Talking with Scott Cairns

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The poet’s task can appear seemingly impossible (or nearly so as I’m sometimes reminded). Finding and weaving music and meaning in and out and through the animate sensuousness of words are both the work and delight at the heart of the poetic enterprise. The poet, Scott Cairns can make it look easier than it really is with a richness and dexterity that is exceptional.

He is the author of seven books of poetry, translator and adapter of a collection of writings by the early church fathers, Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life, a spiritual memoir, Short Trip to the Edge, and his work has been anthologized in Best Spiritual Writing (’98 and ’00) and Best American Spiritual Writing (’04). He’s the winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and most recently a recipient of the Denise Levertov Award.

In Scott’s new book of poems, Idiot Psalms, he continues his dialogue with the ancient faith tradition of the Eastern Orthodox church as both pilgrim and poet—continuing his exploration into a deeper and wider spirituality as well as language’s special agency.

Scott Cairns visited Saint Leo University in October 2014 and read from his brilliant collections. The following is a brief interview by Brent Short concerning Cairns’ latest book.


Q&A: Not so much a question as a statement, and just to get the ball rolling, and at the risk of oversimplifying, a lot of your Idiot Psalms poems seem to deal with the mysteries of the given, and the basic bafflement that’s involved—the challenges and pleasures that come with figuring the impossible. I guess I should give you the chance to agree or disagree.

I’m not fully confident that I know what you’re after, but “figuring the impossible” strikes me as an interesting proposition, even so. I’d say that my poems—and not only these latest ones in Idiot Psalms—have come from an obsessive desire to “figure the possible, if unapparent.” That is, I have no problems assuming that the God Who Is has no limits, no limitations; but I also have a keen sense that we are most of the time self-separated from His inexhaustible power and presence. The poems, therefore, have been my failed attempts at figuring—offering figures for—His appalling agency.

Along that same line, your books seem to bear out that if the pilgrim and poet assume a progress in their approach toward the holy it will not only be full of a nearness and farness, it will also be a slow progress, filled with mostly mixed results.

Duh. Yessir, progress is possible and it what we’re called to pursue, even unto adopting a measure of His holiness. That said, His endlessness pretty much assures us that we’ll forever desire a greater measure; and His endlessness concurrently assures that He can always deliver that greater measure to those who persevere.

Because the poet has to “worry every word” as you say in one of your poems, the challenges are many, putting impossibilities into words. In that sense, language becomes a permanent fight. The reserve side to that might also be that language offers up its own intriguing possibilities nevertheless. Am I crazy to put it that way?

Again, I’d rather we speak of “possibilities,” but yes, the language proves—is guaranteed to prove—insufficient. And it could be that our noticing that insufficiency, in ourselves and in our words, is the key to our progress, our glimpsing the possible in the apparently impossible. And yes, Brent, I’ve always thought you were crazy, but in a good way.

I notice that your relationship with your inspirational muse Erato continues to flourish, which I find heartening. I’m all for longstanding relationships, be they imaginary or not, especially when one’s own creativity and wisdom are actually enhanced in the process. How has she added to your own sense of writing and art?

Well, for one, she has given body to the spirit, has served to embody the spirit, and has served to allow me to perceive my own eros as a likely invitation to Eros, which is, I would say, a likely figure for our human desire to mix our persons with the God. Desire thereby becomes a way of proceeding, rather than a hindrance to our spiritual development.

Mount Athos has figured prominently in your recent writing. I’m assuming you plan to continue making pilgrimages to the holy mountain, and in one way or another continue to write about it?

Yep. One of those monasteries, Simonopetra, is my spiritual home, and until very recently the literal home of my spiritual father. That said, that same spiritual father has been sent to America by his abbot in order to establish an Athonite (specifically, a Simonopetrite) monastery here in America; he is in the process of doing so, even as I write this.

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