Al Young title

SENSUAL TEXT at CCA, SF | California College of the Arts, San Francisco | Autumn 2010

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Image credits: jamesgoulding.com | Michelangelo/FreakingNews.com | nabuzz.com | theorlandobloomfiles.com | Leonardo daVinci | Creative Commons

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Carroll Weisel Hall, CCA, San Francisco

Page devoted to an exciting class from beginning to beginning.

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Click red link for details
5 pm | Friday, January 28
Project One, 251 Rhode Island Street, SF 94103
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Student Selections

(Posting of selections temporarily slowed due to technical and design considerations)

Burt Ritchie
WHAT HAVE WE DONE FOR US LATELY?

Originally written for Al Young’s Drive-By Love class (CCA Spring 2010), this hilarious short story of Burt Ritchie’s may now be enjoyed online at Ishmael Reed’s Konch Magazine

Kate Haskell
THE BREAKS

If you are going to walk through San Francisco’s Tenderloin by yourself, you are going to need to learn how to use tourists as human shields. When you are coming up to a street corner, where a sketchy ass man with a sketchy ass cup is haggling passersby, and you see a group of hapless strangers wearing brand new sweatshirts with “SAN FRANCISCO!” across the front, you need to seize this opportunity. You need to scootch around them quickly so they become a barrier between yourself and harassment. You might have to join their group for a moment, but don’t be afraid. They will be too overwhelmed by the whipping cold of July and their eyes will be darting around nervously, searching in vain for the source of trolley clanging in the distance. Trolley? Trolley? they ask each other stupidly. Where we find trolley? So they won’t notice you and won’t understand your intent, and if they do, it will be too late. But you’ve reserved this right because you, you have put in your time. You’ve been yelled at, spit at, chased down streets, and called a bevy of unpleasant slurs, among them cunt, cockshitmotherfucker and, of course, the always popular, bitch. You know how to navigate these streets, but the bus, the bus is a whole ‘nother ball game.

For example:

You are waiting for the 19 that just went from “Arriving” to “23 minutes.” You have already waited twenty. Your toe taps and you scan the horizon, winding and unwinding your headphone wires around pocketed fingers. You think, the system’s just wonky, it’s going to arrive, any second now, it’s going to turn the corner, but no such luck. It’s raining. It’s coming down storks and giraffes. Or cats and dogs. Or just like, really fucking hard. You are hungry and tired and thinking about the crackers at the bottom of your bag, how you forgot about them when you shoved your books in carelessly, how you dropped the bag hard on the concrete ground when you ran into your best friend on the street earlier. They are dust, you think, but this is what you do, you don’t take care of your crackers.

You are starving.

So the bus finally comes, and you are really happy, as you’ve been thinking about cracker dust turning to a heavenly mush in your mouth for the past twenty-two and a half minutes, but refuse to pull out that powdery ziploc in this rain, as that would most definitely ruin everything. The bus door opens and your shaky hand lurches forward, grabs tightly onto the rail. You can’t believe you just touched that, think you must be losing your mind, you need to eat, your guts are swirling around and the juices are saying, feed me in gurgling burping gasses that transmit the message more effectively than language ever could. You are making all these mistakes! Pay attention! You pay the fare and take your transfer and eye up the bus as fast as you can, like when you were five and played musical chairs, only then someone usually sat down on you and sometimes it would hurt, but most times you just never seemed to get a chair and watched everyone else play while you listened to the music from the sidelines, and really, you were okay with that because it was painless and stress-free. The 19 bus is like this as well, only the people smell much worse. One time a little French lady looked up from her romance novel and said to you in a thick Parisian accent, I zimply loooove zis city because zere’s no need to go to zee zee-uh-tuh, Just ride zee bus! You sounded out zee-uh-tuh in your mind because you thought it sounded funny, and you weren’t sure what she meant and then you realized she said, theatre and you wished you had a French accent, thought about adopting a fake one, decided that was super lame, and then said, yeah, totally.

