Eat Your Words

Kate Lebo writes 
poems and bakes pies. 
Her new book claims the kitchen as a place for a modern revolution.

Kate Lebo lives in a state of self-discovery. Seated on a dark wood  banquette at Bellingham’s  busy Temple Bar, drenched in the steel-bright light of an early Northwest evening, she sips an Old Fashioned and peruses the menu. Lebo is on a cross-country tour promoting her first book, A Commonplace Book of Pie, and after three weeks on the East Coast she’s arrived at her undergraduate stomping grounds for a poetry reading. She’s also planning to eat—something she tends to forget when she’s on the road.

“Should I get the thing I want to get?” she asks, pointing to the ham and brie baguette sandwich, bright blue eyes flicking up under arched eyebrows and gently fringed bangs. “Or should I get the thing I should get?” Her finger drifts to the kale and farro salad and she lets out a lighthearted whuff of a sigh. “One day, I will be the woman who gets both.”

She’s not passively waiting for that day to come. She’s pursuing it, blending the personal and the professional, discovering how to be both a poet and a pie-maker, and acknowledging her dual identities as an artist of integrity and an object of desire.

An hour later, sandwich-sated and slightly rain-damp, Lebo stands in front an eclectic crowd at local coffee shop Caffe Adagio. A Commonplace Book of Pie, she explains under the study-friendly lighting, is not a book of or but a book of and: poetry and pie. Sweetness and strength. Sandwich and salad.

In the book, Lebo’s 25 lyrical prose poems couple with Jessica Lynn Bonin’s illustrations, which show baking ephemera captured in washes of watercolor, as lively and nostalgic as sepia-toned photographs. Each poem is a pie; each pie is a poem. Lebo presents facts, real and imagined, about the pies in question, but these facts are also about people. Lebo posits that your favorite pie says something about you. Silly, she says, but in a “why not?” kind of way, like a horoscope.

Pumpkin. “Contrary to popular opinion, pumpkin pie-lovers are adventurous, quizzical, good in bed and voluminously communicative.” Banana cream. “Bad bananas are like push-up bras—a promise of tenderness can deliver tasteless mush and we’re not supposed to complain.” Peanut butter. “If you love peanut butter pie, you are either Dolly Parton or someone who loves her.”

Tonight’s reading is a poetry jukebox—Lebo happily takes requests. Audience members shout out their favorite pie, and Lebo presents the corresponding poem. Her language, like her stage presence, is simultaneously accessible and elevated, lush, dense and funny, filled with knowing winks and the sparkle of shared experience. What it lacks is cliché. No apron strings, no grandma stories, none of the subtle, lingering sexism present in much food writing: women making and men eating. Not femininity or feminism. And.

The book’s recipes follow the poems—for pie, of course, and for crust. Lebo’s self-generated notes on lard and butter, ice water and pectin, on how to eat pie. “With someone else’s hands.” “Preferred by children, lovers, and invalids.” Opening it all is a quote from Carl Sagan, which Lebo shares at the start of her reading, like an amuse bouche: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

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A Commonplace Book of Pie was conceived in the spring of 2010, when Lebo participated in “Strange Coupling,” a University of Washington program that pairs visual art MFA candidates with working artists. Lebo and her partner, then-MFA sculpture student Bryan Schoneman, chatted over whiskey, searching for common ground. They found it in pie.

“We were tired of doing projects that were unapproachable or in some way snobby,” Lebo says, so they chose a project built around something social, comforting, understandable. Schoneman crafted a traditional pie safe, a cabinet meant for cooling baked goods. Lebo made two pies and locked them inside, concealing all but the aroma. Later, as she watched 200-plus art lovers awaiting forkfuls of pie, she knew she’d stumbled upon a powerful subject.

The takeaway from that otherwise transient project was a zine bursting with prose poetry, recipes and more: the first iteration of A Commonplace Book of Pie. That slim zine, hand-bound in thick brown paper, sewn with waxed linen thread, red title letter-pressed, has grown into a volume of nearly 100 pages, hardbound in a textured grey cover splashed with warm red script, published by Chin Music Press in October.

Lebo grew up in Vancouver, Wash.; her father is a construction manager and her mother is a physical therapist. She can’t remember when she wrote her first poem. Nor can she remember wanting to be anything but a writer.

