Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Shape Poem: Draeger's

Buy the collection Shape at Amazon Kindle.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Mascot, Chapter Eighteen: Counselor

Buy the book at Amazon Kindle.


Zelda sits in a restaurant in Los Gatos, the walls lined with that Tuscan-looking plaster that may as well be constructed of dollar signs. She nurses a glass of Chablis as she listens to a woman at the next table speaking Mandarin. The woman’s sentences accelerate in the middle and end on long, almost sung phrases. Zelda hopes that her makeup is doing its job.

Towering above her, all of a sudden, is Roxy Alameda, in a navy blue knit dress. She smiles, and then stops.

“Zelda! What happened to your cheek?”

Zelda stands and gives Roxy a hug. They sit at the table. Zelda gives an embarrassed smile.

“I was beating the snot out of my boyfriend, and…”

Roxy gasps. “Did he hit you?”

Zelda laughs, then touches her wound. “No. I was delivering a left hook and I completely missed. My follow-through took my face directly into his elbow.”

“Well what got you so angry that you were throwing punches?”

“We were having sex, and…”

Roxy waves her hands in front of her face. “W-w-wait a minute. You were beating the shit out of Edward during sex? Why?”

“Because I fucking hate him.”

That’s the cue for the waitress to show up. Roxy smiles.

“I’ll have a Manhattan on the rocks.”

“Certainly.” Before parting, the waitress winks at Zelda. “I’m probably on your side.”


Roxy watches her leave, then returns to Zelda. “Why do you hate him?”

“Because I love him. Because he left me.”

“And… how long will this punishment continue?”

“As long as it takes.”

“That’s not how it works. Eventually you will have to forgive him or leave him.”

“I’d rather stay and make him suffer. How does a man disappear at the peak of a romance? A rare, beautiful romance.”

The waitress delivers Roxy’s drink. Roxy takes a sip and sets it down.

“Ah, bourbon. I could take a bath in bourbon. I want a pre-nup on this discussion.”


“Yes. I want you to acknowledge that I know more about men than you do.”

Zelda looks around the room. “It pains me to admit this, but… Yes.”

“Okay then. Edward seems much more comfortable in his own skin. And he has money now – correct?”


She folds her fingers. “It’s difficult for a man to accept love when he’s not feeling manly. I think he wanted to go off somewhere and get his mojo back. He certainly seems more attractive to me. Do you have a problem with him finding success?”

“He won’t even tell me what he was doing those three years.”

“Why do you care?”

“Because I was suffering those three years. I want to know what I was suffering for.”

“Do you think he was selling drugs? Working as a hired assassin? Get your head out of the moviehouse, honey. Maybe it involved lots of ass-kissing, or degrading labor. Maybe he’s embarrassed.”

Zelda crosses her arms and stares at the table. “How do I know he won’t disappear again?”

“He came back for you.”

“He came back for Jackson’s wedding.”

“Loyalty to a friend – yes, let’s condemn him for that, as well. Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy? I think you’re seeing yourself as a prosecuting attorney, and believe me, you don’t want to be in that position. And any man worth your time will not tolerate an eternal cross-examination. Or a left hook.”

Zelda speaks to her Chablis. “Says the woman whose husband was fucking around on her.”

Roxy leans forward, then stops, takes a breath, drinks her Manhattan. “Yes. How do you think I know all this? I had a man go bad on me. I conducted the cross-examination. For six months. Eventually, he confessed. I realized I couldn’t forgive him, so I left him. That’s what I’m saying. This in-between crap is exactly what will kill you. And tell me this, just a theory. I think you were indulging in a lovely little Mother Teresa rescue mission, and I think Edward screwed up your plans by growing a pair. Do you know how admirable it is for a man to go through what he did and still want to do the work it takes to rebuild his life?”

The waitress returns.

“Hi,” says Roxy, “I’ll have the mozzarella focaccia and baby greens. Zelda?”

“Pot-stickers and chicken salad.”

The waitress picks up the menus. “I’ll have these in a few minutes.”


They sit in silence. Roxy understands that Zelda is stewing and is happy to let her do so. A minute later, Zelda mutters something.

“Pardon?” says Roxy.

“Now I hate you.”


“Because I love you. And because you’re right. Probably.”

“I’ll take it.” She indulges in a long sip of bourbon. “So tell me, this hateful sex. Good?”

Zelda smiles.

“Yeah,” says Roxy. “I thought so.”

