Kate Baer: a poet who dreams of herself again as a woman


Before the pandemic, when she could afford a babysitter, Kate Baer wrote from a Panera bread near her home in Hummelstown, Pa., Where her favorite employee, Annemarie, guarded her booth with the power outlet and didn’t didn’t care if she brought her own food.

“I would order tea and pull out my peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” she said.

Since the pandemic, the 35-year-old mother of four has been working out of the Panera parking lot, sitting in her Honda minivan with her laptop leaning against the steering wheel, trying to pick up a Wi-Fi signal. Baer was wearing triple diapers, parked in the sun and sometimes exploded the heat to keep his fingers from going numb.

It was there that she wrote “What Kind of Woman”, a collection of poetry that dominated The New York Timesbestseller list for paperback commercial fiction when Harper Perennial published it late last year. It was his first paid piece of writing.

This is also where Baer wrote the first draft of her new book, a collection of “erasure poems” that repurpose the nasty messages she receives about her work, removing words to create new poems. .

A few days ago, on International Women’s Day, she posted one of these poems on Instagram alongside her original post. This was an “independent literary critic” requesting an interview and noting that while his work was well written, this was not the topic he would like to read. “Not unbearable, but not universal either,” he wrote. He made a suggestion: maybe studying some of the classics – Edgar Allan Poe, Thomas Hardy, or Henry David Thoreau – would help him make his work more relevant.

Baer took a screenshot of the note and sat down at her desk, these men’s three books on the shelf behind her, and began to whitewash her words using a tool on her telephone :

“It is / unbearable / the path / we have allowed / what is good / to take / the / form / of men”

“I guess my message is that this narrative of what ‘good art’ is tired and not up to you anymore,” Baer said in an interview.

It is rare, but not uncommon, for poets to make the bestseller list with their early work. Rupi Kaur, the hugely popular Instapoet, did it; Amanda Gorman, whose first book comes out in September, may be on the right track. But poetry has, perhaps unsurprisingly, seen some sort of resurgence of the pandemic, said Jennifer Benka, president and executive director of the Academy of American Poets. “It helps us make sense and make sense of what we are going through. “

Baer found his voice in that, but in subjects that have not traditionally been considered “high art”: raw, conflicting feelings about her body (“hard to describe / don’t know how to say / a great personality / really pretty face but, “she writes in” Fat Girl “); the solace, but sometimes the agony, of a long-term partnership (” Are you still here? I’m here too ” (her in “Marriage as a Death”), the crippling loneliness that accompanies motherhood, especially at this time, even if you are never really alone.

“She puts words on what a lot of women won’t say out loud,” said Soraya Chemaly, author of “Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger”.

These words have resonated with women, many of whom tell her that they are coming to poetry for the first time. In a year when everyone, but maybe especially mothers, are looking for words to express their exhaustion and anger, in Baer, ​​they have found someone to say it for them – and in excerpts short enough that they actually have time to read an article. in its entirety.

“I discovered his work during the pandemic,” said Imani Payne, who works in human resources in San Francisco. “I still didn’t have a daycare; I was at home with my husband and our 2 year old, both trying to work full time. It was like everything you’ve read – the chaos of trying to deal with it all. And then I got his book, I immediately sat down, and found myself in tears, poem after poem.

Baer grew up on Amish romance novels and YM magazine, the daughter of an elementary school teacher and meat-packing factory worker turned Christian radio host, about 40 minutes outside of Philadelphia . A high school teacher introduced him to the work of Margaret Atwood, still his favorite writer. “It was like a gateway drug,” Baer said.

She then studied English – “a pretty useless major,” she joked – at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., And met her husband, also a graduate of the school, little. time after. She spent most of her twenties doing odd jobs: as an administrator in a dentist’s office and then in a music school, as a nanny, in her alma mater’s computer lab. Of these, she said, “Basically my job was to say, ‘You should restart your computer. “”

During a particularly desperate time, Baer said, she cleaned the homes of the deceased hoarders (she found the job on Craigslist) – which was bad, but not as bad as cleaning the dorms, which ‘she also did for a while.

Baer was 27 and seven months pregnant with her first child when she was fired from her job at a non-profit organization. Her husband had just enrolled in medical school. “We were already living off loans. We had no money and childcare was so expensive, so I just decided I was going to stay home, ”she said.

Home with one child, then two, then three – then four, the result of a pregnancy she found out about two weeks before her husband had to have a vasectomy.

Baer was happy but dissatisfied. She started writing emails to friends, which turned into a motherhood blog, with topics such as body image, her struggle with postpartum depression, and her desire for something more mixed up. She has written chapter titles for fantasy books, such as “Spousal Chewing: A Survivor’s Guide” and “Childbirth, Postpartum Poop, and Sex After a Vaginal Massacre: A Love Story.” (To pay the babysitter so she could write, she edited resumes for $ 10 an hour and an erotic novel about pioneer women.)

“Mom blogging” was popular at the time, and Baer seemed to thrive on it. But there was always a nuance: “serious” writers didn’t write about “mom’s stuff”. So she decided to take a step back. She started working on a novel, a thriller about a group of women who get tangled up in the lives of others “in the vein of Gillian Flynn,” she said.

Four years after the beginning of this novel, Baer began to “cheat on poetry”, as she put it. It was 2019, and she had the courage to email her agent, “What if I wrote a book of poetry instead?

There is a long history of poetry that erases layers of femininity, said Maya Popa, editor of poetry reviews at Publisher’s Weekly.

And yet, for a long time, said poet Robin Morgan, whose 1972 book “Monster” was dubbed a “hymn of the women’s movement,” women who wrote about their inner lives were considered “confessional.” , while the men were simply “literary”. . “

“If a woman used the term ‘rag,’ ‘diaper,’ something like that, it was considered disgusting,” Morgan said. (She noted that the acceptance letter sent to her for the first poem she ever published, in a literary journal, called her “Mr. Robin Morgan.” She did not correct them.)

This has changed, slowly but surely, in part thanks to the Internet. Popa noted that Kim Addonizio’s 2019 viral poem, “To the woman who cries uncontrollably in the next dropout,” “spoke without flinching” of an experience many women could relate to, as did ” Good Bones ”by Maggie Smith on trying to muster the enthusiasm of selling your children to the world despite its horrors.

These horrors only metastasized during a pandemic. “I’ve spoken to so many people, even in publishing, who have said to me right now, ‘I just can’t read a book,’ said Mary Gaule, Baer editor at HarperCollins. “And I think poetry looks like medicine, for some reason.”

For many Baer readers, it is as much a balm as a cry that they should not utter aloud (lest the children hear it).

“Having to deal with Zoom’s schedules, lunch and snacks and also moving towards your own goals, and dealing with your marriage, and the stress of having kids at home all the time, exhaustion. all of that – that’s a lot, ”says Payne, the mother from San Francisco. “She captured that frustration so well.”

Frustration and anger.

In the poem “Motherload”, Baer writes:

She keeps a desk in her breastbone, the apartment

bone in the center of his chest with all its

urgent papers, extensive appointments, lists of

minor things. In her vertebrae, she holds more

carnal tasks: milk jugs, rotten plants, heavy-bottomed toddlers in all their deadly rage.

In “Interview with Self”, she asks:

Can I have it all? No. Can I have it all? No. Can I have it all? No.

In “Transfiguration”, she says that she dreamed of herself as a mother, but when she became her, “I must have / dreamed her again as a woman”.

“There have been some really low times in this pandemic where I thought, ‘I can’t take another day to feel like this,’” Baer said. She was at home, locked in her room, while her children and the babysitter were downstairs. “But it helps to know it’s not just me. “

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