On the bus now there’s no Parisian lady, but there is a man. A man with wild eyes that poke out at odd angles, bulging. Bloodshot. The eyes of crazy. He zeroes in on your face, and you quickly avert your eyes focusing on the variety of trash around you on the floor. You see a banana peel, and find yourself once again amazed by the number of banana peels you find on the streets of San Francisco and think, this must be where that gag started, and then you remember walking down an alley you don’t know the name of somewhere in SoMa and coming across a box of half rotten bananas just sitting in front of an abandoned warehouse and you were really happy, because someone chose not to throw those away. A half empty Nantucket Nectar bottle rolls back and forth in swaying rhythm with the bus, roll roll roll, chink! roll roll roll, chink! You think about the person who left that there, made the conscious choice to buy a Nantucket Nectar only to abandon it, half full on the 19 bus. But maybe the person was just really thirsty and that was the last drink the street vendor had left, you think. The cracker dust at the bottom of your bag calls out to you, eat me! Eat me! and you start to move your hand closer to fish them out, but the bus driver makes a sudden jerk to the right, then a jerk to the left and somehow in the process, the man with the scary, bulged out face thought you were waving to him.

You make eye contact and know that now, now you are really fucked. You whip your head left and right, checking to see if there is an unsuspecting tourist around. Nada. The man crazy-eye-balls you and you look away, because his pants, see, his pants are what you might call, “ass stained.” They were at one time a pale, heather gray, but the streets have turned them earthy, brown, patched with oily spots and well, yes, ass. Snot hangs off the end of his nose, he slurps it up, fails, and moves his hand from the silver bar, rubbing it all along his drippy, wet nose. Of course, this is the moment you look up, transfixed on the glistening mucous trail down his hand.

You grimace.

You can’t help it. You stood in the rain forty minutes waiting on the worst fucking bus known to man, near starvation and then just, just when you are about to experience the sweet relief of food, of not even food! Of cracker dust! He wipes gross snot all over? Your stomach churns. Your grimace turns scowl.

He takes this as a challenge.

Looks you dead in the eye as he slides his hand down into the depths of the ass-stained sweatpants and starts rubbing up and down his ass crack. He turns around so you can get a better look, so you can really be sure he really did it when you tell your friend about this later over shots of whiskey, and just when you think it can’t possibly get any worse, when the gurgling burp in your stomach screams, Out! Out! You’re going to barf! That, that is when he gives himself one last, deep slide up and out of his pants, a look of ecstasy lighting up his street worn face for a brief moment before screaming, AHHHHHHHHH! and then shouting at the top of his lungs, NINETY-NINE BOTTLES OF BEERS ON THE WALL! NINETY-NINE BOTTLES OF BEEEEEEEEERZ! over and over and over and over as he runs up and down the length of the bus, hands slipping and sliding and gliding across the smooth metal of the rails and before you think too much about the ass and the snot and the germs and disease on his hands and the rails that you’ve touched. That you touched! You touched them! In that moment before you realize this, you think to yourself that he’s a gymnast hoisting and flying through the air on parallel bars. But now, now the reality of the shit show before your eyes sets in, your throat is hurting, am I sick? Could he have gotten me sick that quick? What is the average flu’s incubation? Hands: shaking, stomach: twisted up and spazzing gurgles, and you need to eat: Must. Find. Food. Then it hits you, gets really bad, unbelievably bad. You see it. There. In your dark apartment. Sitting on your desk, next to a Roberto Bolano novel you’ve been reading for over a year, underneath the rent check you were supposed to drop off two days before. Yes, that is where you see it: your hand sanitizer.

So this, this is why when you are walking through the Tenderloin, alone, and you hear half German half English, and you see that crazy dude who tells you, you gots a fiiiiine ass on you, yes indeed, and eye rapes you before asking for his birthday kiss, chasing you down the street, don’t feel bad when you yell, Schau! Ein wagen! or, Look! A trolley! and make your great escape at the cost of an innocent tourist or two, because you see, them’s? Them’s the breaks.

Copyright © 2011 by Kate Haskell

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Fall 2010 September 8-December 15
WRITE-602-04 (510)

Sensual Text ~ Wednesdays 12:00 pm – 3:00 pm, Graduate Center Bldg 1 | Room GC2

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Al Young

alyoung@cca.edu
(Yes, now you can actually reach me at the above CCA email address). Or at:

therealalyoung@aol.com

www.alyoung.org | Website

CLASS EMAIL ADDRESSES:

Camacho, Lauren J.
lcamacho@cca.edu

Cherney, Max A.
mcherney@cca.edu

Grover, Martha J.
mgrover@cca.edu

Haskell, Katie B.
khaskell@cca.edu

Ishofsky, Daniel M.
dishofsky@cca.edu

Kadner, Kristen E.
kkadner@cca.edu

Leija, Luisa A.
lleija@cca.edu

Lohmann, Heather N.
hlohmann@cca.edu

Nichols, Alexandra
anichols@cca.edu

Ritchie, Robert B.
rritchie@cca.edu

Rodriguez-Laracuente, Vanelis D.
vrodriguez-laracuente@cca.edu

Thomas, Summer R.
sthomas@cca.edu

Von Ward, Jeff
jvonward@cca.edu

Whitcomb, Amelia M.
awhitcomb@cca.edu

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Assignments

“Every time I get a script it’s a matter of trying to know what I could do with it. I see colors, imagery. It has to have a smell. It’s like falling in love. You can’t give a reason why.”– Paul Newman

“Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution. Poignant longings for beauty, for an end to probing below the surface, for a redemption and celebration of the body of the world. Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it.” — Susan Sontag

“We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind — mass merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the instant translation of science and technology into popular imagery, the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods, the preempting of any free or original imaginative response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. For the writer in particular it is less and less necessary for him to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.” – Marshall McLuhan

“Surrealism had a great effect on me because then I realised that the imagery in my mind wasn’t insanity. Surrealism to me is reality.”  — John Lennon
Sensual Text

SEPTEMBER SYLLABUS  |  2010

Text: THE BOTANY OF DESIRE: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan | Random House Trade Paperback | ISBN 978-0-375-76039-6

Verde que te quiero verde.
Verde viento. Verdes ramas.
El barco sobre la mar
y el caballo en la montaña.

Green, how I want you green.
Green wind. Green branches.
The ship out on the sea
and the horse on the mountain.

– Féderico García Lorca
(“Romance sonámbulo”)

Student storytellers and poets will submit accounts of their offline encounters with live or recorded musical performances, formally exhibited or found art, places or scenes they’ve never before visited, and the worlds of food and drink. The uses of sense-focused writing are boundless. Emphasis will lean on learning to use sensual imagery to evoke pictures of ideas and emotions in the minds and imagination of readers. Sound, sight, touch, smell, taste, smell and motion — each will always be crucial to metaphor and simile, to say nothing of description, portrayal and characterization. Key to vivid writing of all kinds, the elements of hands-on experience, unblinking presence, and the power of detail loom large in this course in creativity.

September 8
First day of greetings, good intentions, bureaucratic chaos, and anecdotal introductions. Your first assignment: Write 2-3 pages (700-750 words) about a process with which you feel or are in fact familiar.

Email it to me and your classmates by Sunday night (September 12).

September 15
Start 0bserving and thinking about and noticing plants in general and a “single” plant in particular. Just before we break November 24, Thanksgiving Eve, you will complete an send out an assignment I’ve been thinking about all summer. I as inspired by Stephen Harrod Buhner’s THE LOST LANGUAGE OF PLANTS: The Ecological Importance of Plant Medicines to Life on Earth  |  (Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont).

“I have learned,” Buhner writes, “that an energy flow exists between people and plants. It can be looked upon like a yarn weaving us into the web of life, a direct connection that exists between people who know plants and their characters, and vice versa. Plants have people friends as people have plant friends. The flow is equally as strong from plants to people, yet more subtle. We humans live in a realm a thousand times faster than plants and rarely do we slow down enough to hear them speak.” [p. 265]

From my own gardening experience, I can verify the truth of this teacher-healer’s disclosure. It is from Buhner that I borrow the idea of having you hang out, as it were, with a plant – one that your yourself are cultivating, or one with whom you sense or feel a connection. Observe and pay attention, both. If you “talk with” your plant, be sure to “listen” as well. Take notes of course, but don’t overlook the two-way, dialectical process inherent in every living encounter, interaction and experience. Then, in 1000-1,500 words (roughly 5-7 double-spaced pages of text), report what’s been happening. Or going on, or taking place.

Assignment: In 2-3 pages, write a piece sparked by an overheard conversation or chance remark.  (Due: September 22)

September 22
In class we’ll continue reading your captivating responses to the Process assignment. But do read reflectively Michael Pollan’s introduction to The Botany of Desire (“The Human Bumblebee”) and the opening section (Desire: Sweetness / Plant: The Apple). Jot down your thoughts, distill, and know that someone sitting across or down the table from you will have reached an altogether different conclusion. Because Pollan’s text is part-essay, part-memoir, part-poem and part-fiction, it lends itself grandly to intellectual, poetic, spiritual, emotional, scientific analysis, and wild socio-political discussion. I expect our reactions to extend into next week’s session.

(Due today: Assignment based on a chance remark or overheard conversation)

September 29
Continuation of our class discussion of “The Human Bumblebee” and “Desire: Sweetness / Plant: The Apple” – and then we turn to your responses to Chance Remarks and Overheard Conversations. Start thinking about taste and gustatory stuff.
other things gustatory or tasty – or things altogether repugnant or downright nasty.

