Screen-printing books by hand could be seen as a nostalgic occupation. This intimate method of production requires a lot of time, personal commitment and care. In July last year I began screen-printing an anthology of poetry, prose and illustration after choosing work from 15 extremely talented writers, poets and illustrators.
Some of the contributors who entrusted me with their work are already established in their fields, such as illustrator Fuchsia MacAree and poet Geraldine Mitchell. Others are just starting out. All of them were interested in committing their work to this hand-printed, hand-bound format.
For many authors or artists, it’s an appealing idea: artwork is carefully pressed onto each page, hundreds of times, using a process that requires meticulous attention to detail. The printer must love the work as much as the person who first created it.
Some curious folk have asked me why I use this arduous method to make books. There are a number of reasons: for one, screen-printing gives a lot of control over production. The printer can experiment with the format of the book itself, fitting its physical production to the content much more readily.
With Small Lives, the pages are large and some are very long to accommodate poems and text that spill across a spread. Every page in the book is a unique print, and they have been treated as such. They are not punctured with binding thread but may be easily released from the book and withdrawn as individual sheets, perfect for framing. Not many industry printers would be able to produce a book with these physical features.
Another appealing aspect of screen-printing is that every page is unique. The attitude of the printer has a direct and visible effect on the resulting print. At a time when books may be replicated in many different, efficient fashions - especially in relation to digital books - it can make people pause to wonder at the fact that they hold a completely unique book in their hands.
I chose pieces for this book that I felt would stay as fresh and attractive in years to come as they are now. Small Lives begins with work such as Jean Tuomey’s poem, ‘The Mill Wheel’, and Peter Donnelly’s illustration, ‘Homestead’, which offer a deceptively simple kind of nostalgia, a familiar feeling of home.
This is carried through the early parts of the book and is quietly questioned in such pieces as Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s ‘End of Girlhood’ and Sue Rainsford’s ‘August’. In these, there is some disturbance of the familiar, of memories layering over lived experiences. A growing concern builds that we can’t cling to the past.
Among the final pieces, Dave Comiskey’s ‘OMG’ and Anna Canby-Monk’s ‘To Ithaca, with love’ dance between the traditional and the modern. They let us know that, while we can no longer inhabit the past, it gives us a tremendous springboard to leap from.
As the pieces in Small Lives imply, childhood ends, environments change, the past flutters away. A sense of nostalgia lingers, lightly, but we can’t go back. The hand-printed nature of Small Lives may be reminiscent of older methods of book-making, but the book itself celebrates the marriage of these older methods with new ideas and designs. There are traces of nostalgia in this book and in its production but they are traces of lasting things; things worth keeping and carrying on into the future.