Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Year of My Desk

When I was quite young I coveted my older brother's desk.  Partly, I'm sure, it was because he had one and I didn't.  But I was an industrious child, constantly building something, and I recognized, while I couldn't read or write, that the desk was a very personal place of industry: a private shrine to self-generated creation. When I saw my brother working with pen or pencil to a notebook at his desk, I knew that something was being built, something significantly more enduring than the block towers that were made with the knowledge that they would soon be knocked down, and more secretive than the bright Lego buildings that I displayed in my room.

 My first desk was made of particle board and a gray laminate.  It had two drawers, was extremely heavy, and I used it with pride.  In college and then in graduate school I also had particle board and laminate desks, which were sturdy, but never satisfying.  My brother (and Dad) worked at heavy hardwood tables.  The pattern of the wood grain felt more honest.  The surface of my Dad's, a mid-century-modern behemoth weighing roughly a ton, was flawless and smooth, while my brother's, which I liked more, was deeply grained, stained, scratched, stamped, and hand-engraved by sharp pen nibs.  It had the patina of use and it was fascinating as an artifact: a nearly decipherable Rosetta stone to my brother's homework, creativity, and mind. 

When I moved to Boston in 2009, for over a year I had no desk.  When I felt the need, I worked sitting on an ottoman at a barely-held-together and abandoned coffee table which I had rescued from
a dark and musty portion of the basement.  It was perfect, because it was free, but otherwise I hated it.  I went with my housemates to IKEA a couple times over that year, but I was only interested in one kind of desk: wood, and most of what I found at IKEA was the same laminate I grew up with.  I wandered Crate & Barrel and Pompanoosic Mills, staring longingly at the desks of exotic tropical woods and battered reclaimed materials, like the one made from the wood of telephone poles .  The following year, when I had a little more money, I at last bought a cheap, but serviceable and honest hardwood desk from the Mill Store(s).

At Staples, I bought an assortment of desk-organizers, and for a while managed it in a Spartan fashion, carefully cleaning it and maintaining a clear plane of wood.  But inevitably, as a flat surface in my room, it became a landing pad for all manner of things. Even when the rest of my room is clean and clear, whether the mark of a genius, madman, or just a mix of business and laziness, my desk always has some degree of clutter signifying some of the things going on in my life.  I began taking pictures with my camera (which since my first decent smartphone-with-camera gets little use and usually sits on my desk), as it occurred to me and without cleaning or alteration, at the rate of roughly one every month.

I'm writing now from my brother's desk, which since my Mom took over his room as an office a couple years ago, has been in my room.  Now it's the home to an assortment of whale-bone and stone Inuit sculptures popular in Canada and when my parents were married in 1970, the family menorah (a piece by Ken Pick), and as long as I'm in Amherst, a few of my things (the book is an omnibus of the last two of the Long Price Quartet, which I highly recommend).   When I get back to Boston, I'll take the year's final picture of my desk.  I still long for a fancier desk, and I'm torn between it's current flawless au naturel state and lack of finish, and something more warm and worn, but it's still a biography of my life, from the times when it, and in fact my mind, were in too much turmoil to build and be industrious, to those days when its chaotic curation seemed the perfect setting to start a poem or finish an essay.

My final desk shot of the year will have to wait till I get back to Boston, but here, at nearly the very end of the year, are some shots of my desk and work area over the course of 2012, as well as my brother's desk (or is it mine now?). . .

one of my favorite sections of my brother's desk; you can't fake these stains.

Monday, December 3, 2012

November and Beyond

Well, November was a busy month.

I left my job as the Lead Writing Specialist for Foundation Year at Northeastern University, and started as Tutor Coordinator for the College of Professional Studies.  I'm sad to leave my students in FY, but excited at the opportunity to help hundreds more in an administrative role.

I also went to Poland with my family for Thanksgiving.  We ate a large number of perogies, wandered the streets of the Kazimierz District, had some very moving outings to Holocaust related sites such as Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Oskar Schindler factory, and visited many synagogues, such as the Tempel Synagogue in Krakow pictured here.

