An interview with Kate Baer

By Kelsey Motes-Conners and Emma Fricke Nelson

Since her poems “On the Evening of Her Birth” and “Deleted Sentences” went viral in 2019, Kate Baer has created a digital community of loyal readers, deeply empathetic and highly engaged. Writing with frank humor and searing honesty, Kate dives into the beauty and struggle of what it means to be a lover, woman, mother, and poet. We interviewed Kate via Zoom in late August of 2020. She joined us from the parking lot of the coffee shop where she escaped, pre-pandemic, to write. In these times of uncertainty, it is refreshing to connect with someone as open and thoughtful as Kate. We sat down with her to cover all the basics—Amish romance literature, cigarettes, emerging writers that inspire us, aesthetics, and what it means to create art within the voyeuristic world of social media. Kate Baer is the author of What Kind Of Woman, her debut book of poetry, published by HarperCollins, November 2020.

KELSEY MOTES-CONNERS
Kate, you’ve said that you grew up reading Amish romance literature: what kinds of women did you discover in those books?

KATE BAER:
I did grow up reading Amish romance literature! Those women reflected a lifestyle that seemed romantic and beautiful to me. I’d grown up reading Little House on the Prairie and so this was an extension of that. Like here–you can live like Laura Ingalls Wilder today too.

EMMA FRICKE NELSON:
I’m curious about this—when you were reading did you find parallels with the women you knew growing up outside of Philadelphia, or were they a different type of woman?

KB:
I didn’t know anyone like that. I was growing up in the 1990s mainstream Christian culture in a private Mennonite school because that’s where my mom taught middle school and where I could go for free. I don’t know if this was offered to me as an ideal standard; it wasn’t like teachers were handing us these books and saying “you should be like them.” But I will say there were plenty of banned books not available to me while these were available. I haven’t thought of the psychology of it, but obviously there’s so much to unpack there.

KMC:
I mean certainly in the context of even the title of your book it seems pertinent.

KB:
It does!

KMC:
Moving then from what you were allowed to read in that context, you had a high school teacher who changed your life by suggesting you read Margaret Atwood—what a revolution. What was it about Margaret Atwood that changed everything for you?

KB:
As a 16-year-old girl in a small, Mennonite school–all I knew was that these books were nothing like anything I’d read before. Lauren Groff has this brilliant line in Fates and Furies that reads: “She was so tired of the old way of telling stories, all those too-worn narrative paths, the familiar plot thickens, the fat social novels. She needed something messier, something sharper, something like a bomb going off.” That is how Atwood was and still is for me. Like a bomb going off. I distinctly remember reading The Handmaid’s Tale and having a visceral reaction. My whole body was buzzing. Everything changed after that.

EFN:
Tell us more about the bomb—about that moment and how that looked for you going forward…

KB:
When you’re used to reading Amish romance novels, a book like Oryx and Crake or The Handmaid’s Tale is otherworldly content-wise. But I think the heart of it was how she used language. As a young writer in middle and high school, we read so many classics that I assumed “good” writing needed to be flowery and formal and very ornamented. Atwood really blew the lid off that theory, and I love that kind of surprise. Since then I’ve been surprised by so many other great writers. I just read Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, which was incredible and such a new way of writing (for me). I also think of writers like Lauren Groff, Maya Angelou, and Amy Bender. Pioneers in new ways of storytelling.

KMC:
Having had that bomb go off, you were launched into a new realm of possibilities of what you were writing and reading. What about poetry—were you exposed then or seeking out poetry and poets?

KB:
It wasn’t until college that I really fell in love with poetry, and I definitely had a type. Mary Oliver, Audre Lorde, Mary Ruefle, Joy Harjo, Sharon Olds. Incredible women writing really incredible things.

KMC:
After graduation from Eastern Mennonite University, you held a variety of odd jobs, including cleaning out the homes of deceased hoarders, which is fascinating.

KB:
Yes, it was.

KMC:
I bet, I bet there is plenty of content there! What were the things you wanted then? And were you writing?


