27 February 2011

Discovering My First Fountain Pen (Not Where I Expected It)

I had been under the impression that my first fountain pen was a black plastic Manuscript pen that I bought at Hobby Lobby around the holidays last year. (I purchased it in the hopes that it would somehow stave off my coveting of the Levenger Waterlilies True Writer. It didn’t work.) Then, a few weeks ago, I was rummaging in my little drawer-unit of office supplies (a wretched mess of old ballpoints, metallic gel pens that don’t not-work enough to allow myself to toss them, 3.5” disks, and shop bags from special stores). And I found a pen I’d forgotten I’d had: a blue-plastic-barreled fountain pen with silver accents. I remembered: one of my uncles (the same one who loaned me The Lord of the Rings trilogy for my first read through the series) had gotten me a fountain pen—one that used cartridges—for a birthday. It might have been my sixteenth, even, or it was a gift for high school graduation—I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember what the real occasion was.

Pen photographed on a bit of Japanese cloth given to me by a coworker

And I don’t really remember using the pen. Even without having the accurate memory, though, I can tell you  why I don’t remember using the pen: the cartridge. It likely only came with one or two cartridges, and I grew up in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania (an honest hour to anything  like a Staples). This was before I could have ordered anything on the internet, too. And so I would have saved those cartridges, hoarded them until the perfect moment. Then, when I used the first one, I would have thought that the line was too bold, too dark, too certain or too arrogant or too permanent. Too wide. Too something. At sixteen, or eighteen, or whatever, I remember using pencil nearly exclusively, and if I forayed into pen-usage, it was with black Bic stick pens, the kind that left gossamer strands of that viscous ink between letters that smudged, faintly iridescent and sticky. (Those metallic gel pens? I really only used them for drawing on myself and for the occasional whimsical note—on black paper—to friends or my boyfriend, now husband.)

Ink was too permanent. I wrote—poetry, fiction, papers—in pencil. (Still, I didn’t erase much. I’d strike through something in graphite instead of erasing it, oddly enough.) My preference was for the disposable mechanical pencils, though if I could have gotten my hands on a gross of the fat, dark blue Ticonderoga pencils we used in kindergarten, I’d have used only those forever. (In a drawer, in my parents’ house, there’s a two-inch pencil stub with my name—on a tiny slip of paper—still taped to its barrel.) I don’t know if they still make those pencils, but the leads were so smooth, so yielding. I don’t think I’d call them soft, not exactly, because I don’t have much memory of that lead smudging, but they wrote so easily.

And so I wrote in pencil. Either out of ease (little pressure required), out of uncertainty (so much less assertive-looking on the page), or out of habit (very little work was done in pen during my pre-college days—just the final copies of papers). In college, I lost track of my blue fountain pen. It was probably always with me, in that messy drawer of writing utensils, but it certainly wasn’t on my radar.

Fast-forward through three degrees. I still wrote a lot of things in pencil (particularly while grading), though I’d switched to writing my fiction exclusively with the black Bic stick pens. (I learned that pencil-on-looseleaf, carried around on a clipboard shoved in a backpack, leaves one with smudged and often difficult-to-read results.) I wish I’d noticed during my Ph.D. years that the Bics were probably contributing to my massive wrist/hand pain because they require a good bit of pressure to work well, but I didn’t. It wasn’t until my move to Wyoming that fountain pens really hit my radar, completely due to the aesthetics of the pen itself. (I’ve never much cared for a bold line while writing. Growing up, I envied those wispy sketch-lines that come out of taking certain art classes.)

I thought I could stave off the (expensive) urge for a Levenger pen by getting any pen with the “fountain” quality. It didn’t work. My black plastic Manuscript served its purpose, though it also was prone to covering my hands in black ink at any given moment, of getting me used to a bold line. I discovered I liked that. I don’t know if it had to do with having my first “real” job—a full-time position as an instructor; if it had to do with accepting my writing as a legitimate, worthy thing; or if it was simply time. (Having that “real” job also made it possible to even consider a pen that cost more than all of my office supply budget for a four-year graduate degree. And now I know that the Levenger brand pens are on the gentler end of the fountain pen expense scale, for the most part—but that’s another thought for another day.)

