full mondegreens

David Huebert, co-author of Full Mondegreens

The following piece appears as part of the month-long series “Conscientious Conceptualism and Poetic Practice” on the blog, curated by guest editor Andy Verboom.

David and Andy are the co-authors of Full Mondegreens, a winner of the Frog Hollow Chapbook Contest. Below is an example of the “full mondegreen” form that their chapbook explores, David Huebert’s full mondegreen of William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”:

The Dead Feel Narrow

though such dear friends
had gone

the dead feel

days in vain

seaside the blight

David Huebert: You’ve described the full mondegreen as a “thorough, deliberate mishearing” of another poet’s work. This definition implies a certain aggression, though I realize my thinking here is, in part, inflected by my more general sense of your bad-boy poet persona. Does the full mondegreen necessarily colonize, grapple with, or rub against the poem it grafts? Is there something in the mondegreen that seeks to counter the anxiety of influence by biting the head off the father, by facing influence head-on and repurposing or regurgitating it? In short: is there an inherent hostility at work in the process of mondegreening?

Andy Verboom: I suspect the answer’s yes. The first full mondegreen I attempted was of Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” which I wrote relying on Plath’s monumentality or her legacy’s inertia to deflect any offences I made, like little pebbles dinging off the undercarriage. That first full mondegreen produced serious friction and debate among the members of our workshop, and I left there slowly realizing that it matters less if someone’s titanic reputation can handle your slings than it does who you’re throwing stones at and why. So my primary project in our chapbook became tackling certain source poems, written by (mostly dead, mostly white) men, that acted on women as objects or images—poems that would score an F- on the Bechdel test. You put it well: acknowledging that the form is inherently hostile, I tried to bite the heads off some fathers.

Are there times when a poem simply needs to breathe, when that first, flowing line should not be pressed through the editorial meat-grinder?

But whether the full mondegreen is “colonizing” depends on who you are, who wrote the source poem you’ve selected, and what kind of politics or ethics (in relation to your own) that source poem is enacting. To say that I’m colonizing Philip Larkin or his “Sunny Prestatyn” doesn’t, in the historical contexts I’m aware of, make any sense. But there are many other poets and poems whose mondegreening by me would be a violent colonizing enterprise. I don’t think this is just a game of identity politics, though. I recently mondegreened another Plath poem, and I think it’s better justified than the first because I’m responding to her troubling reduction of Blackness to a component of metaphor.

By writing “thorough, deliberate mishearing,” I was trying to emphasize what distinguishes the form from misheard lyrics and homophonic translation (i.e., it’s not content with a string of nonsensical homonyms and spoonerisms or with butchering another language) and from Charles Bernstein’s version of homolinguistic translation (i.e., it’s not content with a poet who has full control of or access to sense). As you said, it’s a grappling. It’s a thoroughly exhausting form to write because it demands total deliberation of word selection and placement while also being virtually deterministic. After being half-pulled, half-pushed, and also half-slithering myself through the phonetic cogwheels of a source poem, I have no energy left for the anxiety of influence.

DH: I’d like to linger a bit longer on this idea of “phonetic cogwheels.” I’ve mentioned to you that I suspect writing full mondegreens will forever change how I write poetry; I can’t help, now, but edit poems in a painstaking syllable-by-syllable fashion, something I did before but have now pushed to a new extreme that I’m not sure is even helpful for the poems. Are there times when a poem simply needs to breathe, when that first, flowing line should not be pressed through the editorial meat-grinder? Have you found that writing full mondegreens has changed your general practice? If so, do you think the effect will fade over time? (Personally, I kind of hope it does.)

full mondegreens

The Death of Lady Mondegreen by Sylvia Wright

AV: My concentrated time with the form has improved both my ear and my endurance. I think I can better appreciate that spontaneous line, but I’m also more willing to rewrite it five or six or more times in search of something ever so slightly better. I’d begun returning to rhyme well before trying that first full mondegreen. (In fact, the half-idea of “Lazy Latter Us” languished for years until, poking around for unconventional rhyming strategies, I found Sylvia Wright’s essay, “The Death of Lady Mondegreen,” which gave me the form’s name and gave us our chapbook’s epigraph.) And if rhyming felt like stomping around on the floorboards of some dusty cabin—and it did, at times—then discovering mondegreens was like stomping right through those boards to find the door to an underground bunker. A converted secret missile silo? Big, mysterious, pitch black, echoey. To completely mix metaphors, I can imagine a band recording an album inside an empty grain silo for the first time and thinking, “Holy shit. Sound can sound like this?” That’s not the kind of revelation you ever stop thinking about, so now I find myself squeezing partial mondegreens into nearly every poem. It’s become instinctual.

To be clear, in spite of all the industrial, militaristic metaphors I keep stumbling into, I’m happy with mondegreening becoming part of my toolkit. I’m also not surprised, given your aesthetic sensibilities, that you’d like your mondegreen boot camp training to lapse a bit. As we worked on the chapbook, though, I had the consistent impression that you were having an easier time. Is that ridiculous?

DH: That is ridiculous. I don’t see how it could possibly have been any more difficult than what I went through.

