New York Times bestselling author Kate Baer joins Zibby to talk about her accidental collection of erasure poetry, I Hope This Finds You Well, which takes messages she’s received online and turns them into powerful verses. The two discuss their shared experiences as mothers of four, as well as some of the specific emotions and traumas that that entails. Kate also tells Zibby about how this book came as a surprise, when she realized she was a poet, and what it’s like to have some of her writing read back to her.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kate. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss I Hope This Finds You Well: Poems.

Kate Baer: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Kate, you are the number-one New York Times best-selling author of What Kind of Woman. Then you followed it up with something even better, perhaps, which is this very unique take on how to pull poetry out of sometimes the most distasteful prose that there could be and sometimes just regular prose. You have this gift of making art out of words, really. I guess that’s what poetry comes down to. Tell listeners a little bit about how this started and this whole social media comment — explain it better than me because I’m not doing a good job.

Kate: Sure, no problem. Also, your bookshelf behind you is so beautiful. I know it’s a divisive topic on the internet, about bookshelves and if you should arrange them by color. I do that. I love it. I think it looks really nice.

Zibby: Thank you. I hate to be divisive in any way. I thought it looked nice.

Kate: It looks really nice. I Hope This Finds You Well is kind of a surprise book for me. I wrote What Kind of Woman and then signed a book deal for another collection of poetry that will be kind of like that. Then this one popped up in between there. It’s been kind of wild to put this book out just because I didn’t expect it. It really just started out on a whim. It felt like a party trick for a while. Sure, I can make some of these erasure poems. It wasn’t like, I’d like to write a whole book of them. I’m so thankful that people have been reading it and purchasing it or checking it out from the library. I do like the result. I like the book, but writing it was kind of tricky and fraught with lots of feelings. It was also peak lockdown when I wrote it. There were times when all my kids were home. I was trying to put this book together and homeschool them. That’s not what you asked me.

Zibby: That’s okay. I like that.

Kate: The initial erasure poetry, the beginning of that was right around when George Floyd was murdered. I was posting about police reform and things like that, which I think a lot of people — it was such a contentious time, rightfully so. I wasn’t surprised that there were people coming into my messages arguing with me. That’s pretty typical. This one woman wrote to me. I was looking through them and deleting them. I was reading hers. It kind of stuck out to me in a new way. I took a screenshot of it and hid her identity and then made a poem of it and posted it really on a whim. There was no forethought. I just did it. The response to that was really strong, which I think proves how there are a lot of people at odds with other people on the internet and then, of course, in real life with people you actually know. I just kept doing it because I couldn’t stop. It started to become this thing where I would see poems like that everywhere, not just in my messages. I was posting some of those and was approached to do a book of them, which I did say no to a few times. Ultimately, glad that it worked out.

Zibby: Wow. A large part of this book is taking comments apart. It’s a commentary on comments, a commentary on the feeling that people have the right to just speak their minds about your most intimate work and that you should take the time to then read it. Some is good. Some comments were just ridiculous. I know that it’s hard to keep a thick skin when you’re writing for the public and everything. How do you do it? Is this the device you use to cope with the meanness out there? When you write something beautiful and intimate and then somebody writes a comment that is just not nice, how do you deal with it as a modern-day poet?

Kate: I think for a brief period, it is how I coped with it. I was also writing this book. There was a time when I was getting these messages that I was like, great. Could you use some more nouns? Could you use some more adjectives? Throw me a bone here. I’m trying to write a book that — there was some cathartic moments writing it. Certainly, there have been times when I have felt like, okay, I got the last word. In general, I don’t find that being on the internet more helps with the downtrodden-ness of it in general. I find that just getting offline and being with real people who know the real me, which sounds kind of cliché, but that is the best coping mechanism, not being on the internet more.

Zibby: Yes. That makes total sense. I just wanted to flag some of my — there’s one about relentless motherhood. Can I read this, or is it too long to read? Can I read part of it, at least?

Kate: Oh, you’re welcome to read anything. Sure.

