Poetry — May 15, 2014 8:54 — 0 Comments

An Interview With Kate Lebo

I’m standing outside Neighbor Lady, peering as inconspicuously as possible through the glass at Kate Lebo, who I am supposed to be meeting for drinks. Already, I am three minutes late. I can see her sitting at the bar in a tight black t-shirt and jeans, holding a sweating tumbler of bourbon to her cheek. She is laughing, already making friends. I’m feeling a little bit nervous.

There is something I want to say about Kate, and because we are in some ways thick as thieves, I hope that she won’t mind my saying it. That’s why I’m out here on the sidewalk like some creeper, gathering my nerve. I am trying to cast aside all my polite instincts and vow, instead, to be real.

And so, in the interest of realness, I’m just going to come out and say it.

The problem with Kate Lebo is that she can be hella irritating. There, I feel better already.

She can be irritating in that she is pretty, and a talented writer whose burgeoning success is born of hard work. And she’s always wearing some incredible vintage dress with lipstick to match, and as you move through the world with her, so too does this floating fan club of eleventy billion people who know her and need to interrupt your conversation to prove it. Also, she looks graceful and dare I say comely while eating Taco Bell in a parking lot at midnight. And at the end of a very long, roughed up evening when the rest of us are making regrettable street dog choices and trying to remember where the hell we left our debit cards, someone will come up to Kate and tell her she is the ideal woman and ask if she will be their hair model. And Kate will laugh her Kate laugh and very politely accept, and what you will do, no matter how much you love her, is roll your eyes. Because gross.

What I’m trying to say is that Kate is charming, and the trouble with her particular brand of charming is it gives the illusion she is charmed, that everything about her life is effortless. Like she’s the goddamn Marsha Brady of poetry. But if you really know her, you understand this assertion in no way mirrors the truth.

Part of me wants to peel back the vintage dress and rubied lips and show you who she really is beneath all that perfection. And part of me wants it to remain a secret so she can use it against you. What people don’t know about Kate is that she is counting on you to underestimate her, that in her very capable hands, a cherry pie is actually a Trojan horse. But before I get too far ahead of myself, it is cool and dark inside the bar, and I am already late, and the whiskey is calling me.


Piper Daniels: I feel like I haven’t seen you in forever! You’ve been touring with A Commonplace Book of Pie (Chin Music Press), and I’d love to hear about life on the road. How did the experience of touring compare with your expectations?

Kate Lebo: That’s a good question. I fell in love with a lot of different cities and a lot of different people, made a lot of friends for the book and for myself. I went two-stepping in Austin at the legendary Broken Spoke and visited their super amazing boot store with the most patient poet I’ve ever met. I ate a Jucy Lucy in Minneapolis, which is a burger with a molten core of cheese that they have to warn you about or it’ll scald the inside of your mouth and then you’ll sue them.

PD: Litigious cheese?

KL: Yes! The whole time the book was like a car that drove me around, but it was also this incredible teaching opportunity to talk about why food writing could be different and why pie was interesting and why there are lighthearted, serious ways to have a poetry reading. And the thing about pie is everybody loves it, so I could go into any community, have a pie social, and if I picked the right person to host the event, have a crowd. But by the end of the tour I still somehow felt that no one’s going to take this seriously and that might be a problem.

PD: How would you define serious, important work? And how much credence do you give to the notion of being taken seriously?

KL: I’m a writer who, for whatever reason, because I’m female or from the West Coast or I grew up in a DIY culture or because I am, despite being very outgoing, sometimes very shy… I don’t know what it is. I don’t know whether it’s rebellion or insecurity to feel like I don’t know how to be a “great writer” with quotes around it, but the way that I’m going to find that is through genres or backdoors, these different kinds of books that let me surprise people. I guess what I love about genre is that it sets up these expectations and then a really good writer, like Joss Whedon for example, (I’m obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer), takes these really campy genres, and he does camp but he does it so smart. He’s always pointing at something else—I fucking love that—and that’s exactly what I wanna do with my writing. Because of this chip on my shoulder—and I don’t know where I got it, I cannot blame this on the powers that be entirely, some of this is just internal—but that chip on my shoulder makes me want to find alternate genres and alternate ways to be a great writer.

PD: I find it interesting that you’re looking primarily to genre in order to subvert expectation. It seems like that’s something you probably had to do with Commonplace, and again with your cookbook, Pie school: lessons in fruit, flour, and butter (forthcoming from Sasquatch Books). Tell me a little bit about why Pie school excites you, and what separates it from other cookbooks.

KL: I decided very early on that I wasn’t going to give a shit about trying to represent all of pie-dom. Pie was my vehicle, I was not its vehicle, you know? And ultimately what I understood through writing this book is that pie is important to Americans because it signals a whole host of clichés and symbols, and that that for me is exciting territory where for other people it would be completely boring. My goal is to take the thing that everyone thinks they know and tell them something new about it. I don’t give a shit about novelty. In some ways I don’t give a shit about new things. I want to look at the old things and know why they’re still with us.

PD: Okay, but why? It seems like there might be some tension between subverting expectations and feeling so linked to tradition, to the past.