KB:
That’s a great question. Yes, I was writing. It was nothing too serious. A short story here, the beginning of a novel there. I’m not sure I wanted anything other than to just pay my bills and meet up with my friends after work for drinks and cigarettes. I certainly wasn’t driven like some young people to be the next big writer or come up with the next great American novel. I wrote for the same reason I always had since grade school—blind compulsion. I didn’t share anything: I just kind of kept at it the whole time.

I graduated with a B.A. in English Lit, so I knew better than to think it would land me some sort of writing career. Instead, I was trying to figure out how to make enough money to live and still have time leftover to do what I loved, which definitely included writing. I held that same goal up until a year ago.

Getting this book deal at 34-years-old was the first time I was ever paid to write. A concept that can be so hush-hush in writing culture. I know Cheryl Strayed has talked some about this, the misconception that you aren’t a true writer unless you’re getting paid to write. I’ll never forget when she told the story of being interviewed by Oprah and needing to go to the thrift store to find clothes to look nice on camera. I had no idea you don’t get your book royalties until a year after you publish a book. No one talks about money! No one talks about needing other jobs to support writing dreams before or after book deals.

KMC:
So before we get into this space of being paid to write, which we’re so excited that you’ve arrived at in this moment, let’s backtrack a bit, to the blind compulsion you’ve felt since grade school to write. What do you feel compelled by, or what did you feel compelled by then and what do you feel compelled by now?

KB:
I think it’s always been a feeling of this is what I was meant to do, something outside myself, encouraged by many incredible teachers and professors along the way. Never underestimate the power of a teacher feeding that inner voice. I have carried that with me from the beginning.

KMC:
You started your own blog in 2011, and you’ve said writing and managing your own blog gave you insight into what it means to ‘practice’ art. What exactly were you practicing? And what did that practice teach you about your creative process?

KB:
Blogging was a great exercise in vulnerability, sharing content online, and understanding the thick skin it takes to put yourself out on the internet. The lesson in practicing writing as a discipline came after I quit blogging to write a novel.

KMC:
The space of time in which you were blogging, it sounds like blogging was everything. After six years, you retired your blog. You now live in Hershey, Pennsylvania, with your husband, daughter & three sons, and you’ve just published your first book What Kind of Woman—a book of poetry. So how did you get from there to here, from the decision to retire your blog and move on from that project to the publication of a book of poetry?


KB:
I started a small blog around the time my first son was born, nearly 10 years ago, which grew into a bigger blog and then morphed into writing pieces for Huffington Post. It was around that time (2015) that I got an agent. She contacted me after one of those Huffpo pieces went viral and we became fast friends. Together we came up with a plan. I decided I was ready to take a break from personal narrative. Not only was I disenchanted with blogs and social media, I was tired of talking about myself. So for four years, I worked on a novel instead.

I think sometimes people are shocked that I worked for four years on a novel that still sits on my harddrive, but I learned so much during that time. I learned that Anne Lamott was right when she said the only way to make progress and to get any better is to write on a regular basis. Waiting for inspiration is a fool’s fantasy, especially if you have children. I learned revision and how it is often one step forward and twelve steps back. I will probably never publish that novel, but I’ll always be grateful for the time. I treat it like a slightly less expensive M.F.A. program. It was painful, but it was absolutely worth the price of admission.

As for the poetry, it’s hard to explain how I arrived at it or how it arrived to me. I was still working on my novel, but as many writing projects go, I started cheating on it with something else. This time it just happened to be poetry. It was great because there was no pressure on it. No one else was seeing it. I kind of wrote it with one eye open and one eye shut. And I’ve been doing that ever since.

KMC:
That’s an amazing story. I love that you characterize your poetry as coming from, cheating on, your giant novel project. Tell us about your novel that you worked on for four years.

KB:
It was a thriller, four women characters, which is probably very unsurprising. It’s strange to create this whole cast of characters with their backgrounds and crazy experiences and then let them go untouched. I know them so well and they die with me. I don’t think I’ll ever touch it again, but I’ll keep it on my hard drive. Just in case.

KMC:
You mentioned your novel taught you about revision. Were you collaborating back and forth with your agent, getting edits and incorporating them?