The rest, of course, is the current history: fountain pens have become one of my enthusiasms, though the symptoms are relatively minor by comparison to others’. But let me bring this all back to that blue-plastic-barreled pen.

It is, as I have discovered, the most basic model of the Parker Vector, probably from about 1997. The nib is petite, and the point is quite rounded.

Nib very shiny. It says Parker across the base of the nib.
I’m sure there are terms for these features, but I don’t know them. It is extraordinarily light in the hand because the blue plastic is quite thin. It uses cartridges (which I can now get at the local OfficeMax, though they only have black in stock). My current evil plan is to use up at least one cartridge and then refill it with more interesting ink until I have a good reason to order a converter for it. (I much prefer converters to cartridges. I can’t even tell you how much more.) I may even consider making it an eye-dropper pen, though I’ve not done that before.

Have an ink-haiku!
The line it makes is fairly smooth, somewhere around the Western fine that my Levenger True Writer produces. It is a little bit dry-writing, though it cooperates more easily the longer I write with it. It also seems to like the Levenger annotation pad (with a slight bit more tooth to it than the Rhodia) more than other paper options.
Paper is Bloc Rhodia, no. 16

At current, I will likely not use it very often—just to have something inked in black when I need it, as my other three everyday writers are always done up with something a bit more colorful—but I am glad to have it. This pen came to me because my uncle recognized, more than a decade ago, that I was someone who took writing seriously. My uncle Dennis has always done this; from him and his wife, I received writing and reading tools (bookmarks, particularly, and the refillable planner I used from freshman year of college until I graduated with my Ph.D., the year that finally killed it) that were both beautiful and functional. Things that were serious business. More importantly, these gifts said that he took what I did seriously, and that interest goes a long way in bolstering the confidence of a young writer and academically-minded person.

21 February 2011

Whirlwind of Writing: AWP Recap, Part 2

This is the post where I put together the oddments (and there is much that is gloriously odd about AWP).

Let's start with reunions. Now that I've moved 1,800 miles from anything that remotely resembled home for me, AWP events are very much reunions because the odds of bumping into anyone I know from all parts of life previous to August of 2009 out here in Wyoming are rather slim. As someone who has wanted to be a writer & an English teacher since the fifth grade, there are a lot of old friends and acquaintances that I stand to see at AWP. There are people from the poetry class at Susquehanna University when I was a high school student (and I have seen at least one person from that class at each AWP event I've been to since that semester in 1999). That one class (and freshman comp, also taken at SU, with the same professor) was incredibly instrumental to my development as a writer. It was with those classmates--including a very, very tall young man who wore an authentic Tom Baker Doctor Who scarf before I even knew what Doctor Who was--that I learned how to accept workshop criticism gracefully. How to do that is a difficult thing to learn, and I'm grateful to have had that opportunity when I was a young writer.

These classmates--from however brief a period, even when I was a high school student well aware of just how out of my depth I was in this class--are a reminder of all of the things that I learned from a really well-run writing classroom. That prepared me to go into my own B.A. program at Lycoming College. There are a lot of excellent people from that program with whom I am close friends, and seeing them becomes one of the major draws for the whole conference. 

And then there are the many writers who I've had the pleasure of hearing read, of meeting once or twice, who I don't know very well but whose presence I look forward to beyond simply enjoying their work. Seeing these many folks--once a year, once every other year, even longer in between--reminds me that distance is less material than I often think it is. There are so many ways to connect with the world, so many ways of knowing and interacting, of meeting new people, too. 

Having this reminder is an integral part negotiating these wide swathes of space that are part of the way our lives take us across the globe. The literary journals and artistic projects that arise from these connections, the way we gather threads from everywhere we've been and everywhere we're going. 

13 February 2011

Whirlwind of Writing: AWP Recap, Part 1

So. I've been away a bit, and that was due to AWP and the resultant plague that not only laid me low but also a few friends as well. I had minor thoughts of blogging AWP, but my internet access was spotty and carrying my netbook around meant less room for potential AWP treasures. I did exercise restraint, though--I came home with one book of poetry and two issues of the remarkable Tuesday: An Art Project. More on that in a future post! (But don't worry--my bookquisitions were limited by the size and weight of my carry-on luggage; I did take copious notes for books to order.)

