Saturday Mar 25

Weathers Ed Weathers is a semi-retired English instructor at Virginia Tech. His career included 14 years of college teaching and 27 years as a magazine editor,   writer, and mildly syndicated newspaper and magazine columnist. He has written more than 300 articles for magazines all over the country. His essay "Hitting the Facade" was named one of the country's 100 best essays in Best American Essays 2007. His article "And Justice For All" won the 1987 American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award for best article in the nation on legal issues. His poems have been published in The Kentucky Poetry Review, The Southern Humanities Review, Windless Orchard, and the Dos Passos Review, among other places. His small essay "Hitchhiker, Haunted" appeared last year in Connotation Press. In his spare time, Ed plays tournament tennis and creates crossword puzzles, one of which he hopes someday to sell to the New York Times. He also carves ugly stone sculptures.

by Ed Weathers

On May 20, 1989, I wrote the following haiku:
Full moon, my neighbor’s
shades are up! She is dazzling
in her chrome kitchen!
The young mother who lived with her husband and baby in the house next to mine was quite pretty.
But I digress.

I liked my haiku, but back then, before the Internet, there were few places to publish a single haiku. How, then, to find readers for my splendid poem? After a few minutes' thought, I improvised a solution: I printed out my haiku in tiny ink letters along the top margin on the back of a $20 bill, using slash marks to indicate the line breaks. The serial number of the bill was  E59274407A. I then spent the bill somewhere—I don’t remember where,  and I don’t remember what I bought with it—there’s a good chance it was a cheeseburger combo at McDonald’s. I do remember that the clerk to whom I handed the bill did not seem to notice the poem on the back of it; I had been on the lookout for that.

I hoped that as the $20 bill circulated, occasional strangers would get a small jolt of pleasure upon seeing a haiku written on the back of it. I even imagined that someone would find the haiku so wonderful that he—or, better, she—would keep the $20 bill forever rather than spend it. In other words, she would find my haiku worth at least $20.

If you have that $20 bill and return it to me, I will pay you $1,000 for it.

I mean it: I will pay you $1,000 for that $20 bill or any one of the other 169 $20 bills on the back of which I wrote haiku between 1989 and 2003. Some were circulated  in Memphis. Many, in Connecticut. A small few in southwest Virginia.

After I wrote that first haiku on the back of $20 bill E59274407A, I did indeed proceed to deface another 169 $20 bills with haiku over the next 14 years--$3,400 worth of haiku-ed bills. I say “deface” because that’s what the U.S. government would likely call what I did. Or maybe “disfigure.” Under the United States Code, Title 18, Part I , Chapter 17 (Coins and Currency), Section 333,
Whoever mutilates, cuts, defaces, disfigures, or perforates, or
unites or cements together, or does any other thing to any bank
bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt issued by any national
banking association, or Federal Reserve bank, or the Federal
Reserve System, with intent to render such bank bill, draft, note,
or other evidence of debt unfit to be reissued, shall be fined
under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.
Actually,  I had no intention of rendering my $20 bills “unfit to be reissued.” In fact, I hoped they would be spent and re-spent, and that as many people as possible would read my poems. So I think I’m safe from federal prosecution. But I did find it interesting to consider 1) whether adding a poem to a piece of money actually constituted “defacement” and 2) whether  a haiku added to the bill’s value, detracted from it, or, perhaps worst of all, made no difference.

I suspect I’m also safe from having to pay out $1,000 for the return of any of my haiku-defaced $20 bills. According to the federal mint, the average $20 bill stays in circulation for only 24 months. That statute of limitations for my haiku-defiled twenties ended more than five years ago. Interestingly, after a bill is deemed too old to recirculate,  the Federal Reserve Bank shreds it and either sends it to a landfill or bundles the shreds up and gives the bundles out as souvenirs to visitors touring the Federal Reserve. I rather like the idea that pieces of my haiku are now souvenirs.

During all the time I was spending my haiku-deformed $20 bills, I came across only one person who seemed to notice the poem on the back of a haiku-ed bill when I spent it. It was, appropriately enough, the young man behind the cash register of a bookstore—a Barnes & Noble, I believe.  He spent a few seconds looking at the back of the bill, looked up briefly at me (who was pretending ignorance), and then put the bill in his cash register. Young man, if you’re out there reading this, I hope you kept that bill, trading one of your own for it. I’ll happily pay you $1,000 for the bill I gave you.