Zibby: This is on relentless motherhood. “Hi, Kate. I got your lovely book of poems for Christmas, and I’ve barely had a moment to read them. See, I just had my second baby boy on 10/29. We live in New Orleans. He was born right after a hurricane and days on end of the power being out.” Then she goes on. She says, “Most days, I can laugh about the fact that dirty diapers are left on the kitchen, that there is never a moment to think, that my clothes are constantly covered in bodily fluids, but today, I broke. It was actually my husband who broke first. Ironically, in his haste and stress from the shitty morning of parenting, he broke a picture frame.” Then you talked about that. She talked about that, rather, and says, “It’s just another morning in a thousand mornings. It will probably all be forgotten tomorrow when there are new diapers to change and more ABCs to sing, but today, it felt like too much. Enter your poems. I have stolen away to my room, and when I read the line, ‘Nothing in this world can prepare you for this love suffering, for joy and loneliness,’ I started to cry. I felt seen. You put words to my day, to my life as a mother, and it was so therapeutic to know I’m not alone in the agony and ecstasy of it all, this blistering love for our babies and all that it entails. Thank you for your words.” Then at the end she says, “Also, to clarify, my husband accidentally broke the picture frame because he was so frazzled. He’s not a shit head. Anyway, thank you.” Then you and your erasure poems format translated that to, “I cried. It’s just another morning, but it felt like agony and ecstasy, this blistering love and all that it entails.” That’s just so awesome. It’s just so cool. Both sides of this are so cool.

Kate: Thank you.

Zibby: How do you feel reading them back? Do you get that same sense of calm with your own work that you bestow onto others? Does it make you calm to write?

Kate: To write and to read my own work feels like two totally different things. When you read that, I felt emotional. I haven’t read that since I put that in there, so almost a year ago. I don’t read my own books. I don’t ever read that one at events, only because it’s long. I haven’t heard that or spent any time with that piece for a year. The last time I probably looked at it was last January, so that was really cool. No, I don’t. I do not read my own work at all to feel a sense of calm or peace, but that was lovely.

Zibby: How did you realize you were a poet? Where did this come from?

Kate: I don’t know. It’s funny because my parents — maybe this is just something that parents say. When I started to publish poetry, they were like, we always knew this. Again, this is something that maybe parents just say. This was always you. I was always writing poetry, but not in a professional sense. For them, it felt like a full-circle moment maybe even more than it did for me. I’d always read it and written it, but not sharing it or trying to get it published or anything like that. That is only recently, which has been a huge surprise because before this, I was writing everything but poetry. It’s been fun. I do feel that the format of poetry and the boiled-down storytelling is very much in my wheelhouse. Not that I think, oh, I’m this incredible poet. It’s more the feeling of, oh, this is how I like to tell a story.

Zibby: Wow. What was it like growing up for you? Did you write? Your parents obviously saw this coming. Did you have a notebook in your hand most of the time? Where did writing fit in with your day-to-day life? What was a typical third-grade, fifth-grade you? What did she look like?

Kate: Oh, my gosh. Oh, my. I looked like such a dork, which is great. It’s so wonderful to get to be an adult and look back at that and realize, wow, what a, for lack of a better word, blessing to be such a dumb, idiot kid. I’m so glad I bloomed so late. I didn’t get my period until I was in high school. I played with dolls until like fifth grade. I was in dreamland, to be honest. In second and third grade especially, I was just so involved in my own imagination, but in a very egotistical way. I was very much in my own bubble. I was absolutely writing stories, lots of stories, a lot of themes around cats. That’s not a particularly unique childhood to be like that. It’s not that. I look back at that and think, that was great. How great to be lost like that and just unaware that it’s very uncool to write about cats and wear cat jumpers.

Zibby: There are probably a lot of people out there who feel like that’s pretty cool.

Kate: Totally. It’s still cool to me.

Zibby: The other one I thought, in this book, that was so good, there was one about Donald Trump. I can’t find it now. On the right, you wrote, “Just go.” Oh, here it is. “Re: Leaving the White House. From Donald J. Trump to Mike Pence. You can either go down in history as a patriot, Mr. Trump told him according to two people briefed on the conversation, or you can go down in history as a pussy.” Then on the other side, the words you took out, you just wrote, “You can go.”

Kate: Those were the fun ones to write.

