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Rare book dealer's fine press publishes big names in some very small numbers

Charles Seluzicki has been an antiquarian and rare book dealer for 30 years, but it was only recently that he realized he'd had a parallel career that could eclipse the one on his business card.


'Jim (Carmin) has been nagging me for two years to do an exhibition,' he says, referring to his friend who runs the John Wilson Special Collections (for rare books) at the Multnomah County Central Library. 'I finally decided it was time, and it was quite emotional, seeing what I'd achieved.'

His Charles Seluzicki Fine and Rare Books, which sells through Web sites such as www.ilab.org, has long had a sideline as a fine press publisher, bringing together many fascinating writers, artists and printers. What he's done represents a slice of the literary underground that rarely gets any press. It also closely reflects the hidden relationships between creative people, a network that would never be believed from relying on the mainstream media and its emphasis on writers' personalities and rivalries.

Much of what Seluzicki has achieved came though a combination of chutzpah, doggedness and good taste.

'Not many of these writers were known or well-known at the time I published them,' the youthful 59-year-old says.

For instance, he wrote to Ted Hughes (Sylvia Plath's one-time husband) in 1976 looking for any of Hughes' unpublished work. The English poet sent back the coffee-stained manuscript of 'Chiasmadon' along with a picture of an ugly, bioluminescent fish he had torn from a magazine. Seluzicki worked with famed printer Claire Van Vliet, who founded the influential Janus Press in 1955, and published a 12-page volume Seluzicki calls 'spare and elegant.' This gave him a taste of what could be done.

He had a similar success writing to Irish poet Seamus Heaney in 1978, when the future Nobel Prize winner (1995) was a young man with a few books out. Seluzicki asked for any small manuscript and received a sonnet sequence called 'Hedge School,' which he again entrusted to Van Vliet for design and printing. The pink pamphlet came out in an edition of 50 and was soaked up by a hungry circle of friends and collectors. What cost $50 at the time is now worth $2,000.

You can't tell a book É

The artistry of these books makes the trade press world Ñ with its glued spines, hasty cover art and thin paper Ñ look cheap and nasty. This show, in the third-floor Collins Gallery at Central Library, makes clear how collectors can come to love books as art objects, and also why authors are so pleased to be taken seriously.

Time and again, design subtly reinforces the text: For instance, Philip Larkin's wonderful poem 'Aubade,' a dawn hymn about the fear of death, contains lines about the cloudy sky being 'white as clay' and ends with the stoic lines, 'Work has to be done./ Postmen like doctors go from house to house.'

So it is printed on a cloudy white handmade paper and encased in what looks like an envelope. The designer was unconscious of this as she did it, but the poet less so. Apparently he sent one of the finished products to a friend merely by sticking a stamp on it and addressing the outside. (In a letter, Larkin also agreed with another friend that the paper was like cheap English toilet paper.)

Seluzicki moved from Baltimore to Oregon in 1979, when his then-wife got a job clerking for the Court of Appeals in Salem. He came to Portland a few years later. He could still sell books from Oregon and, what's more, he stumbled across a network of local artists who inspired him.

Poets have a long tradition of supplying work for fine press editions. These are usually letterpressed on high-quality paper, with original art that has been carefully chosen to go with the poem, then bound in an eye-catching way. Poets also have a long tradition of writing more stuff than can fit into commercial print runs.

Poems plus prose

Not all of the works in Seluzicki's show are poems, however. There is also a special edition of 'Geek Love,' Katherine Dunn's best-selling novel, one of 32 such copies that came out the same year as the trade edition, 1989. Seluzicki had one of his favorite book artists, Mare Blocker of Seattle, include original gouache paintings and enclose the whole thing in a sturdy box.

Other notable works in the show include:

• A two-page edition of 'Autobiography of the Eye,' a poem by Paul Auster. Seluzicki admired Auster as a poet and for his early career in the book trade with bookseller Arthur Cohen, when Auster prepared five catalogs of modernist rarities.

• A 1985 broadside (a large single sheet usually with one poem and an image) containing 'June in the City,' a poem by native son John Reed, author of the 1919 book about the Russian Revolution 'Ten Days That Shook the World.'

• 'Write Out' by obscure modernist poet J.H. Prynne, who rejected 'linear material.' Seluzicki turned to next-generation Portland printer Inge Bruggeman, who is handy with the letterpress printer and the computer, to handle this typographic experiment on black paper.

The exhibition, put together by Carmin, includes books, broadsides, manuscripts and correspondence. Everything has a distinctly analog feel, from the handwritten notes (from an age when people still corresponded by letters across the Atlantic and replied promptly) to the handmade boxes that enclose many of the works.

Publishers in this field often make small editions and send them to friends and close clients around the holidays. An odd William Stafford poem, 'Purifying the Language of the Tribe,' went out as a folded sheet of paper with hand-colored drawings by Blocker. Seluzicki joked that it was Stafford's first punk publication.

'That's publishing as a form of creativity,' he says.

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