what am i doing here?

since ive heard jerry before i was prepared to ask myself a somewhat similar question to the question cokboy seems to have asked which is “what am i doing here?” the question has some funny aspects to it one of them is i have no intention whatever of reading and that would seem to put me outside the general scope of the genre but maybe not if im characterized by an odd futureness science fiction like which is a sort of funny pathetic position the future comes relatively unequipped and bare a dream of technology so to speak so i came with a small tape recorder and this is appropriate a tape recorder is probably more of a dream than anything else because they never work very well but the point was that i was going to ask myself what i was doing here in several senses one of these senses is “what am i doing here?” in this kind of ambience? but what is “this kind of ambience” i havent really wanted to be considered a poet but i think that takes refining to make clear what i mean i dont want to be considered a poet if a poet is someone who adds art to talking now i know there are several ways that people look at poetry but there is a passage in bacon where bacon says “if you talk about the manner of speaking that poetry is its just a mode of speech and if you talk about its content its merely history at pleasure” . which was merely a polite way of saying that poetry was a lie history at pleasure is history the way you happen to want to remember it now the way i want to remember something may very well be the issue of why im here to ask myself “why am i here?” in a context of poetry which is like asking why when i do put a book out in the world it winds up getting classified by the library of congress under the section called poetry and i find that puzzling but logical because what else would they call it? i looked through the library of congress classificational system and was unable to find any classification called talking it seemed to me they didnt have that classification they had belles lettres and they had literature and they had essays and they had geography and they didnt have talking and i thought that something had been left out but maybe it was because talking was not as it were imagined to fit into a book between say telling jokes and doing something else now i kept looking around for a place into which i could put what i do and i asked myself why do i do it in such a place anyway why do i persist in doing it in a place next to old friends who call upon the word poet to some degree and to some degree call upon something that one might call the past though i get very dubious about its past and i say to myself why did we edit a magazine together jerome rothenberg and i i was the future and he was the past and there was nothing in the present we might have published an empty book consistently if i had seen how we came out irregularly as these things do and we seem to have come together again and again at various times though weve not always been together weve probably known each other longer than we havent known each other at this point and we obviously split the world rather peculiarly maybe we split ourselves rather peculiarly but i notice that in the kind of work that he’s interested in theres a lot of talking because there isnt a lot of writing the past had a lot more talking than it had writing i’ll make a bold hypothesis before there was talking before there was writing before there was talking there wasnt talking before there was writing there was talking this may not be an immense hypothesis but its certainly true and it has consequences there are certainly consequences i can draw from this that before there was writing down and looking up there was remembering when you talked about something that wasnt there you had to remember it and you couldnt write it down and when you talked about something that wasnt there the only way that it was there was somehow it manifested itself in your mouth and before it manifested itself in your mouth it didnt always do that before it manifested itself in your mouth it may have manifested itself in your head thats not always true because sometimes or maybe even most of the time a new thing manifests itself in talking before it ’manifests itself anywhere else at all but when we try to remember what was the past the past is all remembering and if the past is remembering its talking too now i dont want to say that it is always talking or at least talking is not always spoken but its a good word to stick with and its a word that had a grand history theres a word close to talking a word that may finally mean talking but used to have a very grand meaning a word myth which has a very grand meaning for most people and i know that robert duncan has given a lot of attention to the word “myth” the one definition he did leave out when he rehearsed the definitions for the middle voice greek verb mytheomai is to talk which it was it was a verb “to talk” and “to tell” and it was a verb meaning “to put a rap in the air” when odysseus the great con-man the trickster gets up to talk in council he “myths” and he “myths” regardless of whether he “myths” the way nobody else remembers and i think the word may not be very prejudicial at that point differently now lets say if i were to say of the president “he’s been mything for a long time” “he’s been mythifying us” you know the word seems to have come down and to have been coming down for a very long