May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
Scott Cairns is a poet whose work connects past and present, whose journey evokes faith and mystery. His most recent poetry collections are Love’s Immensity, which consist of translations and poetry inspired by early Christian mystics, and Compass of Affection. And his recent memoir, Short Trip to the Edge, describes his move from a Baptist upbringing in Tacoma, Washington, to the Eastern Orthodox Church. In Part I of this interview, Cairns discusses the beckoning, wooing ways of beauty, and in Part II, he continues this discussion, touching upon the Orthodox approach to sacrament, or what he calls “Holy Mystery,” and how this approach is useful when thinking about poetry.
The Other Journal (TOJ): You shared in your memoir about an experience of “Enormity glimpsed,” speaking of it in positive terms as “an excess, abysmal, roiling beyond what can be grasped.”1 And I don’t believe I am putting words in your mouth by telling our readers that you have been drawn to poetry by the way it shares this abysmal nature. Can you tell me about your initial discovery of this depth in language?
Scott Cairns (SC): I don’t suppose I can identify anything like an initial discovery. More likely, I can admit to a developing sense—beginning with some very early memories—of there being something bigger than any available explanation could account for. I have one very vivid childhood memory of standing before our house on a dark evening, waiting, I think, for my mom, dad, and brother to come out for an outing. I remember how big the sky looked, how full of stars. I saw my breath, so it must have been a cold night. Anyway, I recall saying out loud “I love life.” Corny as that sounds, that’s what happened. I was a little surprised at myself, but pleased—giddy even—to say something aloud, and then to recognize that what I said was something I hadn’t known before I’d said it, something that was educed from me by the enormity suggested by that sky. I suppose that’s what folks would call the beginning of consciousness—when a child first “observes” himself. I suppose, as well, that this was an early experience in speaking (or writing) to find out what I thought, what I felt.
TOJ: What bits of your history do you suppose have led you to appreciate an art that so readily resists being grasped?
SC: Hard to say. Living in the western United States, backpacking through expansive landscape, hiking the wilderness beach along the Pacific, finding a passage in a book that could be reread to some advantage—all of these led me to suppose that “what is True” extends beyond our naming it. So much so that an artifact (or any other sort of text) whose maker presumes to comprehensively see, to name, to know that Truth, leaves me feeling mostly embarrassed. The art, therefore, that will not be conclusively grasped is the art that is more nearly true, more truly lifelike, as it were.
TOJ: There is a consensus in my circle of friends and colleagues that your poetry is beautiful. When you create a poem, do you have the sense that you are creating beauty? Or is the beauty something you are illuminating that exists already?
SC: Well, beauty exists. Beauty beckons. I’ve come to think of beauty as how God woos us to himself. One doesn’t so much create it or illuminate it as partake of it. Thereafter, one participates, collaborates, in its endless development.
TOJ: Do you find yourself making distinctions between poetry that appeals to the sense of enormity and poetry that does not? How do you go about making those distinctions?
SC: While I do make such distinctions, and while I often do so pretty quickly, I’m not inclined to characterize the process or the quick take. If a poem slows me down, refuses my ready assimilation of its, say, primary sense—that is, if by the first or second line I’m already entertaining secondary and tertiary senses, already attending to the line’s suggestive ambiguities, then I know I’m in the presence of a genuine poem. How’s that?
TOJ: Regarding the massive volume of poetry that you have created, in what sense do you view the individual poems to be separate from one another? And in what sense do you view them to be part of a whole? How do you view your poetry as connected to the world of poetry at large?
SC: How come I keep feeling that I have to qualify all these (very good) questions before attempting an answer? It’s probably some deep character flaw of mine. Anyway, I don’t think of my poetic production as massive; it’s really pretty meager. Of course, given that the poems are all written individually, each is obliged to “stand on its own,” as we say. So, yes, initially I see each of the poems as its own project, and each must satisfy a desire for completion, though not conclusion. The bigger picture, though, is one that continues to evolve—thank God. I pray that I’m a decade or three away from having a comprehensive view of the bigger picture. That said, I do think of each of the poems (and each of the books) as related, as being part of a larger project; but the actual larger project is not, finally, a volume of Complete Poems. Instead, the actual project is a worthy life. The poetry is just a bit—perhaps a very minor bit—of that project.
TOJ: Could you give an example of a discovery you have made in your writing? Perhaps a theme that you are beginning to notice—perhaps some life-giving pearl you have been surprised to find?
SC: Well, I have a series of poems sharing the title of “Adventures in New Testament Greek.” In one, “Metanoia,” I found myself writing “The heart’s metanoia, / on the other hand, turns / without regret, turns not / so much away, as toward, // as if the slow pilgrim / has been surprised to find / that sin is not so bad / as it is a waste of time.”2 I was, at the moment of writing those lines, the slow pilgrim, surprised. Another poem in that series, “Hairesis,” observes: “Even heretics love God, and burn / convinced that He will love them too.”3 That is another bit I hadn’t anticipated before writing it.
Please read Part II of our interview with Scott Cairns here.
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1. Scott Cairns, Short Trip to the Edge: Where Heaven Meets Earth—A Pilgrimage (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 2007), 22. Italics in original.
2. Scott Cairns, Compass of Affection: Poems New and Selected (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press,  2006), 93.
3. Ibid., 95.
Andrew W.E. Carlson
Andrew W. E. Carlson lives in Seattle with his wife, Lisa, and their baby daughter, Cedar Harrow. He is pastor of liturgy for Awake Church and a part-time carpenter. Carlson spends his free time climbing in the mountains, sitting by a fire with a novel, or sitting by a fire in the mountains. He is a recent master of divinity graduate of The Seattle School.
Scott Cairns teaches modern and contemporary American literature and creative writing at the University of Missouri. He is an accomplished poet whose writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Paris Review, the New Republic, Books & Culture, and Image.