Elizabeth Bishop and the U.S.A. School of Writing

“When I think about it,” Elizabeth Bishop once wrote to James Merrill, “it seems to me I’ve rarely written anything of value at the desk or in the room where I was supposed to be doing it — it’s always in someone else’s house, or in a bar, or standing up in the kitchen in the middle of the night. . .”

Bishop was a famously, almost proudly unproductive poet. She was such a perfectionist that The New Yorker actually pleaded with her to part with some of her manuscripts and send them in.

Sometimes, when paralyzed by self-loathing after too many days without writing, or after weeks squandered on incremental changes, I reread her correspondence. It was from her letters that I first learned some writers don’t put pen to paper every day. Her dry spells, sudden spurts of inspiration, and periods of tinkering remind me that there’s no one way to write, that all is not lost just because I fall off the wagon for a week or two.

Next year the Library of America will publish Elizabeth Bishop: Collected Poems and Other Writings.

The book includes correspondence, stories, translations, reviews, drafts of unfinished poems (if you missed the debate about these, go here), and, best of all, some personal essays I’ve never seen. In “The U.S.A. School of Writing,” Bishop recalls taking a job at a shady, correspondence-based writing school during the Great Depression. She responded to students’ submissions under the name Fred G. Margolies.

Joshua Ferris’ grilled cheese sandwich

This month I’m posting recipes and food-related stories from some writers I like. Today Joshua Ferris, whose Then We Came to the End has been named one of the New York Times’ ten best books of 2007, explains how to make a perfectly browned grilled cheese sandwich.

I admired Ferris’ novel in Newsday last winter, and later was inspired by his reading of “Ghost Town Choir” at an event for New Stories from the South 2007 (edited by Edward P. Jones). More recently I enjoyed his thoughtful examination of the religious impulses that abound in the post-Christian world of Don Delillo’s White Noise.

Making a good grilled cheese looks deceptively simple. It’s actually an art and requires good technique and extreme vigilance.

This recipe — such as it is — goes back to my mom. Butter two slices of bread and place as much cheese as you like (cheddar turns stringy when melted, American liquidy, pepper jack somewhere between the two) between them and place the whole thing in the skillet. Set the burner on a very low setting. BE PATIENT. It’s important that the toasting of the bread happens in harmony with the melting of the cheese. A good grilled cheese requires at least fifteen minutes to make. Turn a corner of the bread up from time to time until it’s brown and ready to be flipped. Remember the second side cooks faster than the first.

I took a vow before a hundred people in Key West, Florida on February 5th, 2005 to make this for my wife any time she required one.

NBCC’s “Best Recommended List” debuts

The National Book Critics Circle has unveiled its new monthly recommended books list — which, as I understand it, is designed to provide alternatives to mainstream bestseller lists — by posting inaugural selections covering all of 2007. MaudNewton.com favorites Junot Díaz and Edwidge Danticat top the fiction and nonfiction lists, respectively. Head over to Critical Mass for the full selections, including poetry. (Perhaps Ron Silliman or Jordan Davis will comment on those choices.)

Voters included not just current members* but many of the NBCC’s former finalists and winners, and some of their outlying votes surface at the NBCC’s blog. There President John Freeman arranged for writers like Julia Alvarez and Amy Bloom to reveal their own choices. And at TEV, David Leavitt and Charles Solomon disclose their favorites.

* For the record, I haven’t joined.

James Hynes’ Midwestern spaghetti sauce

James Hynes — whom Chris Lehmann has called “a pioneer of genre-bending fiction” — is one of a handful of novelists whose books Max and I enjoy equally. He’s also an unselfish man. When we were in Austin earlier this year, Hynes not only met us for dinner but offered to drive our rental-carless asses home from the restaurant.

Recently he’s raved about Scott Westerfeld’s Extras in the NYTBR, started a blog, and posted a previously unpublished ghost story. And below he divulges his spaghetti sauce recipe.

About four years ago, I lost 90 pounds, so I don’t cook a lot of what I used to cook anymore. Not that I was ever much of a cook to begin with; I knew how to fry a hamburger and boil hot dogs, basically. These days I open a lot of bags of salad and eat lots of chicken and turkey. Now and then I still make one of the old dishes, and this is one of them, which would probably serve, say, four or five people for one meal, or one middle-aged bachelor for a week. It’s not fancy, it’s not authentic, it’s not even particularly original, it’s just one of the few dishes I know how to make without consulting a cookbook. It’s just plain old Midwestern spaghetti sauce.

First you dice a whole onion and a lot of garlic; I usually do at least four, and sometimes six cloves. I like a spicy sauce. Sauté them in oil in a cast iron pan until they’re golden brown, then add a pound or a pound and a half of hamburger. If I’m being calorie conscious, I use really lean meat or ground turkey breast, but meat with more fat in it holds the flavor better for some reason. Cook the meat and the onion and garlic together until the meat is done.

While you’re waiting for the meat to cook, empty one 28 ounce and one 14 ounce can of peeled whole tomatoes into a big pot. I can’t remember why I started doing two cans of different sizes; perhaps it was because my eyes were still watering from the onions and I couldn’t see what I was doing, but at any rate, it’s traditional now. Add one 12 ounce can of tomato paste, then fill up the empty tomato paste can with water once and maybe twice and add that, too. You might also want to kind of hack up the whole tomatoes with a knife in the pot (which probably explains why my knives are all so dull). Stir it all together and start the heat under the pot.

By now the meat is ready, so pour off the fat and add the meat to the sauce. Then add 2 teaspoons of oregano, 2 teaspoons of basil, a teaspoon of sugar, a teaspoon of dry mustard (or a tablespoon of French’s), and a half-teaspoon of pepper. I don’t add salt, because I’m hypertensive, but feel free. Sometimes, in the past, I used to add a little Worcestershire sauce, and sometimes a couple shakes of Tabasco sauce, but these days I usually throw in some of those dried red pizza peppers. Bring the meat sauce to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for at least half an hour. Add a bay leaf in the last ten minutes, though with all that onion, garlic, oregano, basil, Tabasco sauce, and pepper, you may not even notice it.

That’s it. Serve over pasta (though it’s not too bad on a baked potato, too), with parmesan.

Thomas Clancy through a stained-glass window

In this satirical 1991 video, the great James Wolcott battles multiple personalities induced by Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost — until he heals himself by comforting the hurt little boy inside him.

At the end of every road is another road, and at the end of that road is a place where it’s sunny and quiet, a place where we men can meet and talk, and our inner children can play together. And it will be good. And I think it’ll be really nice.

Wolcott’s disgust is a finely-honed arrow, one only a Mailer scholar — and admirer — could aim so precisely.

“For those of us who grew up in [Mailer's] literary thrall,” Wolcott wrote earlier this month, “losing him is like losing a planet, a fire sign of the Zodiac.”