Pen Ink – Teachers and Students and Pens

John Skoyles writes the column “Pen and Ink” and is a professor at Emerson College, a poet, and author of the memoir, Secret Frequencies: A New York Education. Find out more about John and his work at

A few years ago, I was reading a literary magazine, The American Poetry Review, that profiled my friend, Chris. The piece featured a photograph of his home office, which he said housed his collection of fountain pens. I hadn’t known of this interest on his part, and immediately sent him an email. He replied that he became hooked on the hobby under the influence of his college teacher, Philip Levine, a Pulitzer Prize winner and owner of hundreds of fountain pens that he frequently gave away.

Chris and I began exchanging emails on the subject and soon we were trading pens. I have on my desk an Omas 360 and a Pelikan M1000 I got from him. He said he traded pens with other students of Levine, and he named several writers I knew. He had also presented his own students with pens. Some were immediately taken with the gift; others indifferent.

In the last class of my poetry workshops, I give a “final exam” called Iron Poet Boston, based on the Iron Chef TV show. I provide the students lists of adjectives, verbs, nouns and adverbs—their “ingredients.” They must use a certain number from each column in a poem, and they have to include a “secret” ingredient, a phrase such as “cat mask” or “battle hymn”—so that those words will appear in every piece. When the poems are handed in, I read them aloud and the class votes on a winner, who is crowned with the title of Iron Poet Boston. With it comes a prize: a fountain pen.

The pen is usually a Lamy Safari, a great starter pen. They write as well as much more expensive pens and they are durable and easy to maintain. I throw in a Rhodia graph or dot pad or a Webnotebook, something they might not have seen before.

The response of the winners of the prize varies. Some are completely overwhelmed. After all, many hardly write by hand at all anymore. They type on laptops, iPads or text on smart phones.

A doctor recently told me that his secretary asked a thirteen year old patient to write his address on an envelope so she could mail him some information. When she handed him a pen, the kid looked up and said, “How do you address an envelope?” (These are members of the generation called “digital natives.” They grew up in a digital environment.)

When one of these students wins the pen, they look like I’ve given them a horse and buggy. (I know, they will ask, “What’s a buggy?”) It probably winds up in a desk drawer, but what can you do, that’s the way the nib bends.

On the other hand, some fall in love with the pen and pad. They realize, for the first time in their lives, that they can write in more colors than blue or black. They become familiar with the Bromfield Pen Shop, very close to our campus. When they see the bright array of Noodler’s, Herbin, Waterman, Lamy, and Sailor inks, they go nuts. (The Nut House is, by the way, the affectionate name for the website of fountain pen aficionados, The Fountain Pen Network.)

One Iron Poet Boston saved up his salary as a bike messenger to buy a Pelikan. Another had a sad story. I didn’t realize he was left-handed. He came to my office with a page of his writing and it looked as if a squeegee had been pushed across the page. Or like hieroglyphics in a wind storm. I have only realized lately that there are pens for left-handers.

Teacher to student, generation to generation, pens are passed down, some written with, some left in drawers, and some perhaps lost, then found by someone who uses it to write a letter, a poem, or address an envelope.


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