"Is there a god puppeteering this whole charade?"
Kate Baer (!) has joined the chat
I wouldn’t call myself a poetry person. While I savor poetic language, seek poetry in my life, and celebrate poetry in nature, everything I ever learned about poetic meter and syntax and form flew out of my head long ago.
But holy shit, I love Kate Baer.
In her poetry, Kate writes about bodies, love, loss, friendship, motherhood, and mostly, about being human in a bewildering world. As Jessica Bennett wrote for The New York Times, Kate’s work has specifically appealed to mothers, particularly during the pandemic, when we all desperately needed any lifelines of beauty or recognition we could find.
[Kate’s] words have resonated with women, many of whom tell her they are coming to poetry for the first time. In a year in which all people, but perhaps especially mothers, are grasping for words to express their exhaustion and anger, in Baer they have found someone to say it for them — and in snippets short enough that they actually have time to read a piece in its entirety.
Personally, Kate’s work has made me feel startlingly seen. I wrote about her first book here, and her second book here, and I’m so thrilled to be able to share a conversation about her third book, And Yet, which came out on Tuesday with you all. All pull quotes are from excerpted from And Yet, which is a book I look forward to loving for a long, long, long time to come.
I am a Kate Baer super fan. Join me.
Sara: Existential despair is impossible to miss in this book - gun violence, violence against women, and climate change are some reoccurring themes. This is not to say that such themes are not present in your prior two books, but in And Yet, the weight of the world felt like more of a presence. This could totally just be my individual reader's response! (Or me projecting - ha). Did you find yourself thinking about world events differently in this book?
Kate: I was surprised by how often death crept into the pages. Not just the idea of dying, but what comes after and why the before? Is there a god puppeteering this whole charade? Do we have purpose? Is there meaning behind human suffering? So yes, just your everyday, run-of-the-mill existentialism.
“Time to pull on something, trade my brain
for half a sandwich. It’s just another day in the
good-bad, bad-good earth machine.”
It felt like writing a breakup album, but instead of breaking up with my spouse, it was more like breaking up with . . . the world. And then trying to piece it back together in some sort of tangible way. When I first started working on it, I felt an immense amount of pressure to recreate What Kind Of Woman, and it took some time to let go of that expectation and move on to the here and now.
Sara: Talk to me about female friendship. You've mentioned in passing that you prioritize friendship very deliberately, and that your friends do not represent a somehow "lesser" version of intimacy in your life. I'm basically always down for more conversations about reconsidering the be all/end all of the nuclear family (something the culture at large AND momfluencer culture both really prioritize) and making our lives more expansive according to our OWN priorities. Thoughts? Insights? Rants?
“I find my friends in the a blue lagoon.
God, I could really use a drink, I say,
forgetting where I am. We laugh so
hard we cry.”
Kate: There is this strange idea that once you get married and have a family, that’s all you need, which is absolutely outrageous. I’d been married for about five minutes before I realized this man would never/will never be enough to “complete me,” aka fulfill all my emotional needs. The pressure that puts on him! And me! And us! Of course some of this is personality, but in general I do wonder if some of the healthiest marriages are not two people but a whole crew of humans who can fill in the gaps. Austin is great, but he has no idea what it feels like to have a postpartum perineum, a vested interest in Mindy Kaling’s career journey, or the unbridled need to dance to Megan Thee Stallion. Yes, I talk to him about my deepest, darkest fears, but then I rehash it 7,000 times with my circle of women until they can repeat it for themselves. I do the same for them.
So yes, I value my female friendships like a marriage. And while the intimacy we share comes at a cost (time, energy, grace, forgiveness), it has saved my relationship with my spouse and frankly my life.
Sara: Two of my fave poems in the book are "MILF" and "Burnout" - which appear right next to each other (I'm assuming that was intentional?) "MILF" is short and sweet and deftly attacks the idea that all mothers are alike sheerly by dint of their shared experience of mothering. I mean, the poem does way more than just that, but it's one of my takeaways! Can you talk about the archetype of Mother in your work and how you subvert and play with the notion that there is any sort of one-size-fits-all Ideal Mother™?
“I did not / will not / could not
know what it is to be a good mother
when mother is already heavy enough”
Kate: I hate to blame everything on social media, because there is no one root cause, but also . . . social media! It has flattened motherhood in so many boring ways. Wine Mommy. Sports Mommy. Beige Mommy. Pinterest Mommy. Container Mommy. Messy Mommy. There are so many different ways to mother, but it’s reductive to assume a woman is one or any of them and not also an entirely different person outside of mother.
Sara: Re: “Burnout.” I love, love, love this poem. In in, you offer a laundry list of "mommy topics" you are worn out from having to consider: breastfeeding, meme culture, nursery decor, potty training, etc etc. While I will never be tired of considering the cultural power that is institutional motherhood in America, I am profoundly weary of conversations about any sort of "best" or "right" or even "ideal" way to "do" motherhood. Like, hard unsubscribe. I think it goes without saying that fathers are not expected to spend many days or even hours of their wild and precious lives debating the pros and cons of strollers, right? Can you speak to this particular form of burnout, and how you came to focus an entire poem on it? Like, on the one hand, I think it's great we're talking and thinking about motherhood more than maybe we have in the past, but also I just want to be a person unburdened by also having to have so many motherhood "stances."
“I can no longer participate in
world breastfeeding week
memes about tired mothers
nurseries dressed in millennial pink”
Kate: This poem arrived in the middle of a literal burnout. I have four kids very close together, the final one being a very unplanned pregnancy, and I was and often still am, very tired of talking about parenting. Things like breastfeeding hashtags, group texts inquiring about strollers, infographics lecturing me on Instagram, conversations on the playground about when you must or must never send your children to kindergarten can send me up the wall. I’ve been parenting long enough to notice how many of those things don’t matter. AND YET!! And yet I still participate every day on some level. Partly because I have to and partly because I want to! I’m still eager to have many conversations with friends about parenting logistics. What I’m tired of is the heaviness that is attached to every single decision for me as Mother. Most of us are out there doing our best.
