Described as “a long poem” and published by the inimitable Publishing Genius Press, my expectations were pretty rampant about Andrew Weatherhead’s $50,000. With pre-curser pressmates like Shane Jones’s Light Boxes, Gabe Durham’s Fun Camp, and Mairéad Byrne’s The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven, I knew before opening this book that no matter what it was labeled—long poem, short book, narrative scrambled eggs—there was a strong chance I’d love it.
“Because money is a kind of poetry / And the national debt is staggering”
I did love it. I love how deftly Weatherhead uses words, how strongly he commits to this parceled-out story, and how warmly he navigates the path of this poem, of this book.
“Being a writer means separating your unique ideas / and feelings from those understood by everyone else, / and that is one of the hardest and most painful things / a person can do”
Told in snippets of language, short paragraphs and single sentences, $50,000 builds a story of working life, of office relationships where people are more akin to letters than names, where the world hinges on celebrity quotes as much as it does our own feelings, where our collected social reactions collide with all those hidden intentions.
“But this isn’t a poem with an answer / It’s about the fractal nature of wealth / The space between voids / Nightmares of typos / Grey light on greyer stones”
I spoke with Weatherhead during a wintery afternoon, when a new snow had recently blanketed the driveways and streets.
The Rumpus: Adam Robinson at Publishing Genius Press calls this “a long poem that allows Andrew Weatherhead the space to search everything—his cubicle, his relationships with coworkers and friends, and the worlds found in literature, sports, economics, and history—for something more meaningful than mere facts.” For you, what is the relationship between poetry and narrative?
Andrew Weatherhead: By nature, I think pretty much every poem is narrative since one line inevitably follows another. The order and progression of lines is narrative, regardless of how abstract, lyrical, or non-sequitur the content may be. The exception would be non-traditionally formatted work—like Guillaume Apollinaire’s calligrams or Aram Saroyan’s word art or some of Tyehimba Jess’s work—but even those rely on a beginning and an ending of some sort, which imply narrative.
I know in academia they like to categorize poems as “narrative” or “lyric”—but that never made sense to me. Poems aren’t equations; it can’t be a binary. Poems are too amorphous for that.
In my own work, I tend to lean on narrative tools—a singular speaker, a linear progression of time and events, a clear conclusion—because it’s easier to justify to myself. It’s just easier to build a poem on a foundational view of reality that we all pretty much accept. However, I am trying to trust myself more with a higher degree of abstraction and non-linearity, trying to tease out less obvious connections between people, places, events, objects, language, ideas, feelings, space, etc.
I think this book is very much a product of that kind of push-and-pull. For example, in an earlier draft I made sure to maintain the order of months and seasons so they occurred linearly, but the final version disregards that linearity. It’s more interested in “emotional time” than “real time.” That said, there is a clear narrative arc (at least to me) in $50,000 with a set-up, climax, and resolution. A few people have asked me if the lines are totally random, which I love—it means the narrative pull of the book is a complete apparition, possibly only visible to me. Or it means I’ve just failed completely in writing a coherent book lol.
Rumpus: I never saw the lines as random, always felt they had linear progress as you said, felt like the poem was moving me forward and the characters along with it. Though I would say the book does have elements of “apparition,” where I’m sure you understand as the author much more clearly than I see as the reader. In a work like this, do you have worries about alienating the audience, about masking so much that they can’t grab hold? I mean, in other words, is there an allegiance writers offer readers?
Weatherhead: Right. That’s a great question. It’s the central question of making art, and of life really—how much do you stay true to your own unique personality and vision vs. how much do you fulfill society’s expectations and demands. I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to this, of course. It’s different for everybody, and it’s always evolving as we grow older, have experiences, and learn new things.
In the case of this book, I don’t think I ever thought about “the reader.” I just wanted the book to feel “right and good.” But my idea of “right and good” is informed by years of being a reader, so I have to believe there’s an overlap between what would interest “the reader” and my idea of “right and good.” Does that make sense?
Rumpus: Absolutely. And I think the more writers are reading and studying and observing, the more likely that they’re hitting audience expectations without having to put such a formal stamp on it. It comes out in a different way, too: A few readers have asked me about $50,000, wondering if I think they’d be interested in it, saying they aren’t really “into” poetry, that they usually read prose. For me, what makes the best poetry is story, and what makes the best story is its use of poetry. For you, what makes $50,000 a poem?
