Interview with American Poet Scott Cairns about poetry, poetics, art, the Church, and climate change

Interview with American Poet Scott Cairns about poetry, poetics, art, the Church, and climate change

While filming for the Face of God Film, we’ve had the honour to interview some pretty extraordinary people. One these people is the poet Scott Cairns. Don’t know Cairns or his poetry yet? I’ll drop a brief introduction from the Poetry Foundation page for him below. The interview itself will be released in full over at the film’s website, but here is a transcript of that conversation in the meantime:

Scott Cairns was born in Tacoma, Washington. He earned a BA from Western Washington University, an MA from Hollins College, an MFA from Bowling Green State University, and a PhD from the University of Utah. 

Cairns is the author of eight books of poetry, including The Theology of Doubt (1985), The Translation of Babel (1990), Philokalia (2002), Idiot Psalms (2014), and Slow Pilgrim: The Collected Poems (2015). His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Poetry, and elsewhere, and has been anthologized in Best Spiritual Writing and Best American Spiritual Writing. Besides writing poetry, Cairns has also written a spiritual memoir, Short Trip to the Edge (2007), and the libretto for the oratorios “The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp” and “A Melancholy Beauty.” Spirituality plays an integral role in Cairns’ writing; in an interview, he said, “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.”

Cairns has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was awarded the Denise Levertov Award in 2014. He has taught at numerous universities including University of North Texas, Old Dominion University, Seattle Pacific University, and the University of Missouri. Cairns is the founding director of Writing Workshops in Greece, a program that brings writers to study and engage with literary life in modern Greece.