Little bits of AWP will filter through as time passes. This blog is certainly not on the cutting edge of anything.

I want to talk about AWP and some of the senses today.

The Associated Writing Programs annual conference is a surfeit of excess, and I mean that in every one of the best ways. It might not be so for other writers and readers who come from one metropolitan area to another, but for those of us who have always lived in smaller cities and yea, even in true towns and on dirt roads in Pennsylvania, it's something of an overwhelming thrill.

The process begins with travel. For me, it involved two flights that luckily arrived in glorious due time (I felt a bit guilty because there were many, many folks who couldn't get out of places like Chicago last Wednesday). The airport is a strange melange of stimulation and dullness, hurrying and waiting. I waited to board my flight and watched a man with hair dyed in an amazingly perfect replication of leopard spots. I guessed at whose carry-ons were filled with books already. I spied on knitting projects peeking from purse-edges. I tried not to smell the greasy weight of McDonalds food, which I haven't eaten in years but which always smells somehow good when I'm in an airport and know for certain that it's a terrible idea for so many reasons. I averted my face from clouds of perfume and cologne. Airports are, for me, such a furtive place, but that's likely because I'm nosy and because everyone's going into a story in my head. To the gentleman sitting beside me on the Denver to DC flight, I hope you had good fortune at the job interview you were preparing for. I didn't say anything to you about it because I didn't want to admit watching you add notes on your laptop.

As I exited that flight, I resolved to be more social at AWP. It is a gathering. Those are meant to be social, or so I have heard.

The Metro--my first real experience with public transportation in the United States--is a sonic bombardment. The slushy noise of the tracks mixes with the unintelligible gravel of stop-announcements, the gentle chatter of frequent rail companions, the less-gentle summations of the most recent Wizards' game. One platform made a shrill scree from some cause I couldn't identify, and it might have actually been the most awful non-language sound I've ever heard.

The Walt Whitman quote that rings the escalators into and out of the Dupont Circle Metro station was a fantastic welcome. I'm not sure why, but it felt so congenial to leave such a strange bit of underground, ringed by Whitman.

There was food and a reunion, several reunions, with friends. More on that in another post.

I want to go back to sound: specifically, I want to go to one particular panel. This was Thursday morning, a panel titled after the Emma Goldman quote, "If I can't dance, you can keep your revolution." This panel featured five poets, five fantastic poets, four of whom were brand new to me.

Leading the panel was Sean Thomas Dougherty, whose work, since I saw him at Writing By Degrees at Binghamton University, way back in 2005 or something like that, has been a constant source of happiness for me--and for my students. Sean's work is revolutionary and rhythmic, and in the segment below (not from AWP, but from a BOA Editions event), Sean reads his poem "X" (begins around 3:35): 

Also participating on the panel were Crystal Williams, Silvana Straw, Roger Bonair-Agard, and Dora McQuaid. All of these writers were new to me. Straw's poems in the voice of her mother--in the voice of her mother's voicemail messages, in fact--crackled with humor and political bite, and I don't know when I laughed so hard and felt such energy for serious change at the same time. Roger Bonair-Agard's "The Black Penguin Speaks" might have been the most badass poem about a penguin that ever happened. And yes, it is totally possible to have a badass poem about a penguin. Williams brought Detroit to life with startling beauty, steady clarity and music, and Williams's work made me think on a dear friend of mine who lived in the Detroit area for a long time, how that woman used her pedagogy to find, to make beauty in difficult classrooms where students' discoveries of their own voices brought their own revelations. McQuaid's poems covered the ground many writers cover--love, loss, family--but with passionate freshness.

This panel illustrated what is, for me, the best part of AWP: discovery. I went to the panel to see Dougherty read because I know I love his work, and I wanted the chance to at least give a personal wave, to say hello. What I took from the panel was an appreciation for four more writers, a renewed sense of hope, and ears full of song.