Ink and poetry: An interview with Tree Riesener

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Photo by Daniel Azarian

Tree Riesener came to our attention through her charming recent poem about J. Herbin ink. She is the author of three poetry collections, Inscapes, Angel Poison and Liminalog (each available for purchase on her website), and has published widely in literary magazines. Read more about Tree at her website and blog.

Tell us a bit about yourself ” where are you from, where do you live, and when did you start writing?

I live in Philadelphia, in a small village just outside the city, so I have the best of both worlds. I know some of my family lived here in the early 1800s and after a brief foray into Ohio, we returned.

I’ve been writing all my life. I have a copy of my first story, “The Tiny Party,” about a fairy named Flash who told her sister Tiny to arrange a birthday party for her. Tiny did so, and invited Jane, Mary, Sally and Bubble. There was a chocolate cake with white icing and pink candies. Flash collected birthday loot of flowers, ribbons and socks. At another time I will tell you about The Fairy Wedding, when Glisen got married and Bubble played the organ. These exciting tales are written in pencil on yellow tablet paper. No idea of Clairefontaine paper and Herbin inks then! As I grew up, I whipped off a poem for every event, some of which my mother saved for me. There was never any question in my mind that the main purpose of life was to write about it.

When and how did you get into fountain pens and ink? Do you have a favorite pen or ink, either generally or for specific purposes?

I got my first fountain pen, a Waterman which I still use, when I was in my early twenties, a gift from my husband. I’ve been passionate about inks for about five years but I’m a lifelong diarist and I’ve collected notebooks all my life. Recently I discovered the colony of those who love pens, inks, and notebooks on the internet, where I spend happy hours reading reviews of inks and comparing colors.

A favorite color, no. Not just one. I keep a dozen or so pens in an old moosehead cream jug beside my favorite chair, where I have my morning coffee and start writing. Poets sometimes speak about the duende, invisible spirits who bring us writing. I think they help me choose which pen and ink is right for the day or for a particular task. I tend to keep a special pen for each color, as much as I can. For example, I have Herbin Vert Olive in a vintage green marbleized Shaeffer with gold accents. I might put another green in that pen but never another color. I just realized — this sounds a trifle obsessive, doesn’t it? My blues go in a blue Cavalier Pilot, my favorite just now. I write very small so I like fine or very fine nibs and these Cavaliers are very smooth. Karen Doherty (your colleague, I know) just very graciously gave me some Rose Cyclamen, which I lovelovelove. I bought a special pen for it, a silvery-pink Cavalier.

Can you tell us a little more about Les Encres de Monsieur Herbin?

Les Encres de Monsieur Herbin is written in the ghazal poetry form. Ghazals are a form of poetry that began in Arabia about 1300 years ago. This form has spread all over the world and developed many variations. Each couplet is a little poem complete in itself. You gather a certain number of couplets together to make a ghazal. The classic explanation is that each couplet is like a jewel and strung together they make a necklace, the poem. Another characteristic of a ghazal is that the last word or phrase in the last line of each couplet is the same. This is called the radif. In a classic ghazal, a word or phrase just before this repeated word is a rhyming word. In Les Encres, for example, the radif, or repeated end phrase, is “these letters.” It’s always the same but is preceded each time by a variety of rhyme words, such as legalese, little ease, surcease, the breeze, occasional tease, caprice, seize.

I’ve published a chapbook of ghazals and I’m a frequent contributor to an online ghazal magazine called, surprise, The Ghazal Page. The editor is Gene Doty, a retired English professor and head of an English department. From time to time, he issues a “radif challenge” and we have to write poems using his suggestion. When he chose “color” as the unifying principle, the idea of writing about inks just leaped out. And there is no ink company in the world that has such evocative, charming, haunting names as J. Herbin. Writing poems to these names is an ongoing project.

The poems that I’ve read of yours seem to derive a lot of emotional impact from very tangible things (ink, feathers, sushi). Do you take inspiration from these objects as you encounter them, or does the idea occur some other way?

A good insight. I am very grounded in objects. This is related to ekphastic poetry, writing poems about another work of art, a special interest of mine. However, ekphrastic poetry, or writing about objects, has to go beyond the merely descriptive. The writing uses the object as a point of entry, in a very iconic way, to go through to another dimension, to write using the object as a starting point but go beyond physicality.

Do you have any particular writing routines ” a certain place, time of day, etc.?

Well, I try not to be precious. I don’t say, “I have to start at 4:32 this morning just as dawn is breaking and I must write in Bleu Pervenche ink. What? Out of Blue Pervenche? Well, that’s it. Can’t possibly write today.” To counteract this, sometimes I deliberately make myself write in less luxurious circumstances, such as on brown paper torn from a bag with a pencil. Smooth, dense brown paper, of course, and preferably a Blackwing pencil — pretty luxurious, actually, but now out of production, alas. A Ticonderoga 2 HB Soft is a usable alternative. The writing’s the thing, whether on a computer, with inks and wonderful paper or with anything that will make a semi-durable record. Once I was out without my pocket notebook and I wrote a poem on a dry leaf. Just keep writing, that’s all. Hope you find the other half of the poem, the reader! Thanks for the interview.

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