Caryl Seidenberg and the Vixen Press

Bob McCamant


axtonian Caryl Seidenberg says she always wanted to print. These days, all she has to do is go to the basement of her Winnetka home, turn on the lights, and she can print to her heart’s content. When I visited her recently, I was amazed at how a few steps put us into a different world.

One room contains files of completed work and lots of space to spread out projects. The largest room has a Vandercook proof press, an etching press, a Ludlow typesetting setup [a gift from Caxtonian Bruce Beck], and all the other tools a printer requires. And a small darkroom contains equipment for making photopolymer plates.

Seidenberg came at being a publisher through art. “I don’t know if it was cause or effect, but my parents always gave me art supplies as gifts when I was a child,” she explains. In college, she combined a French major with a 3-dimensional art minor. Even then she was thinking about the combination of text and image. “I thought it would be wonderful if I could break the bounds of the academic book and make it a richer experience.”

Then in 1973, she happened into the STA Type Workshop. Caxtonian Muriel Underwood and others took her under their collective wing and taught her how to set type and print it, which allowed her to add a verbal dimension to the images she had previously been creating with etchings, lithographs, and other art processes. Like most beginning printers, her early work was mostly ephemeral broadsides and pamphlets. But then the personal loss experienced by a dear friend inspired her to try something more ambitious.

The result was Katherine, Gentle Voiced. It was the setting of her own poem — addressed to the Dylan Thomas scholar Katherine Loesch — hand-set and accompanied by etchings and wrapped in marbled paper. It is stunningly beautiful, and it caught the eye of Caxtonian Jim Wells, who purchased a copy for the Wing Collection at the Newberry Library. (Many are the private presses that have struggled for decades before making it into that collection.)

Next came two books of poetry by Martha Friedberg. Seidenberg had known her for years, playing tennis with her on the courts at the University of Chicago. Friedberg had been working on poems for some time, but had not published any since her college days. She wanted her poetry books to be affordable by anybody, so she came up with grants, which allowed Seidenberg to sell paperback copies for $10. Finally (1981) and The Water Poem (1985) sold out promptly.

For the next ten years or so, Seidenberg devoted herself to painting and occasional one-copy artist books. But by the late 1990s, she was ready for more poetry. She chanced to hear that Robert Pinsky was to be poet-in-residence at Northwestern University, and she wrote him a letter offering to print a work suitable for limited-edition publication. Then, at a reading, she summoned her courage and asked him if he had read her letter. Yes, he had.

He even had it with him in his briefcase. The result was the collaboration The Rhyme of Reb Nachman, published in 1998. That, in turn, led to their new project, Shirt, due sometime early next year. It’s Pinsky’s rumination on the human cost of the shirt, including the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which led to the founding of the ILGWU. Seidenberg had almost decided on the illustrations for the book prior to September 11, but is in the process of rethinking them in light of recent events.

Pinsky is an ideal collaborator, according to Seidenberg. “He’s always available, always interested, concerned. And I feel as if he’s a kindred spirit.” That is what every publisher looks for, since it can lead to the elusive goal: a book that is more than the sum of its parts, where text and illustration and form enhance each other.

Caryl Seidenberg

Caryl Seidenberg displays the wood engraving she cut for use as the drop cap at the start of her forthcoming Shirt. Behind her is a relief print, one of the many forms her art has taken in recent years.

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