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The Event of Poetry: Poet Scott Cairns on Reading, Writing, and Responsibility

[This interview was originally published at The Crossing in 2000.]

In a recent issue of re:generation, Scott Cairns, author of Figures for the Ghost and Recovered Body, among other highly praised poetry collections, offered an essay on the calling of the artist, titled “It’s Not Just You”. In it, he ventures to describe the plight of artists who perceive their task as communicating a message to the world. “The way I see it,” he writes, “the only thing that will keep any artist going long enough to actually become accomplished is realizing that she is not making art (or should not be making art) to tell the world anything. Instead, she must realize that she makes art in order to find out what she doesn’t know—in part, what she doesn’t know about the world, or about God, or about human relationships, but mostly what she doesn’t know about herself.”

This perspective may well come as a jolt, especially to artists who have grown up in the church trained to preach with their talents. It might even surprise readers of Cairns’ own work, who have found plenty of revelation in his rich contemplative poetry. Cairns’ style is pleasantly conversational, and when read aloud it is musical and full of surprises, ranging in tone from wry humor to reverent awe, from storytelling to questions of a soul-searching pilgrim. His most recent work, Recovered Body (George Baziller, 1998) looked upon familiar Old Testament characters through a lens that revealed startling new possibilities, such as the idea that Lot’s wife may have turned back not out of fear, but out of compassion for the endangered souls back home. These speculative reimaginings are clearly the excursions of an impassioned explorer whose words are his instruments of navigation.

Explorers such as Cairns are often perceived as a threat to those uncomfortable with hard questions, and Cairns’ work has earned its measure of controversy, especially among conservative Christians who are often uncomfortable with the idea of unpredictable intellectual and aesthetic adventures. Cairns recently was interviewed for and then given a teaching position at a Christian university, only to have the administration revoke the decision of the hiring team because they had been shown, and were particularly distressed by, a poem that used rather explicit sexual terms. It was little comfort to them that the terms were used in a highly metaphorical conversation between a poet and his muse.

Fortunately, these events have not apparently slowed or complicated his work. He is now Associate Professor of English at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and he is preparing a new volume of poems. He has an enviable list of publishing credits, including The Paris Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, The New Republic, and Mars Hill Review. And Annie Dillard is a big fan.

It was, frankly, inevitable that Cairns would make waves. His poems celebrate the sensuality of language, and of all sensual things, which unnerves corners of Christendom where physicality is viewed with suspicion and fear. But the sensuality of Cairns’ work is characterized by the particular joy that comes from finding divine mystery in the materials themselves; in his writings, bread, wine, skin, and words themselves become sacraments, signposts, the language of the Creator.

So it was with delight that we at The Crossing have introduced some new poems by Scott Cairns on our website.

In late November, Cairns was busy with the finals-rush at the university, but he took time to tell us about his life as a poet, his views on the responsibilities of artists, and about the things that have encouraged him and helped him along in his poetic explorations.

It seemed ironic, that in the chaos of the Christmas countdown and the noise of finals week, we began by talking about stillness, a prevalent theme in these new poems.

 

ON ARTMAKING AND EVERYDAY LIFE

Reading some of your latest poems, like “Sacred Time,” I get the impression that you greatly value those opportunities you find for silence. Is this a resource that is hard to come by at this point in your life?

I’d rather speak of that desired condition as “stillness” rather than as “silence,” given that stillness suggests to me a quiet that goes somewhat more deeply, beyond external distraction, a quiet that is internal, both in terms of the intellect and in terms of physiology. And yes, I greatly value the blessing of those moments. And yes, I suppose that such moments are hard to come by—for all of us—at any and every point in life…which isn’t to say that they do not remain both desirable and possible.

 

I like how you describe the noise of everyday life… “the sprawl and velocity your own mind articulates”, “that queasy rocking”. How would you characterize your “still” times?

