Hull Literature Festival 2001 8th - 18th November
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Wrecking Ball Fringe Festival
Fred Voss And Joan Jobe Smith
Sailmakers' Arms
Friday 9 November

Fred Voss The trek up the stairs to the Sailmakers' Arms function room was becoming familiar. A slightly bigger audience than normal had gathered to listen to Joan Jobe Smith and Fred Voss. After all, the session was being recorded for BBC Radio 4, so it must be something special. Peter Knaggs, cosy in baby blue, had forsaken his usual role as master of ceremonies and sat gazing quietly into his pint. Precisely positioned paper plates offered modest refreshment - a quarter of a pork pie, a curling sandwich and a pointed sliver of quiche (or was it flan?). So carefully placed were these that by the guttering light of candles, one might be forgiven for assuming they were miniature sculptures, or stimuli for a poetry workshop: 'Now write a few lines entitled 'A pork pie's journey from pig to plate'. Graeme Hamilton, replacement MC, sashayed onto the stage to introduce the two poets, gesturing expansively. You could see that he had once trained as a dancer.

Joan Jobe Smith is Fred Voss's wife and warm-up. Coupledom is big on the menu with this pair of poets. She writes poems about him and he dedicates his books to her. Apart from the first poem, written on the long journey from Long Beach to Hull and similarly epic, Joan Jobe Smith's poems were a delightful surprise, whimsical, quirky and funny. Her doll-like, slightly ditzy appearance, all long auburn curls, dark glasses and generous figure, belies a poet of substance, self-effacing in her admiration of her husband.

Joan's support act was a tasty morsel, leaving the audience anticipating more later in the evening. Fred Voss's big thing is work, at least, the workplace. He gathers the material for his poems while on the job as a machinist in an aircraft factory. Some of us just aren't cute enough to make the day job work in quite the same way. Fred did not disappoint, his acute observations of American factory life evocative and vivid. He read as his poems are written, long, unpunctuated phrases, spoken in a lugubrious, rhythmic chant which at times became mesmerising. Although poems which tackled major philosophical issues such as the social value of the work ethic drew respectful applause from some sections of the audience, his most successful poems are those which record the minutiae of human verbal exchange. It is often the final line which twists the meaning and resolves the poem. The surreal humour and construction of visual images through perceptive description are similar to those contained in Dan Fante's writing, following the tradition of Bukowski. The presentation of both Voss and Jobe Smith is more like performance than reading and, as with Dan Fante, it is difficult to imagine the work being read by anyone else. What is it with Americans?

Food for Thought The second part of the evening was all Voss. Perhaps Jobe Smith had succumbed to jet lag or perhaps she is content to remain in the shadow of her machinist husband. At any rate, I would have liked more Joan and less Fred. At the end of the evening, grinning Graeme thanked the transatlantic twosome and the audience lingered on to savour the remaining refreshments and chew over the evening's events ( or should that be 'chew over the remaining refreshments and savour the evening's events'?) Peter Knaggs turned down our invitation to review the forthcoming 'Fine Excess' poetry evening on the basis that he'd had so many nights out already that he was all spent up on babysitting tokens. The balloons in the net above the stage, a fixed feature of the function room, were still awaiting the right function to trigger their release. They had visibly shrivelled over the week and were beginning to nudge their way through the mesh. By next year, they will probably be so small that they will have succeeded in securing their freedom single-handed.

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