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It’s Not a Poem Until You Discover Something: An Interview with Scott Cairns

When I think of the most impactful conversations I have had, the one hour I spent talking about art and poetry with poet and professor Scott Cairns several years ago stands at the top of the list.

I can see now that some of my most cherished ideas about art and poetry—the importance of tradition, the necessity of discovery, the power of perseverance in the work, the fact that the writing life is just another way to live a normal life—were planted in me like seeds during this conversation. I want to share it now in hopes that Scott’s ideas will benefit you as much as they have me.

Andy Patton: How do you create your work? How do you live the writing life?

Scott Cairns: Just keep reading. The writing life is primarily a reading life, so you just keep reading. The writing life is healthy so long as you keep reading. As soon as you stop reading and imagine that you are on your own, you are pretty much done. Even if you keep turning out books. The funny thing about those books is that they will sound a lot like the books that came before, and that’s because you are running out of gas.

I think that the only way to survive is to have a really vital engagement with the books that precede you. Literature is really a conversation, and when you are a writer you have to understand that you are now taking up your part of the conversation. You don’t walk up to a group of your friends and just start yammering—you listen for a while and find out what they’re talking about and then you weigh in. That is how literary study is. You engage the conversation and find out what we’re talking about, how we are talking about it, what the ways are that we might talk about it. You won’t be eclipsed by the tradition, and you won’t be stuck in a solipsistic, isolated sense of your own self-worth—which you will be if you don’t engage that tradition.

AP: How do you live the writing life in the real world?

SC: We have to learn not to say things like that. I don’t believe I have ever left the real world. I’ve been an academic for a while, but it feels pretty real to me. I have children and dogs, a mortgage. What’s not real about that?

AP: I guess the question is, how do you make time for writing?

SC: How do you make time for writing now?

AP: It gets drowned out too often.

SC: Do you have a prayer life?

AP: Yes.

SC: How do you make time for that?

A: I suppose I just make time for it.

SC: So you have a discipline? Well, maybe that could be the answer. You could develop a discipline for writing that is like your discipline for prayer.

The reason I resist the phrase “real world” is that it is so commonplace. I think in many ways a scattered, distracted business world is a lot less real than one in which you are paying attention to your heart and your soul and your mind, and nurturing those things.

AP: So your advice to the writer who wants to write, but doesn’t know how to begin to go about doing it, is simply to be disciplined and write?

SC: To be disciplined and read with your yellow legal pad handy to write down whatever provokes you.

It’s sort of like writing poems. When it’s time to work on writing a poem, I always begin with my legal pad and my pencils and I read until something provokes a response. Then I chase that on the page until I run out of gas and turn back to reading. It really is a dialogue and conversation which you establish with the text. It’s not like you are going to get through this text some ossified meaning; it is rather that you honor the text in front of you as vital and as having agency and power.

AP: It sounds like you’re saying that in order to be original you have to be firmly grounded in others’ original work.

SC: Well, sure. My sense of original writing is writing that bears the marks of its origins. And authenticity. The Greek word from which we get authenticity, authentes, is an old word that has to do with ceramic work and the mark of the hand. Authentic work has the mark of the hand that shaped it. So authentic and original—yeah, that’s what we want. You have to think of it as a collaborative endeavor.

Vocation is finally not a way to do something; it is a means by which we are given something we would not otherwise receive. Scott Cairns

AP: The common understanding of the meaning of the word original arises out of prohibitions against plagiarism, which separates what anyone else has done from what I am now putting forth.

SC: Yeah, well. I don’t care about that.

A good example is Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who read a lot and didn’t worry at all about how what he read found its way into what he wrote. Smaller minds did accuse him of plagiarism, mostly out of jealousy I presume, but if you look at what he did, he didn’t copy anything. He reworked everything. He was influenced and then kept the river flowing.

Every art has a tradition. To understand a discrete work of art in the midst of a tradition requires—unless you don’t care about honoring it the way should—an awareness of the art that led to it. There are naïve practitioners of given arts who don’t know anything and they are mostly a product of good marketing than anything really worthy. The really interesting artists to me are the ones who know what came before them and have engaged it and take what they want from that tradition and employ it. Their own visions are influenced by the tradition.

AP: What is the relationship between talent and training?

SC: I don’t know if I believe in talent.

I guess there have been times when I have had students who have really, really wanted it but couldn’t get it, so maybe there is some fire or gift that is required. I kind of think not, though. I prefer to think that we are all called to something and we must pursue that with all of our energy.

In the case of writing, keep your butt in the chair until you’ve made something. Discipline is required, and perseverance, and not really caring about what anyone else thinks. That’s a part of it too. You can’t be writing in order to gain approval. That’s backwards. That dooms you to a certain kind of writing. I think that if there is such a thing as talent, it is worthless unless it is accompanied by discipline. I think those are some of the least happy people in the world, the ones who have a certain kind of gift and then squander it through laziness or whatever else gets in the way.