Photo by MJV

Father's Day Poem: Harold in Motion

One thing I love about my poetry collection Shape is that the cover is a poem about my Mom and the end-poem is a poem about my Dad, the slick jitterbugger Harold J. Vaughn. Happy Father's Day, Dad! Shape is free today on Amazon Kindle.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Mascot, Chapter 17: Benjamin

Buy the book at Amazon Kindle.


Edward is doomed to live out his past life. He parks in the lot and strolls to the entrance, the lights over the stadium sparking into life. He buys general admission, stops for a beer and heads for the first-base bleachers, where the two Z’s used to sit.

This is a luxury he’s rarely had, the chance to watch the infielders take grounders, the pitchers warm up, and to not care about the general entertainment of small children. It’s also nice not to be inside the Gigante head, with its cave-like view of the world. The weather is perfect, banks of fog gathering at the far sides of the mountains like timid sheep.

The stands slowly fill up, a local opera singer performs the national anthem, and the game is under way. Edward sees Gigante working the kids in the lower seats: the high five/knucklebump gag, the cap-steal, the threat to swallow their little heads whole. Not much has changed. After the third out, Gigante scans the higher seats. Edward waves, just in case.

An inning later, after performing a boisterous James Brown shuffle to “I Feel Good,” Gigante climbs the steps, uses a little girl’s Reds cap to wipe his nose, then arrives at Edward’s row. Gigante adopts an expectant posture, hands on hips, staring. The fans, of course, think this is a gag, but Edward imagines that Gigante is experiencing an internal struggle: whether to kick this dude’s ass or stay employed. The big gorilla makes the gesture meaning “hand it over.” Edward reaches into his bag, pulls out a box of Red Vines and delivers it to his target. Gigante studies it, then gives Edward a thumbs-up and trots down the steps.

That’s it for a while. Edward doesn’t know whether to feel relieved or disappointed. The Giants string together a few hits and take a 3-0 lead. In the fifth, after the High Desert Mavericks get their leadoff man on, Gigante skulks behind the soda guy. Edward is curious to see if the gag has changed at all. Gigante grabs a cup and charges up the steps. The soda guy shakes a fist in his wake.

Edward is not terribly surprised when Gigante heads his way. He’s not completely surprised when what is deposited over his head is not the standard confetti but ice-cold Mountain Dew. The crowd roars in laughter. Gigante takes a bow, Edward shakes himself off like a wet dog. Gigante runs downstairs to lead the YMCA dance. Edward takes off his sweatshirt and wipes himself off. When he gets to his face, he smells something rancid, and realizes that it smells precisely like urine.

Fighting simultaneous waves of disgust and anger, Edward spies Gigante entering a tunnel behind the third-base dugout and quickly follows. He arrives just as the dressing-room door clicks shut. He bangs on it.

“Let me in!”

A voice comes through the door. “Gigante is currently unavailable.”

“Let me in, you cunt!”

The door clicks open. Edward opens it and finds Zelda on the couch, headless.

“Please close the door and stop swearing. You’ll scare the children.”

He applies all of his self-control to do as she asks, but turns quickly to make his point.

“You fucking bitch. That was criminal. I do not deserve…”

She hurls Gigante’s head at Edward’s head. He deflects it with his arm.

“You deserve to have your dick lopped off. Don’t tell me what you deserve.” She seems to tire and plops back onto the couch. “Use the shower.”

“And have you steal my clothes?”

“Use the goddamn shower!”

Edward catches a whiff of himself, and realizes that he has no choice. He takes off his clothes, muttering. “Crazy fucking… unbelievable… god… damn… I hope it was at least your piss.”

“Does it matter?”


“It was.”

“Good.” He starts the water and looks back. “Could I bother you to give my clothes a rinse?”


Edward settles under the spray, remembering the hot August nights when this shower was his personal savior. He hears Zelda working the sink, kneading his clothing into the water. He finds a bar of soap and indulges in a full lather. He rinses off, is about to step outside when Zelda steps in, naked, and grabs his dick.

“Can I make it up to you?”

Zelda recovers her breath and goes to the window. Edward is staying at the Toll House, a luxury hotel at the end of the Los Gatos strip. She looks across the highway and sees the creek trail.

“My God, Edward, you can almost see your old campground from here.”

Edward leans on an elbow. “Meaning?”

“You’re moving up. Is that what the disappearance was about? Making money?”


“So how did you make this money?”

“None of your damn business.”

She turns. “Illegal?”