AV: You have an impressive sprezzatura, then. More generally, did you have different experiences with the form and with selection criteria for source poems? I think you must have in order to use, way back in your first question, the metaphor of “grafting.” I feel pretty stupid for having never considered full mondegreens in remotely silvicultural or agricultural terms. How do you envision mondegreening as a grafting process, or a full mondegreen as the product of a graft? While your fiction personae are considerably badder boys than my poet persona, your poetry is often written with, from, or toward a deep sense of what might be ‘good,’ especially regarding human-nonhuman relations. So, does your eco-poetic goodie-two-shoes-ness influence how you mondegreen?

DH: Because I am weaker and less conscientious than you, my mode of selection was primarily sonic, as was my choice of source material; I really just chose poems that had been stuck in my head for a long time. I wanted to remix those poems, to explore the echoes. Even before you invented the form and shared it with me (thanks!), I often “played mondegreen” with myself. I imagine many people, or at least many writers, do this. I’d walk around thinking “happiness is a worn tongue,” “happiness is a torn rung,” “happy this: whisked forlorn lung.” Before the outset of the project, I loved the uncanny possibilities at play in the randomness of the misheard lyric. Natasha, my spouse, had always heard “the cross I bear” in Alanis Morisette’s “You Oughta Know” as “the cross-eyed bear.” What a way to turn a somewhat banal lyric into fairy tale weirdness. I think my bent toward the sonic/songish was also part of the reason why I chose to mondegreen the David Bowie song “Soul Love” as part of my half of the project.

It seems to me that ‘biting the head off the father’ is difficult or perhaps impossible here; the voice of the father will just continue to croak on in every sound you utter.

I think potential for violence, colonization, and agonizing wrestling comes with the “full.” With the effort to fully graft your own twisted hearings over the syllables of a source text comes the often overwhelming responsibility of creating something like coherence from all the cross-eyed bears leaping out of the forest. And, beyond that, the attempt to graft over the poem completely risks what might look like a silencing of the original. But I don’t think the full mondegreen needs to be at odds with its source material. There are many different ways the conversation between source and ’green can play out, and I don’t think the source can ever really be silenced. Its sonic patterns live on as echoes in the ’green, and the act of responding to something is always a kind of tribute. It seems to me that “biting the head off the father” is difficult or perhaps impossible here; the voice of the father will just continue to croak on in every sound you utter. I’m sure you’ve thought of that already—so what’s the proleptic response you’ve already worked through?

As to your question about ecopoesis, I did use nonhuman life and bruised ecologies as membranes to create some kind of coherence when this was available. But (another confession) I only really did this out of desperation. While you’re right that nonhuman life and human-nonhuman connections are one of my biggest seams of writerly “material,” one of my ongoing struggles is to remain as non-didactic as possible in my navigation of such thematics. With the mondegreens, being didactic simply wasn’t an option. Connections would arise that seemed totally random, beings would emerge to face one another in this strange and frightening poetic underworld and I would have to say, okay. I’d have to say sure, there’s someone named Dread Berzerkus and yes, his bum is profound. This connects back to something else you mentioned: one of the things I liked most about this formal constraint was the freedom generated by its shackles. That is, the constraint was so limiting—in your words, “exhausting” and “deliberating”—that it was, in fact, enormously liberating. It liberated me from the proleptic self-critiques involved in writing more conventional/formally open poetry. With the mondegreen you simply can’t afford to agonize over questions such as “Is this sentimental?” “Has this been done before?” “Is this obtuse?” “Is this masturbatory or self-aggrandizing?” There are so few lexical combinations available that when you see yourself making some kind of connection between one image and another you generally have to accept it. For me, this didn’t leave much room for conscientiousness, let alone control. Did you experience something similar?

full mondegreens

Full Mondegreens by Andy Verboom and David Huebert

AV: I’m going to try to answer both of your big questions at once. I draft mondegreens, as I write most things, mostly linearly. I’ll evaluate potential source poems based on how promising their titles are for mondegreening, and the title is usually the first line whose mondegreen I settle on. As a result, I see the possible phonetic recombinations of any given source poem branch off like (I’m loathe to admit this because it seems designed to have been ‘sexy’ ten or fifteen years ago) gradually diverging alternate universes: each phoneme or group of phonemes presents several options for mishearing it, and beyond each option unfolds an entirely different poem filled with further options unfolding into further poems. Setting aside some minor deviations, the process of writing a mondegreen is a process of editing, of always choosing the better or best of the possible universes (potential poems) you can perceive (come up with).

In this model, the source poem is—sure—a sort of original, but it’s also just one possible sense arrangement of the phonemes. So I don’t think the source poem haunts its full mondegreen any more than it was already haunted by the poems that could have been written or published instead, including its many sonic near-twins, of which the full mondegreen that I edit-into-being is just one. I guess that’s treating full mondegreens as alternate histories, though, which is a genre that demands a sort of tribute to determinism, an implicit juxtaposition with what did indeed happen (or with the source poem), and an acknowledgement that it happened (or the source poem was written as such) for particular historical reasons.

