Stories that belong to the stuff that belongs to us
Kate Bingaman-Burt and Zachary Schomburg sat in Kate’s studio on the second floor of the Ford Building in Portland, OR on October 9, 2016. They spoke loosely about collaboration, and about learning from and inspiring one another as longtime friends who met in 1995 on their first day at College of the Ozarks — a small, conservative Christian school in southern Missouri.
On the table in front of them was “Three Months in a Cult” — the first publication Kate and Zachary ever collaborated on in 1997, featuring Zachary’s first collection of poems, and Kate’s first-ever publication design. Also in front of them was “Belongings,” their most recent collaboration, which is a zine about some of the things Kate (K) and Zachary (Z) own.
K: Whispers, while looking at one of her plants in the studio. Look at that one.
Z: You’ve drawn that one before.
K: I have.
Z: Why is it dying?
K: Because I haven’t watered it in a really long time.
Z: Your mother-in-law’s tongue looks like it’s starting to lose the will to live.
K: I know. I need to water that, too.
Z: They’re trying to tell you.
K: I know. I’m not listening to them though.
Z: Pointing to the other side of the room. This one looks good.
K: It’s Taryn’s.
Z: Her plants do better in the shadows than yours do in the light.
K: It’s because she puts them in the sink and actually waters them. She puts effort toward taking care of them.
Z: What a loser.
LOL into a double sigh.
Z: So, do you want to talk about this? Pointing to “Three Months with a Cult.”
K: Yeah, okay. You start.
Z: There’s something about it that, I mean, it’s so unattractive, yet I’m so attracted to it in part because it feels like a start for me, and also a start for us. It holds such a value to me. This is the beginning of my thought process. Not only around how to write a poem, but how to make an object. That didn’t start in a vacuum. It started with you.
K: Yeah. And this represents, for me, our time at the writing center where I was first in a position to help other people — whether I was putting their publications together, or setting up their Hotmail accounts, or calming a really freaked out girl because her screen went blank but didn’t realize that all she needed to do was move the mouse to wake it up. It was my first time being in a role where I was a teacher. I had no intentions of ever being in that position. And here I am twenty years later, and you, too.
Z: Right? Right. How did that happen?
K: Or, more like a facilitator to help people make things. That was also an interesting time because we worked at the only place on campus that had Apple computers. In my previous experience with computers, it was all about PCs, and I just didn’t like it that much. This book also marks a time when you and I were both Mass Communications majors, and we hated it. We burned our books in the field.
Z: Oh, yeah!
K: I still have that charred cover.
Z: That was before this? Pointing to “Three Months with a Cult.”
K. Yes, we had taken a Writing for TV and Radio class with Doug …
Z: Doug …
K: Swww …
Z: Swwww … swwww …
Z: Oh, right! I think he looked like James Taylor.
K: You know what? James Taylor was a really attractive man.
Z: Wow! I forgot how much you were into James Taylor …
K. James Taylor is still a really attractive man. Anyway, I remember being in that class and thinking how all the way through high school I wanted to be a journalist, and here I am finally in this class where I was supposed to learn … but I fucking hated it. I hated it so much. The only good thing that came out of that class was finding that stupid typeface that I used for the next two years.
K: Yes! But not Courier. The free version. I remember because the class was Writing for TV and Radio and I wanted it to look like an old script. I should’ve known when I spent longer looking for the correct font than writing the papers. I know you hated the class too. We were recruited by our friend Web (Freeman) to become English majors, and then he took us out to the field to burn our books. That was also the first time for me, at 19-20 years old, to make a major decision without asking permission from my parents. That was a huge moment for me.
Z: Hearing you say that makes me realize that while the first day we met each other was the first day of college, it also goes way beyond that, before that even. Now I see that even though we didn’t meet before then, we were essentially on the same trajectory. We were both Mass Communication majors; we were both interested in the same things; we both wanted to go to the University of Missouri, but were both resigned to attend C of O; and because of that, our lives changed, together, and I’m guessing, for the better.
K: My ACT scores were so average.
Z: Mine too.
K: And my parents didn’t have that much money.
Z: My story is the exact same, and our stories took us to the same place. That’s where our real education took place. It’s not the University of Missouri, but it was with each other and the other people we met there. It was from you, from doing this poetry book together, burning those textbooks together, that I also learned what I wanted to be, which I couldn’t have possibly done without you. I couldn’t have done any of this by myself.