Again, I feel I should qualify my answer in some way. I won’t be able to say what it is that I experience when I experience stillness. But I will offer what I think of as provisional metaphors for the experience, which is as close as we’re likely to get. I would say that such moments come about as sudden deepenings of attention, when, in the midst of prayer, speaking to God and, in a sense, leaning in toward Him, I am first aware that I am fixed upon the words without distraction, then fixed upon the One to Whom I speak without distraction. And I suddenly perceive that the words of my prayer become moot, that the notion of petition becomes moot. And I suddenly perceive His Presence in me and around me. There is a sweetness in apprehending that this is about to happen, a deep sweetness in the moment of its happening, and a painful sweetness in witnessing its passing.

 

How can an artist make use of those times when such quiet, focus, and contemplation seem impossible? 

Which is to say most times? My habit is to spend much of that time receiving the creations of others-attending with as much energy as I can to visual art, to poems, prose fictions, patristic writings, words of the desert fathers and mothers, etc. And I would say that these times are necessary, especially if one uses these opportunities to learn the shapes and conventions, the forms, of his or her art. One must, as well, keep working, deliberately, formally, without the relative benefits of more overt moments of inspiration. This is a time for cool-headed toil, and for internalizing the forms of one’s art. And like all good things, this opportunity can remain unappreciated, can be squandered, or might slip away unrecognized for the necessary passage that it offers.

 

Artists seem to have in common a struggle to balance the demands of everyday life and the demands of developing their craft. Work. Exercise. Family. Chores. Sleep. It is sometimes difficult to manage, and then to explain to others, the requirements of an artists’ life. The solitude. The hours spent debating just the right word, just the right line-break. How have you reconciled these things in your own life? Or have you?

Well, you might say I’ve reconciled these tensions, but I would say I’ve just come to reject the dichotomy. Time spent cooking dinner, or helping my son with math, or reading over my daughter’s essay, or teaching a class, or walking the dog—all of these are necessarily part of the work. My poems are themselves only part of the work. The work—the real work—is to apprehend and partake in life, abundant life. I must say that I have little interest in (what I perceive to be) essentially sophomoric models of antipathy between artistic creation and communal life. That life itself is to be understood as a deliberate work of art, requiring no less attention, affection, or endurance than any of its more publicly celebrated elements.

ON THE CALLING OR VOCATION OF THE ARTIST

In our conversations with artists recently, the subject of “the calling” has come up. There seems to be a lot of confusion about what a calling is, as opposed to merely a gift or a skill. Would you describe your pursuit of poetry as a “calling”?

Maybe. I’d certainly call it a vocation, which is probably the same thing. A vocation is something that is “worked out” and “worked into,” and it is utterly connected to one’s developing sense of the reconciliation of the world, which is utterly connected to one’s developing relationship with other people, and unseparable from one’s poetry.

 

As a teacher, you must deal with a lot of aspiring artists of varying gifts. How can an artist distinguish when they have a true gift as opposed to merely a desire? Should teachers keep encouraging everyone who wants to write?

There are far more mediocre poems than great poems—that’s a given. And it is also true that no matter how I try, I have a very hard time reading through pretty much any literary journal from cover to cover. But I wouldn’t say that the problem lies in too little talent; I’d say the problem lies in too little work, too little understanding of what poetry is. Most of the mediocrity is the result of too many poets and editors mistaking poetry for a species of denotative art. Most of the mediocrity is the result of too many poets thinking that poetry is an expressive art. My sense of poetry is that it must be recognized as a means of concurrently constructing and discerning reality; it is not a means by which we communicate matter or narrative events we think we already understand. I may have experienced an interesting event, but if I were to understand my poem as simply a document of that event the result would not be an interesting poem.

 

Do you feel a sense of responsibility to write poetry? Is there a “mission” to your work, or is it rather a place for play and discovery? Or both?

