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. This interview was conducted by Tim Gillis ahead of Cairns' reading in South Portland on Jan. 30.
TG: How does geography influence your poetry?
SC: I don’t know that I consciously am aware of how it might. I do know I’ve been in exile for 40 years, wandering in the wilderness, as it were. I grew up here in the Pacific Northwest, but left for grad school in ’77 and then didn’t really get back until just now. Despite having lived and taught all around the country, this landscape has always been the landscape of my imagination. Maine is similar, the evergreen trees that creep down to the shore, the low skies on a cloudy day — I found it analogous to the kind of quiet that one pursues when settling into writing a poem or saying a prayer.
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.”
TG: Talk about the element of spirituality in your work.
SC: When I started out, I was like most of my American contemporaries, working off of my own experiences and trying to find something useful to talk about. I guess at some point, around my second book, I started writing to find out, instead of writing what I thought I knew, poring over the language on the page, and looking for a glimpse of something I hadn’t previously apprehended. Most of my career now has been comprised of composing that way. Not too far along that way, I started attending to my own personal obsessions with God — using that practice to lean into an understanding of the nearness of God, developing through the poems, meditations, through that contemplative compressing of language, to appreciate how I might thereby commune with God. Not every poem, but most in the past 30-plus years have commenced that way.
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. He also directs a low-residency MFA program at Seattle Pacific University.
TG: Tell me a bit about the nitty-gritty of your writing process?
SC: I use a legal pad and a pencil, and am usually reading something. What I’m reading is varied — a great poem or some theological text — Patristic Greek texts, the fathers of the church, early saints, and their writings.
TG: Can you contrast the processes of writing poetry, memoir, and libretti?
SC: They require a different filter of the head. With poetry, my primary mode, I write to find things out. If I have an idea before I start, I wait for that idea to go away. I want the language to tell me something I don’t yet apprehend. With the memoir, one begins with a template of actual events that I allow into the text in a way I wouldn’t have done with a poem. I want the events to be recorded and re-examined. Memoir is a way to revisit those occasions and glean from them a more useful sense of what to make of them, these visits to holy places and discussions with holy men. The contents of the libretti were pretty much determined by historical occasions — e.g. the martyrdom of St. Polycarp of Symrna. I worked with a composer who did the music. I supplied verses for moments in the score, then the composer worked from those and deduced from that matter the musical phrases he then composed and arranged.
TG: You’re founding director of Writing Workshops in Greece, a program that brings writers to study and engage with literary life in modern Greece. How did that enterprise come about?
SC: In college, I started reading patristic texts in translation, which eventually led me to becoming an Orthodox Christian. I suppose that the most noticeable Orthodox Christians in America are Greek Orthodox. My developing understanding of the faith led me to pay more attention to these early writings — many of which were written in Greek. I started learning Greek and also going to Greece to visit the monastic enclave of Mount Athos. As you probably know, the Byzantine Empire covered much of the Mediterranean from Venice east, and subsequently succumbed to Islamic takeover. The peninsula of Mount Athos is the last vestige of the Byzantine Empire. That world continues to this day, a part of Greece but not exactly, sort of like the Vatican in terms of self-governance. I initially developed the writing program as an excuse to go to Greece more frequently. As of this past December, I have gone to the holy mountain 24 times.
TG: A sharp contrast to disturbing recent news of religiously motivated attacks and threats of violence nationally. In Portland last Thursday (Jan. 19), a bomb threat was called into a Jewish pre-school. You’re reading at Congregation Bet Ha’am, a Reform Jewish congregation in South Portland, at an event hosted by the BTS Center, a United Church of Christ affiliate that’s ecumenical in nature. Talk about these intersections of politics and religion, and the possibilities for peace. And how can contemporary poetry speak to that end?
SC: Orthodox Christianity is probably the most Jewish of Christian expressions. In Orthodoxy, that connection with the Jewish faith has been maintained, even in the way the priests dress. Our original liturgies were composed by men who were Jews, adapting preexisting Jewish practices. As for myself, I’ve studied a good many rabbinic texts — Talmud, midrashim — early writings that result from one’s poring over perplexing moments in scripture. One writes poems from a place of understanding words, understanding the power of words, and honoring the discoveries that this uncommon degree of attention can avail. If there is a relationship between the poet and the politician, I’d say the poet examines the language of the politician for veracity. Poets in our culture now are in a position to challenge careless or misleading uses of language in the political realm. We are obliged to call attention to such abuses. We have an obligation to share what we see, speaking and writing against euphemism or obfuscation.
Poetry Reading by Scott Cairns, hosted by the BTS Center | Congregation Bet Ha'am, 81 Westbrook St., South Portland | Monday, Jan. 30 7-8 pm
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.
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