Award-winning books are often birthed in pieces, over several years in different locations. During the 10 years that poet Jon Sebba lived in Redlands and commuted to work in Riverside and San Bernardino, he confronted his ghosts of war by writing. In 2013, poems he penned in the shadows of the San Gorgonio Mountains helped earn him the title of Poet of the Year by the Utah State Poetry Society for his book, Yossi, Yasser, & Other Soldiers.
Rising from his young soldier’s soul, Sebba’s poems record, reflect, and meditate on the images, sounds, and psychological realities of war. They offer an indelible expression of the invisible scars Sebba has carried with him since he witnessed his friend, Yossi Levi, killed in the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War: “that a man you knew for weeks who died in a war of only six days / can be mourned for 45 years and counting.” And he gives voice to those caught in battle who can no longer speak for themselves.
His poems are authentic: embodying truths he refuses to couch, hide, or deny. As Dr. Rob Carney writes in the preface: “The power of these poems is that they don’t explain. They present.”
After witnessing a man severely beaten in front of his family, and learning an inquiry into the incident was to occur, Sebba writes: “Too late for that Palestinian farmer / in ripped, blood-splattered pajamas. / Too late for me, still carrying / invisible scars all these years.”
The first 25 poems in the collection focus directly on the 1967 Six-Day War. Twenty-one poems speak to “Others’ Wars”: WWI, WWII, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. During a phone interview, Sebba explained, “I included poems about other wars, and other conflicts or situations, that I was driven to write because they were about things that bothered me.”
I met Jon Sebba when we were members of the Redlands Branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW). He was one of two men who broke the gender barrier, joining the group when males were allowed membership. He quickly started a play reading group for the Branch. For four years, being part of that group was my favorite monthly activity.
I also was a member of a writer’s support group he hosted, one of the multitude of writer’s groups he has either anchored, or participated in, wherever he has lived. When he moved, we lost touch. Recently, I located him in relation to a book I’m writing about a former center of intellectual, literary, and creative activity for women in Redlands where he took part in a community program I organized and produced.
Born and raised in South Africa, Sebba left after high school to live in Israel. He studied geology, among other subjects and held various jobs. When the Six-Day War broke out he was mobilized as a reservist and fought in Jerusalem while his wife and 3-month-old son huddled in a bomb shelter a few miles behind the front lines. Transformed by the experience of random death, he committed to the belief that war should be avoided. “We didn’t know / that every rifle bullet / manufactured for the army / is intended for some mother’s child / But, by God, we do now,” he writes.
Sebba immigrated to the United States in 1968. He studied civil engineering, became a specialist in water-resources engineering, eventually working in six states. He welcomed another son into the family, and later divorced and re-married. For five years he was also an adjunct instructor in the engineering department at Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, Utah until he retired. He and his wife now balance their time between Utah and Arizona.
Writing and being able to share his poems with others has been deeply therapeutic, says Sebba. In turn, his poems are therapeutic to others.
In demand as a speaker, he relates, “I often focus on writing as a way to work through trauma. And I always offer to connect with veterans. I want to help. And because family members are sharing stories with me after [readings and] speaking engagements, I’ve grown more aware of the trauma and stress the family goes through because they’ve been left behind.”
In 2013, The Gallery Theatre in Ogden, Utah produced a play he wrote. From November to June each year he teaches poetry at a low security prison in Tucson, Arizona. He is also organizing a program to work with veterans in Arizona using writing as therapy. And Yossi, Yasser, & Other Soldiers is a text used in a Social Justice class at Salt Lake Community College.
Sebba’s current writing projects tackle another volatile subject: apartheid. He has written a second play, and is working on a novel, both based on people he knew while growing up in South Africa. And, of course, another book of poems about the effects of war is taking shape. “If I can help others through my experience, and writing, it is both satisfying and fulfilling,” he shared.
Yossi, Yasser, & Other Soldiers is available at Amazon.com.
Jon Sebba can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column was published in the Riverside Press-Enterprise, May 24, 2015; Section: Life; Page Z2 & Z5.