I have a desire. I have a desire to glimpse God and to glimpse God’s Presence in creation, in other people. If you are asking me whether or not I have certain, ostensibly already received knowledge that I then seek to broadcast via poetry, I would insist that I do not. Poetry is, as you say, a place for play and discovery. To say that it is the place for play is not to say it is not utterly serious play. To the extent that the poet tailors the results to suit his or her prior, conscious beliefs, the poet has demonstrated an essential faithlessness—in truth and in the vocation. When tempted to modify your poem so that it more nearly coincides with doctrinal matter, you have to ask yourself if you are serving God or serving doctrine—are you a pilgrim or a propagandist?

 

What is the most rewarding thing that comes from your writing?

The occasional sense that I have written something that reveals a truth I did not know before I wrote it.

ON ARTISTIC RESPONSIBILITY

How as a reader and a writer do you recognize strong poetry?

For me, a poem has to work the way a poem works, which is to say it must offer more than is paraphrasable. It must be susceptible to parabolic reading. If it’s a poem in verse, its lines must work as lines, providing a complicating counterpoint to the sense of the syntax. Most simply put, a poem must say more than one thing. A poem must not be about an event; it must occasion an event of its own.

 

What do you think poetry should ask of the reader? What is the poet’s responsibility to be “accessible” to the bookstore customer who picks it up and thumbs through?

I think poetry should ask the reader to renew his or her sense of the enormity of the world, should ask the reader to realize how little is knowable, how little of what we see is seen.

As for the poet’s responsibility to the reader, I would only say that the poet must care for the reader, that the poet must never feel contempt for the reader. I’d also add that dumbing down a poem in hopes of greater accessibility is a common form of contempt. By the way, I always keep a dictionary open on my desk; I don’t feel insulted when—as I read through a new collection of poetry—I am compelled to use it. I’m pretty sure most bookstores have dictionaries available, and I’m pretty sure that most readers of poetry wouldn’t mind having recourse to one.

 

How much attention to you give to the audience while you are writing? It sounds trite, but do you write for them, or for yourself?

I write for Wallace Stevens, for Richard Howard, for Heather McHugh, for Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Mark Strand, Larry Levis. I write for the poets I carry around in my head. I want to witness, to and with them, something we haven’t yet seen. I don’t want to bore them, just as I don’t want to bore myself.

 

One of my favorite poems from your work is a troubling poem about Lot’s wife. In that poem you find sympathy for her and suggest that perhaps her “punishment” was perhaps not quite that, but rather God making a symbol of her compassion and her grief. It also is a powerful and beneficial reading. It challenges me to look more closely at the human beings, not the stained-glass characters of my Sunday School days. But I imagine this sort of reinterpretation of Scripture could raise a few eyebrows. And then elsewhere, you employ the language of eroticism, another area that can ruffle the feathers of your brothers and sisters in the church. This reminds me of the questions that rose when Scorcese brought Kazantzakis’ “The Last Temptation of Christ” into the spotlight and was accused of heresy and blasphemy. Are there subjects poets should not explore? Or is everything open for exploration?

I should confess here that I don’t really think of myself as writing for Christians merely. In my experience, the majority of Christians don’t read much besides the Bible, and in my most cynical moments I would suggest that even in that case they aren’t actually doing what I would call reading—which is at heart a collaborative, creative activity. There are many exceptions, of course—Christians who read well and deeply and provocatively in scripture and in literature—and I’m very grateful for them, but that particular minority probably wouldn’t find my poems all that controversial in the first place. I suppose I write for people who read, and I guess it seems pointless to write for a hypothetical audience comprised of…what?—literalists who crave a reduction of mystery to more comfortable dimensions.

 

Do you feel an artist is responsible to share his or her work with an audience, or are there pieces that might be good for the artist but bad for exhibition?

I think an artist should avoid thinking about audience as thoroughly as possible. And I think that questions of exhibition should be left to editors and gallery owners.

 

What did you learn from the university scandal that one of your poems, “Interval with Erato” caused? What would you say to artists who find themselves controversial or confronted by similar protest?

First off, I wouldn’t say the poem caused the scandal; I’d say that the poem’s appearance and reception revealed a scandal that has been longstanding in some elements of what we have come to call the evangelical community. Most clearly, I learned to appreciate the blessing of a tenured position in a state university. To others facing a similar response to their work, I would say forgive everyone, and make more art.

