In late summer 2020, when it became clear that no magic spell was going to morph the fall into a more normal episode of history than the abnormal spring and summer we had endured, among my small sorrows was the realization that I would not see the crew of college roommates with whom I make an annual effort to reunite. We are not the same people we were when we met twenty years ago; we are not even very similar to each other in many ways. But we love each other with devotion built on the intimate knowledge of who we were when we were putting together the pieces of our younger selves.
When I realized we wouldn’t be seeing each other, I sent my friends a message via our group text on WhatsApp, a picture of a poem from Kate Baer titled (cringingly) “Girls Night Out,” that (nonetheless) encapsulated for me that loss: “In restaurants we argue over who will / pay even though the real question is / who will confess their children are dull / or their marriage has holes at the knees.” We’d have to wait another year (more?) to get together to share in that specific mode of honesty facilitated by friendships that have lasted two decades.
“To admit to liking poetry is faintly embarrassing,” Matthew Schneier wrote earlier this year in his great paean to the genre. To admit to liking what can fairly be called an Instagram poet is several shades more humiliating if you fancy yourself a high-minded literary reader. Poets should be toiling in the subterranean wings of soulless financial institutions (like T.S. Eliot) or selling insurance policies (like Wallace Stevens) or keeping the San Francisco streetcars moving (like Maya Angelou), spending their nights polishing their gems before tossing them to a faceless mass, hoping there is someone paying close enough attention to catch them. There probably won’t be, and that’s as it should be, too. A poet is not a marketer; there should be no #sponcon, no billboards, no merch. I know: This is an outdated and pretentious mode of thinking. The Instapoets are saving “the industry”! Rupi Kaur, the Canadian Instapoet who self-published her first book, sold ten times as many books as Homer in a single year. Bah to all that. The culture is scruffy and corrupt, and I want to keep a little corner of it swept clean.
And yet, when I came across Baer’s poems, on Instagram no less, I felt a jolt—that illumination, what Virginia Woolf called (in what has always struck me as an apt summation of the desired effect of poetry) “a match burning in a crocus.” In the midst of the pandemic, hungry for communion, feeling time accelerating even while nothing in my immediate life was happening, I needed witnesses from the past who could testify that this odd and static present was not all there was: “do you remember when,” Baer writes in “Girls Night Out,” “I cried in the cab. Wore that shirt / with the sleeves. Left him alone in the rain.” I do, my roommate wrote back on WhatsApp, I do.
Baer is a different kind of Instagram poet, not only in that her poems convey a depth of emotion more cutting than the spare, self-help word-art characteristic of so many social-media-propelled poet phenomena. But she also distinguishes herself by acknowledging the self-seriousness of the genre (particularly among those who are their own greatest promoters) and gently poking a hole in it. Her poems, often heartfelt expressions of the raw realities of motherhood, are punctuated by winking captions that turn them into inside jokes: Don’t we all wince a little at the phrase “girls night out”? Don’t we still need to slam the door on the kids once in a while and waltz out into the dark night?
Sometimes these jokes are timeless, as in her poem “Deleted Sentences,” which marks the way time stretches and contracts in those minutes when one parent is waiting for the other to offer relief. She captions it simply, “ETA?”
At other times, they play off the current moment. “What Children Say” is a kind of incantatory elevation of Kids Say the Darndest Things, the rhythmic push-pull of a child’s incessant needs capturing the whipsaw pivots required by parenting. But it’s rescued from kitschy nostalgia with its caption: “Day 759 of quarantine.”
The messy domestic life Baer depicts is not exactly unique. Instagram poetry is filled with admissions of vulnerability and inadequacy, and subsequent admonitions to do the work to be a better human being; this is a self-help that rewards with areligious enlightenment reflected in gauzy square-shaped images—a perfect cup of tea, a well-framed flower, a carefully groomed eyebrow. These images can be quite beautiful, in a Kinfolk-y kind of way; they are not, very often, funny.
Kate Baer’s poetry did not come out of a drive to bring humor to the world of Instagram poetry or long-suffering parental narratives. She got her footing on the internet as a mommy blogger, though when she tells this story, speaking on the phone from her house near Hershey, Pennsylvania, where she lives with her four children and her husband, she underlines that when she began putting her writing online almost a decade ago, she saw blogging as a way to air struggles with parenting rather than to celebrate cute after-school crafts or other triumphs. When mommy blogging began to take, as she puts it, a “modern farmhouse” turn, she shut her site down and began to work on a thriller, something far from personal narrative.
Baer’s debut book of poetry, What Kind of Woman, out next week, marked a return to the subject of parenthood. The book began when, while putting away the baby clothes for her third child, she found out she was pregnant with a fourth—just weeks before her husband was scheduled to get a vasectomy. Depression set in almost immediately. “I didn’t even know there was a term for it—antenatal depression, depression during pregnancy,” she says. “But I felt it immediately, as almost a chemical reaction within my body.” Even after the darkest parts of the depression lifted, Baer says, she feared for her own mental health. And so she resolved to parent her fourth child differently than she had previously: She breast-fed less, she hired more childcare, she took on part-time jobs to afford the childcare—all so that she could find time to write the poems that became What Kind of Woman. (Baer’s husband began his training to be a doctor when she had her first child. He is now completing his residency.)
“There is nothing intrinsically un-writerly about any subject,” Baer says, when I bring up the long-simmering debate about whether creativity can happily cohabit with parenthood. “I think about all the coming-of-age stories we have about baseball—all those classics. Why do we think motherhood is somehow less than baseball?” (Is it because it flattens our narratives, confines them to small spaces, makes those eras in which we left lovers in the rain and wore shirts with creative sleeves recede into a hazy past?) To discount the experience of motherhood as creative fodder is, she says bluntly, “misogynistic.”
If parenting is the overt subject of What Kind of Woman, misogyny is its bracing undercurrent. The book overall is an affirmation of a woman’s perspective and experience—and in that way a feminist statement—but then there are more explicit cris de coeur, sometimes playing out on a larger stage (like, say, an election).
But at other times, Baer turns her focus to more quotidian dismissals. Looks at the deft takedown of casual backyard sexism in “Fresh Lemonade,” for example: “Roger says his wife is too busy to work, / what with the boys and their schedules / and large appetites. Can you believe how much they eat in one sitting? he laughs, / never having made a meal big enough / to fill more than his plate.”
Baer even addresses the misogyny fired directly at her, transforming the vitriol into a kind of found poetry—she calls them “blackout poems.” For all the contemporary novels whose bright, graphic covers have been designed with a presence on Instagram in mind, poetry is the genre that has probably been most dramatically boosted by this form of social media. And yet, most poets who have found or expanded their base on the platform use it merely as that—a traditional means of promotion. In these blackout poems, Baer has found a novel use. An initial image captures the hateful speech, and then she wipes out all but a few words to create an entirely different message.
“People are always sending me crappy messages,” Baer says. “Most of the time it’s just, ‘Do you want to see a picture of my penis?’ But then there are messages that are longer. I was deleting them for a while, and then I just started taking screenshots of them, trying to see if I could flip the narrative. Now when people send me nasty comments, I’m like: keep talking.” It’s an empty truism to say that social media has offered a microphone to the chattering masses, and most of the time, it feels like it has a detrimental effect on discourse, manners, society. What kind of woman instructs her detractors to “talk more” and then faces them head-on? This kind of woman.