Zibby: One line. Do you find yourself doing this still, these erasure — or is this like, okay, I’m done here? Do you look at text now? Now I feel like I’m going to start looking at text and wanting to try to do what you’re doing.

Kate: Oh, totally. I do still do it. I like to say I’m no longer taking submissions. I don’t want anyone’s mean messages by any means, but I do still do it.

Zibby: Awesome. You referenced at the beginning that you have another book more similar to your first book. Tell me about those two and how they relate and what’s coming next and all of that.

Kate: Three books, three years in a row, three Novembers in a row. We crossed off the first two. The third one comes out this November. I’m writing it as we speak. It’s almost finished. I’m excited. It’s much more in the vein of What Kind of Woman and I think is a continuation of that but maybe just a little bit different. We’ll have to see what it ends up looking like.

Zibby: What’s the name of that?

Kate: I don’t know. You tell me. Do you have any ideas? Send me your list.

Zibby: I would have to read it.

Kate: Right. I have no idea. The marketing team would like to have a list of my top five suggestions by Friday, tomorrow. I don’t have one. Maybe that’s what I’ll be doing after this.

Zibby: I could probably help you. I’m not even kidding. I could try. Sometimes I’m good with titles. You can send me whatever. I could try if you want to do a little, mini challenge.

Kate: I might do that. I love that.

Zibby: We’re doing that now with some of the books — I started this publishing company with Leigh Newman. We have twelve books coming out starting in 2023.

Kate: That’s awesome.

Zibby: There are two left that we’ve been playing with the names. That’s been super fun. Deep in the title world.

Kate: I may utilize you for this task. Thank you.

Zibby: I don’t know, your other titles are fantastic, though. How old are your kids, by the way?

Kate: Ten, eight, five, and three.

Zibby: Wow. I have four kids too.

Kate: Oh, do you? How old are they?

Zibby: I have fourteen-and-a-half-year-old twins, and then eight and seven.

Kate: Oh, my goodness, fourteen.

Zibby: I’m a little bit ahead of you, but not much.

Kate: Boys or girls?

Zibby: I have two of each.

Kate: Two of each, cool.

Zibby: What do you have?

Kate: Three boys and a girl. Wow, so you know what a circus it is to have four. You have twins, so you’re really doing it there with the twins. The twins were first, though. Was that worse or better to get it over with?

Zibby: Worse. It was worse.

Kate: When you had one, were you like, oh, this is so much better?

Zibby: Yeah. When I had one, I was like, oh, yay, I’m finally going to get to have one kid like everybody else got to have first, the kid I could wear like a purse on my arm, take with me with the car seat as opposed to, here I am with this giant contraption with two kids. I was really enjoying that. Then when she was eight months old and I had finally stopped nursing and I was out and about, then I found out I was pregnant again. I was like, oh, my god, I just wanted the one kid. No, I’m kidding. It was short-lived. I’m delighted now, of course.

Kate: You don’t have to say that. My fourth was a surprise. It was very traumatizing. It was a terrible experience. Yeah, now that he’s here and around, he’s fine. Love ya, but wow. I’ve talked to so many people about this. Yes, of course, you love your child, but unplanned pregnancy when you have other children can be really upsetting because you’re already drowning. For me, having a fourth was like, I’ve already been pushed off the cliff. I’m down in the water. I’m trying to keep my head above water. Then someone just hands me a bag of bricks. It’s like, I can’t do this. I can’t keep trying to stay above water and then also hold this bag of bricks. We’re both still here, but what a journey.

Zibby: I had that same initial thought. I’m like, I’m not one of those really cool, laid-back moms who has four kids. I’m not like that.

Kate: No. Same. Do people assume that about you?

Zibby: Yeah.

Kate: Do people assume that? I think that people assume that about mothers of four. They think, oh, they must be this, this, and this. I think people who purposely choose to have a lot of kids probably are more laid-back, but I’m not that person.

Zibby: No, I’m not that person either. I went into my doctor. I was crying. She’s like, “There are options.” I was like, “No, I don’t need — no, I’m going to have this baby. I’m going to love him. It’s all going to be great.” I was like, I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I can do it. I just don’t think so. Turns out it’s one of the best things about our family, but there have been and are lots of tears.

