Jesse Lee Kercheval Discusses Idea Vilariño

Q: Poemas de amor, in which "I Write Think Read" and "I Am Here" were published, was first published in 1957 and revised multiple times throughout her life. Were the "I Write Think Read" and "I Am Here" published in different forms as well? How did the book change in its subsequent versions?

A: Idea Vilariño was part of the Generation of ’45, a group of Uruguayan writers whose legacy still casts a long shadow over South American writers and which included such writers as the Cervantes Prize–winning novelist Juan Carlos Onetti, Mario Benedetti, Amanda Berenguer, and, as an ex-officio, Argentinian member, Jorge Luis Borges. Vilariño and Onetti carried on a love affair that is one of the most famous in South American literature. Vilariño dedicated her Poemas de amor to Onetti and Onetti is the amor (love) referred to in the poems. They met in 1950 and continued the affair for a torturous 25 years despite his marriages to two other women. The Uruguayan military dictatorship put Onetti in a mental hospital in 1974. Then he fled Uruguay for exile in Spain. Idea Vilariño, stripped by the dictatorship of her teaching post, was left alone and isolated in Montevideo. Vilariño dedicated her Poemas de amor to Onetti and Onetti is the amor (love) referred to in the poems.

The first edition of Poemas de amor (1957) pre-dates both Anne Sextons To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960) and Sylvia Plaths Ariel (1965), and but it has much in common with their work. Vilariño constantly wrote new poems and included them in the next edition. But she also removed poems. For her it was the work of a life time, the way Leaves of Grass was for Walt Whitman, a poet she knew well. What changed most over time was the length of the Poemas de amor and the number of poems included. The first edition published in 1957 (Montevideo: Numero) is a tiny, square book about the size a greeting card. It lacks some of the poems that would later because Vilariño’s best known works such as the poems, “Tango” and “Calle Inca” about the street in Montevideo where she grew up. Even the 1964 edition (Montevideo: Siete poetas hispanimericos), reprinted in 1965 has just twenty one poems in it. The 1971 (Buenos Aires: Shapiro) edition has forty-one. The final edition (Cal y Canto, 2006) includes sixty-seven poems.

One of the poems included here, ”I Am Here”/“Estoy aquí" is included in the very earliest editions. But the second, “I Write Think Read”/“Escribo pienso leo" did not appear until the 1972 edition. It is then included in all the subsequent editions until the final one. Vilariño revised the individual poems very little, though sometimes a title changes from edition to edition.

But she was constantly revising the order of the poems, which changes the book substantially for the reader.

In all its editions, Poemas de amor is an intense book, full of poems about sexuality and psychology written in a strong, often angry voice. She continued to revise and expand Poems de amor through the decades ending with the final edition in 2006, published just three years before her death in 2009 and twelve years after Onettis. For Vilariño, Poemas de amor came to be more than a book about single and singular love. It stands as a testament to both the necessity and the impossibility of love in this world, especially for a passionate, independent woman determined to speak with her own voice.

Read "I Write Think Read" and "I Am Here"