Week One

by Ayo Khensu-Ra

Well this is embarrassing. I scheduled this post for tonight without actually writing the post and thus it went up without there being much any text. Why is it a post for last Friday when it’s clearly Tuesday? Long story but in mostly unrelated news last night was the first night of class for English 14, the class that produces Forum. It was all very familiar and also different in some unexpected ways. As is typical for just about any class, we went over the syllabus, discussed what would we would be doing in class and we took part in an introductory exercise. That was all expected but on the other hand, there were a number of Fourmites who, like me, were back for another round. On some level I’d thought it would be nice to see some familiar faces but I had no  idea I would be as happy as I was to see my “old” classmates (it’s not like it has been that long since we’ve been classmates) and our faculty advisors Jen Sullivan Brych and John Isles.

There were also new people and it was nice meeting them. There are issues however — in such tight budgetary times, there’s little leeway for classes without sufficient enrollment and unfortunately that may be English 14. So if you’re a City College student and have any interest in publishing, in assembling a literary magazine or if you’re a former Forum staffer ready to come back into the fold, we could really use you. Class meets Mondays at 5:30 in ARTX 265.

And as the ‘Week One’ at the top of the page might indicate, this is the first in what I hope will be a regular feature here on Boeotia —  a weekly chronicle of the goings on in class, a look behind the scenes…that is assuming there’s a class to write about. Sorry, I’m ending on a bit of a downer.

Aubrey, Maturin and HMS Surprise

HMS Surprise is the third in Patrick O’Brian’s popular and well regarded series of Aubrey/Maturin novels. The series is centered around the lives of  Royal Navy captain Jack Aubrey and his close friend naval surgeon and intelligence operative Dr. Stephen Maturin during the Napoleonic War era. HMS Surprise was the first book in the series I had read and I found the opening a little jarring. It wasn’t that it wasn’t well written it was more a matter of its style. O’Brian was well known for his attention to period detail and period language. This attention to language extends to the the way in which the books are written and in fact, the narrator’s voice is strongly reminiscent of that time; there is something decidedly old-fashioned about O’Brian’s prose. Also jarring was the rather domestic bent of the early chapters. The novel opens with a somewhat technical meeting of elements of the British Admiralty and goes on to relate Aubrey’s efforts to get out of debt and marry his sweetheart as well as Maturin’s thoughts about the woman he is in love with.

As I said, that early part of the book was well written but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, far less action-oriented. Nonetheless I continued. The tone changes somewhat when Aubrey takes command of a sailing frigate — the eponymous HMS Surprise. At this point the narrative becomes immersed in the compressed world of a ship at sea. Aubrey has orders to transport a British envoy to Asia and the voyage that results that is at the heart of the book. It is a long and sometimes difficult trip, one that O’Brian uses to touch on any number of aspects of early 19th Century life — O’Brian’s extreme erudition concerning his subject matter  is clear and his portrayal of that time is completely convincing. HMS Surprise isn’t just a naval or adventure novel but something far more expansive…it is a book that takes in a whole world, a stunning array of places and topics — from rigging and naval gunnery to sloths to life in the streets of Bombay to overland trade between Europe and Asia.

The reader of course sees much of this through the eyes of Aubrey and Maturin and the characters are very well drawn. Characterization runs through the narrative, in subtle and more obvious ways. By the latter part of the book, I felt as if I knew them as I had begun to know the world they lived in. Something which is reflected in the novel when Aubrey talks to the hands just before they engage the French. He addresses them like old friends and by this time, they are, having been together for thousands of miles. In a similar way, I felt as if I’d come to know those characters having experienced that same journey through the page.

Above all, the book was beautifully written. The language is often poetic and beyond the fine details, it is O’Brian’s sublime prose that brings the world of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin alive. From a simple description of a street at night:

“nothing but a row of doorways stretching on for ever under the moon, quite unearthly, strange, inhuman, deserted, and inimical.”

To how routine on Surprise:

“obliterated both the beginning of the voyage and its end, it obliterated even time, so that it seemed normal to all hands that they should travel endlessly over this infinite and wholly empty sea, watching the sun diminish and the moon increase.”

Some critics have likened O’Brian to a Homer of the sea and while such a statement may seem outlandish, O’Brian’s descriptions of the battle between Surprise and French ship-of-the-line Marengo would be at right at  home in the Iliad. One scene describes in perfect clarity the moment before Marengo fires on Surprise, contrasting that last instant of normalcy with what happens after:

“The crash of the broadside, and of the bow-gun, and of the twenty shot hitting her, come in one breath — an extreme violence of noise. He saw the wheel disintegrate…and forward there was screaming.”

There is great energy to O’Brian’s prose and it conveys action especially well, putting across the hurry, the confusion, of the battle:

“The third broadside merged into the fourth: the firing was continuous now, and Stourton and the midshipmen ran up and down the line, pointing, heaving, translating their captain’s hoarse barks into directed fire — a tempest of chain.”

