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A Conversation with Poet Scott Cairns

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of interviews between Ben Palpant and important contemporary poets. Interviews with Luci Shaw, Mischa Willet, Jeremiah Webster, and more are coming up on the Rabbit Room Poetry Newsletter. Subscribe to get them emailed directly to your inbox.

Make me to awaken daily with a willingness to roll out readily, accompanied by grateful smirk, a giddy joy,the idiot's undying expectation,despite the evidence.

—from "Idiot Psalm 2" by Scott Cairns

Scott Cairns lives in a modest house, the house of his childhood, a house his father built. It is as unpretentious and welcoming as those who call it home. Standing together in the kitchen, gazing at the Puget Sound, I am struck by the spirit in this place, the same spirit that infuses his poetry—an open-handed generosity, a down-to-earth gentleness, a wry, disarming humor.

He leads me downstairs, into a sunroom lined with windows, and gives me first dibs on where I want to sit. I select the old loveseat built out of bamboo. He’s drinking his coffee from a mug that says, “7 days without a pun makes one weak.” Glancing around the room, I notice the unremarkable furniture, the shelf lined with plants and I recall the child's box set of Beatrix Potter in the other room—it all strikes me as incredibly unassuming. The question that comes to mind could seem insulting, but I choose to ask it anyway. 

"You don't seem to take yourself too seriously." 

"Well, I guess going to a lot of poetry readings over the years, listening to other poets, I find myself thinking ‘you don't have to be that severe, dude.’" We laugh. "So, yes, I usually open my poems with a joke and then, at some point, you know, I get a little more serious, and the irony falls away. If you were raised in this home as I was, irony was a requirement. And puns were also required. How did Naomi Shihab Nye put it? 'Answer, if you hear the words under the words...' That is  very similar to what I have said endlessly to my students, which is, pay attention to the words within the words."

"Maybe you could help me understand what you mean by that."

"I've noticed that the poems I love most are poems that I can keep reading and opening because, during a given reading, I will have seen a primary sense of the word, but then see how the secondary, tertiary senses also figure into it. This is mostly why I started learning Greek and why I'm trying to learn a little Latin. It's because—as you must know— the English language is the best language for poetry. It's a museum for almost all the other languages. And so the etymological hauntings within an English word—of its Greek or Latin roots—may not be so overt, but they're present. If you're attentive to those ghosts, the poem keeps opening for you. It's never the same poem with each reading. I want to make poems like that, poems that keep opening."

We should be cognizant that writing poems isn't about saying what you think you know; it's really about constructing a scene of meaning-making—a field into which  a reader can enter and make meaning with the poet. There really ought to be some ambiguity implicated in every line, I think."

"Does the ambiguity play into line breaks for you?" I ask. "How do you make decisions on line endings?"

"I am almost always counting something, that's one technical element of lineation. I also want my lines to register as a provisional, syntactical unit which is then modified by subsequent lines. Often, for instance, the word out here at the end of the line appears to be a noun, but then it turns out that it's an adjective modifying an actual noun waiting in the next line. That provides a wonderful, dizzying experience for the reader who then is obliged to take another look at what he just read, and his re-reading proves essential to the agency of what I like to call the poetic operation of language.

"Poetry, when it's really poetry, occasions this sort of spinning, vertiginous—I like the word vertiginous—operation of language," he says, laughing. "You can also witness this in a rich prose text. Poetry, of course, can happen in verse or prose, even fiction, nonfiction, and drama can obtain some degree of this poetic operation of language—this delicious, puzzling, opening activity. A great novel like Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov—a book I read every summer—does this. It keeps opening me onto something new." He pauses and gazes out the window.

"I really do feel that when I'm making a poem, it's not about my having a glimpse of something true and then trying to transcribe it. It's more like I'm trying to figure it out, glimpsing it as I go, wrestling with the language, listening to the music of the words, letting the music lead me to the next words. And in that way, my compositional practice is also my meditation. I guess for the first half of my life I resisted the equation between poetry and prayer. Over the past twenty years, however, I have approached my poems as a kind of prayer—perhaps my most efficacious prayer."

"It sounds to me like your favorite poets force you to calibrate to mystery," I said, "but that's also partly why you write. You're calibrating to the divine mystery."

