Founder of the Poetry Center at Smith College, Annie Boutelle teaches in the English Department there. She has published in various journals, including The Georgia Review, The Hudson Review, and Poetry. She has published two books of poems: Becoming Bone (University of Arkansas Press) and Nest of Thistles (Morse Prize, UPNE). Currently she
is the Grace Hazard Conkling Poet-in-Residence at Smith. For more information, please visit her website.
“VIENNA, SPRING 1962”
Likely my email header startled, shoved him
back through time, like a birth canal in reverse,
shuttled him to a place where his whole body
was strange, slim and eager, in those stiff jeans,
and somehow innocent, despite the Bennington
girls he’d once seduced on their clichéd green
lawn. His mission, to learn four new languages
as the first step to becoming writer—who gave
him that idea? Not me. Though I was intrigued
by it—just like how I lapped up all he could
teach me about the French existentialists, one
shimmering day, at the foot of a heroic statue
on the Ringstrasse—could I ever find it again?
And his room, up that iron circular stair, where
we had to tiptoe, as he’d slept with his landlady,
who tended to be jealous. And he used to buy
me Whiskeyschnitten at the bakery near his pad,
and make me laugh. And on the avenues, the
chestnut trees flung forth their white blossom,
organ music boomed out of each cathedral, and
I was not in love with him, though fascinated,
ready to do almost everything he wanted, and
he was a patient man. He took my clothes off
in the moonlight, and I loved the smell of him,
and how earnest he was, he’s the only man I’ve
known to be curious about menstruation and
what it feels like, and he said “to speak of love
is to make love”—an assertion tested and found
true—and I let him lick my blood, and knew
I’d journeyed far from Oban, with no ticket back.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I would guess about two years ago—I’m not good at keeping track. It started when I located a former lover and sent him an email. We sent messages back and forth, and then stopped. But it got me thinking back to the time when I was seventeen and in Vienna for the spring semester—a thrilling time in my life with the cheap standing places at the State Opera several times a week, and a cadre of international students from all over the world, so German was our common language.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
It had very little, if any, revision. Its shape was clear from the start (longish lines and a block look), and I knew I wanted a kind of tumbling-forth pace, with lots of “and”s, and with each memory leading to another one.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I don’t think inspiration was involved, or sweat or tears, just an opening to the person I was in Vienna all those years ago, and the excitement of being there.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
About a year and a half.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
Occasionally I’m so excited, I send it straight off. But mainly I’ve learned that is super dangerous, and usually I live with it for at least a month before sending out.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
It’s entirely factual.
Is this a narrative poem?
Yes! But also, I would hope, lyrical.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I read widely, all the time, and hence I really can’t remember. But undoubtedly Lucille Clifton gave me permission to write about menstruation. For me, she was, and continues to be, a constant source of courage.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
While, especially in revision, I’m thinking hard re my audience and whether what I’m putting down on the page will reach them, mostly during the writing process I think I’m writing purely for myself, and gauging whether it pleases me, or not. (Iain Crichton Smith, the Scottish poet, was my high-school English teacher, and he constantly emphasized the need to murder one’s darlings.)
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
I meet with a monthly critique group, composed of Ellen Dore Watson, Amy Dryansky, Mary Koncel, Diana Gordon, and Maya Janson. They keep me on track.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
It’s more intimately personal than most of my poems, and very different from my current project, which focuses on Caravaggio.
What is American about this poem?
The lover character. . .
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
I’ve made one small change—the “with no ticket back” in the final line has become simply “no ticket back.” And now I'm finished with it.