The month was so busy that I never got around to posting anything, and aside from that personal update, I also had a piece publish by The Destroyer, which deals in Post-apocalyptic Paper-mache.  It begins

Every hungry, you stumble upon the ruins of a paper factory ...

Here's hoping that you never look at candy buttons quite the same way again.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Whole Binders Full of Women

Inspired by Mitt Romney
For more of this ilk visit: Binders Full of Women

Friday, October 5, 2012

Bloom's Taxonomy of Art

Several weeks ago, for online professional development, I was required to create a Syllabus based on the Course Plan I developed around the 4 Cornerstones of Curriculum (methodology, outcomes, assessment, evaluation) and Bloom's Taxonomy. I decided to abandon my original, gleeful plan to develop a "Poetry for Professionals" course for a variety reasons. . .

First, I couldn't decide whether I wanted it to be an English course, a Creative Writing course, or some hybrid creature.  My sense is that it would have been relatively easy to develop as an English course, but as a creative writing course (what I was leaning toward) I think I may have run into some difficulty with the 4 cornerstones.  Particularly in the writing of *poetry*, the determination of outcomes, as well as the method of evaluation seem like thorny subjects.

I've been familiar with Bloom's Taxonomy since high school, when I completed my Senior Project on "The Perfect Public High School," but once I became, in college, a "Creative Writing Major," I stopped thinking about its ramifications.  I wonder, if on close inspection, Bloom's Taxonomy collapses in on itself when used to discuss poetry. 

In a good poem many different cognitive levels overlap, making outcomes difficult to determine.  Additionally, Evaluation seems like a near impossible task, except on a personal and highly subjective level.  Louise Gluck is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, but I've never liked her work.  I love Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons, but by compositional standards the "essay" or "prose poem" (the jury is still out on which it is) "Roast Beef" would very likely fail (I can imagine a letter of analysis for any section of Tender Buttons could be its own Creative Nonfiction writing exercise). 

What do you think? Can Bloom's Taxonomy be applied to fine art? What about a Jackson Pollack mural?  Are the 4 Cornerstones of Curriculum applicable to a Creative Writing Course?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Three prose poems in [a] Ditch

This week, a Canadian literary journal online, Ditch, the poetry that matters, published three of my pieces.

I'm particularly excited to have them come out this week, because the first two, "Flutters" and "Midnight of the Caramel Eaters," are late-summer to autumn to winter pieces (albeit in somewhat reversed order).  They will help you bridge the gap from the recently departed summer, through to the inevitably of winter. 

The last piece, "Sprout," is something different.  I suppose one could call it a "spring" poem, because it ends with the possibility of growth, but it's open-ended as to whether this is the sort of growth you'd want. 

Take a gander at them here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Literary Death Match, Boston Ep 9

Tonight, and tonight only, I will be reading with a star-studded cast of literary luminaries at Club Oberon for the 9th Literary Death Match, Boston edition.

Tickets are $12 in advance or $15 at the door.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Names, Words, Success, and Acronyms

            In an apocryphal anecdote, Cole Porter's mother added a singular "A" to Cole Porter's name because she had heard that people whose name spelled a word were more successful in life.  If there is indeed that much power in the initials of a name we may be left to wonder how much intentional or coincidental gematriya was employed in the selection of the center initial.  If we assume that Ms. Porter was set on both the name "Cole" and wanted her son to have only three initials then she would only have had two options, "A" and "U."  By going with "A" she chose the first letter of the alphabet, perhaps indicating that she wanted her son to be "first" in whatever he did.  But she also chose a far more common letter and ladled her son with a seemingly symbolically unremarkable name. 

            By the same standards my own name dooms me to insignificance, but perhaps not as extreme as my parents LMF, NPF, or my brother, DJF.  My brother currently has nearly 18000 followers on twitter.  Imagine how many he could have if my parents had the foresight to make sure his middle name started with “a” (daf: a Persian drum resembling a tambourine, but without the cymbals).  My Uncle Steve, accepted as a success within my family and the statistician community, has the only set of initials with a readily pronounceable unit; SEF. 