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Sensual Text
OCTOBER SYLLABUS
|  2010

Text: THE BOTANY OF DESIRE: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan | Random House Trade Paperback | ISBN 978-0-375-76039-6

HOT OCTOBER

On another October day when heat raged
in San Francisco and home-eating fires
attacked Southern California, you, in love again,
stepped out into the glory of another afternoon.
Clutched in the utterly solar caress
of this endless embrace, you saw yourself.
In everyone you greeted or benignly ignored
you saw the same unending birth of light
die on daylight savings time. You saw
the steps you’d have to take to move
from momentariness back into eternity.
You wandered into this dwindling October,
where you’ve dwelled for ages. Eternity
and maternity share more than earth-
churning cycles; both turn on the moment
just ended. Each spins on the moment just begun.
Never out of step, advancing Pied Piper style,
her slowing march on winter made a rat out of you.
Almost over now, October spread herself
across the landscape, cocksure of getting over.
As warming to the eye as to your touch, October,
moreover, no stranger to the flash and shimmer
of gold and burnt sienna, red and sunburst
green, October reminded. “Time may have
a stop,” she said, “but life does not. Life goes.”
And at her gung-ho go-away party, you hoisted
your glass: “To moist October, quencher of flame.”

– Al Young (from Coastal Nights and Inland Afternoons)

September 29

“Eighty percent of success is showing up.”– Woody Allen

Assignment for October 6: Show up at an art exhibit (an actual gallery, a museum or a show here on the CCA campus will do; a virtual museum crawl will not). In 2-3 pages, describe a particular work, its meaning to you, and the mood of the venue in which you experienced the object or installation. Deadline: Wednesday, October 6. But feel free to email your piece ahead of time to the rest of us.
— Michael Pollan (Epilogue to The Botany of Desire)

Continuation of our class discussion of “The Human Bumblebee” and “Desire: Sweetness / Plant: The Apple” – and then we turn to your responses to Chance Remarks and Overheard Conversations. Start thinking deeply about taste and gustatory stuff. While such thoughts seem to point automatically to food and comestibles, our sense of taste functions in countless other ways, and serves us incalculably. Old-fashioned Arctic peoples, for instance, distinguished kinds of snow by smell and taste. Consider taste, the word itself and all the English idioms wrapped and curled around it.

Consider the sociological/anthropological concerns with taste as set forth in the wiggly Wikipedia: “While taste is often understood as a biological concept, it can also be reasonably studied as a social or cultural phenomenon. Taste is about drawing distinctions between things such as styles, manners, consumer goods and works of art. Social inquiry of taste is about the human ability to judge what is beautiful, good and proper.”

Start reading Chapter Two of The Botany of Desire | Desire: Beauty, Plant: The Tulip

As writers you can never give enough thought to metaphor and symbolism.

October 6
Art Exhibit pieces are officially due today. Of course we will begin sharing some of them aloud in class.

“Our brains developed under the pressure of natural selection to make us good foragers, which is how humans have spent 99 percent of their time on Earth. The presence of flowers, as even I understood as a boy, is a reliable predictor of future food.”
— The Botany of Desire, p.68

“Natural selection has designed flowers to communicate with other species, deploying and astonishing array of devices – visual, olfactory, and tactile – to get the attention of specific insects and birds and even certain mammals. In order to achieve their objectives, many flowers rely not just on simple chemical signals but on signs, sometimes even on a kind of symbolism. Some plant species go so far as to impersonate other creatures or things in order to secure pollination or, in the case of carnivorous plants, a meal. To entice flies into its inner sanctum (there to be digested by waiting enzymes), the pitcher plant has developed a weirdly striated maroon-and-white flower that is not at all attractive unless you happen to be attracted to decaying meat. (The flower’s rancid scent reinforces this effect.)”
— The Botany of Desire, p. 69

So, even though today’s discussion may dwell on slippery concepts of floral beauty and “mass-produced eye candy,” it is quite thoroughly permissible to let your thoughts stray toward food in general and so-called soul food in particular. By soul food, I don’t mean fetishistic and commercialized southern African American cuisine (grits, fried okra, gumbo, fried green tomatoes, black-eyed peas, cornbread, collards greens, ham-hocks, chitlins, barbecued ribs). Focus, rather, on what we sometimes now call “comfort food,” a particular dish or meal that soothes or placates; food that you associate with family, with ethnic or cultural identity, or any other kind of deeply-rooted, emotional experience.