And when Surprise shows her teeth against the Marengo it’s hard not to get caught up in the elation of the men:

“…but at this range not a shot flew wide. The powder-boys ran, the cartridges came up in a racing stream, the gun-crews cheered like maniacs, stripped to the waist, pouring with sweat, taking their sweet revenge…”

Ultimately I found HMS Surprise an excellent introduction to the Aubrey/Maturin series. There ware references to the two previous novels but they were adequately explained and don’t get in the way of narrative. Then novel is a rich mix of historical color, nautical detail, and clear, interesting characterization. By the time I reached the final page, the unease I felt at the beginning of the book was long forgotten — a fantastic read.

by Ayo Khensu-Ra

Several Questions With Survival Guide’s Emily Whitehurst

by Ayo Khensu-Ra | 

And now somewhat of a departure for Forum and Boeotia. We have had live music at Forum events in the past but of course music isn’t our main focus. Still, music is a vital part of the arts and thus we present an interview with local musician Emily Whitehurst. Whitehurst was the lead singer of punk act Tsunami Bomb for many years. More recently she has been the lead vocalist of the band The Action Design and even more recently, she and Action Design guitarist Jaycen Mckissick started the two-piece known as Survival Guide. I interviewed her via email.

Ayo Khensu-Ra: I’m intrigued by the band bio on srvvlgd.com. It says in part that you started Survival Guide “with a plan to have no real plan” how does that tie into the whole ethos of the band?

Emily Whitehurst: Our “plan to have no real plan” refers to the music style. We feel like, in past bands and musical projects, we’ve had to stay within the confines of the genre. In Survival Guide, we want to be able to write music that we like, whether our songs have opposing musical styles or not.

AK: How different has it been being a two-piece compared to your previous projects, has that changed the process of writing songs?

EW: It’s extremely different! In other projects, we both tended to be less involved  in writing the bodies of songs. I usually would write vocals last, and Jaycen would sprinkle fancy guitars over whatever was already written. In this project, we are both involved from beginning to end, which makes each song so much more meaningful to both of us.

AK: Your songs are very dense sonically, is that something you and Jaycen consciously set out to do? How big a part does recording play in writing songs?

EW: We definitely do not set out to make sonically dense songs. We follow that ethos you asked about in the first question! However, for some songs, we do like to make them as full as they can be for a 2-piece band. Recording and writing are practically one and the same for us. We record everything as we go along, and for us it’s a great way to be able to listen back on what we’re doing to decide whether we like it or not.

AK: How easy or difficult has it been to translate songs to the stage?

EW: It’s been pretty easy, actually! When we’re writing, we keep the live show in the back of our minds. We don’t want to add too many layers of instruments that we won’t be able to play all at once live.

AK: You’ve already put out a 7 inch and have another coming out soon, why have you chosen that route as opposed to an EP or a full-length?

EW: Firstly, we both love vinyl! We’re so glad to already have 2 vinyl releases in the works — for us, the vinyl/download combo is ideal. We teamed up with Side With Us Records, and we had a few songs ready for Hot Lather Machine, so we decided to put songs out into the world as soon as we could instead of keeping them for a larger collection. We loved the way the first 7″ worked out, so we decided to do it again for Wildcat. Currently, we’re hoping to get enough material together for a full-length next… but we do love releasing new songs… so we’ll see!

AK: The download for Hot Lather Machine included a bonus track, and a digital booklet which included a couple of recipes. I thought that was a nice touch, how did that idea come about?

EW: We thought it would be nice to include lots of extra bonus stuff with the vinyl. We know not everyone uses a turntable, so we figured if we were going to force people to buy a medium they don’t use, we should at least compensate them for it in some way. You only get the bonus materials (song included) if you order a vinyl, so that makes the purchase extra special. The idea for the recipes in particular came about because our favorite thing besides music is food and cooking/baking! We decided to share recipes and thought some people might enjoy trying them out.

AK: Forum is a literary magazine so what do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, poets?

EW: I love reading different types of fiction — I usually try and switch it up between classic and contemporary. My favorite books are Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” series, and I also love Kurt Vonnegut, Amy Tan, Mark Twain, Isabel Allende… any authors who write about adventure, foreign lands, and impossible situations. (I’m generally not into murder mysteries, war stories, or “chick-lit” type books, but I like pretty much everything else!)

AK: What is it in particular about His Dark Materials that draws you to that series?

EW: I love how the subject matter is so grandiose. People tend to categorize it as a Young Adult series, and it IS entertaining, but I love the way Pullman writes about such taboo subjects — science vs. religion, physical existence of the soul, what happens after death — all through the eyes and journey of a young girl. To me, he’s very brave. I think it will always be my favorite.

AK: How do you write lyrics? As there any particular method you use? Do you write with an eye to verses and choruses or is that something you work out later?