 

Now, on the other hand… outside of communities of faith and into the world of academia and modern poetry: Your writing is unapologetic in its exploration of Christian theology, Bible stories, and Psalm-like soul-searching. Do you get criticism for this among your peers? Or do you find that in the realm of poetry readers and writers are open and interested in these pursuits?

I suppose that on a certain extra-academic level-in the realm of grants, awards, fellowships-I’ve witnessed little in the way of encouragement. Still, in my experience, most of my colleagues and peers who read poetry of any period are fully aware that literary tradition is largely comprised of poets who did much the same thing. The exception occurs mostly among younger colleagues whose training has not included the study of period literature, colleagues whose training has been more or less circumscribed by modern literatures and cultural studies.

 

ON THE ARTIST AND THE CHURCH

In a time when the pressure-tactics of fundamentalism has many people running for their lives at the mere mention of the word “Christian,” how do you best invite worried readers into a consideration and conversation about issues of faith?

Well, if you provide them with a little humor and a little sex, they’ll probably drop their guard for a minute. Forgive me. More seriously, you offer them beauty, and you trust that the truth will be glimpsed. The great lie of fundamentalism is simply its earnest insistence that truth can occur without beauty, that soul and spirit can be manifest without body. This is actually far worse than a lie; it’s a historically recurrent heresy. It is gnostic, and (though I’m not sure this is how Irenaus puts it) it is bullshit.

 

Artists that have a personal Christian faith are often scolded, even scorned, by their churches if their art does not openly “preach” to the audience. What would you say to the artist who is confused about their responsibility to “testify” and their responsibility to “follow the muse”?

I would resist the dichotomy and say simply that no art can be comprised of predetermined content alone. Granted, we all commence the making of an artifact with a vague sense of assumptions, but if we want to make art we must actually trust our vocations to lead us to something we had not yet suspected, actually trust our God to reveal to us something irreducible to paraphrase.

 

In “Loves: Magdalene’s Epistle”, which is my personal favorite of your poems, you in effect rebuke the suppression of the physical world and claim, or even redeem, the celebration of the “stuff”, the material of creation. This sensuality makes for delicious poetry. But how can we best celebrate the body appropriately, when we are exhorted by the church to avoid physical temptation, to avoid the appearance of evil, and not to be stumbling blocks to those who might take this insight and, if you will, run with it?

I guess it wouldn’t hurt to recall Jesus, his actions and his words, the sorts of things he readily forgave and the sorts of things he vehemently condemned. Whom did he touch? With whom did he willingly commune? And, on the other hand, whom did he denounce and rebuke publicly. I have a sense that sin is nothing of itself; it has no substance, no intrinsic reality; it is simply the denial of, or the turning of, a good. We risk far more by pharisaical condemnation than we do by embracing the beloved.

 

ON THE CRAFT OF POETRY

What is it that captures your attention about a subject, a story, a scene that leads you to write about it?

In a word: implicative lacunae. Wait, that’s two words. Whenever something in a scene, or narrative, or word suggests multiple possibilities of reception, I’m on the case.

 

Do you reach a moment when you know a poem is finished? How do you measure when it is complete? Or do you sympathize with Auden, who just kept on revising after publication?

One cannot go wrong by sympathizing with Auden. I suppose that, freed from the conventions of poetry publishing, academic expectation, and petty self-concern, the ideal writing life would be one spent endlessly embroidering one enormous poem, pressing it for information, layering it with successive strata of suggestion, witnessing an ongoing conversation between poet and poem. His own laziness and impatience are what compel the poet to give up on a poem.

 

Something you said earlier, about learning something from writing a poem that you did not know before… I’m curious about that. Has one of your poems in particular been especially vital and revealing to you?

