Q&A with "A Commonplace Book of Pie" Author Kate Lebo and Illustrator Jessica Lynn Bonin
Oct. 9, 2013
: What inspired A Commonplace Book of Pie
: A commonplace book is a way to collect bits of knowledge—quotes, proverbs, poems, recipes, notes—that share a common theme or sensibility. I repurposed the form with the idea of creating a book that could include everything—quotes, poems, recipes, bits of ephemera that wouldn’t have a place in a more traditional poetry collection. With pie as my guiding theme and an unlimited number of ways to write about it, I tried to make a book that redefined sweetness from many different angles.
A Commonplace Book of Pie
started as my contribution to a collaborative show with artist Brian Schoneman. The idea was to create a fun, interactive project that brought the rituals of serving and eating pie into an unexpected place.
The audience response was heated and incredible.
At one point we were standing on chairs handing forkfuls of pie down to the crowd, and I looked out and saw that the entire room was transfixed on those bites. A Commonplace Book of Pie
was the short zine with ten poems and four recipes that we offered up as the object our audience could keep and take away with them, the permanent bit of an otherwise ephemeral project.
: How did you come to see pie as a metaphor?
: I have poet and professor Heather McHugh (of the University of Washington) to thank for bringing me to the metaphor. During a class she said something along the lines that “the container must be precise to contain the uncontainable.”
She was talking about words, but also about our task as poets. The problem of the artist, she said, is to convey what is bigger than what you know while being precise in your word choices. It took me until nearly the end of the penultimate quarter of my M.F.A. to realize that we shared this obsession with containers— but my container was made of dough.
: Does knowing someone’s favorite kind of pie really reveal something about him/her as a person? How?
: Yes and no. Pie can be revealing of character the way the zodiac can be revealing— we want to recognize ourselves in the character profiles set down by the stars, we hope this gives us a clue about what to do with our particular set of gifts and foibles, we want to be recognized. That’s really what I hope to do by setting the book up as a sort of fantasy zodiac—describe a series of personas using their desires, in a way that would invite the reader to see her or himself within the description, to feel and be recognized.
: How do the illustrations work with the writing?
: Jess’s illustrations reinforce the book’s ability to value process over cleanly defined products by picturing the process and materials of making pie. She has this uncanny ability to make materials and objects come alive in her paintings in a way that tells a story about how they’re used.
Her painting of a sugar bag, for example, includes the folds in the top, how it curls over a bit, evidence of use, evidence of hands that have rolled it up and unrolled it repeatedly for the purpose of creating food. When I see that painting, I can feel the weight of the bag as it’s lifted from a cupboard, the way a little sugar scatters on the counter each time the top of the bag pops open.
: When Kate and I set out to collaborate on this project, I believe we knew inherently that we had very similar sensibilities. We grew up in the same town, were raised similarly, went to the same college; basically leading parallel lives until we met as adults. Our concept may be described as finding ourselves through the materials of our lives. Or perhaps, excavating the beauty and poetry from the simplest of moments. That the process of making something is just as important as the end result.
I believe that through repetitive study of the common object, I can not only explore my medium, but also examine some deeper questions about our culture and my own life as an American girl. I find it amazing how something like the creases in a well-worn C&H sugar bag or the shadow a plastic measuring cup casts on a Formica table can tell a story about life and love.
: Kate, your latest zine, The Pie Lady Manifesto
, has been paired with A Commonplace Book of Pie
to put the book (and 1950’s housewife style) into a feminist context. How do you reconcile being Seattle’s “pie lady” in a housedress with feminism?
: I think my books can inhabit the domestic and feminist spheres without putting them in opposition to each other. A Commonplace Book of Pie
enacts this idea by constantly pushing against the expectation that this is a book about pie—pie is just a conceit, the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.
Ultimately, the goal of the book is to learn how to name desire, how to use fear and let go of shame. To simply want what you want. And be an active participant in the interpretation and appreciation of art, and of your own life.
I’m interested in reclaiming domestic spaces as valid places to make art. If my subjects and my image borrow from mid-century housewifedom, it’s because I find those things beautiful and evocative and confusing.
If I dress like a retro housewife, it’s a chance to show people that decorations of femininity do not make a woman decorative. I don’t have to wear a mohawk to be punk, or a business suit to be powerful. Radical women pursue all sorts of projects in all sorts of costumes. There is no one “feminism,” no right way to be an active creator of your own life.