K: I couldn’t have done any of this by myself either. I wasn’t the kid in high school who rebelled against things, I didn’t question things. If I would have just gone to a university where I didn’t have to stand up for things I believed in, I still would’ve been going with the flow, basically. But because we both went to such a weird conservative place, we had to find those people who felt the same way we did, and we had to make things together and put them into the world because they didn’t already exist there.
Z + K go around and around about their experience teaching in the Center for Writing and Thinking at C of O, the range of students working there, and about their supervisor, Dr. Carman, who facilitated a free-thinking, collaborative environment that encouraged making and creativity despite the restrictive, conservative environment of the campus. It was through that environment where K + Z learned from each other about what they think, and how they think, and about music, art, and literature. And about collaboration.
The conversation turns to the photocopier — which was basically commandeered by K + Z and others — on which all of their zines, posters, and publications were printed for free, with unfettered access granted by Dr. Carman (either officially or unofficially), despite the rules against using the photocopier without paying for it.
Z: [Dr. Carman] was one of those rare teachers who understood how important it was to not shut that behavior down. He realized that these interesting people are all learning from each other. I mean, yeah. Use the copy machine.
K: Also, he had been there long enough where we could just say, “Hey! Dr. Carman said we could use it.” I can’t remember, but we might’ve just used his name.
Z: Well, I mean, yeah.
K: But, whatever. He also gave us access to that little room where we could just relax — where we could just watch movies that weren’t approved by the college: R-rated movies.
Z: We could watch “Name of the Rose”!
Inside joke, LOLing.
K: I remember it was before “South Park,” and the first episode of “South Park” was being passed around on VHS tape. And my uncle Paul had sent me that tape.
Z: I remember that. I remember us all watching that, in there, and being so shocked. I remember thinking of the possibilities — how they just opened everything way up.
K: And also, that room was really great because it doubled as the “media center,” and it had my very first copy of Photoshop I ever screwed around with. It was Photoshop 4, and it was on that computer that I made so many things. Dr. Carman had a real obsession with old Mac computers. It was a real Mac museum in there, basically. I remember going in there and just playing around.
Z: I remember Photoshop and also the puffy couch.
K: That puffy couch is what people made out on.
Z: I never made out on there.
K: I did.
Z: Picking up “Three Months and Cult.” I can’t remember, did you use that Photoshop with this book?
K: I think I did. But the insides were Pagemaker. Remember Pagemaker? But the outside cover, because I had to use an image, I basically had to cut this out. Pointing to an image of Christopher Lloyd in an ad eating cereal.
Z. Oh, yeah, right. There was no Google image search.
K: I cut it out and taped it onto a white piece of paper. And this I printed off and cut out and taped onto the paper, too. I couldn’t figure out how to put an image on a Word document.
Z: I was so excited and so serious about the idea of having a book, and I remember wanting so much from it. I was so anxious and so frustrated because I wanted this to be just right.
K: You were very precise. You had these indents in the poems, but I didn’t know how to use tabs, so I just kept hitting space space space space. I would say one too many spaces, and you would say, “OK, stop! That’s too many spaces.”
Z: You really can have too many spaces.
K: We were both taking English classes at that time, and you just, like, took off. Like a crazy person with all these poems. You took that one class with…um…Making the kind of facial expression that Dr. Gianoli always made.
K: Right. What came from this book then was that we needed to start a symposium. You would read these poems, and you read them so well, and I was just thinking, “Oh my god, he reads these poems so well.” They’re fun to read [on paper], but what is so great about them is listening to Zach read them. Right as we made this book, we looked around and saw that Web was playing the guitar, and Sam Clanton was playing the guitar, and Little Spheroid with Will (Manning) and Tony (Tost) was playing music, and Tony was writing poems, too. You and Tony had such a poetry competition going on with each other. From the get-go, you were such a good reader. That was always so natural for you, and still is, how you just kind of do stand-up with your poems. It was so clear to me that we found what it was we loved to do and make, because we were so inspired by the people around us.
Z: I think this is what made it real for me, too — the idea that now that we made this book, the poems were being shared with other people, and people like you were saying, “They’re good.” I was thinking, “Now I’m connecting in some way.” And, I wanted to just keep doing it and doing it. I wanted to keep up with everyone else. There was an audience, all of a sudden. I think maybe that’s what collaboration is, in part — the idea that we have a really intense and immediate audience in our collaborators.