KB:
She helped me so much with that novel. She would give me suggestions of shows to watch or books to read that had a similar vibe and we would work on plot points together. I’ll never forget sending the email that was like, What if I wrote a book of poetry instead? And then just waiting. Like, refresh, refresh, do you hate me, refresh. She was very receptive and open and I’m thankful for that, but it was a surprise. She was like wait, what? That’s what we’re doing?

EFN:
You’ve said that Mary Oliver’s passing in January of 2019 inspired you to re-read her work and write poetry of your own. Had you been writing poetry before and she gave you permission to send it into the world? Tell us more about how her passing brought you into this new space.

KB:
I’d definitely written poetry before, but not consistently, which makes a huge difference. When Mary Oliver passed, I went up to the attic and found the books I’d read in college and started re-reading them. It was like a gateway drug because then I started reading all these other poets and writing pieces of my own. Then one day I decided to post one.
I was sitting in this Starbucks, which seems ridiculous now in the time of COVID-19 to even be in that close proximity to people, but I was sitting there, and I hit post. My hands were shaking, but the response was so good that it really encouraged me to keep going. And I did. I completely switched lanes.

KMC:
This was “On the Evening of Her Birth,” that was the first poem that you shared, and then a few months later posted the poem “Deleted Sentences” on Instagram. At what point then did you send that email, to Joanna, saying psych, let’s do poetry instead.

KB:
When that one took off, I knew this was what I needed to do. Unfortunately it was summer, a terrible time to pitch a book in the publishing world. But we did it anyway. I didn’t sleep for weeks. I believe we pitched the book in July and I found out in August.

EFN:
When you and Joanna had decided, yes, we’re going to pitch this book of poems, did you send them out to a ton of different editors or did Joanna target Mary specifically, and how has your collaboration been with her since she said yes?

KB:
Joanna pitched to everyone, not HarperCollins specifically, and I ended up having two offers. It’s a dream to even have a choice, but it also meant more lost sleep. Mary is great. She helped me come up with the title and has been integral in deciding which pieces to discard and which to include.

KMC:
Yeah, it’s almost like you’re choosing the co-parent of your baby. How did you grow these early poems into a book manuscript?

EFN:
Would you submit poems a couple at a time to Mary and Joanna as you worked through this process or did you send them a draft of the full manuscript?

KB:
It was a very lonely process for a lot of it, I have to say, because I did not have constant feedback. The initial pitch was work I’d already put out there. But the process of writing the rest of it was quite solitary. At first it was disconcerting, but Mary and I got into a groove where I would send her maybe 30 pieces, and she would choose 12 to 15 to keep.

KMC:
It sounds like Mary was your primary source of feedback. Were you sending your poems to anyone else, to friends or other writers for feedback?

KB:
No, no one! It has been so strange to see it go out into the world when it’s been kept private for so long.

KMC:
Considering your keen aesthetic sensibility and visual talent that is apparent in the way you curate your Instagram feed and format your poems to fit nicely in that platform, do you see a connection between the way you’ve been able to utilize that social media platform and your art?

KB:
I definitely think about what things look like online. Mostly I try to keep it simple, easy to read, and true to my gifts. I follow other poets who do it completely differently, which is also great. For example, Morgan Harper Nichols is an incredible poet who does a lot of visually beautiful things with her pieces. That’s not my gift, so I try to just let the words speak for themselves.

KMC:
Over 63,000 people follow your Instagram account, and this is a space where your readers can not only come across your work or discover you for the first time before your book comes out, but can also be in conversation with each other and open up a dialogue. How have you built this readership and what is your relationship with your readers?

KB:
I’ve been writing on the Internet for about a decade, so some of it is creating trust between writer and reader. Many years ago, a friend of mine gave me some excellent advice. She said the best thing you can do online is put out what you want to see yourself. So I try to check in frequently and ask myself: what do I want to see online? The answer has changed over the years, but I think the heart of who I am has remained the same.

KMC:
I think obviously it’s very similar to the advice that so many writers are given, to write the books that we want to read ourselves. And your considerable readership suggests that there are lots and lots of others who want to see what you are putting online and read what you are writing. So do you have a sense of what it is that is drawing so many readers to your work?