time and if i said that he was talking for a long time you might think i was tired of his talking but you wouldnt think that he was lying or that i was accusing him of lying id like to offer a suggestion about the word “myth” for a moment let me make a negative suggestion about the word “myth” the word “myth” is the name given to the lies told by little brown men to men in white suits with binocular cases because nobody knows of the myth that the man in the white suit believes there is one important thing about a story told you by a little brown man if the story sounds as if you could have observed it yourself you being the man in the white suit you wouldnt call it a “myth” youd say “he told me what happened” youd say “he told me a fact” or “he told me a story” now the story might be a true story but whats a true story well a true story is a story something like the one that was told me the other day theres a woman a very hopeful woman works in our office name is candy and she always has bad luck and shes always trying again it doesnt matter what happens she always gets up off the floor and has another try at it candy came into the office the other day she had had many disasters recently one of her most recent disasters was that her children her kids are always getting picked up on dope charges or for burglarizing or for petty theft or for knocking up somebodys child or for letting the goat loose and it bites someone or eats his flowers and shes getting citations or driving the car off the road or talking back to a cop and she has troubles with her children but she has troubles with other people besides her kids she has troubles with men she mislaid her last husband and she then had a succession of couplings that were temporary and transitional and each one always looked like it was going to be very important and meaningful or had the prospect of being meaningful and each time she would come in with the story that there was a new man in her life and she would say to everybody in the office because she was an irrepressible talker teller of truths that what had happened to her she had met this groovy guy and he was a very distinguished person but he had a mother and two wives whatever it was it never was working out but it appeared at last that she had found someone who she really got on very well with though he was a little old that is she is perhaps in her middle thirties and he was slightly white haired but a very distinguished and elegant guy and they seem to have gotten along together because in spite of the fact that he lived in san diego he hated nixon and they talked about the same things together whatever it was it was very romantic only he hadnt taken her out yet and then he asked her out and he took her to one of those steak houses where its very dark and you cant tell what youre eating and they had dinner together and they had lobster and drank one of those cold duck wines or whatever that she really liked and they went off to his house they went off to his place and she was telling me the story and she told me the story with a kind of irrepressible and fierce energy and i wasnt able to tell what was coming but i knew something was up and she said “then we got to the house and he put a record on and he put on the record and we danced for a while and necked and then we took off our clothes and we started to go to bed and he had three red cherries tattooed on his prick” and i said “candy” “candy what did you do?” she said “i couldnt stop laughing and i went home” i had heard a story and the office people were saying “did you hear what happened to candy?” “did you hear what happened to candy again?” and candy was very cheerful shed managed to shake it off i guess and i said to myself “if i have to deal with that story what do i have to deal with in that story?” “what kind of talking is that story to me? what is that story?” do i have to suppose think of the horrible issue at stake candy i contemplate the scene the debacle which i didnt invent i hate inventing and i hate imagination this story was told me yesterday i assure you and candy told me this story and i said “candy how did it come to pass that he had these damn things tattooed on his prick?” she said it was in the marines and it was on a dare i said “on a dare” i said “oh yeah” and i keep thinking about it if i keep thinking about it that way i keep thinking about the way that tattooes are applied and i dont like that image i really dont like that image and there is a kind of probability distribution for events that i normally inspect when someone says something to me but yet there are times when i dont inspect it this is one of the times where i inspected it and i thought “tattooed?” “decald?” no she said tattooed these were tattooed i dont know what to say that is is this a story told by a little brown man to a man in a white suit? i was rapidly acquiring a white suit its fairly evident that my binoculars were beginning to feel heavy and i thought “well maybe this is not the right way to think about it maybe im not considering this thing seriously in an appropriate manner what could this mean that someone who is really an adult 35 years old what could she have onher mind with such a story?” what could it have meant that it happened to her? and i realized that this was the major structure of her life she had in fact described the existence that she lived now either she had found a man by great and amazing magical skill who had done