Interview with American Poet Scott Cairns

Transcription of interview for The Face of God Film

fr kaleegCan you introduce yourself, your position, and share a little bit about your background and what you do?
scott cairns Well my background is that I grew up in the house we’re in now and then was in exile in the wilderness for 40 years teaching in various places. I just retired from the University of Missouri last May and then I took on the directorship of a creative writing program at what we call a low residency MFA program at Seattle Pacific University in Seattle. And that’s what I do now in terms of livelihood. In terms of vocation, I’ve been a poet since my twenties. And I no longer look at poetry as an expressive art, but more as a way of knowing. I put words on the page, trusting the language will lead me into seeing something I hadn’t anticipated. So I no longer see art itself as expressive so much as it is revelatory for the artist himself, herself, themself.
fr kaleegShortly before he published his translation of Beowulf, Seamus Heaney published a book simply titled, ‘Seeing Things’. This seems to sum up what you’re saying.
scott cairnsYeah. Because you know, in order to see anything, you have to really look. You have to pore over the words. You have to pore over the landscape. You have to ‘attend’, as we’re often invited to do during the liturgy. So in my own vocation as a poet, I have to be a lover of language and a truster of language that through the Holy Spirit it will lead me into seeing something I hadn’t anticipated. A vocation is not so much something we’re called to do to serve God. We’re called into a vocation, and in that vocation, if we pursue it with due diligence, that’s where the Lord blesses us further. So it’s not something we do for him so much as it is what he gives us to do that’s worthwhile. And that’s what I understand a vocation to be. And so I don’t expect everyone to pursue poetry the way I have or even to love it the way I do. But there is something that everyone is called to love deeply and through which, and through the love of which, everyone has at least the opportunity to be opened up to something more than he or she or they expected. So that’s what I think a vocation is. Mine is working with words. Other people worked with wood or clay or you name it. Toil serving others is another worthwhile vocation.
fr kaleegLike Dylan Thomas said, “my craft and Sullen art.”
scott cairnsYeah. Yeah. I like when priests also know poems…
fr kaleegI’ve been reading them and studying them and teaching them all my life and around them. But what in the church does a vocation as a poet mean? Can you have a vocation as a poet in the Orthodox faith?
scott cairnsOh, of course. Well, I’m in the Orthodox faith. I have a faith. I have a vocation as a poet. So yes. If you’re asking me how one might employ that in the faith, the answer is I guess as one sees opportunity to do so. But, you know, your question reminds me of a friend of mine who’s now Orthodox and happily so. He held back for a good couple of years because he’s been a musician in evangelical circles for most of his adult life as a worship leader. So here he was drawn to the Orthodox faith, the fullness of the faith in Orthodoxy. But he couldn’t see a place where he could do his thing in worship. And it was actually an impediment to his becoming Orthodox for a good year or two. At a certain point, the Holy Spirit spoke to him and said, get over it. You don’t have to reinvent anything for our liturgy. It will serve you. You don’t have to serve it. You just show up. And he became a psalti [A cantor, also called a chanter (in Greek, ψάλτης, psaltis; in Slavonic, Пѣвецъ, pievets)], and found his service there rather than having to write a song and bring it and help people find worshipful disposition through something that he invented – a wheel he’d invented or reinvented. So, you know, when I think about the question of how does a poet serve in the church these days… a poet needs to just show up like everyone else and let the liturgy serve him, serve her, serve them, help become the whole person that we’re all called to be. So I know you didn’t mean it like, ‘so what’s in it for a poet to become Orthodox’. But then I kind of heard that because I remembered my friend who had a hard time embracing the faith fully because he had it in his head that somehow his particular art form had to be employed on a weekly basis in worship. And I just don’t think that, and I don’t think I’ve ever thought that. And what I do see though is that opportunity to help my brothers and sisters to see. That’s the greatest challenge I think of the moment. We’re so busy, we’re so distracted. We’re so quickly dismissive of the ‘other’, quickly dismissive of the earth, that we don’t see it. And you have to see it and then you have to devote your heart to it and love it in order to really see it. And then when you really see it, you find yourself just being pleased to be part of it and to do whatever little thing you can do to assist others in seeing. And so that’s why I think probably every artist’s vocation is somehow connected to this one gift we can give to those in our church, or our Body, to the other members of our body: eyes to see, maybe ears to hear. But you know, I think really that’s what a poet in the contemporary Orthodox setting in the world can do this moment is to help help folks to see, to attend, to hear the language, to see how the words open rather than just point to a single thing, and see how words oblige us to making with them. And so, this is what I think poets are supposed to do to disabuse our brothers and sisters of the illusion that the scriptures even say a single thing, but how the scriptures are themselves a universe of meaning and that we are obliged to make daily – moment by moment – meaning with those texts, make meaning day by day with our landscape. Make meaning day by day with each other. I think poets can help with that because it’s the art of language. It’s the art of noticing how words don’t hold still. They keep making meaning.
fr kaleegFundamental to our historic and ancient faith is poetry. We could take away the music. We often do. We can take away the iconography. Sometimes we have to. We could take away everything in the church, but we could still serve the liturgy because we have bread, we have wine, and we have poems. The whole of the liturgy is a poetic ark, which continuously offers meaning. They continuously open up meaning and just the way you’re talking about. So in that sense, almost fundamental to the life, the worshiping life, of the Church is the poet.
