Strangers on the Internet: An Interview with Kate Baer
“If one’s poetry is not political, what is it hiding?”
Whenever I teach poetry, I ask students to do an erasure of an old text. Find a classic book, a to-do list, a product manual, anything made of words, I tell them. Take a big black sharpie and strike out as many words as you need to create a poem, to make the text over, to let it find another voice, the voice you see bubbling underneath. I have always loved erasures because they’re fun, accessible entry-points into poetry. But also because the form offers a poet the power to perform restorative, literary violence on the original text—as in Yedda Morrison’s Darkness, which rewrites Joseph Conrad’s colonialist Heart of Darkness, or Jen Bervin’s Nets, poems created from Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Kate Baer’s second book of poetry is a collection of erasures created from everyday materials—messages from what she calls, in the author’s note that opens I hope this finds you well, “Strangers on the Internet.” She reflects on the first negative comment she received online, which came from “a faceless avatar named Brian” who wrote simply: “SHOW YOUR TITS OR GET OFF THE INTERNET.” She deleted the message (“really Brian?”), but thirteen years later, as more messages came in on the heels of her successful first book, What Kind of Woman, she began to see poetry between the lines. Writing I hope this finds you well, Baer says, became a form of revenge that also often felt “abundantly sad.”
Erasures imply bodies coming together, a negotiation between two authors. They suggest that we must rework and re-see old or underexamined language to make new sense of our world. Many of Baer’s poems repurpose comments and notes she received about pictures she posted of herself online. In those messages, men assume ownership of her body; others sell detox diets and anti-aging programs; still others confess their struggles with eating disorders, thanking Baer for “modeling how to celebrate the you that exists.” In the poems she creates from these notes, Baer offers gestures of both hope and refusal, as in lines like: “I will / bring / them / to courage / I will bring / them home.”
Baer turns to other source material as well: a Brett Kavanaugh statement, an AOC floor speech, a Steve Bannon interview, the book of Isaiah. Baer knits these subjects together by retooling the texts in her own voice, always circling around bodily fears with which women and other historically marginalized identities live. These fears, Baer’s poems seem to suggest, come from the shared knowledge that many in America still carry assumptions about who has the right to take up space online—and offline. In this way, Baer suggests that the language of online harassment, whether overt or subtle, holds both more and less power than it initially seems. Her retorts are biting but never bitter; she puts forth an alternative discourse, one rooted in community and care, rather than simply cutting down or mocking those who wander into her DMs.
I hope this finds you well and What Kind of Woman are both New York Times bestsellers. I corresponded with Baer in early January about Strangers and Poetry on the Internet, politics, and her experience writing this book during the pandemic. Our conversation follows.
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