A cursory check of Forbes’ top 100 most wealthy people for 2012 indicates that not a single one of those billionaires has a name which spells a word.  Of course there are many other indicators of success which are measured in more elusive individual ways.  For instance, I was unable to find a list of the top 100 happiest people in the world, or the most satisfied.  No certain conclusions can be drawn from this list.  The survey of the forbes list indicates that whether your name represents an esteemed acronym, common word, or even, a clean slate, success is still a possibility.  Clearly there are possibilities for further research.

Choice acronyms for each of my family members presented in alphabetical order, followed by the total number of acronyms (as listed on

DJF - Daniel James Fienberg

Divorced Jewish Female
Djibouti Franc (ISO currency code)

Total: 2

LMF - Lorne Michael Fienberg

Lacking Moral Fiber
Library Management Facility
Light Manufacturing Facility
Logical Mainframe
Lutheran Ministries of Florida

Total: 15

NPF - Nona Paula Fienberg

National Park Foundation
National Peanut Festival
Nigerian Police Force
No Problem Found
Nuclear Power Facility

Total: 24

OJF - Ori Joseph Fienberg

Online Job Facility
Order of Sir John Franklin

Total: 3

Monday, July 30, 2012

Declaration of Independence: On reading and the rights of children

When I was in preschool, while I was still having trouble expressing myself with words, I daydreamed constantly.  I sat out during our recess and watched the girls on the swing-set.  I didn’t know how to swing.  I didn’t know how to ask and no one had thought to teach me yet.  Already I was starting to see gender divides.  Every day, boys wrestled, and hit each other with sticks, and put strange things into their mouths until someone with authority noticed and stopped them.  On the other hand, the girls made immediately for the swings, as though drawn by some inner-magnetism.  They got on the swings and didn’t stop until someone blew the whistle to end recess.  This hidden knowledge frustrated and also exhilarated me.   I would just stare as the enlightened few went up and down, smiling and giggling in the air, never realizing their power, and I would imagine them changing in midair to birds and flying away.  This is the first time I can remember desiring knowledge: till I had seen girls in flight, I’d never considered how my lack of knowledge kept me bound to the ground.  I learned to ask questions, and did, constantly, about everything.

Around four years old, I had a favorite game I’d play with my mother.  I combined letters and then asked her if they were words.  This could keep me preoccupied for ages. Most of the time it was pretty easy for her; I hadn’t quite figured out the important difference between vowels and consonants and how to connect the two for phonemes, let alone words.  I kept her on her guard though: every now and then I’d memorize the spelling of one word.  We’d start as usual: I’d reel off several strings of letters.  Every now and then I’d toss out one of the words I knew, almost exclusively of the three-letter variety, then I would lull her into complacency with one barrage of useless letters after another.  Finally, I’d say “What about E-S-T-U-A-R-Y… Is that a word?” smiling to myself, knowing full well the answer (while having no idea what the word meant).  I didn’t do it too often, and invariably my mother would stop in her tracks and turn to me.  Cunning little plagiarist that I was, I only cited a source once.  When my mom learned that I had seen it on a book, she smiled, explained the word and that was the end. . .  but when I acted as though I had stumbled upon it, catching a word flying through the air, she treated the it as a talisman, and me as a wunderkind.  Already I had begun to learn that words and books held tremendous, secret power, but it was another struggle, much like learning to speak, to unlock it. 