“Rather not say.”

She bites her lip. “Okay.” Zelda sits at the edge of the bed and plays with his penis. “Does the money make you feel better?”

“Of course.”

“What about ‘Money can’t buy happiness’?”

“A myth spread by rich people. Money buys freedom. Opportunity. It doesn’t buy happiness, but it gives you more chances to pursue it.”


“Any chance you could suck my dick?”

Zelda straightens up, jolted by a hybrid of revulsion and excitement. Edward’s penis gets harder. She bites her lip.

“Pay me.”

“How much?”

“A Benjamin.”


“Right now. I want it in my hand.”

Edward crosses to the dresser, opens his wallet and pulls out a bill. Zelda studies Franklin’s face, wondering if he has any idea the twisted transactions his likeness has effected.

“Why don’t you lie down?” she asks.

“No,” he says. “On your knees.”

A charge runs along her spine. She lowers herself to the carpet and gets to work, the bill tucked into her free hand.

Edward awakens to an erect cock, and there’s no way it’s his, because the thing is enormous. He blinks it into focus, and finds that it’s a page from a magazine, propped against a pillow. Next to a sheet of hotel letterhead.

Good morning! This is Johnny Sequoia. He performed at Zarita’s bachelorette party. Afterwards, he fucked me on the balcony. It was the best sex I ever had. Have a nice day, darling. XXOO – Z

Zelda pulls to a stop at the meridian and finds the usual grungy panhandler, the usual cardboard propaganda: God bless, veteran, wife and children. She rolls down the window and hands him a bill. Halfway into the intersection, she hears his cowboy whoop.

Photo by MJV

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Creation of "Shape"

FREE, June 2-3 on Amazon Kindle. The new collection from award-winning poet Michael J. Vaughn.

In the fall of 2007, Kara Gebhart Uhl and Maria Schneider, my editors at Writer’s Digest, asked me for a history piece on the shape poem – the idea of using a poem’s typographical layout to represent an object or image referred to in the poem. It seemed like a natural subject for me; I am a hobbyist painter, and have always enjoyed using bits of text in my artworks. My curiosity was further piqued when I discovered John Hollander’s majestic 1969 Swan and Shadow – and his book Types of Shape – and then enjoyed a brief correspondence with Hollander himself, then a professor emeritus at Yale.

In reading other shape poems, however, I came away largely disappointed. Too many had clearly been written mainly to comment upon – and fill the contours of – their chosen shapes. The poem was serving the needs of the shape, when it should be the other way around. With this in mind, I took one of my free-verse poems – Papageno’s Complaint, inspired by the birdcatcher character in Mozart’s Magic Flute – and, using a primitive but satisfying cut-and-paste technique, reshaped it into the form of a toucan. Later, after I used the positional relationships of the words on the page to transfer the image to my computer (the “r” in line 3 just over the “T” in line 4, and so on), I gazed at the Times New Roman bird perched upon my screen and felt that I had created something magical.

In the following months, I became obsessed, spending hours in the corner of a coffeehouse, running through glue sticks as I converted my favorite poems into imagery. When I handed the work to friends, I got just the reaction I wanted: a look of fascination at the idea that a poem could also be a salamander, a ’65 Mustang or Frank Sinatra, followed by the eyes focusing in on the words that might inspire such an intriguing silhouette.

Sadly, I could not find a press to deliver my work into book form (although a couple were sorely tempted), and the poems sat in my files. Then, in early 2015, I was reviewing the stats for my blog, Writerville (Writerville.blogspot.com) and discovered that a cell-phone photo of my “bear” poem, Consolation, posted upon its publication in the journal Terrain.org, had drawn ten times more pageviews than the second post on the list. I realized that photos of the poems would maintain the poems’ integrity in a Kindle ebook version, and I was off on this project. I hope you enjoyed them. Thanks!

Michael J. Vaughn

Following is the Writer’s Digest article that resulted from my assignment.

Concrete Poetry
from Writer’s Digest, March 13, 2008
In a shape poem, a poet uses the lines of his text to form the silhouette of an identifiable visual image—generally, an image that represents or comments upon the subject of the poem.