KB:
I think that people want to see themselves reflected back in what they’re reading and seeing. And also people who are themselves, in their real bodies and real feelings. It’s a risk, but I think it’s that risk that inspires connection.

EFN:
One of the things I found so powerful in reading your work was that you give permission that our feelings are universal and valid. So we are wondering how you came to be so bold in sharing your heart? How did you come to allow yourself to write in this way and believe in what you were doing enough to press that first poem on Instagram and to put yourself out there on your blog in a way that so many women have resonated with?

KB:
I think because the alternative is so sad: limiting yourself to fear. I love that Wayne Gretzky quote that Michael Scott puts his name under. “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.” Put my name under it, too. How soul sucking to live in a world where someone else’s opinion dictates what you do, what you try, your place in this world.

KMC:
In that spirit, we’d love for you to read one poem from your book; and before you do, tell us where this particular poem fits in your story.

KB:
I’m going to read a poem, “After a Psychic Tells Me I’m Going To Die,” and I have no intro for it beyond there are some poems that take months to work out, and some that come in a matter of minutes, and this was one of those.

After a Psychic Tells Me I’m Going to Die: “I’ll plant a garden full of colored pebbles. / In the evening when the dew breaks, I’ll / kneel down in the slick grass and pray for / every man who gave himself to greed. I’ll do / the dishes, scrub grit from dirty pans, tell / my mother, you did the best you could. I’ll / go back to college, pay off my sister’s debts. / Swallow every hair instead of / leaving them / on the ground. When I dream of snakes who / call me baby, I’ll wake my husband just to tell / him how much he shines. I’ll be polite. Torch every shit and pisses. Give away my books and / little screens. I’ll be good. I’ll be the wife and / keeper. I’ll do anything just to live.”

KMC:
Thank you so much, Kate. It’s so lovely to hear your voice in your poems, considering we’ve both had the opportunity to read them on the page, but such a different experience to hear you read them and now, in this bizarre moment, to hear a voice connected to words is such a welcome change. In the past you’ve said that you’re inspired by the risk takers you mentioned earlier: Olivia Gatwood, Lauren Groff, Aimee Bender, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Lizzo. Tell us about the risks you have taken, and what risk you would like to take next?

KB:
To write poetry was my first risk. It felt untouchable for so long. Like I had to fit into some category of writer to make it a success. It’s so hard to predict what’s next. I never could have predicted poetry, but here we are! I think I’d like to push the boundaries on content and form. The great Jenny Offill blends poetry and prose together and I think I would like to try something like that next. She’s another great example of a risk-taker, putting out work that no one else is doing.

KMC:
So to go back to the beginning of your answer you said you didn’t fit into this certain category of writer, a category to which you believed poetry exclusively belonged— all territory belongs to this writerly sort of person. Who is that person, and where do you think that belief came from for you?

KB:
I don’t know, Twitter? I think part of it comes from pop culture’s Disney version of poets. You know the stereotype–dark, dramatic, pretentious. The rest of it is my own ego and that ever-present imposter syndrome. I just so appreciate the people who step into mediums they don’t feel welcome in and do it anyway. In music, art, writing, whatever. It takes some boldness to call yourself a poet, and that’s just kind of what you have to do.

EFN:
Yes, totally, and boldness to just call yourself a writer generally, or an artist. Who are we—who am I—to say that is I think what we, what so many women say. So, having now taken the initial risk of writing poetry, you’re looking now to push boundaries on content and form in similar ways to Jenny Offill. What boundaries within your own work are you looking to push? What other pieces are you looking to in that space?

KB:
I guess my hope is that even if this book fails and I get a horrible review in the New York Times, I can see that I’m still here. I’m still alive. A piano won’t fall from the sky and crush me if I try something new and someone doesn’t like it. Whatever is next, I want to carry that feeling with me. Because that’s how I came to poetry. I was writing a novel and here came this other art form to try with no strings attached.

KMC:
I love it, Kate, and we will be so curious to see what that next project looks like and hopefully talk again, once you’re on the cusp of seeing that next project go out into the world.

KB:
I hope so, too. I have, like, seven tabs open at the moment, so it will be fun to see which one makes it to the other side.

Kate Baer (photo by Austin Baer)