Sara: Obviously I was keen to read "Influencers," and I think I would say it's a poem about (at least in part) the labor of mothering, about distinguishing the verb "mother" from the noun “motherhood.” Something that is often said of momfluencers is that they monetize the labor of motherhood, but I've always said that no, the labor of motherhood is not a product easily delivered and packaged for audience consumption. I do this thing with my toddler where, at bedtime, I sit on a rocker, and he sits in my lap in the dark, and I narrate the bullet points of his day back to him. It takes less than 5 minutes but it's this small, very specific way that I mother this particular child. And there's no way I can monetize that labor or perform it for an audience. This is my long-winded way of asking how the seed for this poem originated and whether or not you were thinking about momfluencer culture specifically (or at all!) when you wrote it.
“To hear a child rage, big and
blaring, and see his mother
bend to give him quiet kindness.”
Kate: I was, but in a way that might surprise you. It’s been years since I edited my Instagram feed to decidedly remove most Influencer (mother or otherwise) types, but that doesn’t mean I forget their impact. And it doesn’t mean they aren’t still around me, whether I would call them an “influencer” or not.
There have been so many women who have influenced me as a woman and more specifically as a mother. One of the first ones was Catherine Newman when she wrote Waiting For Birdy. Would she call herself an influencer? I doubt it, but she influenced me! Then there was the old childhood friend who said it was absolutely not crazy to keep going to the doctor when I wouldn’t heal after childbirth. And the friend I met after my son was born who gently encouraged me to look at different ways to approach sleep. And Ralphie Jacobs, a Mormon Mommy Blogger, who by almost all accounts is someone I would typically disregard as “not for me,” who changed my life (and the lives of women and children everywhere) by encouraging safe, practical, and non harmful ways of communicating with children.
The word “influencers” has become part of our zeitgeist as someone who sells beauty kits. But we are influenced by so many more people outside of who pops up on Instagram stories.
Sara: “POSTPARTUM QUESTIONNAIRE” - thank you so much for this poem. I needed it so badly when I was a 4-week-old mother and sobbing over that damn question about laughter. As a writer and as a mom, do you notice any shifts in the way maternal mental health has been addressed? I might just not have been as plugged in back when I was a new mom as I am now, but I like to think new moms have access to more perspectives than they did 10 years ago? Even if these perspectives are online and still not easily access IRL.
“I have lost my grip on this world and can no longer see
what used to sit in front of me and”
Kate: The CDC recently found over 80 percent of the pregnancy-related deaths are preventable, the majority occurring between a week to a year postpartum. So there’s a bleak little fact for you. I have no idea if the mental health aspect is any better than it was ten years ago. By the time I was having my last baby in 2018, postpartum depression forms felt like a joke and online Mommy camaraderie did very little to assuage the weight of caring for young children under mental duress.
Sara: Your Instagram presence has been a huge part of your author platform, and in "Reasons to Log Off," you address not only the sometimes dystopian nature of social media but the internet rabbit holes we are all subject to fall into from time to time. "Morning Routine" also considers social media and the "free drugs" found via dopamine-spiked scrolling. The In Pursuit community talks a lot about the elusive concept of "balance" in terms of social media usage and like, the living of life outside of the screen, and I'm curious how (if) your relationship with social media has changed throughout the years.
“Hey, do you want to lose
weight in only thirty minutes? Hey, can I have just a
moment of your time? Click here to receive a special
invitation. Click here if you want to believe in God.”
Kate: I would love to give a cool girl answer here, but the truth is that I live as chronically online as the next millennial. Of course my relationship with social media has changed, but that’s because both social media and our relationship to it is always evolving.
On this day in the year of lord 2022, I will say that I use my phone as much as ever, but less on Social Media apps like Instagram and more on private messaging platforms like Marco Polo and Voxer. It’s so much more life-giving to hear my friend Bethany describe her turkey club lunch in detail than it is to see a stranger hashtagging one online.
Sara: This is a weird question, but poems like "History Repeated" really underscore your unique (and frankly awe-inspiring) ability to turn a few lines of text into a rallying cry that feels as though it's never not existed. “Beach Body” is another poem that feels like it's simply always been a part of my consciousness. Is your writing process for poems like these, poems that utilize repetitive words and phrases to make a point, different from writing less "structured" (prob not the right word - forgive my poetry ignorance!) poems? I imagine these types of poems pouring out of you in a very romantic way which I'm sure is completely inaccurate - ha.
Kate: That is astute and not weird at all. And the answer is yes—those poems are much more lyrical and even a bit romantic to write. It feels like songwriting and when they’re finished, it’s like hearing that final chord. Very satisfying. Those are some of my favorite pieces to write.
Sara: A few poems in this book address the idea of women not only relishing in solitude and autonomy, but of explicitly choosing themselves instead of denying themselves ("As for the Mother," "Without a Moral, There's Just a Happy Woman," "Bliss," and others). Did you notice this theme emerging as you wrote, or is it a theme you wanted to address head-on? (Spoiler - I loved these poems so much).
except the moon of her eyes.”
Kate: It wasn’t intentional but I’m not surprised either. I’m almost 40. I grew up in the 80s and 90s when the final destination for women was flashing a Julia Roberts smile in a Disney Princess body and living happily ever after while some Prince Charming made sure to establish the kids’ trust funds. I know I’m not alone in a mass exodus from that idea, not only because it’s unrealistic but because it’s so painfully boring.