Learning the Hard Way: A Conversation with Kate Baer

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It was 4 a.m. on God-knows-what-day-of-the-week because they’re all similar when you have a newborn. In the dark, I sat on my couch holding my son after feeding and changing him.

With three months of parenting experience, I could now complete these tasks without turning on any lights. I rubbed his back while I listened to his tiny snores and felt his heartbeat against my chest. I felt delirious from the lack of sleep but full of a new type of love that was so heavy that at times I thought it might cleave my chest bone in two. Simultaneously, I was overwhelmed at the realization that my life would now be full of worry, but also more hopeful than I’d ever been in my thirty years. More than anything, I wanted to sleep for two days straight.

Despite the complexity and richness of these feelings, I made a pact in that moment to never write about mothering. If I wrote about parenting, I could never be a serious writer. At the time I believed myself to be a feminist, and yet I had no idea how much internalized misogyny was pumping through my veins regarding the topic.

The pact didn’t last long, but the feelings lingered. I berated myself when my first essay about parenting was published and quietly resigned myself to becoming a mommy blogger, a phrase I meant in the most disparaging way. Then, I found Kate Baer. Specifically, the poem “Motherload.” Her visceral words boiled down my own feelings and for the first time I couldn’t deny motherhood was beautiful, complicated, and worthy of examination. Not only did I feel seen, but I felt excited about this pass to write about motherhood. Baer’s work has given folks permission to explore and value our experiences as parents. Her first poetry collection, What Kind of Woman, was an instant New York Times best-seller.

Her latest, I Hope This Finds You Well, is a collection of erasure poems created from letters and notes received from fans, online trolls, and transcripts of current events such as Trump’s pussy-grabbing rant. Overall, the collection reads as a compelling act of reclaiming.

I was delighted to talk to Baer about her newest collection, the return to in-person events, and the hellhole that is social media.

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The Rumpus: Congratulations on the new book. I know your previous tour was remote due to the pandemic. What was it like to discuss your work in person for the first time since the pandemic started?

Kate Baer: My first book came out peak pandemic, so I did everything on Zoom. I got to do my first in-person event last week and it was incredible. It was beyond what I could have imagined.

I was so nervous, I thought I was going to barf. I was sick to my stomach. We had a sold-out show on Wednesday with Joanna Goddard, and I had no idea how it was going to go, but when I came out, and everyone screamed, it was like, Oh, this is what I’ve been missing.

This whole time I’ve been talking to dead space without feedback, and then to hear people laugh and see half of their faces was incredible. I’m an introvert, I’m not a public speaker, but it was really wonderful. I look forward to doing it again.

Rumpus: For people who don’t know, how would you describe an erasure poem?

Baer: I think a lot of times people get it confused with blackout poetry. It’s similar. It’s taking someone else’s original work—in this case, it’s a lot of messages, emails, spam, court transcripts, and other articles—and then redacting words to make a new piece. You can also do that with blackout poetry, which is using a black pen instead of a Wite-Out pen.

Rumpus: What was your first experience with this type of work?

Baer: I hadn’t really read a lot of a blackout poetry; I knew what it was, I’d seen it, and appreciated it as an art form because it can be beautiful. A lot of visual artists and visual poets create beautiful blackout poetry pieces, which is incredible.

The first time I made one was after George Floyd had been murdered, and I was talking about police reform on the internet. I had a lot of messages come in about that, which was expected. Normally, I delete those. I don’t really find a lot of connection in an inbox conversation about something like police reform, but I was kind of looking through them, deleting them, and I came across one from a woman who disagreed with me. The words kind of stuck out to me in a new form. I took a screenshot, hid her identity, whited out some of the words, and made a piece out of it and posted it.

The response was strong, which I think proves there are a lot of people at odds with other people on the internet, and even more at odds with people they actually know. It kind of went on from there. To be honest, I never meant to write a whole book of them. It felt like a party trick. But then people were really connecting with it, and my publisher approached me about it, but I kept saying no, because it felt really depressing. Again, it was the height of the pandemic, and I was trying to put out this other book. My kids were home, not in school, and I had nowhere to work. I had to write this book in my van. It was difficult. There were a lot of difficult parts about it. When it was finished, I was glad that I wrote it because seeing it as a whole was great. But the actual writing part was kind of depressing, to be honest.

