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Liesl Jobson - listening and writing

Michelle McGrane in conversation with Liesl Jobson

Liesl Jobson is a music teacher at Johannesburg's Sacred Heart College. Once a bassoonist in the former National Orchestra, she also worked as a community journalist, a bandswoman in the Soweto Police Band, and a media officer and speechwriter for the Provincial Commissioner of the SAPS, Gauteng. She received first prize for poetry in the POWA Women's Writing Competition 2005 and the Inglis House Poetry Contest 2003. Her poetry was performed at the Art of Survival exhibition of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks Women's Art Group. She is the Focus Poet for Timbila 2005 and The Hiss Quarterly's Summer 2005 edition online: http://hissquarterly.thehiss.net/ef/poetry.html.

Liesl's poetry appears (or is forthcoming) in New Coin, Carapace, Green Dragon, Kotaz, Fidelities, Read Our LiPS (South Africa), The Journal, Aesthetica, Brittle Star, Gator Springs Gazette, Bonfire (UK), Mississippi Review, Main Channel Voices, Wild Strawberries, Tough Times Companion, The Christian Communicator, Oasis, edifice WRECKED and Ink Pot (USA).

Liesl, you went to school in Pinetown in KwaZulu-Natal, then in Cape Town, then in Connecticut, USA, and then in Cape Town again. How has moving around during your childhood impacted on your life?

I suspect it's a major contributor to the permanent sense of rootlessness I feel. I start to get itchy feet if I've been in any one place or job for longer than two years.

Tell me a little about your life in Connecticut.

Two experiences profoundly influenced me at New Canaan High School. In the first instance, I did Orchestra as a school subject. Every day I attended an orchestra rehearsal and learned the basic skills that would later stand me in good stead as a professional orchestral player. I fell in love with my flute and began to practise with a passion. The second was a Language and Literature class run by Dr Ben Gordon. He was a wonderful, funny, kind man who inspired a love of the written word in his students. In his class the seeds of my writing aspirations were sown and I first dreamed of becoming a writer.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

My parents took me to symphony concerts at the Cape Town City Hall. We would sit on the stage and watch the orchestra. Very early on, I was sure I wanted to play the flute. By the age of 15 I knew there was nothing else I wanted to do. It was less a decision than a compulsion.

Did you want to be famous?

I would listen to records of Jean-Pierre Rampal, Eugenia Zukerman and James Galway, which I bought with my pocket-money. I dreamed of a solo career as a flautist. Then I would practise until my fingers ached.

You participated in the SABC Music Prize in 1991 and have subsequently given numerous solo recitals and chamber performances in South Africa and Botswana. You've also performed in the National Orchestra of the SABC and freelanced, playing in the Bophuthatswana Chamber Orchestra and others. Do you still play in an orchestra?

When my son was six months old I freelanced for the State Theatre orchestra, driving to Pretoria each night. In the orchestra pit I suddenly found it impossible to determine whether my pitch was sharp or flat. I could hear my intonation was off, but I couldn't fix it. This led to hideous anxiety. As it was, playing freelance was much harder than playing under contract, because if you played badly, management would simply never ask you back. I saw it happen to other players. I was in a constant state of panic, because I could hear I wasn't playing well. I would return home at 1 am and breastfeed my baby through the night. I was teaching music at a nursery school in the area and was too tired to practise my instrument. A severe post-partum depression had rolled in and I was losing confidence in my playing. I asked the recruitment officer not to book me for a few months. I wanted to leave before I ruined any remnants of my reputation as a once competent player. I promised to call as soon as I was ready to return. Soon after that the orchestra closed down. I never got back into it.

How did you end up working as a police officer in the Soweto Police Band?

I was turning pages for my husband, who was accompanying the SAPS Choir at a choral festival which was part of a larger music eisteddfod. The Soweto Police Band was also on the programme. At the intermission I strolled over to chat with the conductor and asked him where his flute player was. It transpired that they did not have one, so I volunteered to play for them at the forthcoming competition. A short while after that a vacancy materialised and I was asked to apply for the post.

What did you learn from the experience?

Enough to write a whole book. Long story short, I learned that poets do not make good police officers.

In her novelette Winter of Artifice Anais Nin wrote: "Music melts all the separate parts of our bodies together. Every rusty fragment, every scattered piece could be melted into one rhythm." How would you describe the transformative powers of music?

What I know most intimately is the power of music to unhinge me completely. All the constructions that keep my head and feet pointing in the same direction are destroyed by music that fires me up. The self that functions as an adult in the world becomes utterly destabilised and I'm reduced to a state of raw emotion. If I hear the haunting bassoon melody from the Ravel Piano Concerto in G minor, or the Beethoven Violin Concerto on the car radio, I am transported back to the space I existed in when I performed the work. I am returned unceremoniously to the intense and relentless association the music carries. Raw memories dumped in my consciousness leave me bereft and disoriented. This puts me in a compromising position as a teacher and a performer.

I am awfully sensitive to noise. Teaching "Nkosi Sikelela" to 25 Grade Four recorder players is a particularly gruesome torture. And in our home we have an ageing Steinway that won't stay tuned. My husband teaches his students in our home. The disjointed scales and arpeggios of the rhythmically challenged are a perpetual irritation.

Tell me about your primary influences and the poets who initially inspired you.

Sylvia Plath, Ingrid Jonker, Emily Dickinson, Antjie Krog are the first poets I read that made me think, "I want to be a poet too." The first creative writing workshop I ever attended got me started. It was a gift from my uncle, Dorian Haarhoff.

How necessary do you think examination of the inner life is for authentic creation?

For me it is essential.

American poet Rita Dove said, "Poetry connects you to yourself, to the self that doesn't know how to talk or negotiate." Is this true for you?

No, no. Music connects me to my preverbal self. Writing is the vehicle for making sense of the world. It makes me conscious, it stimulates cognition, interprets moods, comprehends subtleties of the nonverbal gestures in unspoken conversations, it expresses meaning - negotiates it - when I've been silenced. Poetry is a highly intellectual discipline - both the reading and the writing of it.

What are the subjects you can't write enough of?

Glory! Surely the answer to that must be "Myself". I am endlessly fascinated by my own reality, perceptions, obsessions, disappointments, aspirations. Isn't there a technical term for this - something like grandiose narcissism?

How does living in a climate of escalating violence and crime inform your poetry?

Living in a state of perpetual wariness takes its toll on my equilibrium. Survival requires that one exist in a state of never-ending hyper-alertness. I believe this does inform my poetic vision. I notice things acutely - disparities in dialogue, hidden messages, odd socks, changes in temperature in my joints, and other things that often relate to nothing in particular. Because life and death can depend on the observation of minutiae and irrelevancies, I am always listening for sounds that do not belong to the established order, voices in the wind, or creaks of a door that will give me a head start in an attack.

Having survived a violent attack has also informed my poetry.

Do you think writing can facilitate the passage through trauma to an intact - albeit altered - state of being?

I don't think so, I know it. I am the testimony to this power.

Why does writing have the power to metamorphose, to heal the writer and the reader?

In order to survive the injuries that life inflicts, people have to forget them as fast as they can. If one were to remember every cruel disregard, abandonment or punishment, each humiliation and wound, one would surely find life an intolerable burden. In the forgetting, though, a deadening happens, the heart shuts down. Unless one has the opportunity to speak of one's soul-ache, it remains unacknowledged and toxic to health.

Writing gives voice to unspoken pain and hence redemption in the telling of the tale. The universal experience of suffering is relived and relieved as the reader engages with the text and recognises herself or himself in it. Opportunities for healing open. Good words are balm. They restore life.

How important is exploring issues of sexuality in your work?

I don't think it's central.

Let's talk about prose and the quarterly column you write for the website Moondance.

About a year ago I was invited to submit a column to this online multicultural women's magazine that originated in 1996. In the words of founder and editor-in-chief Loretta Kelmsley, "Moondance has tapped into a common well of human knowledge, based entirely upon creativity and shared experiences which transcend national boundaries. What we have learned along the way is valuable to others who want to help change the consciousness and expectations of women. By sharing this knowledge, we can multiply the number of women's voices and bypass the traditional gatekeepers who have kept us mute these many centuries."

The invitation to participate was a terrific opportunity to explore another genre of writing - the personal essay, or "creative non-fiction". When I write fiction, I always try to disguise the facts of my life in a story. This genre, by contrast, offers me the chance to say, "This is who I am and that is what I think." The personal essay is a medium for examining my reality, challenging my assumptions, and giving voice to my experience. And I do so love to opine - especially on my favourite subject ...

Are you an avid reader?

Yes. I read voraciously and compulsively. Usually about ten books at a time. And I return to those I love over and over again.

What five books have made a difference to your life?

The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron
Oyster, by Janet Turner Hospital
The Grass is Singing, by Doris Lessing
When I Loved Myself Enough, by Kim McMillen
The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath.

You're employed as a specialist music teacher at Johannesburg's Sacred Heart College, where you conduct the primary school choir and teach singing, recorder and percussion. What makes your job as a music teacher fun and what are the drawbacks?

The fun is plentiful. The children are remarkable and affectionate. They seem to like me. They sing, laugh at my jokes. They are wise and observant. They love performing and do it with passion and energy. They inspire my poetry. There are so many, many pluses.

The major drawback of teaching music is the noise. You have no idea how my sensory defensive neurological system gets zapped by 25 recorders squeaking off key. Or the frustrations of trying to get grade ones to beat time together on zinging xylophones. I often feel completely jangled by the end of the day.

The other significant drawback is the National Curriculum for music. This thorn in my flesh is a ridiculous and meaningless document which I would like to respond to using the appropriate channels in my spare time. I'd like to redesign it because it neither progresses, nor is it logical. It appears to have been designed by an academic committee of axe-grinders, distanced from the practical realities of limited resources, insufficient time, energy, funds, and instruments. Its originators seem removed from the difficulties facing modern educators - challenges of inclusivity, the dynamics of discipline in the classroom, competing demands of time-tabling, and burnout. Burnout. That's another big drawback.

With your musical training, have you ever considered song-writing?

I write songs for the children I teach. I'll take a piano piece and then fit words on a given theme to the melody. It's a great teaching tool and I have a seemingly endless capacity for nonsense, which my Grade 3s and 4s particularly enjoy. I've done some composing, setting poetry to music. There is never enough time to do all the things I want to.

You're used to performing musically in front of crowds of people. How comfortable are you reading to an audience?

I need to believe in the work before I can feel any degree of confidence. If I still feel unsure about what I'm trying to say, or if the poem is in any way unfinished, or the sensibility is not adequately developed, those things are revealed when I get in front of a microphone. That is the moment of reckoning. As a test of whether a poem is finished, I ask myself how I would feel about reading it to an audience.

Are there exercises you employ to improve your reading technique?

Reading and singing use the same techniques - vocal projection, pacing, articulation, listening, diaphragmatic support, anticipation, placement, modulation of the voice and breath control. Would you like another thesis on the similarities?

Do you prefer reading poems within the pages of a collection or listening to poets performing their work?

Trifle and Ice, said May, how nice.
No, said her mother, one or the other.
No, said May, no both, I say.
No, said her mother, one or the other.

Liesl, can we look forward to a collection of your poetry in the not too distant future?

So I'm told. To my very great astonishment, Vonani wa Bila of the Timbila Poetry Project invited me to submit a manuscript to him earlier this year. It is lucky I was seated when he called, because I would have fainted dead away otherwise. After I'd gathered myself up, I suggested he look at my manuscript of flash fiction, which includes prose poems. No, he said, it's your poetry that interests me. I haven't really considered myself as a poet, more as a wannabe prose writer. We have applied to the National Arts Council for funding to assist in the publication of that project, but what that esteemed body decides is a wildcard.

Liesl, you really make use of the internet. Many of your poems have been published on international websites. Do you think the internet is changing the face of poetry?

Unquestionably. The internet revolutionises writing and reading in a continuously evolving process. This is one of the central contentions of my MA research report. There are so many ways that poetry has been influenced - from fora where writers meet to workshop, to networking and sharing information about readings and publication opportunities. There are websites that advertise free contests, lists that highlight "calls for subs", blogs that expose fraudulent competitions, and databases and archives that make little-known and foreign language poets accessible. Every grudging cent I've paid Telkom has been worth the education I've received. Education? You may well ask. I believe so. The proviso is that one must engage a highly efficient crap detector and assess for oneself whether the information and commentary ring true with one's own intuition and value system. Another caution is to give serious consideration to every word that is zipped off into cyberspace. The echoes are infinite.

What suggestions and tips do you have for writers who are interested in submitting work to ezines?

Don't get me started. The list is l o n g, but it is essentially a duplication of what other editors have stated far more eloquently on

http://ms.essortment.com/writingacover_rvzf.htm and http://www.soyouwanna.com/site/syws/publishpoem/publishpoem4.html.
It can be summarised in the injunction "READ THE GUIDELINES". I'm currently working as the poetry editor for the online journal Mad Hatters' Review. It is startling to note how frequently the editorial requests are disregarded. As an editor I want you, the writer, to make it as easy for me as possible to accept your work.

How would you define yourself spiritually?

With difficulty. I don't care for institutionalised thinking. It annoys. My saviour was a little old lady, a Jewish psychotherapist who died the week I got divorced, which was the same week I had root canal treatment and the teaching post I had held was closed. Now I ask you, how useful is that? Admittedly, she sends me dreams of diamond rings and slow ponies and a fat baby girl called Quentina. Go figure.

You've written a number of poems about your experience of pregnancy and the premature birth of your daughter. Did becoming a mother influence the way you looked at the world?

Before my first pregnancy I understood I was in control of my world. If I wanted to learn a skill, like a new language or how to drive a car, I paid my fees, paid attention, worked hard, and sooner or later I became competent. I had faith in order and logic and good planning. When I lost that pregnancy, the notion shattered. Motherhood has taught me the meaning of waiting without knowing, relinquishing control, embracing uncertainty. As a mother I have learned the essential meaning of fear, hope, guilt and a desperate yearning passion. Motherhood evokes a kind of madness from which one never quite recovers. It is a peculiar blessing, a staggering joy.

Does growing older worry you?

Not really. I plan to live to be one hundred. I do wonder about my health, and I don't like the notion of being incapacitated. I'm planning to be healthy. The plan includes excellent chocolate, fine wine and lots of good geriatric sex.

"There are times when Life surprises one, and anything may happen, even what one had hoped for" (Ellen Glasgow). What do you hope for?

Apart from thin thighs and world peace? I guess I hope for a way to stay on the writing journey - one that often feels daunting and difficult. I want to continue the search for a meaningful, authentic "voice". I hope I don't succumb to despair, embarrass my loved ones, or alienate myself from the community to which I belong. I hope I'm not consumed by exhaustion and resentment, because life is hard. The publishing industry is fickle, and luck and connections aren't easy to come by. I yearn for the day when I'm free to focus on my craft. I long to be financially supported by the words I write. Most of all, I hope my children don't grow up odd for having a poet as a mother. I don't think they have an easy time of it.

I still want to be famous. Now I type until my fingers ache.

On the Death of a Young Chorister

I bought a parrot yesterday,
an elegant African Grey,
on my way home
from the Klipspruit cemetery.

Its rubbery black tongue
salved the memory of the dry red earth
falling. For a moment, an apple-scented
lick of my eyelids,
bore away the sobbing crowd.
Its gentle beak plucked the remains
of tears from each brittle eyelash.

That eye-kiss sealed the bird's sale.

But today I do not want a parrot
that will never sing as sweetly
as my young chorister.
No beady bird eye will ever shine
as bright.
No feather will ever fall
as heavily as yellow rose petals
into the grave.

The pet shop owner took back
   We don't usually refund our animals ...
the bird named Grief,
    Such wonderful talkers they are
with a haughty sigh,
    … this has never happened before!
I did not try to explain my loss
    They make wonderful pets, you know?
the size of an eight-year-old's coffin.
    But I'll have to claim 5%,
The parrot, at least,
    the finance charge of the credit card transaction.
seemed pleased to be back.

Liesl Jobson, for Dylan Palm: 1996-2004, RIP

LitNet: 24 October 2005

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