“It was always a dream,” she says. “I knew that I could write, but I also knew that plenty of people could write, and that doesn’t mean they’re going to. It’s a matter of showing up and working hard.”

Lebo wrote for a local paper during college (though she claims she sucked at it) and later moved to Seattle with a part-time job writing for a tech company in Bellevue. It paid her enough that she could spend her extra time writing and volunteering at Richard Hugo House, where she soon became an employee.

“Kate was a star from about the day she arrived,” says Lyall Bush, who was the executive director of Hugo House from 2005 to 2008. “I remember a reading back in 2007 when she was working in our development department; the audience was a little scattered and the lights on the cabaret stage were bright, a combination that tended to spook even seasoned writers. Kate seemed to rise into the light, delivering poem after poem with poise that was beyond her years. And then the next day she was back helping with grants and volunteers, as excellent at this work as she was onstage.”

Lebo’s perpetual motion didn’t stop at Hugo House. She joined Jennifer Borges Foster on Filter Literary Journal, hand-bound and hand-ornamented collections of poetry, fiction, essays and visual art. She wrote and edited for the glossy arts-centric quarterly RIVET magazine. She had poems published in Best New Poets, AGNI and Poetry Northwest. She did “everything but run the place” at Hugo House, she says, before the lure of academia became irresistible. She was curious about the schism between the university classroom and her beloved community writing center, but mostly, Lebo remembers, school sounded like fun.

“It was so fucking hard,” she says. “My body hurt. I got so stressed I stopped eating my first quarter and didn’t even realize it.” On top of a demanding graduate program, pressure was building in Lebo’s personal life. Her longtime boyfriend had just been diagnosed with celiac disease. The digestive disorder made him completely intolerant to gluten, and Lebo, in her caretaking mania, was struggling to feed him.

“Heartbreaking, but also hilarious, right?” she says. “Like, of course the pie maker would be in love with the celiac. I did most of the cooking, and my favorite thing to make was poisoning him. I was going through my cookbooks and feeling despair.”

Despite her newly complicated relationship with flour, Lebo’s skyrocketing stress level made her pie poetry an emotional necessity. “I needed a break from seriousness and self-criticism,” she says. “It was this relief, that I don’t have to be brilliant each time. That’s the scary thing about writing a poem—you want it to be fucking brilliant and say something that lasts forever, which is a lot of pressure. Pie takes the pressure off.”

Sections of ACBOP eventually became part of Lebo’s creative thesis, and to her surprise, people took it seriously. “I was always waiting for someone to say, ‘This is about…pie?’” she says. Lebo was hesitant to believe in  her own talent, but Heather McHugh, a poet and MacArthur fellow, and one of Lebo’s UW mentors, had no such trouble.

“Both as a student and as a free-spirited sensibility at large, Kate stands out for a feisty signature of temperament and gift: She’s a combiner of elements others pass over as unrelated,” McHugh writes of her protégé. “She’s tender and tart; she homes both to an old-fashioned style of hand-made arts (the fluted crust and frilled apron) and a wild sort of prose-poetry improv. Her pieces of pie are among the best I’ve had; and her pieces on pie smack of glottis and gloss, kind and character, the human appetite’s own quirky ranges.”

Lebo earned her MFA in Creative Writing in 2012, but instead of returning to her career in nonprofit arts administration, she decided to become a free-floating artist-entrepreneur. She sells pie and teaches pie-making sporadically, and opened Pie School, a “cliché-busting pastry academy” in June 2012. Originally, she convened classes at Dani Cone’s Capitol Hill spot High 5 Pie, but now that Lebo’s on the road, she’s setting up sessions when and where students are willing.

Lebo was hesitant to put such focus on her baking, but an accountant friend put things in perspective. “She said, ‘Think of pie as the thing that makes the money, and poetry as the thing that spends the money.’”

With her ready laugh and penchant for vintage dresses and Americana, painting Lebo as a wholesome, modern-day homemaker type is an enticing prospect, but it’s also lazy storytelling. Local outlets like Evening Magazine have branded her “The Pie Poet,” and while Lebo is grateful for the publicity, she’s wary of what such a title implies. That she’s a pie-maker who dabbles in poetry: Isn’t that sweet.