this exorbitant thing or she had found a memory of a man who had done this amazing and exorbitant thing this was the way candy represented her entire life yesterday and then i said “well then thats a true story” because thats really very much like candy thats very much like the kind of people candy goes out with its very much like everything about her entire life her whole career is based upon coming together with men with 3 cherries tattooed on their prick there is something about candy that will always find such a case it is the essence of candy now i dont know if thats history at pleasure or whether its somewhat more aristotelian that is when you think of aristotle’s idea of poetry his idea was that poetry was essential history it was the kind of history that had to happen or the kind of history that might have happened or the kind of history that should have happened because it was appropriate that it happen and i thought candy has told me an aristotelian truth she told me essential history now thats a clearcut and you may say poeticized image now you may feel and i also i also draw back somewhat i draw back from poetry and poetic justice i really do draw back from it even though im amused by the truthfulness of candy who told me this story now if i was to take the science myth if i were to imagine that the only way that i could deal with this story was to corroborate it on a spatio-temporal grid in a number of ways that are approved for inspections of this sort i would go about saying well what is the possibility that a man did this? would someone who ran a tattoo parlor do such a thing? how much would you have to pay him? i’d go through the whole number but forget that story forget that story because its the kind of story that science with all its expensive instrumentation and its totalitarian use of language that is science is in a certain sense a kind of poetry of terror it is a very well organized poetry of terror what you do is you bring in a student and i was educated in science you bring in a student at a very early age and you teach him to speak the way you want him to speak and when he doesnt you flunk him and then after a while after years after 4 years of undergraduate school and two years of a masters and 4 years of a doctorate and then you have him practice talking on paper and you call that his thesis by that time he’s learned to use the words exactly as all the other people in the same community use the words and this is the hieratic art we call science now science with its sacred art of terror if we were to take this kind of enforced consciousness which is still consciousness and apply it to do the best it could to inspect these events or these supposed events the evidence would in the end be inconclusive we would probably judge this event to fall somewhere outside the line of the probable but to fall somewhere within the domain of the possible and then to pass no judgment except to say we think its got this probability its possible but its very unlikely the confidence limits are perhaps exceeded now thats a rare case forget it how can you forget it? i cant forget it but take another situation suppose i try to exercise upon a past my past not my whimsical past but a past that i try to decode because the only way that i can imagine myself to be my self co-editor of a magazine with a friend or someone who went to some particular place the only way i can imagine my self as being the same person going by that name besides the fact that i answer by reflex when people call me by that name and even in that instance the only way that i can conceive of myself as a personality is by an act of memory by an act of interrogation of my memory which is also talking the self itself is emergent in discourse in some kind of discourse it is probably available but it comes up under dialogue and the dialogue is conducted with it and then the self emerges even though the self may not have been there until you called upon it you were always under something of an assumption that it was available for discourse and that it would answer you and if it doesnt answer you they call that forgetting and if you forget very gravely they give that other kinds of names a person who cant interrogate himself and has no impulse to interrogate himself is someone one normally calls a psychopath that is a psychopath might be imagined to be a consciousness distributed always upon some imaginary point of the present one could imagine that the two major historical forms of self interrogation of self discovery and investigation the two polar forms the dark historian and the white historian might be called schizophrenia and paranoia in their old fashioned senses the terms themselves are not terribly meaningful but using the older terminology paranoia inspects history in the form of anxiety and the schizophrenic would inspect history in the form essentially of wish or dream or imagination or desire and naming desire as history for the schizophrenic whatever he wanted happened and naming anxiety as history for the paranoid whatever he feared was history and closing in the paranoid would convert the present in the light of anxiety the schizophrenic would convert it in the light of desire and the psychopath has no history to convert at all he always has projects perhaps somewhere into the future but let us imagine that these polar positions are not the ones i intend to undertake im going to ask myself seriously about how i can