Kate: Exactly. It’s that space of, this is so wonderful but still really hard. Humans sometimes have a hard time remembering you can have those two feelings at the same time, like the Daniel Tiger song. You can have two feelings at the same time, and it’s okay. I have to sing that to myself all the time because I can appreciate and be grateful for kids while also just feeling like, wow, this is four too many.

Zibby: Not that it’s made me more laid-back, but it’s made me see that I can’t effect change in the same way. When I only had the two — not only. It was still a lot.

Kate: Only.

Zibby: If one of them had a tantrum, that’s what I was doing. I was in it. I was trying to manage it. I was there. Now, literally, I can do what they said in the books that I was supposed to fake doing, which is, don’t really care, go somewhere else.

Kate: Ignore it.

Zibby: Now I’m literally like, okay, if you want to tantrum — I’ve told you fifty-seven times I’m not changing my mind about the iPad. If you would like to spend your time tantrum-ing, go for it. I’m going to go walk over and spend time with your sister right now. Have fun with your tantrum. Then usually, they end.

Kate: I know. Isn’t it so funny? For me too, I had to get pushed to the point of, I literally can’t manage these things. It’s easy to walk away. It’s so much easier once you get past that point. You’re like, I can’t help all these people, so some of you will have to cry. Work it out.

Zibby: I literally was sitting on my daughter’s floor — sorry, this is so off topic from your book. Anyway, I was sitting there. We were listening to the two little guys fight in the next room. She’s like, “They’re fighting. Aren’t you going to go in there?” I was like, “No. I think they’re going to work it out. Sometimes you just have to let them work it out.” She looked at me like, what? Of course, I never let her work anything out with her brother. Then suddenly, they were calm. She’s like, “Oh, my gosh, they’re not fighting anymore.” I’m like, “Yeah.”

Kate: I know. I have the same experience all the time. I’ll have people come over who aren’t used to that. They’ll hear a big, loud explosion of crying and fighting. Sometimes they’ll be like, “Oh, my gosh, my ears.” They will say to me, “You remain so –” I don’t even flinch. I’m just still talking in the conversation that I’m having with her. I have had to tune so much out. You can’t absorb four people’s emotions and crying and everything all the time or you’ll die. It’s impossible. The human cannot withstand four strong emotions all the time.

Zibby: Let alone you and the partner and whatever else.

Kate: Exactly, and the dog.

Zibby: I feel like that’s why, for me, and maybe for you, I love to write. I love to read. I need to go somewhere else when I’m not anywhere else.

Kate: Same.

Zibby: Serves a good function. Back to writing, do you have any advice for aspiring authors, poets out there, or whatever, or moms who just found out they’re having four kids?

Kate: Oh, my goodness, childcare for all those things. I would say my answer to all of those topics is childcare, which is complex because childcare involves money, which is something that people never talk about, never want to talk about. Not you. I’m saying just in general. In the lit world, money is this thing everyone just shelves. Really, to have childcare you need money. I don’t want to make it seem like, oh, just get childcare, like it doesn’t involve work and figuring that out. For me, that is the answer to everything, writing, reading, breathing, being a person.

Zibby: Amazing. Excellent. You go try to finish your book.

Kate: Thanks.

Zibby: Good luck with that.

Kate: I don’t know what to say. It’s my fault. I put myself in this position. I can get out of it. I’m almost there. It’s just that the home stretch is always hard because it feels impossible, but I know it is. It’s just, we’re coming down to it here, so been putting in long days. This was so lovely to take a break from that and chat. This is great. I was like, oh, I can stop for a bit. This was lovely.

Zibby: If you want me to schedule some pretend podcasts, I could just turn on Zoom. You could pop in.

Kate: It’s like therapy. This really felt like a therapy session. I feel much better, so thank you.

Zibby: Oh, good. Me too. Awesome.

Kate: This was lovely. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: You’re welcome. It was so nice to get to know you, Kate.

Kate: Same.

Zibby: Good luck with the title. I wasn’t really kidding about that. I’m happy to scan and —

Kate: — Thank you. I may email you. Thank you. See ya.

Zibby: Bye.



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