Well, you’ve already alluded to “Loves, Magdalene’sEpistle.” That is one example of my trusting language led me to speaking what I take to be a truth I didn’t previously suspect, namely: “All loves are bodily, require/that the lips part, and press their trace/of secrecy upon the one//beloved…” That’s one example, but I would say that I am never satisfied with any poem until the poem offers something of the sort, some glimpse of reality, some apprehension of enormity waiting.

 

What personal disciplines have you found to be most rewarding and beneficial to your work?

Again, if we bear in mind that “the work” is the life in which the poetry plays a role, the only answer to this question is the discipline of prayer.

 

What poets do you most recommend to readers?

Well, I’ll just list my people, the ones I carry with me: Virgil, Dante, Milton (the lyric poems), Coleridge, Keats, Auden, Frost, Stevens, Moore, Borges Bishop. There are a couple dozen live ones too, but let’s start with these.

 

If you were working with children and introducing them to poetry, what would you read to them?

“Kubla Khan” by Coleridge.

 

Why “Kubla Khan”?

Let’s just say that the poem might serve to introduce the tactile pleasures of poetic language, the provocation of mystery, the powerful pleasures of form, and remains a poem that parents and teachers will be unable to kill off in some neat paraphrase, which is to say that it will remain a poem, despite the worst efforts of the philistines.

 

Do you have specific aspirations or goals for your future work?

Sure, I want to become holy.

 

THE FIVE QUESTIONS
(PLUS ONE)

There are five questions I most like to ask artists when I get them talking about their work. It’s an idea we borrowed and altered from a popular television interview program, but I don’t think they mind. So if you’re willing…

Tell us about someone who greatly encouraged or helped you in your artistic journey.

Two people helped me very early on: William Stafford, who spoke his poems as if he were tasting the words. Annie Dillard, who led me to believe that if I would simply decide to work hard I could make poems of my own.

 

Along the same lines, tell us about something that someone did that was a hindrance or a blow to your progress.

Every poet who took himself too seriously, every poet who glamorized self-esteem, every poet who failed his family and friends.

 

What artist has affected you the most profoundly in your lifetime?

Richard Howard, the James Brown of poetry, which is to say the hardest working man in Po-business.

 

How did he influence you?

Well, Mr. Howard is among the most celebrated translators of French literature, and he does a lot of it. As a teacher and editor, he is a tireless, enormously generous advocate for young and not-so-young poets whose works are not widely known; in fact, there are dozens of poets whose works are widely known, due, in large part, to Mr. Howard’s assistance. Above all these things, he is an amazing and prolific poet. His influence on me has been primarily due to his delightful dramatic monologues, but to every poem he brings great learning, great wisdom, and an attention to language that is unequaled among living poets. He is also a beloved friend.

 

To the artist who is blocked, stuck, or struggling, suggest something that you have found rejuvenates or renews your creative impulse.

Reading. Always reading. Reading as conversation.

 

If you could go back and talk to yourself in the days just prior to your decision to pursue your craft seriously, what would you say to yourself? What advice, encouragement, information, or warnings would you offer?

Talent is a pernicious fiction. Finishing a poem is overrated. Diligence, discipline, and learning to savor the actual making of a poem are necessary habits to develop. Find a likely group of dead poets and strike up a lifelong relationship with them. And never privilege the making of a poem over attending to your partner, your children, any stranger who happens by.

 

And if it’s not too early to ask this out of curiosity… What sorts of things are suggesting “multiple possibilities” to you in your current work? What mysteries currently have you “on the case”, that we might explore in your next collection?

My current manuscript, Philo*Kalia, has developed around my reading of early Christian writing, primarily among Syriac fathers, and most especially the works of St. Isaac of Syria, my namesaint. When I became Orthodox, I took his name at my chrismation because, through reading his writings (which date from the 7th century), I’ve come to suspect a great affinity with that saint, and I’ve come to love him. Love, in fact, is the dominant lens through which he perceives all of God’s dealings with us. I’d recommend to every Christian a little taste of his works; you can get such a taste from Daily Readings with St. Isaac of Syria from, I think, Templegate Press. Amazon.com has it for something like five bucks.