When I started this project, I promised myself that I wouldn’t spend any $20 bill on which I had not written a haiku. In other words, since nearly all of my cash came from $20-dispensing ATM machines, I couldn’t buy things unless I were writing haiku. This was to be a way to force myself to write poetry, something I like to do but am not, unfortunately, driven to do. This resolution did not last. I spent far more than I wrote.
But as the years went on and I debauched more and more $20 bills with haiku, I began to think more deeply about what I was doing and the questions the enterprise raised—aesthetic, philosophical, legal, and economic. Questions like these:
  • Is a haiku worth $20? More exactly, is one of my haiku worth $20? What determines economic value, anyway?  The simple, classical answer, of course, is that a thing is worth whatever someone will pay for it. But if someone liked one of my haiku enough to keep the $20 bill it was written on, was he in fact “paying” $20 for it? Did the fact that he (or she!) kept it make it, ipso facto, worth at least $20?
  • If a haiku is worth $20, then, in theory, could haiku become a new form of currency? Could I buy a new pair of tennis shoes for, say, five haiku? Would a flat-screen HD tv go for about 40 haiku? Could we end recessions if everyone simply started writing and spending lots of haiku? What would it all mean if I spent three haiku to buy a book containing 100 haiku? Very confusing. This is what economists are for.
  • Conversely, how valuable is a $20 bill? Again, the simple answer is, it’s as valuable as whatever someone will exchange for it. But does it gain or lose value by having a haiku on it? I suppose if someone kept one of the bills because of the haiku on it, the bill alone is, ipso facto, worth less than a haiku, and, conversely,  each time someone spent one of my $20 haiku bills, knowing the haiku was there, he (or, sadly, she) was declaring that the money was worth more than the poem. Clearly, value is relative. Whatever that means.
  • Is each of my $20 haiku bills now worth more merely because I have performed this experiment in poetry-infected money? Is this all a kind of performance art—the performance itself (as opposed to the mere poems or bills) part of the value of the haiku-demented bills?
  • If someone actually brings back one of my $20 haiku bills, and I pay him or her (!) $1,000 for it, will that bill now begin to rise or fall in value like paintings, sculpture, and other works of art, depending on my reputation and other factors in the art marketplace? Will I someday, for example, be able to resell the bill for $5,000? Will Southeby’s someday begin putting my $20 haiku bills up for auction?
  • Still further ahead, will my “value” as a poet be graphed by the price my $20 haiku bills bring on the future marketplace?  Will my value as a poet be enhanced during good economic times and damaged during bad? I must say, it would be nice to be a $5,000 poet.
  • If I buy back one of my haiku-ed bills for $1,000 and resell it for $5,000, will I be breaking any federal laws by trading in defaced $20 bills without government sanction? Will I in fact be selling the bill, the poem, or the two together? Will I be a moneychanger or an artist?
  • If my $20 haiku bills prove to have value in the marketplace, will any haiku I henceforth write by hand become valuable merely because of my celebrity, even if they’re lousy? (See, for example, the later works of Salvador Dali, who churned out mediocre quick-turnover “art” from his sickbed toward the end.)
  • Is a $20 bill a work of art in itself? If so (and I think it is, if you look at one carefully), have I defaced another work of art by writing a haiku on it? Am I exploiting the work of another artist? If I were to write a haiku on Monet’s “Water Lilies,” would that be a good thing or a bad thing? (Okay, that one’s easy.) If I make money from this whole project, must I share my profits with whatever insipid federal committee designed those $20 bills?
  • Does my handwriting itself, as opposed to, say, computer-printing, add or detract from the value of my $20 haiku bills, either as commodities or as works of art? Why does handwriting (on the back of checks, on autographed baseballs) command such reverence in our culture? (This is a rich and interesting subject to explore in the age of e-signatures.)
  • What constitutes the aesthetic (as opposed to economic) value of one of my $20 haiku bills? Is it the quality of the haiku? Is it the handwriting? Is it the uniqueness of each poem-on-bill object? I daren’t say “originality.” I am almost certain other poets have done what I have done. If you Google “money bills deface,” you will see works of art on money that dwarf my haiku for originality, though I didn’t find any poetry.
  • What is the difference between the aesthetic and the economic value of something like a poem? What does “aesthetic value” even mean? How is it measured? Surely not in monetary terms alone. By how many people memorize your poem? By how much pleasure your poem gives people? How do you measure pleasure?
  • Am I, contrary to everything I’ve implied up to now, actually devaluing poetry by putting a $1,000 price tag on something that, some would say, is somehow beyond monetary value (i.e., poetry). Or, conversely, am I overvaluing my poetry by claiming it might be worth anything at all, monetarily?
  • Should I consider myself “self-published,” given that my haiku were, in fact, in print and in circulation after I spent those $20 bills and, most likely, were read by at least a small audience? Can I add this to “list of publications” on my resume?
No doubt there are other interesting questions raised by my little $20 haiku project.  If you’ve stayed with me this long, below are the 170 haiku I wrote, with the date they were written and the serial numbers of the bills I wrote them on. IMHO, eight or ten of the haiku themselves are worth $20 each. Ten or twenty more are worth $5-10 each.  The rest of my haiku could, at no loss to society, be shredded, bagged, and given away free as souvenirs to tourists.
Nevertheless, once more, let me repeat my offer:

Return any one of these $20 bills to me, and I will pay you $1,000 for it.

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