It’s my privilege to toast Annie Boutelle. I say privilege because Annie is the founder and animating spirit of the Poetry Center at Smith. When Ruth Simmons encouraged the faculty to dream big, Annie did, and we are all the richer for it.
Annie always dreams big, as you know. She has a habit and character of intense and thoughtful attentiveness that inspires her poetic projects. Of her first book, Becoming Bone, poems inspired by the life of nineteenth-century New England poet Celia Thaxter, Annie writes that she was inspired by Childe Hassam’s painting in the Smith Art Museum, “White Island Light, Isles of Shoals, at Sundown,” which led her to learn about the relationship between Hassam and Thaxter, and to imagine herself within Thaxter’s complex life. Annie came to her second book, Nest of Thistles, through a lecture on Robert Burns that inspired her to return to her own Scottish childhood, the subject of many of the poems in that book. Her next book, Relic-works, a collaboration with Susan Heideman, offers images and poems that reflect on a series of medieval reliquaries that they saw in the Netherlands. Her most recent book, Caravaggio, takes us into the mind and work of that painter. I don’t think any of us would have imagined Annie and Caravaggio as kindred spirits; the book is an astonishing act of negative capability.
There are common threads in these four books—the inspiration—the breathing in—of the visual arts, and their transformation to words; the catalyst of travel; the power of place; and Annie’s remarkable ability to project herself into another time and another being. Annie’s gentleness of demeanor, her whimsical smile does not prepare you for what many readers call the fierceness of her poetry. Fellow poets use the words “etched,” “muscular,” “lean,” “intense,” “elegant,” “spare.” Death is never far from them.
Annie was born and raised in Scotland, where, in Ellen Watson’s words, she had an artsy and outdoorsy youth, not only writing poetry, but painting, singing, and acting. After taking her degree at the University of Saint Andrews, she came to the United States to teach French. She met her husband, Will, and decided to stay. She received her Ph.D. from NYU, published a book on Hugh MacDiarmid’s poetry, raised three children, taught at Suffolk University and then at Mount Holyoke, before joining the Smith faculty in 1984. She served as the Grace Hazard Conkling Poet from 2009-2012. She was a finalist for the 1999 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, the 2000 Katheryn Morton Award, and the 2002 Philip Levine Prize. Nest of Thistles won the Samuel French Morse Prize in 2005.
In her retirement, Annie has been spending more time with her twin grandsons in San Francisco, returning to the visual arts by taking a drawing class, and working on another book of poetry. Annie, we raise a glass to you, and look forward to many more powerful poems.