The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider

  janis launch - mary macpherson

Janis Freegard was like a magpie in her debut collection with ‘her eye out for the shining anecdote and the gleaming fact.’ Kingdom Animalia: The Escapades of Linnaeus (Auckland University Press, 2011) was a dazzling arrival that was both inventive and assured. She borrowed six animal classes to explore contemporary life. See my NZ Herald review here. She initially appeared in AUP New Poets 3 (2008) with a shorter extract from the adventures of Alice.

Janis has a science background with degrees in Botany and Plant Ecology, so it is not surprising her new collection has ‘spider’ in the title: The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider. It is a gorgeous little book, like a pocket edition that you can pop in your pocket and pull out at amoment’s notice. The poems were selected from a longer version of The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider and the book is published by Anomalous Press in The States. The Press is devoted to ‘the diffusion of writing in the forms it can take.’ In a mini manifesto it states that ‘We’re searching for imaginary solutions in this exceptional universe. We’re thinking about you and that thing you wrote one time and how you showed it to us and we blushed.’

Alice Spider is ‘a spinner. A spinster.’ The book is like a handbook to Alice. The sequence of prose poems (or poetic prose) hold Alice to the light as though she is a prism that refracts and reflects in all her shifting, colourful glory.  She is an Alice of many sides as the titles suggest: ‘Alice the Camel,’ ‘Alice the Mermaid,’ ‘Alice the Dinosaur.’ That is one charm of the sequence; you have no idea what or who Alice will be next (there is a poem entitled, ‘Who is Alice?’).

The second charm of the collection is the way Janis tends Alice. It strikes me that the author (almost like a poetic narrator) is delighting in the protagonist’s multiplicity, her failings, her quirkiness and her audacity. There is an infectious tenderness at work in the pore of every poem as Alice becomes both self-absorbed and self-transformative.

The third charm is the way the world of Alice is a cousin (perhaps once removed) of the world of the surreal (there is a poem ‘Alice and the Surreal’). We enter a reality that relishes offbeat twinges, tics and spasms. In ‘Alice and the Babies,’ ‘Alice had never wanted children but now here she is, producing all these babies, suddenly, every week a new one, filling her house.’ Having had countless babies in the blink of an eye, Alice feeds them on pancakes and then, once they hit adulthood, makes them cereal-box hats and farewells them a year later. There is the inexplicable and the unfathomable but it is subsumed into the fabric of the everyday (along with cheekiness and change). Thus the cow is in the Post Office trying to register its car. Alice (or course!) buys stamps. This is a collection infused with humour, and that humour is the flint for the surreal.

Finally, the writing itself. The book is a treasure box of sentences; economical, wry, agile. You could easily employ spider-like tropes to talk about the writing: the way it deftly weaves detail to unsettle the everyday. The way the poems spin a fine web that shimmer and shine with the glaze of a storyteller. The way the book as a whole embraces the simplicity and the beauty of a spider’s web. There is repetition. There is a love of language: ‘It’s like. It’s a lot like. It’s like being in love. It’s that mirror you see yourself reflected in. This is me. It’s like. It’s a lot like. It’s like being. It’s like being in love.’

Most of all, though, there is Alice, and reading Alice is a rare treat.

‘It’s not an angel. It’s a woman with wings. Oh alright then, says Alice. You’d better come in.’

Janis Freegard Weblog

The book is selling for $20 in NZ and is available from Matchbox Studios in Wellington ( Unity has also agreed to stock it. It is also available from Anomalous Press for $US10 + postage & packaging.  They also have e-book and audio versions and a fancy handmade letterpress version (the latter with a smaller selection of poems).

From the media release:

Alice made her way to the US via the Tuesday Poem online network run by New Zealand writer Mary McCallum.

Janis says, “I was paired with wonderful US poet Melissa Green for an end-of-year “Secret Santa” Tuesday poem swap – I posted one of Melissa’s poems on my blog and she kindly hosted Alice Spider.  Cat Parnell of Anomalous Press spotted Alice there and asked if I’d like to contribute to a new online journal she was involved with.  Alice appeared in an edition of Anomalous, after which the editors contacted me to say they were interested in publishing an Alice Spider chapbook”.

Of Alice, Janis says “In some respects she’s a kind of alter ego, a more reckless version of myself. I do let her borrow a few of my own experiences from time to time. Perhaps she’s also a spirit of wildness and freedom.  I know some people think of her as a spider, but to me, she’s human (well, as human as any fictitious character).

“There has always been a mix of realism and surrealism, humour and menace.  The earlier pieces contain more knives, blood and cigarettes; the later pieces tend to be a bit lighter, with zebras and hot air balloons.

“It feels very much as though Alice has gone off travelling without me.  It’s been a really exciting process and a great example of how the worldwide web (a very appropriate vehicle for someone called Alice Spider) can connect people across the planet and make things happen,” she says. 



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