The shape poem goes back to Greek Alexandria of the third century B.C., when poems were written to be presented on objects such as an ax handle, a statue’s wings, an altar—even an egg. English poet George Herbert (1593-1633) led an Elizabethan movement using shape poems strictly for the page: two examples are “Easter Wings” and “The Altar,” written in the shape of, yes, wings and an altar. Lewis Carroll toyed with the notion in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, presenting “The Mouse’s Tale” in the shape of a mouse’s tail. The form continued into the 20th century through the typographical experiments of F.T. Marinetti and his anarchistic Futurism movement, Guillaume Apollinaire’s 1918 Calligrammes collection, the playful tinkering of e.e. cummings, the Chinese ideograms used by Ezra Pound, and various works by members of the Dadaist movement.
In the 1950s, a group of Brazilian poets led by Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Augusto de Campos sought to fully integrate the dual role of words as carriers of language and visual art. Using a phrase coined by European artists Max Bill and Öyvind Fahlström, the Brazilian group declared themselves the “concrete poetry” movement. In 1958, they issued a fiery manifesto lamenting the use of “words as mere indifferent vehicles, without life, without personality, without history—taboo-tombs in which convention insists on burying the idea.”

Concrete poetry was originally aimed at using words in an abstract manner, without an allusion to identifiable shapes. But as the movement reached the height of its popularity in the 1960s, it became less abstract and was adopted by conventional poets as a specific poetic form rather than a full visual/literary fusion. Many of them returned to the shape-based forms popular in the third century B.C.

Among the best of the ’60s shape poets was John Hollander, who created his works with a typewriter. As a scholar, editor and accomplished poet—working in many different forms—Hollander also provided a thorough explication of the process in his 1969 collection Types of Shape. Hollander described his process in a 2003 interview with the St. John’s University Humanities Review:
“I would think of the representation of some object in silhouette—a silhouette which wouldn’t have any holes in it—and then draw the outlines, fill in the outlines with typewriter type … and then contemplate the resulting image for anywhere from an hour to several months. The number of characters per line of typing would then give me a metrical form for the lines of verse, not syllabic but graphematic (as a linguist might put it). These numbers, plus the number of indents from flush left, determined the form of each line of the poem.”

In Hollander’s 1969 “Swan and Shadow,” he uses the text to create the silhouette of a swan, the surface of a lake and the swan’s upside-down shadow. Hollander relates the words of the poem to their physical location within the image. (The swan’s head, for example, describes “Dusk / Above the / water … ”).

“One certainly needs no artistic talent in order to draw a good bit, and certainly not to rough out a silhouette,” Hollander says. “It’s not a lack of talent, but an absolutely dreadful educational system that prevents everyone from being able to draw a little.”

Through laborious trial-and-error experiments, I’ve devised a process for creating a shape poem, with two inherent biases. First, my process gives precedence to preserving the integrity of the original poem, applying the visual image afterward. Second, my process takes advantage of two modern advances: the image reduction/enlargement capabilities of today’s copiers, and the conveniences offered by computer word-processing programs.

1. Write a poem. Try free verse or prose forms. For this article, I used “Papageno’s Complaint,” a free-verse poem I recently wrote. It was inspired by the bird catcher in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute.

2. Imagine a shape. It doesn’t have to reflect the primary subject of the poem. Sometimes it’s more effective to choose a shape that reflects a small detail or provides a subtle comment on the discourse. I chose the object of my character’s occupation: a bird. Because Papageno is a catcher of exotic birds, I settled on a toucan.

3. Find an image. In addition to the Internet, you might try magazines, photo books, children’s coloring books or craft stores. In my case, I found a photo of a toucan at a zoo’s website.

4. Get the right size. Run the lines of your poem together, inserting punctuation as needed, and print it out as a single prose paragraph. Compare the area taken up by your poem and that provided by your image. Use a copy machine to reduce or enlarge the image accordingly.

5. Cut and paste. Cut your poem into one-line strips and paste them over your image with a glue stick, beginning each line at the left margin of the image, and ending it at or slightly past the right margin. If you run out of words before you run out of image—or vice versa—return to the copier, adjust your image size and cut and paste again. This is the most arduous step, but it’ll make the final two steps much easier.

6. Head to your computer. Identify your most leftward line. Beginning at flush left, type the entire line; then work your way upward and downward, using your space bar to position each line’s first letter according to its relationship to adjoining letters. For the tip of the beak, “down,” for instance, the letter “d” is directly beneath the “n” in “and.”

7. Edit. Once you’ve typed out the poem, you may want to adjust or change words to polish the silhouette.

Monday, June 1, 2015

New Shape Poem Collection

FREE, June 2 on Amazon Kindle. The new collection from award-winning poet Michael J. Vaughn.