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Poetry Unbound & On Being

metal type form on stone, says Poetry Unbound

In January 2020, The On Being Project announced the launch of a new podcast, Poetry Unbound. I opened a marketing email and read: “immerse yourself in a single poem ... short and unhurried; contemplative and energizing ... anchor your week … to the everyday poetry of your life …” I felt a thrill roll through me, a mirror held up at once. It described exactly what I aim to do in my work with poetry in print. I was fascinated with the idea of seeing that work happen via audio, and wondered after what visual support I could offer. I waited an hour or two and wrote the most un-hurried email I could muster to Erin Colasacco, Creative Director. There were many exclamation marks edited out before hitting send.

Now I am into the fourth straight season of working with the incredible On Being team, one part of the great concert of impactful, intentional content they publish. My part is making original artwork for Poetry Unbound. I help choose an excerpt for each episode’s featured poem, design and set it with metal type, and letterpress print it onto an A6 card. I hand off a few copies to the art director who collaborates with a photographer on a photoshoot of the prints, the images for which are then curated for On Being’s website and social channels. At the same time, I print a larger edition and assemble box sets at the end of each season for gifting (this idea came to me on a hike. A sheaf of loose prints collected and contained neatly — like a little book but not bound. Poetry! Unbound!). I am amazed I get to be involved. I have this strange sense of needing to pinch myself to see if I’m dreaming while I go about this dream project that is the most natural work in the world for me. I feel great ease and great wonder simultaneously. This project brings to bear all of the skills I cultivate across editorial, typographic, and artistic disciplines, stretching me far while keeping me grounded in my great love for precise language and the depth of feeling that poetry gives me.

pile of proof prints in afternoon sun on composing stone

I learned about On Being initially thanks to my friend Carolina Veenstra. She recounts all kinds of stories to me, often when we’re hiking, that she’s gathered across great swathes of books and podcasts and conversations. Krista Tippet’s interviews often come up. When I think of Resmaa Menakem or John O’Donahue, for instance, I picture trails and trees and bright green ferns with my friend’s voice winding along the path of their ideas. Carolina’s curious mind, capacity for delight, and diehard learning drive send her down a lot of paths. Which she shares with me. Which I am grateful for because I feel very slow with how I consume stories, how I find them and am able even to read or listen. I don’t have nearly so vast or fast an ability to process what comes in front of me. I guess that’s why I set type by hand. The pace is a soothing one at which to take in words.

sun shining through trees onto stump and ferns, North Kitsap Heritage Park, photo by Carolina Veenstra

Cross Country Trail, North Kitsap Heritage Park, a few minutes from the shop. Photo by Carolina Veenstra.


It can take me years to read a book, even a short one, and honestly it isn’t often I actually finish a book at all. Of course I still buy lots of them, a familiar quandary known to book lovers across the globe: the buying of books when there is yet a big pile of unread ones at home. I used to feel bad about this, especially the part where I hardly ever finish a book, but then I realized that I interact with books primarily as reference texts, and that’s okay. More than okay, it explains a lot about my process and how I think. It also explains why there is such scant fiction in the piles laying around my life. I love to hold a book and look at it and thumb the contents and read the copyright page and the colophon if there is one. I even read the index sometimes. I find them super interesting, an orderly yet randomized access point to the content someone spent so long organizing.


detail of metal type form at Expedition Press

Carolina told me lots of stories from the On Being podcast and lots of connections kept coming up, poets I was working with who Krista was interviewing — and so I started sending copies of prints out to Minneapolis when one of those serendipities happened, and I followed them on Instagram, and one day I came across a caption about grief they posted that stopped me cold. “What does it mean to embrace grief when it feels boundless?” The naming of that boundless feeling gave me a way in to a project I had been stuck on, Embrace, which I wrote about here. That caused me to reach out for permission to print the words (an ever-challenging but relationship-rewarding process) and I sent a bunch of those prints and had more direct conversations with On Being staff.

A couple more years passed before I sent that email asking to collaborate with Poetry Unbound. Things were well on their way for Season 1 at that point but I got an encouraging, “please do check back in a few months when we’re turning our minds toward Season 2…” There’s a couple more years now intervening between the next exciting email and today, where I’ve got the first seven poems for Season 5 sitting here on my desk, excerpts underlined from a fabulous conversation with producer Gautam Srikishan and host Pádraig Ó Tuama last week.

on being logo locked up in press to print on box

During initial conversations about the scope of the project I was confused because On Being asked for only a few copies. I have platen printing presses, which are production-oriented. Typically I work in editions, usually numbering in the hundreds, sometimes thousands. Whenever a client asks for just a few copies I generally dissuade them from hiring me, and I guess this speaks to what I’ve learned from working with On Being about my own worth — they value the time and energy and expertise I put into each piece, my care with the words first and foremost, and the way I attend to space. They recognize that the tools I use are integral to my process, to how I see and make, and so they are glad for me to spend time making art with those tools. To the eyes of a production printer like me it seems inefficient, but to the heart of an artist like me, it brings deep joy and a sense of appreciation I didn’t know I brought or could share in client-based work. The relationship has deepened and I feel a part of the team. I am wildly honored to contribute to the work On Being is doing in this difficult world. This deeply difficult world.

final box set from Poetry Unbound Season 2

Credits

Thanks to Erin Colasacco for seeing and believing in the collaboration from the get go, and her clarity of vision and depth of detailed attention.

Thanks to Lillian Vo for her warmth, ease, specificity, and incredible capacity to cohere schedules and assets into powerful imagery.

Thanks to Gautam Srikishan for his calm presence with each poem, care with each credit, and twinned musical and technical brilliance in the auditory realm.

Thank you to Pádraig Ó Tuama for the care with with which he reads each poem; from the first internal encounter to the public intimacy of the podcast. Gratitude for his generous bridging of the personal to the universal, and his gentle way of holding our hands across the bridge that each poem offers.

Thank you to Krista Tippet for her steadfast wonder and searching presence, and to all the beautiful crew bringing beautiful things into being at The On Being Project.

Thanks to all the poets whose words begin and end everything to do with this work. Your words carry us through.

And thank you to Carolina Veenstra, the best companion on every trail.

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Explore The On Being Project and Poetry Unbound. Listen anywhere you find podcasts.

Here’s an interview of me with On Being, fall 2020. We also did a photoshoot at my shop with the very talented Jovelle Tamayo. Many photos on my website are from that day!

Here are links to Krista’s interviews with Resmaa Menakem and John O'Donahue.

See more of Carolina’s eye for the beautiful outside on instagram.

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Lil Vo holding up a print with text by Layli Long Soldier

Lillian Vo at the end of a long day at Expedition Press.

 

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