I kind of resist the idea that some people have it and some people don’t. I think everybody has something. All the students I’ve seen have gotten better through discipline.

AP: How long does it take you to write a poem?

SC: There’s no one answer to that.

AP: What is it like for you to be in the process of writing a poem?

SC: Prayer and poetry haven’t much in common, but the one thing I think they share is a quality of stillness. You cultivate a habit of being able to descend. You descend into your heart and the word on the page and everything gets quieter and then you just mess with the words like they’re clay. That’s what it’s like to be doing it. Some people don’t like that. They don’t want to labor at that level. They seem to want to have an idea and then express it, so there is a lot of stuff that looks like poetry.

AP: What do you think the fundamental difference is between merely having an idea and trying to express it, descending into that creative space?

SC: One is expository writing and the other is poetry. There is a lot of expository writing that passes for poetry just because the writer doesn’t use the whole paper. You can make it look like a poem on the page but you are still making an argument. It’s essay writing. There is something that you want to express that precedes the making of the thing, but it will never be a poem then. It will only be a poem if you started messing with words and the words led you into saying something that you didn’t know to say—then you are in the presence of poetry and you can work with that, continue to shape it, find out what you want to say. That’s how you make a poem.

AP: So it’s not a poem until you discover something?

SC: Right. It is not a poem until someone discovers something. It may not be you.

I think it really is a discipline. That’s what a discipline is. You have a sense of calling. I think a lot of us have a screwy sense of calling and think we are called to serve. A calling is really a gift. It is another way God reveals more things to you.

So poetry, if that happens to be your vocation, the thing to which you are called, can’t be thought of as something by which you give something to the world. It is actually a way that you get something.

Prayer is kind of like that, too. You have this idea that you need to pray to give God something, but that’s not really what prayer is. Prayer is an opportunity to hear something, not to say something. To apprehend a truth.

So I think vocation in general, the vocation of prayer, the vocation of any art, is finally not a way to do something; it is a means by which we are given something we would not otherwise receive.

AP: How do you know if you are called to be an artist?

SC: I think the first thing is that it gives you pleasure to do it, and if it makes you feel joyful to do it even if it is hard. It can be hard in a joyful way.

There is a word to characterize the disposition of Lent which means “bright sadness.” Lent is a way in which we are called to confront ourselves and our failures, and that confrontation makes us sad, but there is also this bass note of joy because the sadness is not an end in itself. It is a means to another end which is our resurrection. It is a bright sadness. It is a suffering which has a use.

AP: You are saying that your calling can be like that?

SC: Yes, it can sometimes feel like that. Because sometimes the joy is not immediately apprehendable. It is just glimpsed. What is more apprehendable is that this is hard. I am not getting this. This is tough. I want to give up.

AP: What do you do in that moment?

SC: Sometimes you give up, but that’s a mistake. But even knowing that it’s a mistake to give up doesn’t mean that you will never give up. Sometimes you will give up. You will make that mistake. You will have not gotten what you would have gotten on that outing. God willing, there will be another opportunity and maybe that time you won’t give up and you will find something else. You won’t ever get the thing that you lost, but you may get something.

AP: Do you think that having something to say makes a work shabbier?

SC: Shabby is a good word for it. Smaller. If all your work does is say what you already know, then that’s a pretty low bar. It’s not very ambitious to only want to say what you already know. It is more ambitious and more true to your calling to desire to find something meaningful to say.

AP: Is there room for wanting to give people something through your writing?

SC: I think maybe you are suggesting that there is a tension or a contradiction between laboring to find something or laboring to give somebody something.

I would insist that they are not antithetical; they are necessarily the same thing. I think it is kind of illusory to imagine that you have something to give anybody without that discovery. This is really hard for Christian writers because they tend to have an idea that the story is pretty simple and it’s already been done—that all you have to do as a writer is repeat it clearly enough and the world will get better.

I blame C. S. Lewis a little bit for this because he was so good at allegory, and when Christian writers want to point to some illustrious predecessor, they often point to Lewis. Allegory is not all that it’s cracked up to be. When you crack the code of an allegory, you pretty much know the story. As allegorists go, he was a really good one. But as artists go, allegory really isn’t high art. It is pretty much saying what you know and dressing it up to make it interesting.

Christians have this notion that all art is allegorical and representational. The fact is that very little art is merely allegorical and representational. If it doesn’t require the discovery of something new and deeper and more, it’s probably not art. And literary art is funny because people think words are for expressing what you think you want to say. But that’s really not literary art. That’s how we use words most of the time, but that is not how we use words as a medium for art. Words as a medium for art are necessarily words employed to discover something. Christians often think that art is only good if it repeats the story they already know.


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