Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Colette, the writer and the fountain pen


One of the tastiest offerings in a delightful collection of hors d'oeuvre by Colette * is the French writer's love letter to her fountain pens.
   She notes that she has seven pens, one for each day of the week. "My seven pens stand at the ready, all different, in a little faience pot. They take turns, each one having its particular task and merits."

    A skinny pen, frail and very sharp, is reserved for correcting proofs.
    "Plump, yellow as a chick, robust, with black edges, not much personality" - this one is her work horse, "good for long hauls."
    For difficult projects, she turns to a fancy pen, decked in silver, a memento of an amour with a Brazilian. "It's as capricious as a barometer, but soft to the touch, curve-friendly".
    The oldest looks its age. "It's made of mottled, old black mahogany; but this pen is a marvel, one of those helpers that a writer may find only two or three times in an entire career. Stocky, but at the same time flexible, with a wide nib, but capable of delicate strokes and not blinding the letter e, I have only known one to rival it, and that pen died in the line of duty."


I am clumsy with fountain pens, and no longer use one regularly, which has saved me from ruining any number of shirts with ink stains, and much frustration with jammed nibs. When my fingers are not on a keyboard, I generally prefer to write with a pencil, which is grand when it comes to revising drafts of poems and encourages me to add drawings to my dream reports.
    Yet Colette has my mind going back to some of my own adventures with fountain pens.
    More than a decade ago, I went to a popular bakery and catering establishment in eastern Connecticut to pick up lunch for a workshop group I was leading. When I took out a fountain pen to sign the credit card slip for the sandwiches, the man waiting behind me in line leaned forward and said, "You're a writer."
    "How did you know?"
    "Only writers use fountain pens."
    I wasn't quite sure about that, but I let things flow.
    Now the man with the idea about fountain pens wanted to know my name.
    When I told him, he clutched his heart. "Robert Frost!" he exclaimed. "I'm going to die!"
    I gently observed that Robert Frost had done that already.


Recently I was given a magnificent new fountain pen that Romanian friends had had crafted and inscribed for me. I have been using it exclusively to write fair copies of new poems, including the one about the world tree that I posted here recently. One of the side benefits of using a fountain pen, I have learned, is that you may be mistaken for a great poet, even if only very briefly.


* Many thanks to SUNY Press for publishing Shipwrecked on a Traffic Island and Other Previously Untranslated Gems, translated by Zack Rogow and RenĂ©e Morel, in a lovely edition under its Excelsior imprint. Highly recommended.

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