"Well, yes, because I'm my first audience. I want to get something out of it, too." He laughs. "You should know that I really only have five ideas. I think they're pretty good ideas, but to the extent that ideation occurs in any of my poems, ever, they're pretty much the same five ideas retooled, if opening a little more onto a fuller glimpse each time I work it over. One of the hardest things for young readers to figure out is that there really is no hidden code in the poem. The reader’s purpose is not to crack the code and replace the poem with a paraphrase of the poem. No, a genuine poem is actually a place you enter and experience, a place in which you collaborate in meaning-making."

"When I drove up to your house today, I thought of your house as just a house."

"A very modest house." He laughs.

"But when you told me that your dad built this house, I walked through this house differently. It seems as though poems, if we think of them as a place, should be entered with a different kind of respect. I'm not just entering an apartment that is produced en masse, I'm entering a place that has a great deal of meaning long before I entered it."

"Ah, a dwelling place."

"Yes. How do you enter a poem with that kind of respect?"

"Well, I suppose, when I start reading, I'm not looking for any inspiration, anything to take. I'm just ingesting the page, you know. If it draws me back later, if I keep going back to the poem again and again, then something grows out of that thorough reading. It's the poets like Auden, Cavafy, that I come back to. Do you know Cavafy? He was a Greek poet living in Alexandria, Egypt in the early 20th century. He's a fantastic poet. I have certain favorites—Mark Strand, Anthony Hecht. Anyway, I spend a lot of time with them, you see. They become sort of my primary audience. They write to me, I write to them. Richard Howard was one of my beloved mentors, one of the best-read guys I’ve met. I pour over the works of these people and hope that some of it rubs off. I end up writing to satisfy them more than to satisfy, I don't know, the living." He laughs. 

"I want students to be less concerned with what the author is saying and more concerned with what they can literally make with the poem on the page. The entire literary history is really all about a conversation that has been going on for centuries. To be part of that conversation, first you have to read to find out what that conversation is, and let the utterances of other writers provoke your responses. The more you're equipped by the prior discourse, the more likely you are to make something interesting with it, something that might actually contribute to the ongoing conversation."

"Let's talk about calibrating to mystery. During difficult times of life, do you find yourself writing more? Or less?"

"It has probably varied over the years. As an escape from the turmoil, yes. Sometimes just saying to heck with it, I’m going to work on this poem is a great thing. Other times, things are going well and I still get the legal pad out and start reading again. Most of my writing time, you see, begins with reading time. I'll be pouring over some book and, eventually, I glimpse something new. My legal pad and number two pencils are out and ready, so I start responding to whatever glimpse I just had. I start looking for more openings onto new glimpses in this new work. So there's this linguistic dynamic at work that continues to give, to push me, to open me."

"Do you leave unfinished poems out and about so they're always calling to you?"

"You saw my desk." He laughs. "I think that would qualify as out and about. At some point, I'll move them to the laptop."

"You strike me as a poet who isn't under some delusion that he's arrived," I said. "There's always something to pursue, to learn."

"The older I get, the more I feel I have to achieve and the more I feel like I'm not going to make it, that  I'm going to run out of time." He laughs.

"That’s pretty much  a guarantee."

"Do you feel the weight that Keats felt when he had fears that he may cease to be...when he beheld cloudy symbols that he may never live to trace their shadows? Do you feel that?"

"I have always been cognizant of death, but it's a little more present as I age, yes. But I think of Coleridge, he was always trying to mine something. I've always found his continual reaching to be compelling. I never want to give in to the notion that if something comes easy I should keep doing that thing."

"How have you wrestled with public praise over the years?" I ask. "How have you kept it from warping your work?"

"I guess I avoid it as much as possible. I've never been good at taking compliments. Maybe it's just part of my deflecting humor. One of the best ways to defend against its poor effect upon one’s character is to know some genuinely brilliant people. It keeps you humble. Of course, I also have friends who don't read poetry at all. I don't think it's for everyone. I think you need to have a taste for uncertainty, which is a taste I think most people don't share. Most people are profoundly burdened by practical matters. They may feel that they have no room for uncertainty, but that feeling keeps them from discovering, keeps them from a deep species of joy. Uncertainty is a great gift. I think uncertainty is a truer disposition than certainty. For instance, God is not reducible to anything we can say about God. God necessarily always exceeds what we might make of God; so, too, the truth necessarily always exceeds what we can narrowly define. If we think we can enclose the truth—or enclose God—we're not talking about truth and we're not talking about God."

"What are some of the missteps you see young writers taking?"