Rumpus: I’ve seen some of the pieces in this book referenced as revenge poems, which I don’t think is incorrect, but when I read them, I felt overwhelmed by the transformation from cruel to kind. To me, it read like an incredible act of kindness that you bestowed on the folks that wrote terrible messages to you and to others. What are your thoughts about revenge poems versus an act of kindness? How do you view the work that you have created for this collection?

Baer: People ask me that a lot: Do you feel like you took revenge on these people? And there were times when I did feel that way. It felt good, especially when they were deeply personal about what I look like.

The ones about other people putting down other groups of people didn’t feel good. That didn’t feel like me taking revenge. It felt gross and upsetting. Revenge would not be a word that I would use to describe those. There were some cathartic parts of it, as far as making it beautiful. It was also deeply satisfying to find messages that worked. I had to throw out so many messages I got because there weren’t enough nouns and adjectives to make a poem, so in that way, it was a victory.

Rumpus: If anybody reading wants to send you gross hate mail, they need to make sure to add an adequate number of nouns and adjectives.

Baer: I’m no longer taking submissions because I am not planning to write any more of these. But there was a span of time where I was like, Please, if you are going to be terrible on the internet, please use better vocabulary. Get a dictionary; throw me a bone here!

Rumpus: I was wondering if there was any content that didn’t make it into the collection that people would be interested to know about?

Baer: There is a piece that I felt showed someone’s identity too much, so I couldn’t quite make it work. There were some funny ones that didn’t have the language. They didn’t have the vocabulary. That was disappointing.

We also took out a few pieces that were incredibly transphobic, homophobic, and racist. I felt like I should not be the one who’s profiting off these terrible messages. We threw them out.

Rumpus: Do you have a favorite in this collection?

Baer: Yes, my favorite is the last poem, “Re: My Daughter’s Struggle.” It’s from a dad, and I think it pairs really well with “Re: When Chad is a Dad.” It’s a message from a father who was really connecting with the work I was putting out there and was realizing that his daughter was going to be facing things that he never faced. It makes me cry when I read it. I think it’s such a beautiful message and gives a lot of hope.

Rumpus: Have you been surprised by any reader reactions from this collection?

Baer: Yesterday, a woman messaged me and said that one of the pieces that’s from the book, which I had also put online, had prompted her to leave her husband who was abusive. Those kinds of things are very surprising to me. You know, I think it’s easy to feel like there’s nothing you do that makes a difference, not that I’m trying to make a difference in anyone’s life, but it kind of scared me.

What else are people doing because I said something? Of course, I felt proud of her and humbled that she would even say that to me, or that she would have the strength to leave an abusive relationship. Those kinds of messages are surprising to me only because I’m not writing books with the intention of creating self-help books.

Rumpus: I originally found your work through your poems on motherhood. I was especially moved by “Motherload.” When I first had my son, I made a secret pact with myself to never write about parenting. At first, I didn’t even know why I was making the pact. Is internalized misogyny related to motherhood and writing something you have dealt with? If so, what did you do with it?

Baer: It’s taken me so long to recognize that in myself. I took a huge break from writing about motherhood. I spent four years writing a literary thriller novel instead, which is unpublished. I was sick of being called a mommy writer. I didn’t want to be called that anymore. I wanted to be taken seriously. It’s only now that I realized that my response to that was playing into it. I am internalizing that misogyny that I feel, and then making it worse by acting on it.

It was a great lesson to learn. I have to learn things the hard way. People are always talking about other people like, Oh, she’s an old soul. I’m a new soul, really dumb, and have to learn everything ten times the hard way. I spent four years not writing about motherhood, so that I could realize, Oh, it’s okay to do that.

How many coming-of-age stories have we read about baseball? Motherhood is a universal experience. We’ve all had a mother, in some way. We all come from a mother, for better or for worse. To say that is not a universal experience or to be put in some niche chick-lit column is ridiculous, and I am glad to not be playing into that anymore.

