Judge a book by its title. It’s a good idea. I bought $50,000 because it’s called $50,000 (and because Publishing Genius never lets me down). Since I first opened the book and read it in one sitting, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I read it again. And then a third time. And then I found myself walking to work thinking, Writing poems like invoicing a prior self, and then I stopped walking and whispered to myself, “That’s the best line I ever wrote.” But I didn’t write it. Andrew Weatherhead did.
$50,000 is a 108-page poem with 5 distinct lines on each page, each one separated by a generous cushion of white space. It’s fragmented, collaged, and utterly pleasurable even at its bleakest. It’s like Bluets distilled. It’s like reading the platonic ideal of a curated, disenchanted iPhone Notes document. It’s like a jar of poetic pot-gummies.
I’m not doing a good job of describing the book. I wish you would just read it, or—okay, begin with these excerpts. Or begin here, with the book’s first line: The boxer Zab Judah has been mugged by the rapper Fabolous twice.
You make a lot of references to boxing throughout $50,000. Beyond your personal interest in boxing, is there something that connects boxing and poetry for you?
I actually think they’re about as separate as you can get, though the feelings they produce—solace, contentment, occasional thrills—can be the same. They just get there in different ways. Poetry is more open ended and self-determined, where boxing is exacting, punishing, and instructive. But in that sense, everything is like everything else if you enjoy it, right?
I hope I’ve found poetry in boxing without expressing any kind of “fighter’s manifesto” sentiment. I think there’s poetry in everything, so the role of boxing in this book is somewhat incidental and could have easily been replaced by another pursuit that offered other moments of insight, like gardening, cooking, or running, for instance.
What do you like most about boxing?
I like the austerity of it. There aren’t teams, the equipment is spare and draconian, the training is tedious, and it’s a very old sport with all kinds of mythology and borderline-occult rituals and beliefs.
Tell me more about those rituals and beliefs.
There are myths like Roberto Duran once knocking out a horse. Hurricane Carter is said to have knocked out a bull. Muhammad Ali felled Sonny Liston with a “phantom punch”, but that’s a source of some controversy. Willie Pep supposedly won a round without ever throwing a punch. There are tons of legendary sparring sessions that may or may not have happened. And then there are endless superstitious and unorthodox training methods that have been passed down over the years: chasing chickens; chopping wood; juggling; ballet lessons; running backwards; training in extreme heat, cold, or isolation; chewing gum to strengthen jaw muscles; doing puzzles in between rounds to train the mind; picking fights in public; weird weight-cutting diets; different elixirs, salves, home remedies for various mental and physical ailments; then there’s the whole “libido management” thing to ensure fighters are optimally aggressive on fight night, which could be its own sub-genre of boxing lore.
What are some unorthodox personal writing methods or superstitions you use? Do you have any physical (or spiritual) things you do while writing or to get in the headspace to write?
I almost never delete anything. For any given project, I’ll have two or three separate documents—a working draft, a “staging” document, and a “trash” document. I’ll copy and paste between different documents instead of deleting, so I can maintain some sort of assurance that even bad writing is not in vain, even if I never look at it again. I’m terrified of wasted effort. This seems very childish. I wish the act of deleting were more liberating, as some other authors describe it, but for me it creates pangs of anxiety.
As far as getting in the headspace, I try to avoid ritual. I don’t want to get locked into any one way of doing things—I really want my writing to be a product of my life and not something that separates me from it, so I want to be open to ideas whenever and wherever. Does avoidance of superstition count as a superstition?
Do you write each morning, some nights, sporadically, or all throughout the day in scraps? The reason I ask is that some of these lines have a “drafted-in-the-moment” quality, where I can picture the speaker at work or on the train as they think/experience the lines.
The actual writing down of the lines that became this book definitely occurred in the moment—on subways and buses, walking around, at my desk at work, while reading in bed at night, etc. Then the curating would occur later when I would chain myself to a computer and obsessively move stuff around.
Have you always approached poetry with a fragmented, collage-like style? What texts or other artworks influenced you to approach writing this way?
No. My earlier poems are definitely more linear in their thinking. For a long time I believed the best poems were pure products of inspiration, completed in one sitting with little or no editing. Those moments are still pretty magical, but occur less frequently for me as I’ve grown older, gotten busier, and frankly raised my artistic standards. Now I’ll try to write full poems, but only end up using a line or two in what might later become a finished product.
I came to this more collage-like style gradually and without a conscious decision to do so. I realized that I was making more interesting connections in language through editing, by cutting and pasting and seeing what might be there.