"The only time I really get distressed about my students is when marketing, self-promotion, starts taking up too much of their attention and time. I think self-promotion is a really bad idea for a couple of reasons—the greatest of which is that you start thinking that public attention is how you know your work is good. Applause and acclaim are not how you know something has quality. Witnessing all the self-promotion they're doing, I feel very sad. I start to wonder if maybe I forgot to say something to them when I had the chance, something important."

"You're not suggesting that the market economy has no overlap with poetry."

"No, marketing has a place, but the poet shouldn't be the one to do it. The poet should have some really great friends who love him and who will share her  work with other people who might enjoy it."

"So you can focus on the work?"

"Truly, yes, I just do the work. I'm not saying you shouldn't send your work out for publication, but I spend probably an hour a month thinking about what I have on hand to send out, and who I should send it to. Then I send it off,  and forget about it— getting back to work. That seems to me a healthy ratio. But more than that, I think that a daily Instagram post about your deep thoughts doesn't seem like a good use of your deep thoughts. I don't get angry about marketing;  I don't get resentful. And yes, I think writers really do get noticed that way, but I just mostly feel sad for folks who get swept up in it."

"You wrote a book called Idiot Psalms. One of my personal favorites is Psalm 2, a psalm of Isaak accompanied by baying hounds. Who is Isaak?"

"There actually is a Saint Isaak of Syria. He was a 7th-century monastic who was bishop for about three hours before he fled back to the desert. I first came upon him while reading Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov. One of the characters is said to have read the Ascetical Homilies of Isaak of Syria nearly every day, “understanding none of it,” as I recall.  So that's the actual Saint Isaak. When I became Orthodox, I took the name Isaak; he is my “namesaint,” as we say. Now, when I take communion, they don't call me Scott, they call me Isaak. So these poems, and others of mine, are understood to be spoken by a persona, Isaak the Least."

"Would you read the poem?"

"O Shaper of varicolored clay and cellulose, O Keeper of same, O Subtle Tweaker, Agent of energies both appalling and unobserved, do not allow Your servant's limbs to stiffen or to ossify unduly, do not compel Your servant to go brittle, neither cramping at the heart, nor narrowing his affective sympathies neither of the flesh nor of the alleged soul. Keep me sufficiently limber that I might continue to enjoy my morning run among the lilies and the rowdy waterfowl, that I might delight in this and every evening's intercourse with the woman you have set beside me. Make me to awaken daily with a willingness to roll out readily, accompanied by grateful smirk, a giddy joy, the idiot's undying expectation, despite the evidence." 

"Thank you," I say. "I love that final stanza so much that I wrote it down in my journal so I could look at it regularly."

"Well, I wrote what I hope, you know. The evidence is not promising, but there is a grace in supposing that despite how unpromising the surrounding evidence—the circumstances of our political lives, of our civic lives, our individual progress towards holiness—despite how unpromising that seems, there is an inescapable deep note of joy that I've been blessed with and count on. 

"I remember being a boy—maybe three or four years old—and we were getting ready to visit my grandmother's house. I was ready early because I didn't have much to do, and so I walked out into a very crisp winter night, closed the door behind me. I stood on the threshold, my little feet on the doorstep, and as  I looked up into the starry sky I had this exhilarating sense of joy, of beauty. I said out loud, 'I love life!' You know, the expression of an earnest, young person. But that has stuck with me. It was this huge blessing, this realization that it's all okay, now and ever. It was a moment that set me up for resistance against the despair that would woo me later in life."

"I think that's one of the reasons why I love your poetry, it has that sense of hope and joy that I want for my own life. We need poets like you to keep singing that hope to us."

We said our goodbyes. I gave their dog, Moses, a final head rub. The thought crossed my mind that this might be the last time I would see Moses in the land of the living, which made me want to just sit there for a while, to delay the inevitable departure. Maybe it was the dog, maybe it was the generous kindness I had experienced. Maybe it was the gift of friendship, of finding a fellow pilgrim who longed for hope like I longed for hope. I don't know, but whatever it was, I didn't want to leave. 

I'm grateful for Scott Cairns, for the little boy inside him who still looks up at the sky and says, "I love life!" I wouldn't mind standing with that little boy more often. Maybe someday I will get a chance to walk with him along a footpath worn by those who came before us, to enjoy the sun on our faces and the laughter in our hearts. 


Scott Cairns is the author of ten books of poetry. His most recent book is Lacunae, published by Paraclete Press. 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, and the libretto for the oratorios “The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp” and “A Melancholy Beauty.” Cairns has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was awarded the Denise Levertov Award in 2014.

Photo by Ales Krivec on Unsplash


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