Weatherhead: Another very good question… I think it’s a poem because it started as a poem. The original idea was to write a long work that distilled poetry into a long list of good lines without enjambment or any other poetic infrastructure. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy—the random collection of standalone lines I had envisioned did not make for a satisfying reading experience—so I spent years ordering and curating the individual lines, building a kind of narrative arc, and ultimately adding the infrastructure lines I’d sworn off in the first place. As I was working with Adam to finalize the book, I toyed with the idea of calling it a novel just to change the book’s expectations, but it felt disingenuous—it’s more of a poem with narrative elements than it is fiction with poetic elements, at least to me. Do you think it could have been a novel, or would that be too much of a stretch?
Rumpus: It probably could have been, only with added qualifiers like “a poetic novella” or something, which would have further muddied those waters. I love that it’s referred to as a “long poem,” allowing it to swing in multiple directions easier than other works—nabbing fans of poetry alongside readers who don’t typically get into poems.
Weatherhead: Right—I feel like there’s more room in poetry to be unconventional than there is in fiction/prose. Poetry seems to reward creativity in form where fiction punishes it? I don’t know. I’m also so close to the work and much more in the poetry world than I am in the fiction world, so it’s hard for me to have perspective on it. I feel more at home in poetry, I guess is what it came down to.
Rumpus: That’s really interesting about poetry and fiction and the relationship each have to unconventional approaches. I think you’re probably right about it, and even though we can point to a bunch of fiction that breaks boundaries or challenges norms, those typically struggle harder for wide audiences and big readerships.
And within those years of your curating individual lines, $50,000 also leverages quotes of famous and infamous folks. How did the use of those quotes come about, and did it take as long to order those into the final draft?
Weatherhead: The quotes came out of reading and were incorporated organically as I worked on the book. They weren’t added later or anything. I just grabbed them as I found them and threw them into the large document of source material I was working with. I tried to cast a wide net.
Rumpus: Talk to me a little about a line like this “Writing poems like invoicing a prior self” Is that the approach in $50,000, especially in terms of your personal relationship to the material?
Weatherhead: Yeah, this poem definitely felt like an accounting of the years that it documents—what happened, who was there, the emotional debts and credits. I was also actively exploring the world of economics when writing the book, trying to figure out what money and worth is, why we do what we do for it, and whether there’s any way to move past it. I don’t think I have answers to these questions, unfortunately.
I know this subject matter evokes a visceral negative reaction in many writers and artists, who tend to conflate it with capitalism and greed, but I find the parallels between art and economics fascinating! They’re both these consensus frameworks for describing and defining value. It’s about cooperation, innovation, the role of an individual in society (like we discussed above), and context—a narrative!—more so than it’s strictly about “money,” at least as far as what I’m interested in.
And I find the cooperative element of “value construction” to be particularly heartening and instructive. I used to have this idealized and very American notion that art was best created in a vacuum—Melville moving to the country to finish Moby Dick, Thoreau on Walden Pond, Dickinson alone in her room in Amherst, these lone rangers of the mind… but reading economics and thinking about the intertextual origins of value in art made me reject that. To be an artist is to be a participant, even if you’re working against a predominant view. You have to be engaged for your life and art to have meaning.
The lone ranger myth is very appealing to this American sense of freedom, independence, and self-reliance, but it seems to necessitate an abdication of duty to family, community, or really anything outside oneself. That’s not the person I want to be, and that’s not how I want to think about my art. I want my art to be symbiotic with my life, not separate from it. Undoubtedly the politics of the past four years have inspired a more selfless view, but thinking about economics has helped me towards an understanding of life and art that is less zero-sum and more synergistic and productive.
Rumpus: Fascinating for sure. And thus, $50,000? Sounds cheeky, but you know what I mean, right?
Weatherhead: Totally. I was interested in this value-ambiguous amount of money. Depending on your circumstances and the narrative you place it in, $50,000 could be a life-changing sum, it could be a nice windfall, or it could be a drop in the bucket. The fractal nature of wealth…
Rumpus: I have to ask then, what’s your take on that whole banana duct-taped to the wall ordeal and the man who ate it?
Weatherhead: That’s what I’m talking about—the piece certainly struck a nerve playing with these ideas of value and meaning. Does the ridiculous $120,000 price tag highlight the flimsiness of the art market, or further validate its excesses? I think all of the controversy surrounding the piece means that it definitely worked, right? I’m also very glad that guy ate it.
Photograph of Andrew Weatherhead courtesy of Andrew Weatherhead.