When I told a friend of mine I was going to be tutoring a course titled Psycho Gastro Studio, they asked me what that actually meant. In response I started telling the following story from my life:
Many years ago I was on a bus from Leeds, where I had been visiting family, down to London. I had with me a large bag of lychees bought for me as a parting gift, and over the course of the next five hours I got to work eating every single lychee in that bag. That sheer amount of sweetness, combined with the general stale air and jostling movements of public transport, left my gut in a state of despair. My insides bubbled and twisted and I experienced a pain I still remember vividly to this day.
Looking back, this is just one of many stories involving food/sickness I could have used in my attempts to explain Psycho Gastro Studio. My tendency to overthink means that stories like these hold for me a variety of lessons or significances. With the lychee bus story, the important part in my mind is just how much the memory of the lychees eclipses the memories of the surrounding elements. I don’t, for example, remember details such as which of my family bought me the bag of lychees, or how I managed to continue my journey once I arrived in London. But those lychees… The taste of those exact fruits on that exact day has stayed with me, that soft, fleshy texture, the physicality of movement involved in peeling the skins and spitting out the seeds. Then of course the sickness, the feeling of needless excess, the embarrassment, the ensuing never-again promises that didn’t last. Psycho Gastro Studio is going to be about all of these things, plus even more.
Naturally, there is more than just one side to the concept of sickness. There is arguably a positivity to be found in certain acts of poisoning. I’m thinking here of all the creations of the world built thanks in part to highly-caffeinated minds, or moments of unexpected drunken connections between strangers down the pub, or the physical health benefits of THC or naturally occurring psychotropics. Then we also have the societal sicknesses in all their glory, the rise of cheap, unhealthy fast food and how various immigrant groups throughout history have utilised dishes such as fish and chips, tikka masala, or chop suey to fill previously under-utilised societal niches.
Food drives so much of our society, both in terms of today and also our history as a species – entire wars and colonisations started life as a want or greed by some to have more of a certain ingredient or substance. For a few years now I have been fascinated by the different ways poets and other artists have approached such issues. Some have moved me greatly, such as Harvest Song by Jean Toomer, with its juxtaposition of a starving slave working the oat-fields in order to provide food for others, or Nate Marshall’s Harold’s Chicken Shack poems, which explore food as a business and how that does and doesn’t relate back to local community structures – both of these poets chose to take an unhealthy side of food culture and then use this as a gateway to explore other concepts. To me, this is also Psycho Gastro.
Of course, food is not poetry. Or at least, society treats food differently to poetry. Poets are (in theory, at least) free to express themselves using as much language and form as they can carry. Food, on the other hand, can be banned from use and rendered inaccessible/inedible/illegal to us. Also, while poetry is still relatively niche in terms of wider world society, the media surrounding food is vast, unending and borderless. Cookbooks and cooking shows are produced world over and readily available while events such as food-eating contests and online mukbang cater to more localised cultural tastes.
At the same time, attitudes to food are not static. Marijuana has become more societally acceptable while tobacco is becoming increasingly legislated against in many countries. Drugs such as ketamine and DMT have been the subject of serious study in terms of their possible health benefits. Tins of surströmming remain banned on many airlines despite industry protests of cultural illiteracy. I think poetry should be encouraged to engage in the many moral sides of food culture and with Psycho Gastro Studio we have the opportunity to do so, together.
Find pleasures and excess in food, drink and other mind-altering substances on Sean Wai Keung’s online course, Psycho Gastro Studio. Call 0207 582 1679 or book online.