Less artist, more the artwork of God

photography by Lynn Anselmi

In January, Seattle Pacific hosted its 21st annual Day of Common Learning on campus — a day set aside for students, faculty, and staff to engage in conversation around a single topic. This year, the University invited poet Lo Alaman to present the keynote address on the subject of "Art and Atonement: Expressing Truth & Justice."

Loren “Lo” Alaman is a nationally known spoken-word artist, author, speaker, and minister, as well as an L.A. Lakers fan and husband, father, and son of the Most High God.

Alaman took the time to talk with SPU Stories writer Emily Holt after his keynote address to the University.

Q. I didn’t grow up thinking “regular” people got to write poetry that was shared and published and had an audience. How did you find your way into writing poetry?

A. When I talk about creative writing, I typically use the metaphor of cooking. If you eat meat, you’re going to eat beef, pork, chicken, or fish, right? But you can use different kinds of seasoning, and different kinds of culinary techniques to give it its own flavor and unique style.

Writing is a similar thing. Whether it’s Shakespearean plays or movie scripts or rapping, all of it is in the same vein of creative writing. You just find different ways to execute it as a medium.

I’ve been interested in creative writing since I was a kid. I grew up listening to Hip Hop music. Hip Hop has far exceeded where it started. It had the humblest of beginnings where it was just beat poets rapping over the breaks at DJ parties.

When I grew up and got to college, I was interested in spoken word poetry, and my friends told me, “It’s just like rapping, just no music underneath it.” And I was like, “All right, I’ll give it a try.”

I hadn’t tried poetry before as a spoken-word medium, but it made me a much better writer. I couldn’t rely on the undertones of a music bed to carry the performance.

Q. It seems there’s a lot of hesitation and self-censorship, self-criticism, or just fear for a lot of young writers. Do you have recommendations for young people who are interested in writing but scared to try it out?

A. Yeah, for sure. I encourage everybody, whether you’re interested in creative writing or not, just to journal. In the process of putting your thoughts and your emotions out, there’s that weird connection between what you feel and what you know. Just the process of journaling helps me put cognitive thought and emotion together. Just putting words to some of the things that we struggle with — to name, some of the emotions that we have inside of us — I think it’s just a healthy practice. (There’s the argument that the earliest people who journaled were monastic followers of Jesus.)

We can teach writing techniques. We can do workshops and seminars on how to command a stage better and how to use props or settings. Those are tools. But learning how to be honest with yourself on paper is the bedrock for not just great performance but for maturing as a person. So, start with journaling, and then we can get creative with the tools we use later.

Q. In your keynote address to SPU, you talked about faith in times of tension and conflict. Can you share a bit about that?

Absolutely. Early on, I was taught that faith looked like this: God is good. I acknowledge his goodness, so good things are gonna happen in my life.

There was no tension. There were no hard seasons or ups and downs. It’s just all mountaintop, everything’s great. Aside from being unbiblical, it didn’t set up my faith well for life.

My wife and I got married in 2015. We moved away from our family and our community to Texas in 2017. As soon as we got there, it was just a new world, a new vibe. There was nothing bad about it, it was just a new experience, right?

Five months went by, and we ended up getting pregnant. We were super excited. We were in a new place, a new season of life, and all that. And then we ended up losing that child… had a miscarriage. That miscarriage ended up metastasizing, and my wife had uterine cancer. We ended up having a really, really difficult, heartbreaking season of ministry.

And I didn’t have a space to write with the Lord. Because, up until that point in time, I was just writing happy poems, you know. I felt like God was only interested in one kind of emotion. Because I was limited in my approach with him, I was very limited in what I could give to him.

But learning how to be honest with yourself on paper is the bedrock for not just great performance but for maturing as a person.

Some friends of ours who own a ranch, said, “Hey, why don’t you guys go spend a week out on our ranch? Just stay there for a little while and just process and deal.”

We went there, and it that was one of the most pivotal times in our marriage, in our ministry, in our way of viewing the Lord. God invited us to be angry with him, and he was okay with that. We went out to the middle of nowhere, and we yelled, and we cried. We were upset that life was not all that we thought it was supposed to be. A friend of mine coined that season of our life as lamenting, and that got me just interested in what lament is.

There are several places in scripture where God invites his people to just say how they feel, and they do. They launch a bunch of ugly words at the Lord, and they use creative writing to do it. And the Lord’s hands seem big enough to hold all of it.

That season helped mature our perspective, not only on the Lord but on walking with Jesus and what it’s supposed to look like. That season also matured my poetry, and I think I was able to empathize much more with people as a writer because I wasn’t just trying to name one emotion — happiness — or overcoming the biblical tropes that we typically fall into: “Oh, you’re in a valley right now, but the mountain will come.” Sometimes, people just stay in the valley, so I was leaning into some of the biblical poetry of “If I make my bed in the depths, you are there with me.”

I hope to bring volume to emotion. We can write it. Say it. Really sit with our emotions, and not just pin them up. And the more spaces we can create to let kids be honest, and let people be honest, the better.

There’s a real blessing in that. Jesus actually makes that promise in Matthew 5:4. He says, “Blessed are those that mourn for they shall be comforted.” And the uniqueness of mourning is not feeling sadness. Sadness is just felt; mourning is when you put volume to that emotion.

I think creative writing is a tool. A medium. It’s not Jesus, but it’s helped me put volume to the things I feel toward Jesus, toward our situation, toward our circumstances. And Jesus offers the promise that God brings comfort on the other side of mourning.

Q. Do you feel that having children ended up changing your work? Or changed the person who was doing the work?

It definitely changed the person who was doing the work! [Becoming a parent] matured my view of the Lord and it also impacted my writing.

I started to learn how sometimes really difficult, hard seasons happen, and the Lord shapes us in those seasons. He’s not asking me to produce a beautiful work at the end of a trying circumstance or season. I am the work. I am the thing that’s in process.

After the miscarriage and uterine cancer, it was very clear we weren’t supposed to have kids. Literally the season after that, we were approached by a family friend who was going through a difficult time and couldn’t care for an unborn child. The Lord was showing me that in the same way I edit my poems and they go through a refining process, so my life is being edited and refined and shaped.

So, the journey of having kids meant that our first kid is adopted and beautiful. God did some weird stuff because our adopted daughter looks just like my mom, which makes no sense at all.

Two years after that, we ended up getting pregnant. It was a scary time for us because the hormone that says you’re pregnant is the same hormone that says the cancer came back. Again, it was like learning to have our vision refined and re-trained to say, “Okay, Lord, we’ve seen you make sense outta things that don’t make sense.” And sure enough, we have a beautiful, fat little boy.

I don’t want to cheapen the testimony and say, “This is what it’s supposed to be for everybody.” That’s not where I land, but I do think the Lord’s been shifting our perspective in this season. And I think art does this very well.

Art helps to refine and shift our perspective to where he might be working because we’ve seen him do similar things before. I’m much less the artist in my own life, and I’m much more the artwork that he wants to make something out of. And, in response, I get to write some cool things. Hopefully, they bless, you know?

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