Rumpus: I’ve heard you discuss the privilege you have and the sacrifices your family made so you could focus more seriously on writing. That first step of allowing yourself permission to pursue goals outside of the home and outside of money-making work is an area where many mothers continue to struggle. What do you think your life would look like if you hadn’t given yourself that permission?

Baer: I am scared to look at that reality. It’s hard to put yourself out there, but the alternative of not doing it and not trying is so sad to me. To get to the end of your life and have played it safe is much worse. I can’t imagine being a full-time mother. It’s draining. It’s so difficult, and mothers do so much. To have that be the only thing is terrifying to me. To be left wondering, should I have tried to be a writer after all? I don’t know what it looks like, but I’m so glad I can’t see it.

Rumpus: What are some of your first memories of poetry?

Bear: Being really bored. Children get such a rough start with poetry. In school, we’re given a bunch of dead old white guys to read, and who wants to read that? Especially when you’re six? I had no interest in poetry. In high school, I read more poetry and wrote a lot of bad poetry that carried over to college. I took a bunch of college poetry classes, again, writing more bad poetry and reading it aloud in coffee shops, as one does when you’re an English major.

I thought that to be a poet, you had to be a certain kind of person, which I didn’t feel like I was. I didn’t pursue it. I wrote it for myself. I didn’t share any of it. When Mary Oliver died, I started reading a bunch of her work. That was a gateway into reading more poetry, and realizing how much of poetry is not old, white dead guys. I started to write poems and started cheating on my novel. I started writing on a more consistent basis and found my groove. I realized how much I love that boiled down kind of storytelling.

Rumpus: I think a lot of folks are drawn to poetry, but then feel exactly what you experienced, like, I’m not a poet, or, This couldn’t be for me. Do you have any favorite writing exercises for people trying to write poetry?

Baer: I think if you want to write poetry, the number one thing to do is to read a lot of poetry. Reading poetry is the best way to get the rhythm, get the pacing, and the importance of vocabulary in a poem. Read a whole bunch of different kinds of poetry and then read it out loud. It is really helpful to get it in your mouth.

Rumpus: Social media is obviously a toxic hellhole, but it’s also the place that you have found success and readers. What does it feel to live within those truths?

Baer: Terrible. I’m grateful because I’ve been able to sell books because I have an audience that will buy them. There are many great parts of social media, but I have to take a lot of breaks. People keep asking me, “What can people do when they feel really down by social media?” I get off it.

Something that has really helped me is surrounding myself with real people who see me and know me. Focus on those real human connections, and don’t rely on Instagram or any kind of social media as your human interaction for the day. There’s so much we lose. Obviously, COVID-19 has made it difficult to see people in real life, but it’s hugely important.

Especially for me, my female friendships are just as important to me as my marriage. I wouldn’t be able to be married without them because they’re filling in all the gaps of where a marriage cannot be.

I love the internet for a lot of reasons. I love to send a meme. I like to discover poetry and share my own, but I can’t rely on that as my human connection for the day. Social media gives people access to all of kinds of poetry, which is wonderful. I think some people really want to run away from that or they shit all over it because if anyone can be a poet, then it’s harder to be a gatekeeper. I find that to be a toxic thought process.

Jerry Seinfeld is asked all the time about how nowadays anyone can be a comic, and he’s like, “That’s great.” The cream will always rise to the top, basically. The work that’s connecting with people will always come out. Why does it matter? If anyone can be a comic, why does it matter? If anyone can produce a song and stick it on Spotify, why does it matter? It doesn’t matter. The work that’s connecting with people will succeed.

There’s still so much gatekeeping in the publishing world, especially for black and brown writers, and LGBTQ writers. How wonderful that we have a platform where anyone can share their work.

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Photograph of Kate Baer by Austin Baer.


Samantha is the author of Putting Out: Essays on Otherness. She is based in Brooklyn, NY. Find out more about her work here: https://www.0samanthamann.com/ More from this author →