find my past because if i invoke history every time in a conversation that cannot be held in a particular place then after all the self is a nonliterate society if you think about it the self is a preliterate society because it doesnt proceed by writing and it has no absolute repository of any past event it has no place to which it can come to find its past it has only the memory which is a way of proceding and not a treasure trove and memory for all we know may be inconstant and changing so let me try to remember a situation and inspect it for a past my past if i think of it i was thinking of a situation that occurred when i was i dont know how many years ago so my memory is already defective an old friend of mine someone i went to college with his name was dick berlinger he was a jazz musician he wasnt a jazz musician professionally he could have been a jazz musician professionally he was a saxophonist he played baritone sax he’d played with very good people he sat in with parker and other good people at various points but dick berlinger was a kind of person whose life always had a future and never had a present im not sure about his past because he always had projects he seemed to be planning always to be doing something that he wasnt doing yet and wasnt ready to do yet without ever doing it except very intermittently and planning always to be doing something without ever doing it is somehow like planning on swimming my little boy plans to learn swimming he’s been planning on swimming for several years and each year he goes down to the water and feels the water and then he goes away he hasnt become much of a swimmer yet well dick though capable as a saxophonist was not a jazz musician and dick did that with all of his life and years passed and we lost sight of him and then a friend of mine who had become a painter and was in new haven and had been a close friend of dicks told me that dick had been in an asylum a sanatorium or whatever and had been there for some time and had come out and that was kind of surprising friends of mine had been falling by the wayside for a long time that is there were other friends who had fallen in various places somewhat similarly mainly because their lives only had futures and nothing ever happened to them that ever changed except they got older which meant that the present really was something like an escalator or one of those paths in the los angeles airport that are motorized and youre moving forward though youre not moving and youre being carried forward toward something without your moving at all at any event at this time i was married and iwas living in new york as a matter of fact i was living in court street not very far from george oppen who was living over closer to the river in brooklyn the bay and i got a call on the phone and i heard a voice that i vaguely recognized but i didnt quite recognize because it was darker and lower and older and i said “hello” and he said “hello this is dick” and it was that i remember he said it was dick he didnt say who he was and by this time i must have known hundreds of other dicks and forgotten hundreds of dicks i mean it was not very easy and i said “dick who?” and i realized this might be insulting and he said “dick berlinger ive got to see you” and i said “you have to see me? about what?” he said “its very important” i said “what do you want?” again the urgency was really what was puzzling me and putting me off i remember now i think i remember it i said “well what do you want?” he said “i cant tell you i gotta come down” i said “well im busy right now im going to be going into the city” ely kept saying to me “don! let him come here he’ll kill you” i said “shut up what are you talking about?” she has something of an anxiety history “what are you talking about he’s an old friend” and im holding my hand over the phone saying “let me find out what he wants” i said “dick what is it that you need?” I and he said “i cant tell you i cant tell you now i’ll i’ll tell you when i see you” i said “all right i’ll tell you what im going into the city i have to go to a few galleries why dont i meet you in manhattan” and we named a place which was down near n.y.u. and we got into the car and we drove to the city where we were going anyway and the car we had was a peculiar car it was the only time i ever had a car that turned out to be an incredible bargain it was like i got it for $200 from somebody who kept it on blocks for fourteen years it was a 1953 chrysler imperial with electrical windows and i bought it for $200 and it was a very lovable elderly car that was like driving an armored car it was very high and you looked down on the road it was a very strange car to drive and i loved it it was a big black car and we drove there and suddenly i saw dick he was there and he hailed us and we parked the car and we got out to talk to him and i said “well dick what did you want?”


David Antin is a writer, critic and performance artist, based in the US. The excerpt of the text what am I doing here?, was originally published in full in david antin, talking at the boundaries. The layout follows the format of that book, and tries to emphasize the quality of this text as a spoken-word and performance work.

Martin McGowan from Cabinet Gallery in London introduced us to his work.

Source: David Antin, Talking at the Boundaries, New Directions, 1976, p. 3–13, copyright with the author.

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