Reading was very difficult for me.  I knew the letters, but I didn't see them as tools or friends.  They were confusing and contradictory.  The school was using an unofficial version of Hooked on Phonics that focused not on the phonemes, but on the teachers constantly repeating one phrase, "Sound it out.  Just sound it out!" The sounds didn't make sense to me.  There were so many rules I thought the teachers were making them up.  For instance, I couldn't figure out why "bread" was pronounced "bred" and not "breed" when "reading" was pronounced "reeding".  On top of that, I had a small speech impediment: I couldn't say "S"s at the beginning of sentences.  I used to lie in my bed at night and repeat "squirrels have tails, girls have curls, squirrels have tails, girls have curls."  I knew, but getting the “s” on the “quirrel” was very hard. 

The school responded by putting me in the "slow class".  That was actually its name.  We had to wear huge, avocado-green headsets and listen as a proper, lightly-accented British woman read words to us while we looked at them simultaneously on the page.  Most of the time, I did the same thing all of my report cards said: I spaced out. I daydreamed.  I thought about what it would be like to have wings, or bounce when I fell off the jungle gym.  I worked with my parents on reading, but it was no fun, and in homeroom I looked at the mass of letters like an incomprehensible war on the page and said "I can't". If the teacher tried to prod me further, I started to cry.

This kept up until 2nd grade when I had Ms. Beck.  She wouldn't take "no" for an answer.  She acknowledged that it was hard, and that sometimes it didn't seem to make sense, but she told me that I wasn't allowed to say "I can't" or "I don't know" anymore.  She introduced me to "The Little Engine That Could" and I slowly learned to “sound out” words and recognize and remember the ones that couldn't be sounded out. My mantra became "I think I can, I think I can."  Sometimes I still couldn't, but there were fewer tears, and instead of a war, I saw the letters on the page as a mountain that I was chugging my way up.

I didn’t know it at the time, but “I think I can, I think I can” was my declaration of independence.  Once I could read, I took charge of answering my own questions.  All the time I’d previously spent daydreaming in class, I used to read.  I read in English.  I read in Math.  I read in Science.  During school I usually just read ahead in my class textbooks, but my favorite books were stories with lessons or hidden meanings that would give me something to worry at as I fell asleep.  I devoured folklore. I memorized a book of Aesop’s Fables.  Then D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.  And I retold the stories at sleepover camp, in front of the fire, and I realized that while ordinarily I was a shy child, desperate to please authority figures, when I told stories, I was in charge.  The story was mine to command, with everyone’s attention and even respect hanging on my every word.  I was the magician.  I controlled flight and I could free people from the bonds they couldn’t see.
These experiences indicate the importance of two articles in The Convention on the Rights of the Child.  First, article 14, which “respect[s] the right of the child to free thought,” and  second, article 28, which “recognize[s] the right of the child to education.”  These truths I took to be self-evident, along with one other right that served as the central braid connecting education and freedom in my story; however, The Convention on the Rights of the Child does not include it: independence.  Development of, and respect for, my independence as a learner, were the two most important rights granted to me as a child. 

The only time the word “independence” is even used in The Convention on the Rights of the Child is to refer to a nebulous and vaguely nefarious sounding “independent and impartial authority.”  The first things a child is taught are rules, and for most children, the most important rule is that adults are the “authority," and swiftly thereafter they learn that adults’ authority, for better or for worse, is in no way impartial.  Children are told to “do as I say, not as I do.”  They see one set of parents ignore their child’s behavior; meanwhile, they are chastised by their own parents for crimes they don’t fully understand.  Meanwhile, in school, teachers tell students to push themselves, but punish them with bad grades if they fail to do anything other than what the teacher feels is right.  Nearly every child will experience the aforementioned types of authoritarianism and unfortunately, in many cases it will be far worse.  Indeed, it is no mistake, but a sad indictment of prevailing attitudes towards children, that in the US, when a child wishes to conduct their own business, they must become “emancipated,” as though previously they were oppressed.  The small injustices children face at the hands of well-meaning authority figures is nothing compared to the abuse they can be subjected to as dependents of adults who care nothing for their rights.