K: Right, and when we put together that first symposium, it was right as I was taking my first art class. So, I remember thinking that we needed stuff to go up on the walls. So, we had people like Grant Miller and Sami (Buffington) who were painting, and I was like, “Hey, I like what you do. Let’s take it out of the classroom and share it.” And, like, “Hey, drama people, do that one one-act!” I really liked being in that role of encouraging people to do what they’re good at, for other people.
Z: Exactly. Do you feel like in this very first project that we did together, in designing it, to let other people read my poems, that you could take ownership of it as well? Was that some sort of first step toward that?
K: Absolutely. I mean, look, I kept it all these years. And then I went on to design the “Gordian Knot” (College of the Ozark’s official literary magazine).
Z: Oh, right! Even back then, you can see how you’re starting to make design decisions. I remember how you really wanted it to be a square.
K: Right, I was all like, lowering her voice “It has to be a square.”
Z: And it was a monochrome red photograph cover because we were listening to a lot of Belle and Sebastian at the time.
K: Uh huh! Oh man, it is! It’s those Belle and Sebastian covers.
Z: And it has that damn Courier font.
K: That’s right. That’s laid in actual Courier. I had taken a year of design classes at that point, so even though Courier is still a bastard of a typeface, I knew that I couldn’t be using this free knock-off version of it. I had to use Courier! Which is still shitty. But yeah, it was a square that was basically a Belle and Sebastian 7-inch.
Z: You took one of your black-and-white photos from the dark room and made it red.
K: It took me forever to figure out how to turn that into a duotone.
Z + K go on to talk about Belle and Sebastian and their duotone covers for a very long time.
K: Anyway, that publication was the first time I ever printed anything at a print shop.
Z: It was the first time I ever had a poem published in a magazine.
K: 1997 — it was a really good year.
Z: It was a good year for everything.
Z picks up a copy of “Belongings,” the zine K and Z collaborated on as illustrator and writer most recently. It began, like this conversation, as a dialog with each other around ten of their own personal objects — both prized and mundane — that could tell not only a story about K and Z as individuals, friends, and collaborators, but also about each of their histories with each of the objects. The collaboration consisted of K’s drawings of each of the objects, and Z’s text for each of the objects, which were distilled into tiny narratives. Each of these mini stories then eventually took the shape of a one-panel comic. Then K and Z assembled them into the one “Belonging’s” zine.
Z: I want to talk about this now. Looking at it, it seems to hold so evident all the things we’ve learned about writing and design and illustration in the last 20 years, and also that it is, in many ways, strikingly similar. I mean, it’s just folded-over paper and stapled. Even though we knew so much less making this pointing to “Three Months in a Cult,” it feels like we still arrived at basically the same thing.
K: Obviously, when I was an undergrad, I was way more comfortable working with other people’s work. Over the years, I’ve become way more confident in being an illustrator. One of the things that’s so great, and terrible, when you’re younger, is that you don’t have a complete awareness of what it is you’re doing. Sometimes that can be translated into having a little bit of fearlessness, in that you don’t overthink things. So, I think with this one pointing to “Belongings”we’ve learned more how to do a true collaboration, and this one pointing to “Three Months in a Cult” was more in service to you.
Z: That’s a good example of the leap from how we collaborated 20 years ago, to how we collaborate now.
K: I know more now about who I am. That’s what should happen. I look at the 19-year-old who put “Three Months in a Cult” together, and I was still figuring out my voice, and figuring out what I wanted to do. I was unsure, and I wasn’t really confident about any of the creative work I was doing.
Z: I remember even back then, when we would have conversations before class, or we would read books together, or prepare for tests together, and a lot of those times we would actually be writing our papers side-by-side, on side-by-side computers.
K: Oh, yeah, and so frantically.
Z: In our conversations, I would learn so much from you about what we were reading, and what I should be putting in my papers. But when it came time for class, I felt like I would use all the stuff K LOLs that we learned together to say, “Look at me! Look at all these thoughts I have!”
K: Because you were able to articulate the stuff we were saying in class. I was
participating through you. That’s a kind of collaboration, too. They weren’t exactly your thoughts alone that you shared in class specifically, but they weren’t exactly mine either. I was afraid to have my own opinion that someone might disagree with, or that someone might think is stupid. I didn’t want to broadcast anything. It’s another reason why I felt more comfortable, especially at the beginning, with identifying with what other people were doing and making and saying, and listening to them.
Z: Do you ever feel any reluctance to share your ideas now?
Z: What do you want to talk about next?
K: I don’t know. Wait, are you recording this?