“It’s awful, like any marketing tool that’s really catchy, like ‘the material girl,’” she says. “It can be constricting if you let it speak for you.”

Kary Wayson, Lebo’s former poetry teacher at Hugo House, remains her good friend and mentor—and Wayson advised Lebo against writing on such a specific topic. “I worried that her pie project would pigeonhole her, and she has a whole other fat manuscript of non-pie-related poems that I love!” Wayson says. “Her uniqueness lies in her uncanny ability to apply her poetic sensibility to any subject, whether it be love, loss, sex, God or pie.”

In this case, pie is important—it greases the wheels for a tougher sell, poetry. But the poetry must not get buried under a pile of easily digestible, feel-good fluff.

“That’s the line that I’m trying to walk,” Lebo says, “Very obviously saying, look, I know this is cute, and I’m going to sell the shit out of it, but it’s also more complicated and interesting than it looks.”

In June 2013, Lebo took part in “Weird Sisters,” a show at Hedreen Gallery that investigated and challenged the notion of the feminine. Lebo’s contribution was another zine, The Pie Lady’s Manifesto, made up of eight non-fiction pieces. The more Lebo became known as the Pie Lady, the more implied femininity started to conflict with her feminism. She wrote Manifesto in response to her growing disquiet.

Manifesto surges with ruminations on Sylvia Plath, misunderstood poet and magnificent cook; the latent and blatant sexism present in cookbooks; the way domesticity is equated with docility; the sexual harassment she experienced at a former job; the “Photoshopped fruit and boobs” that make up the fantasy Pie Lady.

Lebo hadn’t wanted to address misogyny head-on in ACBOP, nor in the forthcoming cookbook she’s written for Sasquatch Books (due for release in 2014), because declaring something “a feminist pie book” is as limiting as making a cliché-filled pie primer, fresh from grandma’s oven. “People are coming to this book to learn about pie, and because of the genre there’s a contract with the reader that I need to honor,” Lebo says.

The manifesto, an inherently political form, was another matter. “It gave me an opportunity to articulate my anxiety, and also the ways that I was not going to let it eat me up,” she says.

“It’s lovely to be wanted, and then it isn’t,” Lebo writes. “You start to wonder what they want you for—the audience, the men. If it’s even about you. If all I am, despite my many professional and artistic roles, is a woman who will make you pie. I was starting to understand how the act of channeling a powerful symbol comes with the risk of being annihilated.”

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Kate Lebo and journalist Kristen Millares Young (left) at the 'A Commonplace Book of Pie' book launch at Hugo House. Photo by Chona Kasinger
Kate Lebo and journalist Kristen Millares Young (left) at the ‘A Commonplace Book of Pie’ book launch at Hugo House. Photo by Chona Kasinger

“I feel like something happened to my brain when I turned 30,” Lebo says, driving through the deserted, rain-soaked streets of Bellingham. “Something happened to my ability to articulate ideas, that has to do with becoming assertive and taking up space, that has everything to do with my professional and personal history.” The most important change came when she realized the importance of deciding. “Not hedonism, exactly, but doing what you want to do. Deciding it, and doing it. And owning it.”

Lebo, who turns 31 this month, is trapped between an older generation of women that was forced to assume a degree of masculinity to pursue professional success and a younger generation that declares feminism a dated construct. The debate over women’s work-family balance was reignited in 2012 by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” The intellectual maelstrom that followed centered largely on the idea that “having it all” doesn’t exist. Not having children, or not having a career, doesn’t mean we are having less than all—we are having all of what we actually want. Women are a long way from resolution, and from parity. Taking up space is harder than it sounds.

As Lebo shakes off the vestiges of her “girl training,” as she calls her impulse towards apologetic modesty and assuming the burdens of others, she’s protective of her work, her friends and her own wellbeing. She’s broke and nomadic—a beloved apartment was lost in a rent hike earlier this year—and she’s pretty damn happy. She sleeps nine hours a night, drinks whiskey without affectation and visits her 60-odd vintage dresses, now stored and color-coded in the closet of her childhood bedroom.

The stories she tells from life on the road are liberally sprinkled with the half-smirking phrase, “I met a handsome man,” but she says that her heart has been entirely her own for months now. She can wear all the mid-century dresses she wants. She can serve without being subservient.

Check out Lebo’s recipe for pear and gouda pie!