scott cairnsThat’s why I think of the liturgy as teaching us. You can hear, you can worship liturgically with the divine liturgy every day of your life for a hundred years. God willing, if you live a hundred years, and if you’re paying attention, it’s never the same thing. You don’t walk away with the same thing. You walk every wrinkle, every riff. It opens to newness. And that’s of course what makes a great poem a great poem. To be honest, I thought about this about poetry long before I thought about it in terms of liturgy, because I was a poet before I was Orthodox. I was raised in a context in which the Bible was understood to have a single encoded meaning. And we were just there to crack the code and then do the thing, whatever that thing was. But it was my poetry actually that I think opened me up to what words really do. They don’t just do that. They require our participatory meaning-making. Wer’e synergistically acting with those words, making, if you will, our own momentary provisional meaning. We realize thats the Scriptures offer us what we need now and then again. They are endlessly meaningful, these texts by the poets of our liturgies, since James and Basil and Chrysostom, and another dozen or so other great poets in the tradition…
fr kaleeg…St Romanos the Melodist…
scott cairnsNo kidding! Oh, and I’m thinking even of Gregory of Nazianzus… And honestly, I think Gregory of Nyssa is every bit as good a poet in terms of that kind of dense text that is endlessly unpackable…. Then you have to return to it again, Gregory Palamas. That’s chewy text. And my sense is that I knew that about poetry. And then I recognized it in an Orthodox understanding of worship, worship in scripture, and in all the patristic texts that surrounded scripture. Also, and quite similarly to what I’m talking about, there is something called ‘open’ scripture. I mean, that’s not only a Christian thing per se; it’s also a Jewish thing. Rabbi Elizar is talking to Rabbi Jacob and they’re puzzling over a passage of the Torah. And they’re arguing back and forth. And then, Rabbi Isaac shows up and they say, ‘I say it says this’, ‘I say this’. And then they have the scroll open in front of them, and Rabbi Isaac, it says in the language of the story, ‘opens the text’. You know, he just freed it from those sort of singular, didactic readings, and opened the text. And I love that. How many of the Midrashim start with, ‘and another interpretation might be’. It’s not even so didactic; it’s that it’s ‘another interpretation might be’. That’s the disposition that I hear in patristic texts opening, opening, not shutting it down to some dead meaning. I have witnessed that in poetry during my younger life. Becoming Orthodox just shortly before I turned 40, realizing that there was a reason I hungered for that because that’s actually the truest thing about language and the truest thing about our relationship to revelation through language. The world is inexpressible and what one learns to do is to hear everything as a provisional, albeit necessary involvement, of understanding. It doesn’t eclipse what’s going to be revealed next. And that’s the exciting aspect of Orthodox Liturgy and even the vision of the world. Trust, honor it, love it for what it is and wait for it to open up. Examine your relationship with this world as also potentially one of opening. I love that figure more than the more commercial, shutting it down, using it, killing it off.
fr kaleegThere is the whole tradition, a whole school, of deconstructionism in which your’e taking a text and it’s meaning, pulling it apart and deconstructing it – essentially opening it up. From what you’re saying, that approach of literary critical deconstructionism is a modern attempt to crack open the text and to begin a conversation with it.
scott cairnsThere’s a great book actually by I think her name was Susan Handelman. The book is oddly titled The Slayers of Moses. She has a chapter titled Rabbi Derida. She points out, not accidentally, that most of the fathers and mothers of postmodern theory were in fact Jewish; they weren’t showing us anything new. They were showing us something very old and saying, well, don’t look at the thing like it’s a code you have to crack and get to the one meaning of it. That’s kind of a modern, new critical approach. Unfortunately, my first education in poetry was: look at a poem and crack the code and this is what that means. This destroyed poetry for a lot of people, I’m pretty sure. But what I love about that little book by Susan Handelman, and I think I read it in the early eighties, was that it was another sort of assist to my realizing that this thing that I always wanted to do was not a bad thing to want to do, that is to keep seeing more and more. And even understanding criticism is not a way of killing off a text, but a way of opening and helping people to participate in meaning-making with a text and that gets exciting and students get excited by that. I’ve always known that that’s where writers’ texts, that’s where their own creations come from – some sort of strange engagement with a prior thing, and then opening it up and making meaning with it and then that becomes their poem or story or whatever. Musicians can tell when you recognize a motif or some sort of harvested musical phrase in a contemporary composition that suddenly hearkens back to a prior composition, the classical composition or something. Musicians know this. You can look at poems and you see how Coleridge is working off of Milton all the time, and Milton’s working off the Bible all the time. You just realize, well, okay, this is how art has always been.
fr kaleegLike Elliot said in Tradition and Individual Talent, “Some one said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.”. And Eliot himself working with Ezra Pound, for instance, on The Wasteland, even talks about Pound’s contribution being to bring the poem fully into a conversation with the poetic traditions, the world’s poetic traditions. It’s a world-wide conversation that we have. This last summer after the conclusion of the Green Attica Symposium we both attended in Greece, I got my hiking boots and my cassock on and I went up to Litochoro, Greece, and started hiking to the halfway point up Mount Olympus. I woke up at three in the morning to begin hiking again because I wanted to arrive at the very summit of Mount Olympus at the very moment dawn broke over the Mediterranean. I wanted to recite the ‘The Grandeur of God’ by Hopkins. As I stood over the Mediterranean from the freezing, ragged peak, the Sun rising on me, I got to recite the lines from that poem. For me, it was a lifelong conversation with a poem that Hopkins wrote in Wales over a century ago that I could finally live out. It seems to me there’s a conversation that we have that is lifelong with a poet’s words and experience and continuously opens up. But also there’s a poetics that a poet employees too. And when we look at liturgical poetry we look at the poems, the Kontakia of Romanus the Melodist, the extensive poetry of Ephrem the Syrian, we see an extraordinary employment of poetics to convey meaning in addition to the words. We don’t get this in English translations. When we listen to say the Christmas Kontakian of Romanos we hear the words, but what we don’t get in the translation is the complexity of the poetics that he employed. Greek poetics use rhythm instead of metrics, for instance.
