on writing, rewriting, & taking notes

Review of Firsts: 100 Years of Yale Younger Poets

Firsts is a curiously democratic gathering of poems by poets who have won the Yale Younger Poets Prize. The title could stand for the first time these poets were brought into prominence by winning a prize, or that they rank first in the company of poets. Each poet gets three poems, much like the guidelines of a proper contest. At first, the anthology seems to be about the judges. Indeed, the editor has written an introduction that is mostly about the judges of the prize, and if you turn to the end, you will find a list of judges, listed by year, followed by a list of the winning poets. Turning to the poems, you might be mildly irritated that each poet is presented to the reader with a mini cv, stating place of birth, books, and prizes, as well as occupation. Could there be a stuffier volume of poems? What was Carl Phillips thinking, augmenting tweediness with tweed, the fustiness of academia?  
Obviously, Phillips knew what he was doing.

The world these days

Amid the real suffering, and the insidious politics, the nervous fear some have of not knowing the end day, there is the ordinary day to day life of someone like me who still believes this is a situation that will only get worse, who is enraged by the racism arising from naming the virus as particular to an Asian country, but who is also, so far, darn lucky.

My problems are minor. If you live in a remote area, tend to be a loner, keep company with your work, books, cats, then social-distancing should not be a problem.  Yet all the things that make a life pleasant –the runs to a cafe for coffee and companionship, the excitement of the transformation of a sleepy town to full-blown cultural candy store as the season comes round again, the pottering about in garden centers to see what is available, and how things are growing, the daydreaming that lets the imagination take flight via airline websites and possible flights, the concerts and plays one had planned ahead with tickets already bought, the room for spontaneity in a movie run, a dinner with friends–all of that is now in the past.  

So I’ve been writing, teasing a plot of nonsense, and I’ve been reading.  Book after book I download onto my iPad, overcoming my distate of electronic reading, my appetite limitless.  I am saving Hilary Mantel’s latest, waiting until I reach a point of exasperation, so I can remember, but wait, there’s still Cromwell’s end to come. I watch Jane Austen adaptations, akin to a comparative study, and Gardener’s World, both providing ample comfort.  

And yes, I wonder if a stray cough is more than what it is, a stray cough brought on by dry inside air. And yes, I am on social media far more than necessary. And yes, I woke at four am for no reason. But right now, as I type these words, a Bach cello concerto is being played by Yo Yo Ma over the airwaves.  Read that sentence again. Is that not itself is a miracle?

Midnight Pasta

Happy to have a recipe published in the new local paper, The Provincetown independent.

For a time in the early to mid nineties, I lived in San Diego—in the Windnsea neighborhood in La Jolla, to be precise.  I knew nothing about San Diego, but took a chance and moved to there to teach fiction writing at the university.  I landed in a remarkably open, multicultural community (my main motivation to go) and found a bevy of smart, fun, and generous friends.  They were a mix of hardcore intellectuals, writers, and surfers.  I went to many parties and gave a few myself.   At one, as the music cooled and the crowd of twenty or so got their second wind, my friend Pasquale Verdicchio, a poet from Naples, told us it was time for midnight pasta.  Off we trooped into the kitchen, where I got a big pot of spaghetti going. Pasquale sliced up garlic, which he threw onto a warming pan of oil, searing them to a golden crispy almost-brown.  He skillfully, theatrically, mixed the garlicky oil into the al dente spaghetti.  A little parsley, some salt, and lots of red pepper flakes, and there we had it: midnight pasta.

I have returned to the dish many times, sometimes using angel hair pasta, sometimes linguini, if that is all I find in the house. These days, though, I mostly eat alone, accompanied by two sleepy cats and Netflix.  The dish is easy to adjust to single portions.  Just measure out the amount of pasta you’ll eat and reduce the ingredients accordingly. You will have enough for a bowl, though you might want to cut a slice of bread to run around the dish to sop up lingering sauce.

Although I think few things go together so well as  garlic, olive oil, and red pepper, you can be endlessly creative with this dish. Go ahead, zest some lemon into the bowl, add add baby spinach or arugula, with maybe a touch of nutmeg.  Or, add chunks of goat cheese and chopped toasted walnuts, swap out the garlic for torn wedges of mandarin orange, dribble a touch of balsamic vinegar, and grind black peppercorn over the dish for bite. Grated parmesan is an easy addition.  Another option is to sauté some chopped tomato, red bell pepper, and broccoli rabe with the garlic and red pepper flakes, topping the dish off with a scattering of toasted pine nuts. But at midnight, you just might want to keep it simple.


Midnight Pasta Recipe

(serves 6-8)

I pound spaghetti

Several cloves of garlic, thinly sliced, or minced

Olive oil, about a ½  cup

¼ cup of pasta water

Red pepper flakes

Salt to taste

Fresh Parsley, (or basil if in season)

¼ cup grated parmesan (optional)



Boil the water for the pasta.  Salt it like Ina Garten tells us, with a good amount, to mimic the sea.

Add the spaghetti. A pasta maker once told me that no pasta needs more than eight minutes in the pot.  I still test the noodles by biting them, looking for the white raw interior to vanish.

Remember to save a quarter cup of the pasta water before draining the pasta.


While the pasta is getting ready, heat the oil in a large saucepan, and saute the garlic, being careful not to burn it.  It should take just a few seconds to turn a beautiful golden bronze.

Add some of the saved pasta water.

Add the red pepper to the oil, as much as you and your guests prefer.

Drain the spaghetti and add it to the pan, mixing gently.

If using, add the Parmesan.

Add salt to taste.

Tear parsley into small pieces and sprinkle if you like.


Originally published in The Provincetown Independent, February 27, 2020

%d bloggers like this: