Ember: Found Poems

I’m proud to announce that my latest collection of poems, Ember: Found Poems, is now available for order.  (Free shipping from Amazon!)

For those not familiar with the idea of found poetry, the idea is to select words from another poem, story, article, song (the list is endless really) to create your own original work. Here is an example from a workshop I took earlier this summer. I had a pretty good response from that found poem, so I decided to embark on a bigger project.

Photo by Rob Long / Nickie Altamorano (2013)

Jason Stocker
Photo by Rob Long / Nickie Altamorano (2013)

My dear friend Jason Stocker recently released his second CD, The Color of Hope, produced by Ben Wysocki of The Fray. The CD covers Stocker’s journey of losing his father at a young age, the subsequent grief, the testing and maturation of his faith, and of course falling in love. I first met Stocker in August of 2000. He was the new youth worship intern at the church where I was on (unpaid) staff as director of youth discipleship. We took a staff retreat to the mountains in early August, and of course, the two tallest guys on staff were assigned roommates.  What was unique about getting to know Stocker was that he had lost his dad about 15 months prior to that retreat. I would lose my own father two months after that retreat. I remember asking Stocker if he’d be willing to work through this whole losing-your-dad thing with me. He didn’t know me, but he promised to be there for whatever needed, to ask whatever I needed to ask.

So many of the stories on The Color of Hope parallel my own journey of losing my

Available on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon

dad, wrestling with my faith and with God, trying to figure out marriage without the help of a father, and more. Jason Stocker is one of three men who have stood beside and encouraged me through the grieving process. It goes as no surprise then that listening to this CD takes me on quite a journey. So I decided to write poems that explained my own journey, but because our stories are so closely interwoven, I decided to use Stocker’s lyrics as the basis for my poems. Thus, the found poems. (Yes, Stocker has given me permission to use his lyrics. This is all legit, folks.)

To compose each poem, I spent time listening to each track of the CD on repeat. I took the lyrics from all the songs and put them in one document. I then chose words (in the order that they appeared) that recorded my own experience, and it turns out that the poem matches the tone of that song. I then moved on to the second track, set it on repeat, and found a new poem. The result is a juxtaposition of two similar journeys, unique in their own ways. The book is in two parts. The first part shows Stocker’s lyrics in gray, and my chosen words in black. This way you can see the subtext of the two works. The second section is just the poems, as it’s easier to read that way. Here is an example of how it’s laid out in the book. This poem is called “Roses, Inside Out”, which accompanies the track “When I Close My Eyes“:


Click to enlarge

And then here is the text of the poem by itself (with line endings and punctuation):


Perfect heartache:
ocean days
an empty place
tomorrow shadows,
vanishes the way
my age did.
Believe me,
I’ve tried to fit
answers in the excess cold
leaving fate too heavy
to hold on to. Emptiness
isn’t a dream to love.

Losing hope,
you disappear
with broken words.
I see roses
inside out,
frail, and old.

I bow,
my burden
into doubt.

In a way, this project is a collaboration. I am extremely thankful for Stocker’s friendship and his willingness to let me use his work as an inspiration to my own. I hope I’ve done it justice.


Leaf by Niggle

I’m one of the best procrastinators this world has ever seen. As a child, I was supposed to clean my room every few weeks–pick up, vacuum  and dust. It should have taken 30 minutes max (I didn’t live like a total pig). Yet I would spend my entire Saturday finding ways to put off my cleaning. There were cool toys to play with (instead of putting away). I hadn’t read that book in a while. The vacuum cleaner held an orb of destruction that needed to be diffused by my GI Joe action figures. The guinea pig litter was too stinky. Thus, I turned a short project into an eight-hour dilemma. I missed out on many Saturdays of playing with friends, running around outside, and the general rewarding goodness of completing a task in a timely manner.

Portrait of Niggle

Mr. Niggle

So it is I found a kindred spirit in Niggle, the protagonist in J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle”. (On a completely unrelated side note, I dig his beard.)

Niggle is a painter, and not a very accomplished/talented painter at that. His passion is leaves–he studies leaves, draws them, and paints them. Niggle wants to paint a tree, but feels he hasn’t yet mastered the leaf. He also struggles with completing his work in a timely fashion. He tries to paint but finds excuses not to–he doesn’t know enough, he isn’t good enough, people are interrupting, his neighbor needs help, etc.

One day, Niggle sees a picture of a tree with a forest and a mountain in the background. I can’t tell if the picture is real or in his imagination, but the painting becomes his magnum opus. Unfortunately, his handicapped neighbor’s wife grows ill, and Niggle abandons his work to offer minimal help.

Another side note with a little more applicability than the last: Niggle is defined as “a trifling complaint, dispute, or criticism” (Websters).

Niggle eventually dies, or “goes on his journey” as the story puts it. He spends some time in a hospital/holding cell where he learns to manage his time, is granted grace and freedom by a “doctor”, and is finally released into his new life, which, ironically, is the landscape he had been trying to paint.

Timothy Keller asserts that this story is about work, the value of work, the importance of completing work, etc. I agree, but that idea isn’t what captivated me when reading the story.

I was moved by the artist’s image/perception/understanding of the unknown. As I read it, Niggle, in his own human way, perceived a glimpse of heaven and was trying to the best of his ability to capture it. In life, his vision was broken, hung in a back corner of a museum, and then forgotten about forever. To the outside world, Niggle was a nobody, but he still had a vision, an artistic drive, and the overwhelming fear to ship his product (as Seth Godin puts it).

I fear that I’m like Niggle, a mediocre writer at best in the eyes of the world. If I were to die tomorrow, I doubt that my writing legacy would live for very long. Very few may ever be moved by my work.

But it’s still my work,my poetry, my art. And the people I’ve met in the ongoing process of becoming an expert have given life to my writing that I never thought imaginable. Niggle didn’t have a community of artists (or even friends) to challenge, encourage, and even validate him as an artist. I need to stop getting hung up on whether or not I’m skilled enough, well-read enough, or whatever not-good-enough worries that haunt many artists. Instead, I need to write, which isn’t complete until you read it. And maybe someday, we’ll find ourselves in a more perfect form of your poem or mine.

What fears keep you from writing? Or from sharing your work with the public?

What are your visions of eternity?

The Furious Longing of God: A Review

I’m new to Brennan Manning. Shortly after college, my roommate was seriously impacted by The Ragamuffin Gospel. My wife owns a copy, and it rests in dust with the other basement-banished books. I will need to retrieve it soon, however, as Manning proves to be encouraging and convicting in his latest book, The Furious Longing of God.

Manning makes three major points in his book:

  1. God longs for us furiously, as made evident by Song of Solomon 7:10: “I am my beloved’s,
    and his desire is for me.” (ESV) If God loves us so passionately, why don’t we share that love with others?
  2. Our actions reflect Christ, so if we fail to love those around us then we fail to make Christ visible to the world.
  3. We must love. If we don’t, we cannot be healed and neither can those who continue to hurt.

I am most struck by Manning’s charge to quit worrying about our own personal agendas, about keeping track of who is living what lifestyle. We see the Christian outcry over civil unions and gay marriage. We fret over creationism being banned from the public school classroom. We criticize youth based solely on appearance. And Manning says to cut it out. Our greater American culture tells us that there is no place for God in the public sphere. And we complain, and cry, and demand legislation.

Manning has already called the Waaaaaaambulance to take us away. If the Christian community spent time building relationships and responding to people with compassion and grace instead of demanding that everyone live according to Biblical values, what would the public image of Christianity be then?

I’m critical because I have failed miserably at responding to my surroundings with grace, humility, and  compassion. I’m guilty of relying on the guilt of legalism instead of grace in managing my classroom. I avoided the gay waiters I worked with at Red Robin. I dream of the tongue lashings I can give people after they’ve wronged me. I talk about taking care of the poor, but have failed to follow through.

And none of these behaviors draw anybody closer to the cross of Christ. So how do we change? How do we shift from legalistic judgmentalism to the furious longing of love?

Manning suggests a simple prayer: “Abba, I belong to you.” I’ve added another line: “May my next action be one love.”

The Teacher Poet: A (very) Short Tanka Series

The gurus at Tweetspeak Poetry have issued the challenge of writing a resume as a poem. So here’s my resume, in case anybody is hiring:

The Teacher Poet by Joel E. Jacobson

high school student
interprets literary classics
said English teachers
I loved to hate

knowing little
about myself or careers,
the college plan
changed and changed and changed,
rough drafts to discover purpose

desert wanderer
working as a corporate trainer–
a teaching mirage?
Shouldn’t drinking be a symbol
for knowledge and a full life?

English teacher
responsible for classics
he read in his youth;
these graduates’ embrace
years later, understanding

Clear Gospel, Ambivalent Art Part 2

Painting by Jackson Pollock

In my previous post, I wrote about the need for ambivalent art in light of presenting a clear gospel, especially in a church setting. One my biggest lessons, however, is that the general/average church-goer has no idea how to contemplate art. This makes me sad. Historically, some of our greatest paintings and architecture were found in the chapels and cathedrals of Europe. When was the last time you drove by a church and said, “Wow, what a beautiful building”? When was the last time you walked into a church and you were struck by the art hanging on the walls?

As I look back on my own experience, I remember two paintings from my childhood church. One was done by a congregation member–it was an autumny-mountain scene. The other was the American stereotypical thin, well-kept, rosy-cheek Jesus. Was there more art? The building itself was no piece of art. Within the church walls, there was teaching, preaching, music, dancing, and movie-watching. But there was little art, and even less talking about it.

I’m disappointed that art is so foreign to church-goers. Is this a failure of the church (as an organization)? Is it a failure of the individuals who comprise the church? Is it a failure of the greater culture to appreciate art? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the Christian church–organizationally not individually–is guilty of copying pop-culture to make it’s own culture more attractive. As an organization, we’ve ignored the command to love our neighbor and to be in the world building relationships. There are many Christian artists/writers/musicians/producers/actors who influence the world outside of the cute little Christian sub-culture. But you don’t hear about them because of their faith, you hear about them because of their art. In the Bible, James talks about showing the measure of your faith by what you do, not what you say. I’m not saying Christians should be shy about their faith. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has changed my life. If you spend any amount of time with me, you’ll eventually hear parts of my story and my faith. But it’s never first out of my mouth, because if I can’t act like my life has been forever changed, the my words, my poems, my art is empty.

But the general public’s lack of appreciation of art cannot be blamed on the church. The church may be guilty of not producing or educating people in terms of art, but our greater culture doesn’t make time or take energy to stop and appreciate art. And why should they? Culturally, we are so focused on giving our attention to things that are tangible, logical, worthwhile, and applicable. For an example of stripping art from ourselves, check out the standards for Colorado. At the high school level, fiction is being replaced by “real-world” reading to give students the applicable skills to survive in the workplace. Our schools are preparing kids to be robots and factory workers, not deep-thinkers and creators (thanks to Seth Godin and his book Linchpin for this terminology).

We do not know how to stop and contemplate something that doesn’t have immediate relevance, meaning, or clarity. We are not okay with mystery.

Clear Gospel, Ambivalent Art Part 1

Jackson Pollock's Mural #631

Last summer, I was asked to join a team that would be responsible for creating a monthly night of worship, called First Wednesday. Our goal is to provide a moment for people to refocus their faith and respond in some way. We attempt to accomplish this goal through music, storytelling, scripture, and…art! My role is twofold: (1)to take the ideas of the group and write a script for the storyteller and (2)to help lead a team of artists that creates original work based on the theme of the night. The art is on display for people to observe as they show up and leave, and then it’s moved to be on display for a month. Incorporating art into the worship experience is a new idea at our church, and I’ve already learned quite a bit about artists, non-artists, and folks who have no idea what to do, say, or think when coming face to face with art.

One of our church’s goals is to share the clear gospel message at every event. And by gospel, I mean the message that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, resurrected from the dead to give us his gift of grace and salvation, and all we have to do to receive that gift is to believe that Jesus, the son of God, died and rose again. There are many philosophies, theologies, and opinions out there that vary from this stance, so we are intent on being crystal clear regarding the words, teachings, and grace of Christ.

However, if we approach art in this same black and white fashion, either as viewers/readers or as creators, we end up with trite, superficial, closed-off works that fail to move/inspire/provoke/challenge.

Why is that?

Because everyone who has approached the cross and walked away from the cross has their own story. If I wrote a poem about my father’s death being the catalyst for developing my own faith, and the poem concluded that in order for you to experience God or to develop your faith, your father would have to die too. That’s ridiculous. For some people, the death of a parent equals liberty and release. For others, relief.

The best art provokes its viewers/readers to walk into the intersection of self, expression, and introspection, to get run-over (or at least honked at!), and to fly away a changed person. All without ever leaving the street.