The Mission at 10th: Reflecting on the Alumni Spotlight Series

Candidate for an MFA@CIIS Dean Talamantez shares his thoughts after curating a showcase of creative work from MFA alumni

There is a strange building in San Francisco at 10th and Mission with a Zen garden on its roof where student counselors, psychologists, and artists alike use a holistic approach to study consciousness.

Among the offered paths of academia, California Institute of Integral Studies’ MFA department is a quiet program — quiet in that it doesn’t tout its accomplishments. Like the Room of Requirements at Hogwarts, the professor’s heads are brimming with endless objects, but none will clink out until required.

When I was searching for the perfect MFA program, I asked CIIS Professor Carolyn Cooke about the program’s publishing history. She did not answer me — not really. Instead, she told me about a current student who was afraid of wasting time. So, for a project, the student filmed herself sitting quietly for hours, doing nothing. The project was called Sitting with Time, and at the time, I did not yet realize that Carolyn was Buddha. I was only confused. But that confusion bloomed into intrigue, and thus began my inquiry into CIIS.

I read Carolyn’s book, Amor and Psycho. To this day, I can honestly say it’s my favorite modern book by a Bay Area author.

I attended a CIIS event — this one, on futurism — where I met an AI system that changes faces and grows plants inside its body when it gets likes on Instagram. There, I also met a psychedelic cowboy who feeds his computer code-simulated LSD and then makes it paint.

I realized this program was where I belonged. One of its largest lures was the study of inquiry itself, which I envisioned as the part of ‘Being John Malkovich,’ where John Malkovich crawls into his own head.

I signed up. Yet, still, Carolyn hadn’t answered my question. It became incumbent upon me to inquire, to discover the unsung history of CIIS alumni alongside MFA Program Coordinator Megan Jacobs, by procuring, interviewing, and editing the Alumni Spotlight Series.

When I began to inquire, I discovered a fountain. There were published authors, successful dance and theatre directors, songwriters, and even award-winning filmmakers. But more important than commercial success, each of these astounding individuals was whole; they were happy, self-actualized people eager to share their work. And in discovering their work, there was always a surprise:

Xiaotian Liu is not just a songwriter; she is a collaborative songwriter. She helped people in hospice die well and provided a measure of peace to their grieving families through her songs’ memorialization.

Each individual amazed me in a different way. And Carolyn/Buddha was correct: these individuals and their creative work were much more interesting to discover for myself than if she’d read me their credits like a bibliography. They could never have been summed up so plainly.

And yet, there was one tendency overtly common to each of these distinguished alumni: the way they construct a paragraph. After the main body, they’d complete each thought with at least three questions — points for further inquiry. I swear, these people are obsessed with asking questions — as we all should be.

During my journey of inquiry, I discovered that the world is best navigated holistically, by feeling and then answering the current’s pull. This incredible journey of serendipity has skipped me from pebble to pebble, and as I wrap up The Alumni Spotlight Series, I leap towards the next.

My Novella, ‘Sacred Fool,’ about my hero, Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, is under contract for publication with Atmosphere Press; astoundingly, through the same press that is printing Steven Armstrong’s new book — a luminous author I interviewed for the series. It is also worth mentioning that filmmaker Jessica Habie’s nickname is Jessikowsky: you can venture to guess our serendipitous commonality.

This is all perfectly typical of my whole experience here, existing as a part of a collective cohort. This is my message in a bottle to you: if you are meant to come here, then I hope you do.

Dean Talamantez is a current student in the MFA program at CIIS. He spent the summer putting together an Alumni Spotlight Series, which you can read on our Medium page. Keep in touch with us! Follow us on Instagram and Facebook to stay in the loop on more creative projects and interesting events!

Blog of the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts and Writing program at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA, U.S.A.

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