There are a number of writers and artists I admire who seem to work in similar fashions, but I hesitate to use the word “influenced”— it’s definitely been more of a subconscious journey than an active decision to pursue a particular style. I feel “allowed” to work the way I do thanks to people like David Markson, Ted Berrigan, Lewis Warsh, John Ashbery, Mary Ruefle, Heather Christle, Matthew Rohrer, Srikanth Reddy, Solmaz Sharif, Joseph Cornell, and Robert Rauschenberg, among others.
I’ve recently become obsessed with work that relies on intuition, associative (or non-associative) leaps, simple observation, and fragmentation. Mary Ruefle kind of opened the door for me with this. The question I’ve been turning over while reading work like Ruefle’s, or yours, is this: what makes a leap work? How does the artist decide that one seemingly misfit line belongs beside another? Is it simply a gut feeling?
I think if it works, it works. Creative intuition like that is too mystical for explanation. But that’s the value of art, right? That it expresses the otherwise inexpressible?
To be successful, I think a piece of writing needs to have its own internal logic, though whether or not that conforms to traditional “sense making” is irrelevant. The author just needs to be behind it 100%, even if they can’t explain it. If there’s any doubt or overreach, the piece fails. As a writer, it’s a delicate balancing act between confidence and self-criticism: you go too far one way and you’re an asshole, you go too far the other way and you’re mired in crippling self-doubt. I think experience is the only teacher, unfortunately.
I noticed a number of different “modes” or “speeds” throughout $50,000. Some sections were purely collage, others floated briefly into narrative, and then others were lists. Can you talk about these “modes”?
There are definitely some prose-like moments where the lines follow each other in a more-or-less straightforward, narrative fashion, like that section on pages 50-52 about my friend Andrew Colville who passed away, or on page 4 where I recount a visit to Stonehenge, or pages 54-56 when talk about the Infinite Monkey Theorem.
There are also 5 lists of names interspersed throughout the book.
Beyond those two though, I’m hard-pressed to identify another distinct mode. The rest of the book kinda meanders from line to line, weaving in different people, places, quotes, ideas, medical diagnoses—sometimes driven by content, sometimes driven by language, and sometimes driven by something less identifiable, vis-a-vis the intuition mentioned above.
You quote a number of writers and others throughout the book. The most common referent is Joy Williams. Can you talk about how she and/or her writing speak to you?
I think she writes incredible sentences. I actually have a hard time reading her fiction because I find the sentences so distracting that I can’t seem to connect one to the next. At least that’s how it was with The Changeling, which I read most recently and where I think all of the quoted lines in $50,000 come from. I think she’s a total genius and visionary, and I’m a little afraid of her powers.
This book is not misanthropic or nihilistic, but it is fairly bleak. The most hopeful parts of this book seem to me to be the lists of weird names. They champion the awkward, ridiculous whimsy of everyday life. Other single lines do this too, but these sections seem to be pure joy, like a kid just saying “Look at this. Look at this. You have to see this!” What do you think is the most hopeful or joyful part of the book?
I think the “look at this!” impulse defines a lot of the decisions I made when writing and editing the book. So many of the lines fill me with a child-like joy and desire to share them with others. Like the first line in the book, about Zab Judah getting mugged by the rapper Fabolous twice. Twice! Or emailing someone named Michael Jordan! Or all the medical diagnosis codes—can you believe there’s a code for getting sucked into a jet engine? (And people wonder why US healthcare spending is so out of control… there’s whole teams of six-figure-salary consultants coming up with these ridiculous codes.)
Are you a Buddhist? Or maybe, as my favorite interviewer Brad Listi says, “Buddh-ish”?
I am not. I read the Tao Te Ching a long time ago and felt moved, but any attempt to follow that up with further reading in a Buddhist vein hasn’t stuck. I do like reading non-Western religious texts (the Upanishads is another favorite), but I don’t really have a coherent philosophy or spirituality beyond my belief in the transformative power of art and some vaguely religious practices that help me get through the day.
Tyler Barton is a cofounder of Fear No Lit, home of the Submerging Writer Fellowship. His collection of flash fiction, The Quiet Part Loud, was published in 2019 by Split Lip Press. Find his fiction in The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. He lives in Lancaster, PA, where he works in a nature museum and teaches creative writing workshops to residents of assisted living facilities. Find him at @goftyler or at tsbarton.com.
Andrew Weatherhead is the author of the poetry collections Cats and Dogs (Scrambler Books, 2014) and Todd (Monster House Press, 2018). He lives in New York City and used to work in health insurance.