One of the early propositions of the declaration is "that the child should be fully prepared to live an individual life in society," but a student who only learns what not to do and is dependent on authorities for all learning has little chance of living an individual life.  For this and the aforementioned reasons, failing to include a provision among the 54 articles the UN proposes for “the right of the child to independence” is either a distressing gap, or a call to children everywhere.  The rights that are given to you by authorities keep you at the mercy of authorities; however, the rights you declare, by educating yourself and exercising your freedom to express yourself become a part of you and cannot be taken without a fight.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Three Prose Poems in Paper Darts

It's been a busy month on the internet, but not so much on the blog.  Cartographie Curieux has had its first few maps posted, and one of my students even convinced me to sign up for Twitter (under the O.J. Confesses brand).  I don't feel I'm quite leveraging my Twitter account to be the internet sensation I've always known I could be, but it's a good thing I signed up, otherwise I'd probably still have no idea that Paper Darts published 3 of my prose poems on June 7th.

Paper Darts was one of the literary journals that genuinely impressed me at the 2012 AWP Conference in Chicago, and so I'm quite happy that they took my work.  They publish unique and provocative pieces reminiscent of what you might see in PANK, but with an eye toward graphic design.  Check out the graphic-lead for my poems:

Hot, right?  I might get this as a tattoo-- or maybe not, but it's still pretty cool.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Some Thoughts on Homophobia and Hip Hop

Recently, President Obama announced that he now supports the right of gay couples to marry. Many right-wing and conservative pundits are leaping to call President Obama a flip-flopper and claim that this is calculated move designed to pay lip-service to his liberal base.  While it may be true that the *timing* of this announcement was partly politically motivated, the president's presentation of his rationale, i.e. that he has changed his mind due to experiences he's had and things he's learned, rather than trying to claim that this is what he believed all-along, should be enough to indicate to people that this was a thoughtful informed reconsideration.

Shortly thereafter, Pitchfork posted a story proclaiming that Jay-Z, in response to President Obama's recent statement in support of the rights of consenting adults to marry, no matter what sex they may be, has come out (not that sort of coming out) in support of gay marriage too.  Rather than taking Obama's approach and explaining how and why his views have changed
Jay-Z proclaimed, "I've always thought it as something that was still, um, holding the country back."  It's great that Jay-Z is throwing in his support; however, his early lyrics clearly indicate either fear, hatred, or both of homosexuals. Certainly, while not as bad as Nas on this count, he didn't hesitate to use it as an insult in his lyrics.

While many rappers use the words "gay" and "fag" constantly on their tracks and some are clearly writing out of hate, I think a large part of it isn't because of homophobia or a particular misanthropy, but laziness, because those words easily fit into their rhymes/rhythm.  But even then it perpetuates the cycle of intolerance.  Meanwhile, other rappers attempts to distance themselves from the connotations of the words have failed.  In particular, Bun B, appearing on a Mac Miller mixtape (who's repertoire includes the lyrics, "I fill these dancing gays with some hand grenades"), rapped in reference to Shepard Fairey's announcement that he would no longer be producing his art on property without permission:

And what is a graffiti artist if he don't tag?
No homophobia, but he's a fag.

This may seem like a re-definition of "fag."  You may even be impressed that Bun B managed to incorporate a 5-syllable word into his lyrics.  However, the word is still fraught with meaning that he draw attention to, and, while the two often go hand-in-hand, just because he's not homophobic, or scared of homosexuals, the lyrics don't do much to convince that Bun B doesn't hate or feel disgust when he thinks of homosexuals.

Fortunately, there are more than a handful of rappers who are bucking the trend.  Two artists in particular, who I've been listening to lately (and who have toured together), have found a good alternative.

Big K.R.I.T. and Curren$y have never (that I’ve heard or can find) used "fag" or "gay" in their lyrics; instead they use "lame[s]". In using “lame[s]”, they’ve found a one syllable words that work just as well to convey their distaste with the people whose actions they disagree or aren’t impressed with, and they’ve done so without bringing sexual orientation into it.  I think this is a pretty savvy and thoughtful choice and I wish other rappers would consider a similar change in lexicon.