Assignment for October 13: Explore in 2-3 pages a “soul food” or cuisine that you regard as special or crucial. As Vanelis has written so mouth-wateringly of the humble plantain, so you may rhapsodize or merely describe – from a cook’s, a diner’s, a reviewer’s perspective — the foods or dishes that hold you together, body and soul, or meaningfully make you remember. Dig in.


October 13

“Soul Food” assignment due.

“There is another word for this extremist noticing – this sense of first sight unencumbered by knowingness, by the already-been-theres and seen-that’s of the adult mind – and that word, of course, is wonder.”
— The Botany of Desire, p. 168

Believing music to be a force that regularly knocks us out of the cozy box of our bullish, fool-proof beliefs and  preconceptions, I ask you to attend a live event at which music is performed (preferably live, but canned will do), then report on the music’s effect on you and everyone else in attendance.

Assignment for October 27: Write 2-3 pages about a live event at which music is performed or electronically provided. Pay particular attention to the effect of the music on the event of which you as reporter, of course, play an indispensable role.


October 20

At length and in-depth we will read and discuss the Soul Food assignment, hopefully touching upon and  glimpsing ways the countless ways that sweetness, beauty and intoxication mix.

As we deepen our discussion of Beauty and the Tulip, I will invite you to select a page or short passage from Michael Pollan’s text to model or faithfully imitate – for fun. This will be an in-class exercise that you may turn in to me or not turn in to me, as you wish.

Style and sound in writing – on and off the page – and the musicality of poetry and prose will come up a lot this afternoon. While we will largely look at and listen to class work, the passionate among you should feel free to bring in a published poem or prose passage that you especially admire. Be prepared to share the reasons for your enthusiasm.

Start reading Chapter Three of The Botany of Desire | Desire: Intoxication, Plant: Marijuana

October 27
Music Event pages due. We’ll begin reading and discussing the experiences the assignment has  evoked.

Other discussion topics: intoxication, ecstasy, and altered mind-states.

November Syllabus 2010

In The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann’s character calls music  “politically suspect” art because of the way it can move people by appealing directly to their emotions, swaying their moods, even inciting them to action against their better judgment. But by the same token, music has the power to remind, soothe, heal … Think of the way that music consoles at weddings, marches, funerals. Think of how some pieces send chills up the spine – the last movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5, for instance, or Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Music in a quick tempo in a major key has been shown to produce in listeners many of the physical changes associated with joy: excitement, rapid heartbeat, release of endorphins, goose bumps. Music of slow tempo in a minor key elicits changes linked with sadness, an experience of “negative” emotion that, oddly enough, is considered rewarding by most people and sought after as pleasurable and comforting.
— Jennifer Ackerman (Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body | Mariner Books, 2008 | © 2008 by Jennifer Ackerman

November 3
Bring in the paragraph or passage from Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire  that you admire or like well enough to model or “write through” as assigned. The idea here, as I’ve explained, is to let you see for yourselves how you as writers can expand your own bag of licks (stunning sentence patterns, ways of turning phrases, syntactical dazzlers, etc) by brazenly imitating the writing of others.

November 10
The Power of Detail
Re-read or re-think pages 160-165 of The Botany of Desire, then reconsider the power of descriptive detail laid out in language. In Reality Sandwiches, a distant poem collection by Allen Ginsberg, he prosaically describes what he saw when he looked closely at a one-dollar bill. This opened my eyes to the sheer joyfulness of paying attention. Yes, I do agree with the question Raphael Mechoulam emailed to Michael Pollan (“Do you really want to remember al the faces you saw on the New York City subway this morning?”), just as I grasp George Eliot’s eloquent contention: “if we could hear the squirrel’s heartbeat, the sound of the grass growing, we should die of that roar.”

In Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream, science writer Jennifer Ackerman states: “If I put a small microphone to my sleeping husband’s ear,  I might well hear his hair cells hard at work. In a quiet environment, the hair cells in most normal human ears are turned up to amplify softer sounds – turned up so far that they sometimes generate faint but constant tones of sound, like the feedback noise from an electronic amplifier. In a loud environment, a thunderstorm or rock concert, the hair cells adjust, turning down their amplifiers. It is thanks to these mini-amps that we can follow ten to twenty distinct sounds per second, distinguish a pitch, and hear noises that last only a few thousandths of a second. // We rarely notice the sound made by our hair cells because the brain filters it out. Likewise, when we speak or sing or vocalize in any way, the brain halts the firing of our auditory neurons so that we won’t be swamped by our own song. So, too, the brain allows us to suppress a whitewater of auditory stimuli – the buzzing, banging, humming, thumping background noise of our typical morning routine – so that we may hear what interests us; the rest fades into a kind of muted roar that we hear with just “one” ear at first, then with no ear at all. // This is one example of desensitization, the same phenomenon that makes the aroma of bacon or reeking garbage fade from perception, that helps our eyes adjust to bright light, that allows us to forget the rub and weight of clothes on skin, and that attenuates the nervous jolt initially provided by coffee. Desensitization can take place over seconds (light), minutes (smells), or days (caffeine).”

ASSIGNENT: In 2 to 3 pages compose a description or catalog of any closely observed phenomenon or process that meets the eye, ear, nose, tongue, touch, or any combination thereof. Bear in mind the way artist Betty Edwards opens her classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: “Drawing is a curious process, so intertwined with seeing that the two can hardly be separated. Ability to draw depends on ability to see the way an artist sees, and this kind of seeing can marvelously enrich your life.”

READING: Chapter 4 | Desire: Control / Plant: The Potato

“To my eye, there are few sights in nature quite as stirring as fresh rows of vegetable seedlings rising like a green city on the spring ground. I love the on-off digital rhythm of new green plant and black turned loam, the geometrical ordering of bounded earth that is the vegetable garden in May – before the plagues, before the rampancy, before the daunting complexities of summer.” – Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire

November 17

Rhythm and the Sense of Time

Today’s off-page assignment: Tell a story to the class. Bear in mind that in a story, something happens. If nothing happens, then you may have yourself a sketch, a vignette, a post-modern monologue, or a prose-poem. This is fine, but today you will tell us a story. Our job: Listen, pay attention to the spoken stories, noting especially any rhythm or sense of time built into a particular story’s construction or unfoldment.

On-page assignment: In 3-5 pages write a retelling of one of the stories you’ve heard during this session. Feel free to make any creative departures or embellishments you think necessary to dramatize the story’s essential point; its crucial “happening,” as it were. Due: December 8th.

Make mental notes about the retelling process that you wish to share in class.

November 24 [Class cancelled]
Since we have voted to meet on this pre-Thanksgiving Wednesday, know that your living-with-a-plant assignment is due. In class we’ll begin reading and discussing your pages and the insights and observations that informs them.

A look back at page 203-204 in Michael Pollan’s astonishing narrative-discussion of The Potato:

“In his articles [the radical journalist William] Cobbett depicted ‘this damned root’ as a kind of gravitational force, pulling the Irishman out of civilization and back down into the earth, gradually muddying the distinctions between man ands beast, even man and root. This is how he describes the potato eater’s mud hut: ‘no windows at all; … but a hole in one end … surrounded by a few stones.’ In Cobbett’s grim imagery, the Irish had themselves moved underground, joining their tubers in the mud. Once cooked, the potatoes ‘are taken up and turned into a great dish,” Cobbett wrote. ‘The family squat round this basket and take out the potatoes with their hands; the pig stands and is helped by some one, and sometimes he eats out of the pot. He goes in and out and about the hole, like one of the family.’ The potato had single-handedly unraveled civilization, putting nature back in control of man.

“’Bread root’ was what the English sometimes called the potato, and the symbolic contrast between the two foods loomed large in the debate, never to the spud’s advantage. Catherine Gallagher points out that the English usually depicted the potato as mere food; primitive, unreconstructed and lacking in an cultural resonance. In time, that lack would itself become precisely the potato’s cultural resonance: the potato came to signify the end of food being anything more than food – animal fuel. Bread on the other hand was as leavened with meaning as it was with air.

“Like the potato, wheat begins in nature, but it is then transformed by culture. While the potato is simply thrown into a pot or fire, wheat must be harvested, threshed, milled, mixed, kneaded, shaped, baked, and then, in a final miracle of transubstantiation, the doughy lump of formless matter rises to become bread. This elaborate process, with its division of labor and suggestion of transcendence, symbolized civilization’s mastery of raw nature. A mere food thus became the substance of human and even spiritual communion, for there was also the old identification of bread with the body of Christ. If the lumpish potato was base matter, bread in the Christian mind was its very opposite: antimatter, even spirit.”

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One Response to “SENSUAL TEXT at CCA, SF | California College of the Arts, San Francisco | Autumn 2010”

  1. Macy Dench Says:

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