But to your second question: as an editor—a position which I find the full mondegreen form demands you do immediately, maybe in place of writing, maybe not as proleptic self-critique but as imminent self-critique—you do have absolute control. If the individual poem, or if the processual project broadly, isn’t becoming a window onto a better universe, you toss that shit right out. Or you try again, much, much harder. The idea that constraints free you from this kind of responsibility seems really dangerous to me.

DH: Yes, you’re absolutely right: the idea that constraints do away with the ethical responsibilities of writing is a precarious one. I suppose I was intuiting this with my first question about the inherent violence of this form. Certainly, I’m not trying to say that when writing a full mondegreen I’d just let whatever wanted to happen happen. If a piece started to veer into unsavoury ethical terrain, I would absolutely discipline it back toward something defensible (and ideally something that still contained surprises and productive ambiguities). I think what I was trying to say was simply that the constraint allowed me to come up with ideas, images, and poems that I never would have generated through an attempt to write lyric or free verse poems. There was something strangely freeing about that experience, and it was always a delight to see these bizarre beings stare back at you, visitors from an unconscious that is not even, necessarily, your own.

If the individual poem, or if the processual project broadly, isn’t becoming a window onto a better universe, you toss that shit right out.

I think you’re right that the process of “writing” mondegreens feels a lot more like a very invasive form of editing or, perhaps, curating, and I like your outdated image of the possible “branches” of a poem. Building on your vocabulary, I see this almost as a phylogenetic tree of possible poems, reaching out from the first common ancestor of the source poem. (I think I still place more emphasis on the primacy of the source than you do.) Maybe the task of the writer/editor/curator is to steer this phylogenesis toward a poem she can stand behind, but there is only so much control available.

Having said all that, a question arises from your remarks: what is the difference between danger and risk? Is there no place for the “dangerous” in poetry? Does this line of thinking constitute its own danger?

AV: Good call. The construction “x is dangerous” is both too coy in its refusal to venture specific cause-and-effect relations and too lazy in its blood relationship with “x is problematic,” so let me commit. On one hand, poets are responsible to their poems and readers to engage in projects ambitious enough to risk failure. On the other, poets are responsible to their poems and readers to engage in projects that, at the barest minimum, refuse to put others in danger by, for example, contributing to oppressive and exploitative systems of representation. To be dichotomous, then, poetry implies risky (or safe) statements and endangering (or non-endangering) actions. (There’s a Punnett square to be made from those two axes.) In this sense, I make no place for the “dangerous” in my poetry.

But pontificating on intention—on concept (or editorial selection) and on process (or line editing)—still doesn’t resolve any of my greatest anxieties regarding the full mondegreen form’s reception: does a full mondegreen work as a poem? Can it resonate with a reader, given its constraints and strains? Does it matter, to a readers’ eye or ear or cognition, that it has a source poem? Do you share those anxieties? Or is the completed project simply the completed project, and the readership market will determine a full mondegreen’s—or the full mondegreen form’s—success?

… poets are responsible to their poems and readers to engage in projects that, at the barest minimum, refuse to put others in danger

DH: I’m not particularly anxious about this; I’ve always just assumed that the poems would be strange, convoluted, dazzling failures, to be encountered more than read. My preceding remarks should show that I think it has to matter that the full mondegreen has a source poem, if only in the way romantic history matters in a long-term monogamous partnership. I very much hope, also, that the full mondegreen might exist and flourish hermeneutically as two interrelated readerly experiences: (1) as autonomous poem and (2) as poem that responds to source poem. I think, insofar as the mondegreen can “succeed,” it can succeed best in the clutch and burn of these two versions grappling against each other.

So far, I have been delighted, if a little astonished, at the positive response the full mondegreens have received from readers. (Thanks to Shane Neilson and Caryl Peters at Frog Hollow Press for taking a risk on this project.) I’m glad to know that these strange creatures have already made a few frontal lobes flicker and glow, and I hope the form continues to find sympathetic respondents. Thanks, Andy, for leasing me a petri dish in your poetry lab.

David Huebert is the author of the poetry collection We Are No Longer The Smart Kids In Class (Guernica) and the forthcoming short fiction collection Peninsula Sinking (Biblioasis). His poetry has won the After Al Purdy Poetry Contest and appeared in Event, Vallum, Matrix, Prairie Fire, CV2, and Poetry is Dead. His fiction has won the CBC Short Story Prize, Dalhousie Review’s short story contest, and Antigonish Review’s Sheldon Currie Short Fiction Prize. Originally from Halifax, David is currently a PhD candidate in English at Western University, where he researches human-animal love in American literature.

Andy Verboom is from subrural Nova Scotia and lives in London, ON, where he organizes Couplets, a collaborative poetry reading series, and edits Word Hoard, a journal of creative and academic dialogues. His poetry has won Descant’s Winston Collins Prize for Best Canadian Poem, been shortlisted for Arc’s Poem of the Year, and appeared in Arc, CV2, BafterC, The Puritan, and Vallum. His chapbooks are Tower (Anstruther, 2016), Full Mondegreens (Frog Hollow, 2016), and Orthric Sonnets (Baseline, 2017).

Leave a Reply