I was in sixth or seventh grade when a teacher told me I had a knack for writing.
Mrs. Zehr was her name. All the extra effort I put into my papers was noticed, and she saw something in me. It took a few years before that sunk in, but I decided that’s what I’d be—a writer. Her encouragement sticks with me.
Many of us can probably point back to times like that, when someone important in our lives “called us out” for who we would become. For poet Kate Baer, that “someone” was Mrs. Rittenhouse, her second-grade teacher, who also told her she would be a writer.
I guess these teachers are on to something.
Baer, of Hummelstown, recently published her first book, dedicating it to teachers. “What Kind of Woman,” a collection of poetry, became a New York Times No. 1 bestseller the same week that it hit stores in November.
“It was really exciting,” Baer said of the experience. “I got a bunch of people to buy poetry, which really still blows my mind.”
Baer’s words, raw and vulnerable in “What Kind of Woman,” speak to the experience of being a woman, wife, mother and friend.
Her poems are meant to be real and relatable to those who find themselves in any of those four categories. Baer isn’t afraid to talk about the loneliness and sleeplessness that comes with motherhood or the times when husband and wife put on a smile and act like everything’s OK in front of company.
This is not a happy ending. This is not a fairy tale. This is the beginning of a life you haven’t met. It doesn’t matter how much you fall down on your knees, brown the buttered pan—time will reveal loves’ complication. Gloom and happiness.
— From “For the Advice Cards at Bridal Showers”
“I’ve always really loved peeling back the layers on things and telling the truth in a shocking way,” Baer said.
Baer’s identity as a woman is central to all the roles she plays in her poems. Some celebrate female friendships or body positivity. Many of her poems land on the idea that society or men have something wrong about women, and, with each word, she seems to reclaim womanhood.
The week before my wedding, my friend’s dad said: just don’t get fat, like other wives do. And so I brined him in a deep salt bath, added thyme and celery. Devoured him whole, in one big bite, so he could see just how hungry a woman can be.
— From “Like a Wife”
Other poems, like “Things Men Say to Me” and “Female Candidate,” address misogyny more directly by repurposing sexist phrases that Baer has become accustomed to hearing.
Because of the bold ways that Baer expresses her feelings around feminism and modern womanhood, she was surprised when she received a card in the mail from Mrs. Rittenhouse. This time, it wasn’t a report card, but more like fan mail.
Remembering her teacher as a more conservative older woman, Baer “thought this book would insult her.” But Mrs. Rittenhouse had only good things to say.
Baer’s intentionality to make the book relatable in a fresh and organic way is what she thinks draws in women despite differences.
“Love and heartache and grief and motherhood and romance is something that a lot of people experience, of all ages,” she said.
In April, Baer shared a picture on Instagram of herself lying on the couch with her four kids perched and flopped on top of her. She captioned it, “Mother in the time of Covid.”
In a different time, she could go to her favorite writing spot, the Panera Bread in Hummelstown, to get some work done. That’s where she wrote “What Kind of Woman.” Every now and then, she will still drive to that parking lot and write in her car, she confessed. She has no office and sitting in her bed is very uncomfortable.
COVID robbed Baer of a typical book tour, and that was hard for her. But it had its silver lining—she could stay home with her kids.
Motherhood, womanhood, marriage—Baer expects readers will find those same themes in her next book, which she has just begun to work on.
“I think people want a kind of pulled-back curtain on every topic including marriage and motherhood, and people want to see themselves reflected back in literature,” she said.
For more information on Kate Baer, or to purchase “What Kind of Woman,” visit www.katebaer.com.
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