Five Questions: Colleen Rain & Neil Tennyson, SAL Volunteers
March 21, 2016
Rebecca Hoogs calls the extraordinary husband and wife duo, Colleen Rain and Neil Tennyson, “the wonder vols behind it all.” Dedicated SAL volunteers for the past several years, they’ve mastered the details, small and large, that help make our events memorable. Here, they share their behind-the-scenes involvement (from wine to auctioneering to book arches), what books are currently stacked on their shelves, and their time-traveling fantasies. . .
1. What are the many areas of volunteer work you do for SAL? What got you involved initially?
Colleen: Neil and I lived in a non-English speaking country for 15 years, and one of the first things I did when I got back to the USA was attend a SAL Presents event with Annie Leibovitz at Benaroya Hall. I loved the format, especially the intimacy of the Q&A portion of the program. That year, several of my favorite poets were on the schedule, and Neil was still overseas, so I splurged on a patron’s subscription.
At the poetry readings, I developed a bit of a crush on Associate Director Rebecca Hoogs—she was so poised, smart, and made the best introductions (and she has the best shoes!). Between her and the poets, I was completely hooked.
In 2013, when SAL made a change of venues from Benaroya, I was heartbroken, so I wrote to Rebecca as a subscriber, and she suggested I meet with her and SAL’s new director, Ruth Dickey, to talk about my concerns. They were so responsive and open—I knew it would be a great investment of my time and energy to support the vision of SAL and WITS.
Neil: At most SAL events, we staff the artist’s reception, pouring wine and tending the buffet. We have become more active each year and love working on and at Words Matter, from arranging flowers to spotting at the auction.
2. Tell us about the fabulous book arch you made for Words Matter! What was your process for creating it?
Neil: Colleen asked me one evening out of the blue, “Can we make a book arch?” I had no idea what such a thing might be, despite the self-explanatory name, but answered yes. Much of my work-life entails inventing methods for making things, so this was no stretch. I imagined it as beads threaded on a string: books drilled with a hole, threaded on steel (construction rebar) and mounted to a solid base.
This year’s version is definitely a 2.0, with the steel reinforced at the base to minimize the distressing wobble of last year’s, and the arch cut in half. The beast is heavy and required four people last year to get it into position, so Colleen suggested cutting it into two halves, which not only made the threading easier but made the transport and assembly quite painless.
At home it was messy, however: drilling holes in books didn’t leave sawdust. It was more like a confetti bomb had exploded on our deck.
Colleen: You know, you really know nothing about books until you’ve spent a few afternoons drilling two-inch holes in them!
3. Is there a SAL event that’s been particularly memorable for you?
Neil: There have been so many great people, but seeing Chris Ware was a revelation and an inspiration for me, artistically. He is relentless in the fulfillment of his ideas, no matter how unhappy it might sometimes make him. Rebecca Solnit’s presentation was a brilliant piece of performance art and intelligentsia, and I always keep with me James McBride’s dictum that moral being involves doing what’s right when you have something to lose.
Colleen: Aside from practically hyperventilating my way through that first event featuring Annie Leibovitz, Anne Carson and Rebecca Solnit are cherished memories. Sherman Alexie was so hilarious the last time he was at Town Hall—his elephant poem, “Pachyderm,” was poignant as well. This year, it would have to be Anthony Doerr.
4. If you could visit any literary landmark in the world, where would you go?
Neil: I’d like to hunt out the remnants of Dickens’ London and Kafka’s Prague to try to imagine the streets and the life in them.
Colleen: All of the places I’d go involve time travel: Dublin, June 16, 1904. Stratford, November 1, 1611. The Yorkshire moors in the 1840’s. Heian, Japan in 990.
5. What are you reading? What’s on your nightstand right now?
Neil: Bernard Cooper’s My Avante Garde Education: A Memoir is waiting for me to pick it up.
Colleen: Proust and The Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf, Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley by Ann Pancake. The Darkening Trapeze by Larry Levis. The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All by C.D. Wright. I like to mix it up.
Thank you so much, Colleen and Neil! You’re amazing!