Poetry News

'I eat self-doubt for dessert': Kate Lebo, Poet & Piemaker

By Harriet Staff


Over at the Ploughshares blog is a conversation with Seattle-area poet and pie expert Kate Lebo, who is more than expert; she's the "proprietress (or rather, proPIEtress) of Pie School, which teaches pastry-phobics the art of the perfect pie. Other manifestations of her awesomeness include A Commonplace Book of Pie; a 'semi-regular semi-secret social' called Pie Stand; an in-progress 'lyric grocery' of Wikipedia erasures about fruit; and these kick-ass poems in AGNI, River and Sound Review, and Best New Poets." Watch your back, Jen Bervin! (Just kidding; we love you Jen, and your pie-baking.) (And your poems.) Your Emily Dickinson. OK, enough of that, and more from Kate and Ploughshares:

[Ploughshares] So poems. So pies. For you as a maker, what do these two genres have in common?

[Kate Lebo] I know that baking and writing both start, for me, with raw material. That’s why I like fruit pie—the fruit, the colors, the textures, the seasonality, the deadlines of rot and fridge decay, their consumability. When I’m done I get to have more, and for me hunger has always been something I experience, as I’m eating, for the thing I’m going to eat next.

In poetry, I think of material as language, of course, but more specifically as the images and observations and quotes I collect every day and let sit in my notebook. I call that my compost heap, actually.

So then when it’s time to make something, whether that’s pie or poems, I have to decide what needs to be used now, what I’m hungry for, what will be juxtaposed in the most interesting way (peaches and raspberries, this image and that bit of rhetoric), what needs to get thrown out, all with an eye towards form.

[PS] You’re also writing a cookbook. What are the demands of that form?

[KL] I keep telling myself that by mid-August 2013 I’ll know how to write a nonfiction book, and that’s cool and all because it’s also terrifying, but so exciting, and thank god I’ve chosen a form that’s measured out in little chunks. Starting this week I’m writing five recipes a week. So that seems like an easy enough task—keep writing one a day and in ten weeks I’ll have a cookbook.

[PS] What does “writing a recipe” involve, exactly?

[KL] Recipes are their own genre that must be obeyed and messed with. I’m learning about this as I go, so here’s what I know: Write everything you remember down. Then make the pie and find out everything you’ve forgotten. Then write that stuff down. Then make sure the instructions are in clear English. Make sure all the ingredients listed are actually used in the recipe narrative. (Harder than it seems!)

And then there are headnotes. The genre of the headnote. I’m still wrapping my head around that one. They’re often autobiographical (“Aunt Ruby taught me this over blah blah blah, fact about rhubarb, source material for recipe, funny personal story”). But for that same reason they’re often superfluous.

This is the thing about food writing that excites me and drives me nuts: it’s super tied to the personal essay, which is great as long as you’re a fantastic writer or famous, so we care about whatever happened between you and your Aunt Ruby. If the writing isn’t great and you aren’t Anthony Bourdain or Alice B. Toklas, it’s hard to care. It’s filler. Any jerk can get a cookbook (including me), and headnotes are, to me, where that fact is most clear.

And so of course I want to write fantastic headnotes that illuminate the origins of the pie, make the reader laugh, get them comfortable with the recipe, and don’t waste time. That’s what a headnote is for! It’s the bit of small talk that invites the reader into the conversation of the recipe, makes them feel comfortable, catches them up on what’s been said before, and then allows them to participate. Just like a good hostess.

[PS] Aha! The usefulness of the seemingly-superfluous headnote is essentially social! Speaking of usefulness and accessibility: how do these issues pertain to poetry? To pie?

[KL] Maybe the best way to answer this is to talk about why pie has been important for my poetry, beyond being its subject matter. There are two things pie taught me about poetry:

When I make a cherry pie, I’m not mad that it didn’t turn out to be a blueberry pie. So why would I beat myself up for not writing poems just like Kay Ryan or Sylvia Plath (who loved to cook) or Laura Jensen? Pie gave me an invitation to be satisfied with what I made given the materials I had, and not internalize self-doubt. I eat self-doubt for dessert.

Read it all here! We'll be at the diner.

Originally Published: May 23rd, 2013