Interview With Renée Lepreau
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We love learning the history in “Dear Barbara Browing.” How does learning about the context of an event impact you and your work?
Renée Lepreau: I only had vague memories of the Killer Coke campaign (still ongoing) and had forgotten the details of the assassinations. So when I started to write I poked around the internet reading about it for a while. Only a small piece of that research ended up in the poem, which is usually how it goes. I don’t set out to write documentary poems per se, but I do invite the outside world and all of its political and historical context into my brain and my life, and I’m pleased when those elements show up in the poems.
RR: We admire the craft in your sestina and especially how you manipulate the end-words–why did you choose the sestina and how did you approach such a strict form?
RL: The truth is that I wrote this in response to a workshop assignment by Amy Quan Barry—otherwise I probably never would have chosen such a restrictive form! I modeled it on Barbara Browning’s sestina because I’d just re-read her novel and I knew that if I had to write a sestina quickly, having the end words already decided for me would allow me to concentrate on the writing itself, instead of spending a lot of time messing around with different options. I also thought that if anyone would appreciate such a gesture, it would be her. I took inspiration from her sestina on the freedom to play with the end words. For me, it was an instructive example of the generative possibility of constraint. Amy advised us that the danger of a sestina is that one will end up treading water. So I had her voice in my head, urging me to keep it moving, and I let the end words guide me onward.
RR: This poem melds comical moments with great tragedy. How do you balance and intertwine such contrasting tones?
RL: I always worry that my tone will come off as flippant towards the tragedy when attempting this. I hope that’s not the case here. The older I get, the more I lean on a sense of humor to survive the pathos of life. I wasn’t always this way; it’s a learned strategy and spiritual orientation that has come with practice and necessity. Sometimes I’m too caught up in the dramas, but the goal is always to laugh at myself while still being present with the suffering, to surrender to the silliness of it all while still hearing as deadly serious the call towards ethical encounters with the world.
RR: We’re interested in your experiences as a midwife; can you discuss the importance of that to your writing?
RL: I actually have very few poems about birth work, considering the amount of space it took up in my life for over a decade. It’s been a year and a half since I went on sabbatical from midwifery to attend the M.F.A., and I’m only just starting to feel ready to write about those experiences. I think I needed some time and distance to figure out what I want to say and how to say it. There’s so much at stake for me in writing about out-of-hospital midwifery, which I am both passionately committed to ideologically and also have extremely complicated feelings about in terms of the model as it exists currently in the US context and the effects that being a midwife has had on my life. It feels as though much could go awry: that my intentions won’t match what is received by the reader, that I’ll offend people who had home births, people who had birth center births, people who had hospital births, former clients, other midwives—basically everyone! I need to find a way to write through those fears into what is most true and important for me to witness and theorize. I’m taking a labor theory class this semester that I think is helping me find approaches.
RR: If you could travel to any time period, which would you choose?
RL: To 70 million years ago to see the dinosaurs and all the other flora and fauna that didn’t make it through the Cretaceous extinction.
Renée Lepreau’s work appears in Issue 10.1 here.