KL: As we all know, the danger of clichés is that through repetition they lose their meaning. I believe pie can change your life because it can teach you how to make what you can with what you have. So how do I—through language, through the structure of the book, through the way that I’m approaching baking, through the tension between the fact that what I’m talking about should be learned in person but I have to write about it— how do I encompass all of that and make it new and sensuous and one of those small things that changes your life?

PD: May it never be said that you lack ambition. So you’ve identified some of the challenges of making the “old things” relevant. What about the “new things”? What problems have you encountered that might be considered uniquely contemporary?

KL: It’s one of the clichés of the Food Network that cooking is easy, easy as pie, whatever. Fuck that. This stuff is hard. What’s really difficult in all our commercialization of food is the fact that you have to learn by doing it and by being with someone, but that’s not how we learn to cook anymore. Our culture is trying to make up for a giant loss of information that is also quite personal. I’m not arguing with Pie school that parents should be teaching their kids how to cook. At the same time, nature abhors a vacuum and we all need to eat. Ultimately we need cookbooks to tell us how to live because they are more direct than other books you might seek out for the same purpose. A cookbook is not an obvious place to look for guidance, and yet that is something everyone is looking for, even if that is not the cookbook’s typical narrative.

PD: So how would you define Pie school’s narrative?

KL: The recipes are only a starting point. If you understand pie at all you’ll know that I’m actually working with two recipes, that’s it. It’s all variation on a theme. These recipes are to cooking what a fake book is to music. In John Thorne’s Outlaw Cook, he describes the project of a cookbook in these terms: why does the book want to fuck its mother and kill its father? And while that’s a patriarchal narrative I’m not interested in exactly, part of my lifetime project is to figure out what the fuck-its- mother-kill-its-father thing is. I don’t know what that is, and I don’t think the next book is going to figure that out, but it’s going to start to.

PD: So talk about your next book a little bit if you would. What genre are you working in?

KL: All I will say is it’s nonfiction, and it seeks to answer the question, how do you live? It’s interested in the ways that we’ve come to expect certain narratives in our lives and certain things to go easy and the anguish that we experience when they don’t.

PD: Being that there are very particular connotations to the subject matter you explore, I’m wondering, as you develop your body of work, what role feminism plays. Is it important to you to be considered a feminist writer?

KL: I’m privileged to have grown up in a region where the coolest people I know are feminist. And that also, I grew up with a mother who modeled those values, even though she didn’t necessarily take that label for herself. And what I love about that is it doesn’t come from ideology. It comes from ambition, longing, and talent.

PD: Do you feel your upbringing was unique?

KL: I hope not. In traveling, I found that the lines of conflict are generally drawn around generations who don’t understand the ways we are signaling we are feminist. What that taught me was, if someone uses the term “feminist,” that’s your cue to pay attention to the language they’re using, not to doubt what they’re saying.

PD: In your personal life, do you ever encounter people who have trouble reconciling your intelligence with your femininity?

KL: Not anymore. Part of it is because I project smart immediately.

PD: How do you feel about being “Seattle famous”?

KL: Okay, but am I Seattle famous?

PD: I think you are. Don’t you think you are?

KL: I don’t know. I believe neither in praise nor censure. Every single bit of attention that comes from the media prompts an existential crisis. It means so much and so little at the same time. Being constantly aware of that kind of audience, of any kind of fame audience, fucks with writing. I value and treasure the Seattle scene and everything that is happening within it right now and I’m so happy that I get to watch it happen but I… Any group of humans is going to make you want to conform. And that is the opposite of what one must do to be a healthy person and a healthy artist. There are riches outside the artistic sphere that I need so that I don’t become an alcoholic or a bad person.

PD: Which, as a poet, would be your birthright.

KL: I disagree. I think that my birthright is actually to become a very, very good alcoholic. Don’t put that in your article.

PD: Too late.

It is at this point in the interview that two of Kate’s friends burst through the door and knock her off her barstool. And my voice recorder, positioned in her bra, stops recording. Aside from sweet, sweet whiskey, the way I refrain from irritation in moments like these is to remind myself of the following:

Kate will always respond promptly and thoughtfully to any draft you send her way, no matter how busy she is.

She’ll have your back in a bar fight even if she missed the moment it definitely became your fault.

She will dance with you, giddy and sun-drunk in a famous poet’s living room at the Centrum Writer’s Conference, or on the street outside of Hugo House, playing Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby,” as loud as her phone will let her.

She is not afraid to be a woman, to be, as she says, “an un-ironic drag queen” in increasingly louder dresses.

She will cry whenever she wants to.

She will not blame you, even for a second, when her favorite possessions are stolen from the back seat of your car.

And when you are at your absolute worst, she will be there with a gorgeous poem you’ve never heard and vodka infused with rhubarb she grew herself.

PD: Okay, I think we’re all done here!

KL: Hooray!

PD: Last question. What’s your end game? What, to you, signifies success?

KL: Success is being able to write.

PD: And that’s it?

KL: That’s it. Can we go get tacos now?


Piper Daniels is a poet, a graduate of the University of Washington MFA program and a wonderful dancer.

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What am I?

Bioluminescent eye
That sees by the shine
Of its own light. Lies

Blind me. I am the seventh human sense
And my stepchild,

Scientists can't find me.

Januswise I make us men;
Was my image then—

Remind me:

The awful fall up off all fours
From the forest
To the hours…

Tick, Tock: Divine me.

-- Richard Kenney