Tag Archives: Janis Freegard

Poetry Shelf review: Janis Freegard’s reading the signs

reading the signs Janis Freegard, The Cuba Press, 2020

I walk into Ema Saikō’s room to find the poet herself at the writing desk,

long hair scraped back in a bun. She wears an embroidered robe. Tea? I

offer. It seems the right thing to do.

I let her choose the teapot. I was tossing up between late evening 

blue and bright green. She claps her hands and says something about

bamboo. So I go with the green one that looks like a Dalek.

from ’11. Meeting Ema Saikō’

I have been musing on national book awards and how they expand the life of shortlisted books and boost the authors and boost readership. Without a doubt they are a vital and important part of book landscapes. But like so many people, I find the idea of a ‘best’ book a little twitchy. I flagged the 2021 Ockham NZ Book Award poetry longlist as the best I have seen in ages, especially because (for once) it wasn’t top heavy with Pākehā poets. I had read, reviewed and adored eight of the books and then read, reviewed and adored the other two. If you haven’t read these fabulous books check them out. Yet there are other nz poetry books I have read, reviewed and adored that didn’t make the long list. Slowing down with a poetry book, finding the ways your body, heart and mind absorb the poetic affects is a privilege. A joy. As both author and reader I claim the writing and reading process as the most important thing.

A book has the ability to lift you.

I have been reading Janis Freegard’s poetry collection reading the signs over the past months and falling in love with the way it inhabits the moment. Janis had been awarded a residency at the Ema Saikō room in the Wairarapa. This room and the rituals Janis observed were the springboard for a sequence of connected poems.

Halfway through the book I became curious about Ema Saikō (1787 – 1861). She was a Japanese poet, painter and calligrapher much influenced by Chinese art, and who was producing work at a time when it was rare for women to do so (publicly anyway). I know nothing about her beyond her attachment to the physical world. But I am curious about the bridge from this much lauded woman to the occupants of a room named after her. It seems like Janis was also curious about Ema as her poetry and her occupation of the room become more and influenced by the poet / painter from the past. In both writing and in observing daily rituals such as making tea, especially in the making of loose-leaf tea with an exquisite concentration, Janis moves closer to Ema.

While you’re drinking the tea,

only drink the tea. By all means

notice twig shadows fluttering on the ground,

the calls of kiwi and kākā,

but do nothing else with your hands.

Let drinking the tea be the whole of it.

from ‘4. If you’re looking for a teapot, make sure

there’s a lug on the lid’

Janis writes after a fracture in her life, mending herself by writing poetry, paying attention to what is close at hand. A gender-fluid interpreter arrives in the sequence to direct her attention to things, questions, possibilities. Poetry stands in for the gold that ‘seals the fissures’:

You’ll break until you feel you may never be whole again.

(You will be.)

But you’ll be altered. Now is the time for kintsugi,

the Japanese art of repairing with gold, mending the cracks

in smashed ceramics to make something more beautiful.

You’ll reassemble yourself and use gold to seal the fissures.

from ‘8. Kintsugi’

So you could see this sequence as therapeutic, and no doubt it is, but it transcends the therapeutic and becomes a mesh of experiences: of slowing down and taking note of, of absorbing beauty in nature, from the sky to birds to trees. She is reading the sky – and the way a poem is a tree and a tree is a poem. She is reading the tea. She is absorbing stages of grief and loss and peace and life. She is translating what she feels, thinks, observes into lyrical poetry that is both steadfast and ethereal.

Ema Saikō says, ‘It is true things get lost in translation, but if you lose so much more if you don’t translate at all.’ In a sense Janis is translating herself on the line, finding lyrical form for experience, memories, feelings, contemplation. She is translating myriad connections with the world, with life – with an endangered world, with an endangered self.

It is warming to read, this book of dreaming, of signs, of being. I imagine it as a prism in the hand that shifts in the light. And here is the thing. I am never after the best book. I am after the prismatic effects that poetry has upon me, the way a book can shift and glint in my heart and mind as I read. Think how the effect changes with each book you pick up. The way it lifts you off the ground and out of daily routine and then returns you to your own daily rituals observations concentrations. An exquisitely layered and fluent book that reminds you of the power of the moment. I loved this book.

Janis Freegard is a Wellington poet, novelist and short story writer. She has won a number of awards including the Geometry | Open Book Poetry Competition and the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Short Story Award, and she was the inaugural Ema Saikō Poetry Fellow in the Wairarapa. Janis performs with the Meow Gurrrls poetry collective.

The Cuba Press page

Janis Freegard’s Weblog

VIDEO: Janis reading poems from reading the signs (Wellington City Libraries)

Janis held the inaugural Ema Saikō Poetry Fellowship with NZ Pacific Studio in Wairarapa. The 2015 Fellow: Yukari Nikawa (Japan); 2016: Alan Jefferies (Australia) and Ya-wen Ho (NZ); 2017: Makyla Curtis (NZ); 2018: Leanne Dunic (Canada); 2019/2020: Rebecca Hawkes (NZ). For more

Poetry Shelf audio spot: Janis Freegard reads ‘Requiem’


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‘Requiem’ was first published in the Atlanta Review (USA) in 2017. (I wrote the first draft during a Kahini workshop on the Kapiti coast).



Janis Freegard’s most recent publications are a novel The Year of Falling (Mākaro Press, 2015) and a poetry collection The Glass Rooster (Auckland University Press, 2015). Based in Wellington, she is a member of the Meow Gurrrls poetry group and blogs occasionally.

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 (http://matchboxstudios.co.nz/). 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). http://anomalouspress.org/books/alice.php.

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.