Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We’re drawn in by the images in “Breaststroke” and how they bring such an emotional intensity to competitive swimming. Do you have any personal experiences with aquatics, and if so, how did they influence this piece?

Renee Veldman: I began swimming competitively at a very young age and continued all throughout my childhood. I decided to take a break from swimming when I entered college, but, just a few short months later, found myself open water swimming, which is now how I continue to spend my summer days. I was also a swim coach for a brief stint. The combination of my own experience in the sport, and from working with and coaching young people, I have noticed that disordered eating patterns and body dysmorphia are hauntingly and increasingly prevalent among young athletes, especially so in a sport that emphasizes being streamlined and hydrodynamic. This poem wrestles with the natural, yet seemingly unnatural, biological adolescent changes that seem countercultural to a young woman in a world hyper-focused on performance and progress.

RR: We love the viscerality of the cannibalistic imagery in the final stanza. How did you come to the idea of combining body dysphoria and body horror?

RV: As I was working on the ending of this poem, I spent a lot of time thinking about the harmful ways in which body dysphoria not only distorts the self but also surrounding relationships. Friendships that are meant to be grounded in playfulness and solidarity have become tainted by competition, comparison, and jealousy. The consideration of these topics sparked the idea for me, and it seemed fitting to include some sort of psychologically disturbed imagery in relation to a topic that is both incredibly psychological and consuming.

RR: The formatting of the piece seems to follow a figure that becomes more constricted as it goes on. How do you decide what form a poem will take?

RV: The way I format a piece is really all just dependent on what makes sense for that specific work. Sometimes I like to play with orientation on the page to manipulate the speed in which the reader takes it all in or into a configuration that ebbs and flows with the mood of the piece. For this specific poem, it made sense for each line to increasingly dwindle and sharpen. 

RR: In your bio you shared that you are an educator. Are there ways you feel like that role has influenced your writing?

RV: Working with youth has definitely made me even more hyper-aware of the unique struggles and changes that adolescents face. This has also caused me to be more reflective on my own adolescence. I learn so much from the youth that I work with as well and have found a heightened sense of playfulness and imagination in myself and my writing since beginning this role. 

RR: This poem leans heavily into aspects of horror–is that a genre you’re interested in, and if so what are some of your favorite pieces?

RV: I have been particularly fascinated by classic horror novels throughout different points of my life, and while it may not be what I gravitate towards the most at this moment, it does still permeate my thoughts and inspiration. One of my all time favorite books is The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Read “Breaststroke” by Renee Veldman.