said. “There’s a sense of its history, and that we’re all in this together.”
There was, when they first visited Tacoma Lutheran Home, a sense of destiny.
They stepped into the apartment where librarian Sally Craig lived until her death at 100. The hall was lined with bookshelves.
“We said, ‘We’ll take it!’ the rest of the unit yet unseen,” Sweeney said. “Because of the built-ins, we were able to dispose of three bookshelves before we moved from Boise. We also, to our regret, got rid of several hundred books, but before we left Pennsylvania in 2003, we had given away 4,500 books. How I wish I had some of those old titles to make more book-spine poems. But I did the best I could with our rump collection; political science adds piquancy to literature, religion, and children’s books.”
Harold Sweeney’s political science book titles teem with useful gerunds.
“Inventing Irish America
Housing the Urban Poor
Pilgrims in Their Own Land
A People Adrift
Reaching for Glory
A Little at a Time
All around them is the remembrance of Sally Craig, more gratitude than ghost, but still a presence, a book spine inspiration.
“An Empty House
Don’t Look Now
Is That You, Miss Blue?
Madam, Will You Talk?
Where Are the Children?
In the Company of Others
Weep No More, My Lady.”email@example.com