An Interview with Kate Baer

Emma Fricke Nelson & S. Tremaine Nelson

We spoke with poet Kate Baer in the summer of 2020, mere weeks before the release of her debut book What Kind of Woman was published to immediate critical and commercial success. The book was a #1 New York Times Bestseller. Now, a year later, we connected with Baer again via email less than a month before the publication of her second book, I Hope This Finds You Well, which marks a powerful, dramatic pivot in the poet’s work. The left pages in the text feature unsolicited emails the poet has received in response to her social media presence and subsequent success as an artist. On the right side of the book, Baer has “erased” selective words and phrases leaving only her own creation: spare, evocative poems, drawing exclusively from bigoted, hateful, misogynistic emails people have emailed her “out of the blue.” She has, then, created art of ugliness; she has sublimated expressions of malice into triumphant moments of peace.

NORTHWEST REVIEW
You’ve said your world exploded when you first read Margaret Atwood. Looking at young students now, what single book would you assign for every incoming first-year college student to read?
KATE BAER
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Not only is it a Master Class in storytelling for students looking to discover the power of voice, it is one of the best books of all time. Any student with any major has something to learn from such a profound, compelling book.
NWR
For a reader still new to your work, which of your poems would you hand them to read first? What would you like them to know before they begin to read your work?
KB
I’d hand them After A Psychic Tells Me I’m Going To Die so they know I’m not any sort of good person/inspirational speaker who wants to change your life with poetry. In fact, the less they know about me, the better. Poetry is not meant to reflect the writer but the reader, so I’d prefer they know nothing at all.
NWR
To flip that around, do you find yourself enjoying a book more if you know nothing about the writer? Or do you prefer to dig around a little bit about the writer before jumping into their text? To that end, when friends and colleagues recommend books to you, do you find them praising the merits of the text itself, or some combination of the writer and the writing hand-in-hand?
KB
I absolutely wait to research the author until after I read a book. In fact, I don’t even read the summary of a book before I read it. No reviews either. I prefer to have a completely clean slate. As far as friends and colleagues, I would say most people are interested in the contents of a book much more than the author herself. It makes sense!
NWR
Your second book, I Hope This Finds You Well, is coming out November 9 and is a collection of erasure poems you authored from comments and letters that were less than kind. When you began crafting these poems were you inspired by other erasure artists? If so, which artists?
KB
Not really. I’d read erasure poems before, but it’s not something I consumed on a regular basis. Now I intentionally don’t read much erasure poetry so as not to do any sort of unintentional copycatting.
NWR
In our 2020 conversation, you mentioned how much you loved the work of Morgan Harper Nichols as well as the artist Johan Johnsen and cover designer Joanne O’Neill who teamed up to create the cover for What Kind of Woman. As you continue to engage with artists across the globe, have you come across any visual artists or specific pieces of visual art that have inspired you?
KB
Lisa Sorgini, an Australian artist currently based in northern New South Wales, is a huge inspiration of mine. Her work is ethereal. Absolutely stunning. My favorite work of hers comes from her series Behind Glass where she looks at mothers and children in lockdown. Her images have a lot to teach when it comes to seeing the beautiful in otherwise difficult moments.
NWR
You have mentioned that some of the rawness and pure honesty in your pieces comes from the sadness of the alternativehow lonely life would be without being true to the hard parts as well as the beautiful ones, and that beauty can be found in those tough places, too. Do you think this openness with your readers has played into your success? What elements of your success do you find the most surprising? Is there anything you want to tell your readers now that you’re on the other side of the publishing experience?
KB
I think readers want the truth, yes. Otherwise this whole thing is a giant waste of their time– and by “whole thing,” I mean art in general. As far as my personal success goes, I guess I’m most surprised that people want to read poetry at all. Poetry can be seen as a sort of stick in the mud genre. Of course that doesn’t mean it’s true, but there is this perception that poetry doesn’t sell because no one wants to read it. So that’s been the most surprising.
NWR
At the end of our November 2020 interview you mentioned you had many tabs open on your computer, and that you were excited to see where things went. Clearly, here we are in November 2021 and one of those tabs is about to be released into the world. We’re sure you have many more tabs open waiting in the wings and we can’t wait to see what is next. But still, we’re curious, is there a point of creative achievement in the future where you feel like you would have achieved your artistic vision completely? Is that even possible?
KB
No, I don’t think that’s possible. At least, it’s not possible for me. It is a fool’s errand to believe writing is some sort of destination. There’s a reason Jerry Seinfeld is still writing jokes when he doesn’t need to work another day in his life. It’s a compulsion and also a way of life. As far as artistic vision, I don’t know if I have that. Do people have that? I write down what I see and hope someone else might see it too. That’s the whole thing. If I’ve achieved that, wonderful! I hope I’m writing what I see until my very last days.
NWR
Okay, we gotta ask: do you have a favorite episode of “Seinfeld” the TV show?
KB
The Contest, hands down.

Kate Baer is the author of What Kind Of Woman, a #1 New York Times Instant Bestseller. Her work has also been published in The New Yorker, Literary Hub and The New York Times. Her next book, I Hope This Finds You Well, is out on November 9th, 2021.

Emma Fricke Nelson is a poet based in Portland, Oregon. She is a lover of road trips, cold rocky beaches, and sitting alone at airport bars. In her dreams, Emma stands in a barn smashing plates dipped in red paint across whitewashed walls. If you have a barn you’re willing to share, she’ll bring the plates.

Educated in Tennessee, married young in Alabama, S. Tremaine Nelson is a former poetry reader at The Paris Review and an alumnus of the fiction department of The New Yorker. He is a fourth-generation Oregonian living in Portland, where he was born and raised. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and the Columbia University MFA program.