scott cairnsWe call them quantities. Quantities. Yeah.
fr kaleegWhat was wonderful about Romanos the Melodist, and what astonished me, was that by the time he stepped onto the ambo in the church of Hagia Sophia to proclaim that Nativity Kontakion, for the first time, at the very beginning his career, he had already been studying Ephraim the Syrian, and Syriac poetics, for years. He combined in his genius, in that moment inspired by the Holy Spirit, this new poetics called the Kontakia, which had never existed before; it was a perfect symphonia of Greek and Syrian poetics. So, remarkably, Orthodox liturgical poetics are indicative of those poetics that we have which we just don’t get in English. What role does poetics have in the using of words and can you extrapolate on that and can you imagine an English liturgical poetics?
scott cairnsYeah, I think the thing that you’re calling poetics, I would call prosody, because when I think of poetics I think about a theory of poetry, which is not unlike my theory of art: we receive matter and we make with it, and that’s the new thing. But there’s there’s something that comes to us and something we bring to it. I remember Coleridge had this little theory he put in his notebooks; he called them polarities. There’s this pressure here and there’s this pressure here. He actually had a drawing of a curve, another curve, and then a line. Anyway, his idea was that you come up against something, the way you put the positive ends of two magnets together and there’s that pressure. Well, he had this idea that that’s one explanation for how the new thing happens. A pressure against a pressure, and a sort of a third thing trajected from it. I think that was also related to his move from being unitarian to Trinitarian, as it happens. But back to poetics and prosody. For instance, those kontakia are a kind of shape, right? With those wonderful driving meters (I guess in Greek they wouldn’t be recognizably meters so much as a kind of cadence). A kind of forward propulsion in the quantities that we hear as a cadence. And then the writers of these kontakia and akathists will use these stanzaic structures or shapes and fill them with their own new thing. So it’s a received form. And that’s how I think of all of these structures as received forms that you can squander, if you wish, by just sort of ploddingly sticking things in that fit. Or you can live with them and start saying your words, trusting your own language, to make with those structures and to fill those structures with a new thing
fr kaleegTell me about your own prosody or poetics.
scott cairnsWell my own prosody is gleaned from decades of poring over, to be honest, a relatively narrow scope of poets, poets with whom I early on felt a great affinity and who continued to be my conversation partners. So I’d mention Coleridge, Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop or Robert Frost, and others. These are poets whose works I’ve lived with. And, to be honest, I think that what I’ve stolen from them may not always be conscious. I’ve internalized their phrases; I’ve internalized a lot of their moves. I’ve internalized a lot of how their poems open me and then have sought to employ those structures, those sounds, those moves, those prosotic signatures of theirs in my own work. I have certain poets that are always on my desk. When it’s time to write, I don’t just sit down and start writing. I sit down and start reading and very often it’s not someone new. It’s someone older, fallen asleep long ago, with whom I’ve had these conversations. And I trust these conversations to lead me into finding yet another thing to offer to the conversation. So that’s how I think of literature in general: it’s a longstanding, ongoing conversation, which initially as a student I observed and then later as a participant entered and still continue with that conversation. So I’m guessing that’s how most artists think about most arts. My first book wasn’t written that way, but every book since has been the product of having turned a corner at one point, realizing that this isn’t about me expressing something that’s happened to me or something I think; it’s more about my attending to the obsessions, the deep understandings of these other, greater minds. And then trusting that God-willing something will arise in me to respond and that together we’ll make something that continues that conversation.
fr kaleegDylan Thomas responded to a letter written to him by young poet in the US asking a question about what a poet is. He actually didn’t quite answer it directly. He simply talked about how much he delighted in words. I’ve written poetry. I’ve been around poetry all my life. But I know I’m not a poet because although I love words and poems as my own soul, I don’t love them the way a poet loves words. Because a poet from my understanding or my experience of poets will take enormous delight in a word and in fact will not permit a poem to be finished until the right word for that one thing is found. Today I was thinking in the car about the word ‘yawp’, you know from that Whitman line, ‘I sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world’. I thought, he must have discovered with so much delight, and then saved that word up – yawp – for months, perhaps years, waiting just for the right moment in his Leaves of Grass to say it. That’s the kind of delight that a poet takes in a word, because they know that it’s the right word that will actually allow a poem to become a conversation. Even from the beginning of Genesis, we see Adam looking into the beings around him and naming them, choosing a word coming forth from the Spirit.
scott cairns… the Spirit with which he is still connected…
fr kaleegYes! Still connected. This seems to reveal that the primordial purpose of the human being is to carry on the creation through the shaping of the vocalized spirit. There’s something about the naming that gives us not only a priestly vocation, however we apply that, and a poetic vocation, however we apply that.