EW: My method starts with free writing. I take a feeling and write as much about it as I can in one giant paragraph. Then I go back through it and pick out what sounds either the most poetic or the most important to my theme. From there, I start building verses and choruses.

AK: When it comes to writing lyrics, do you think you are influenced particularly by other songwriters? Are you influenced by other types of writing?

EW: Usually, each song is influenced (at least a little) by whatever I’m listening to at the time. I can’t say I have a particular lyricist that I always look to for guidance. My writing style isn’t usually influenced by other types of writing, but sometimes my content is! I’ve written a few songs that draw imagery or subject matter from books I’m reading.

AK: Do you do any other kind of creative writing?

EW: No, not at the moment, but my husband and I are going to attempt to write a short screenplay soon. Wish me luck!

AK: Good luck! can you tell us anything about it?

EW: It’s a post-apocalyptic monologue. Pretty depressing!

AK: Anything else you’d like to share?

EW: If anyone is interested in following us online, just search “srvvlgd”.  We figured there are a lot of different survival guides in the world, but so far there’s only one srvvlgd.  And please come see us at a show!  Thank you!

Xochiquetzal Candelaria Reads at Rosenberg Library

On the Tuesday following the aforementioned open mic, Xochiquetzal Candelaria, CCSF English professor and poet did a reading in Rosenberg Library as part of Latino Heritage Month. Ms. Candelaria read clearly and vigouously, filling the room without being overpowering. She read pieces from her book Empire as well as some newer poems. Her poems contained a lot of intricacies, blends of things, images, ideas, invocations of the past. In the Q&A that followed the her reading, she discussed various things like imagery as a “gift to the audience,” how her book received its title and how she came to be a poet. There was a Poetry for the People connection there as Ms. Candelaria took part in the late June Jordan’s version of Poetry for the People at Cal. While I’m probably not doing the event justice, it really was a very interesting, absorbing event.

A Poetry For The People Open Mic

by Ayo Khensu-Ra | 

Timeliness is important and frankly Boeotia hasn’t been quite as timely this past semester as might be desirable. There are plenty of literary events around City College and San Francisco each semester and though some time has passed, this post and the next chronicle a couple of those events in an effort to stay connected with what’s going on around CCSF and the larger literary community.

On Friday, Sept. 23rd the Poetry for the People Club held an open mic at the Reading Garden between Cloud Hall and the Science Building. Around noon I made my way from wherever I was, around Cloud Hall to the stairs that lead up the north side of the hill on which the two buildings. It was warm and sunny but I was anxious. Just why that was is hard to explain…for whatever reason I get that way before events, before seeing people, even people I know. The strangest part was I had felt much the same thing in almost the same place two years ago.

Not to repeat myself — I wrote about some of this in my first post of Fall 2011 — but I had creative writing poetry in Cloud Hall in 2009 and I’ve accumulated a lot of memories on campus since then — hanging out before and after class, attending a reading at the poetry garden, the my fellow students and I sitting on the grass, reading on the last day. Class was around that time and as I walked up, I was very much reminded of times before class and what was almost the same feeling of anxiety. Class itself — our discussions, the reading and writing of poetry — was almost always great but the minutes before were often more nerve-wracking.

Folding chairs were arrayed between the flagpole and the trees. There was indeed a microphone along with a pair of speakers, the chairs were filled. I sat across the plaza on one of the cement benches in front of the Science Building, my mind still humming with those memories. The event was just getting started and I listened, trying to juggle the present and the past. Antonio Mims and Fourm’s Kaylo X. emceed. Poetry for the People has a long history at City College and so it shouldn’t be surprising that several Forum staffers have also taken Poetry for the People including Katie Dalla the Poetry for the People Club president (who contributed to this post) and myself so you may hear a thing or two about Poetry for the People on this blog.

I sat jotting down notes, the voices reverberating through the speakers. Very gradually I was drawn out of my past, my anxiety into the stories, the thoughts, the words of those who were reading. The readers covered all sorts of subjects — social and political issues, the personal, love, death. The titles of some of the poems may give some sense of that range — Tatiana Lyulkin read a poem called “Black Pride,” Zhayra Palma read one called “Subways,” Kaylo read “Last Night Troy Davis Was Murdered” and “Move,” Gabrielle Wilson-Sealy read “Cop Watch” and “Open,” Miguel Navarro read “Don’t Go” and Katie read “Recipe for Disaster” and “We Met in a Dance.”

There were many others. The participants were lively, engaging and without pretension. As the name Poetry for the People might suggest, they were just ordinary people sharing thoughts and feelings, their own poems or poems that meant something to them. There was no distinction between audience and reading. Some were confident in front of the mic, some less so but it was clear they all had something to say and the poems they read reflected that. They were not dry or academic but reflective of inner states, of very human things and because of that often had the transcendent qualities of the best poetry. By the end of the open mic, I’d forgotten my anxiety in the experience of listening, in the conversation between reader and listener.

Photos courtesy of the Poetry for the People Club