scott cairnsWell what the rabbis teach us, from their own attending to those creation words, is that words are not just names for things, which is how in most cases we understand words to serve. They name things. Rabbis teach us words are also things that aren’t just names for things; they do name things, but they aren’t simply names for things. They are things that name things. They have agency. So we look at the creation story that you’re just speaking to and we see how the world even comes into being. It’s spoken into being – let there be light, and there was. So if there’s something to be gleaned from that, it’s to be awakened to how words can serve. They can serve retroactively to name a thing that exists. But that’s the dullest thing about them. The real beauty of a word is how it proactively brings something into being. So my own sense of what a poet does is that he or she or they synergistically continue creation. It’s not of himself or herself. There’s a power received, but then it’s synergistically continued through the sending of a word out into the space and is then actually a continuation of the creation.
fr kaleegActually, I really wanted to come to this point in talking about words proactively participating in creation. So I’m going to transition to something based on everything we’ve said. I will start with a very brief story. A couple of years ago I was giving a talk about climate change. One woman stood up at the end of the talk, and said, what do I do? She said, I’m a musician teach piano. I want to do something. What use is it for me to be a musician in the face of all this? What possible good could playing the piano offer in this context. So with everything you’ve said about poetry and the role of poetics and prosody, what can the liturgical poet, what can anybody who loves words and uses words or it’s an artist in any way, offer do you think? I know there’s no right answer because we’re working this out in real time. This is not something we have precedent for. But what’s your best ascent on the topic. What possible good can any art bring in the place the world is finding itself in now.
scott cairnsI fear this will sound like a cop out, but I’d say I actually believe when we find peace, thousands will come to salvation. Sometimes I guess the tradition in which I was raised would have denigrated the notion that my finding joy would have any useful effect on anyone else. But I absolutely believe that when the artist makes the thing that pleases the artist, something beautiful happens. The problem with that community in which I was first a Christian, as distinct from the community in which I am living as a Christian, is that that community didn’t sufficiently apprehend how connected we are. Everything that I do has an effect. Everything I feel has an effect on the whole, on the body. And so my sense of the efficacy of doing one thing well is that what little beauty, what little joy is registered in that making, enhances incrementally everyone whose life touches that. And the secret is everyone’s life touches that. There’s no life in the cosmos that does not touch that, however invisibly. And so when I make that thing, I’m serving the whole. How’s that?
fr kaleegPerfect. Brings to mind Frederick Buechner who said that “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.”
scott cairnsThat’s beautiful. I didn’t know that one. That’s great.
fr kaleegAnd I think what you’re saying, if I understand correctly, is that when we find joy in what we do and we offer it, even if the subject is not joyful, it touches others and they know it. And then that brings strength and encouragement, understanding, and that openness that you described, which is at the heart of our engagement with the poem.
scott cairnsIt also awakens us. I think it awakens others to how connected we are. That’s really the great lesson we have to learn. We have to be disabused of this lie that’s profoundly prevalent in America, this individualism, it’s poison. And to the extent that we can apprehend and then live into an awareness of how everything matters. Everything I do or say or think has an effect. Once we get there, there’s some hope. And until we get there, the hope is for the afterlife. But, our church teaches us that there’s no absolute border between this life and the next; it’s a permeable membrane and that we participate in the Kingdom of God. Even now if we so choose. And one way you do that is to apprehend how all living and all those who have fallen asleep are absolutely part of my life. And if I am increasingly aware of that it is going to assist in my own salvation and that of everyone else. So we just have to persevere in pressing toward an increasingly greater awareness of that.
fr kaleegNone of which involves writing political poetry. It’s just we’re pressed into this feeling like it has to have some sort of obvious purpose or message. In fact, what you’re saying is that the joy of making, the joy of participating in the creative forces, of opening new meanings through the use of words, cadence, and poetics, is its own gift and its own totally and powerful response, which in fact is God’s own response. It’s how creation came to be after all.
scott cairnsDoxa Si O Theos [Glory to God]!
fr kaleegOne more question. Which conversation are you currently enjoying right now? I can say Mary Oliver is currently who I’m reading – she just passed away.
scott cairnsYeah. It’s been a rough couple of years for poets. Well I’m reading the most amazing short story collection. I read it years ago and had forgotten how great it was, but it’s Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin. It’s a heartbreakingly beautiful collection of short stories. In terms of my own work, I’ve always read a little bit of Saint Isaac the Syrian every day. But what I’m working on currently is a sort of adaptation of St Isaac’s homilies, the aesetical homilies. So I’m poring over various translations of the ascetical homilies and coming up with a verse offering, an opening of those texts. And so I’ve been in conversation with Saint Isaac of Syria for a long time, but I think that the conversation has taken on a greater intensity and greater excitement for me. So I pore over the various translations of his homilies and then come up with an English verse version of the prose and then try to set it up so that it continues to talk and it continues to open, rather than shut down. So, yeah, Saint Isaac, he’s hard to beat.
fr kaleegThere are three people given the title of theologian in the church St John, St Gregory, and St Symeon. I feel they were given this title because each one was a poet. The ultimate expression of theology is a poem.
scott cairnsAnd you know why that is? Because it doesn’t stop talking. It doesn’t conclude; it’s endlessly opening. I think that’s just an analogy of God. Endlessly opening.
fr kaleegThank you.
scott cairnsThank you! What fun!

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