Scott Cairns Interview

By Brent Short

Copyright © 1996 Mars Hill Review 1 Fall 1996 · Issue 6: pgs 140-143.

Ask poet Scott Cairns a question and you're likely to end up as his straight man. Possessing both a keen sense of irony and facetious sense of humor, Cairns is a creative writing instructor at Old Dominion University and the author of three books of poetry, The Theology of Doubt, The Translation of Babel, and most recently, Figures for the Ghost. Yet Cairns is no ordinary bard: He is also blossoming into a rare type of comic/apocalyptic poet who not only manages to surprise and delight his readers, but who also speaks with a serious literate religious conscience as well. Cairns' persuasion as an artist comes as a result of his dedication to a method of artistic discovery which sidesteps certainty in favor of delight. His poetry is often conversational and bears the vestiges of his own spiritual venturing.

Partially based on autobiographical experience, the poems in The Theology of Doubt are Cairns' initial probings into a via negativa where the growth of faith requires doubt and personal emptiness, in order to clear the way for new spiritual possibilities. As readers familiar with his work know, the beginnings of this theology of doubt lead to "a suspected fullness," as Cairns calls it, rather than blithe despair. Living by grace became the overall theme that he would explore with even more irony and literary sophistication in The Translation of Babel, juxtaposing the difficulties of human/marital relationships paired with the difficulties of faith. The Translation of Babel speaks about the loss of Cairns's father, and served as the stage for an imaginary character named Raimundo Luz who became the mask for the author's ongoing comic theological dramas and speculations. The Translation of Babel is a stunning piece of work, an eclectic mix of poetry that's likely to inspire both laughter and provocative meditation with its very unlikely style.

Meditations on what might lie out on the edges of the invisible permeate Cairns's latest book, Figures for the Ghost. One section, "Disciplinary Treatises," could serve as a textbook for young poets interested in theological matters. Taking dogma and turning it into an impressive idiom is an acheivement in and of itself-every poem here is also a pleasure which manages to hold out an element of suspense, even for the most theologically astute reader. In the book, Cairns fashions portraits of "the Ghost" (the Holy Ghost) which contrast a potentially terrifying stillness with the possibilities of an unbearably rich fullness.

His next book of poetry, Recovered Body, is currently being submitted to publishers. Scott's new manuscript, partially based on his interpretation of Old Testament texts, involves his attempt to recapture the sensual from sacred/secular dichotomies. With a variety of literary mentors serving as influences, Cairns' own carefully rendered thoughts on the relationship between art and belief, and art and aesthetic pleasure, are as provocative as his poetry-a distinctive poetry which often bears the weight of a transcendence which appears terrible and compelling at the same time. Somehow, he manages to conduct his poetic adventuring with language that remains lithesome, amplifying all its delightful implications. Even though Cairns would consider himself an orthodox religious artist (if such reductive labeling were imposed), the care Cairns takes to never enter the realm of the "static" message is both intriguing and instructive for those who appreciate the relationship between literature and theology.

Mars Hill Review: In Figures for the Ghost, you lead your readers to a certain place where, even though you provide evidence to suggest some spiritual conclusions, you let them decide what to do and where to go with that evidence.

Scott Cairns: Well, like reading itself, believing is a necessarily individual act. Just as a strong reader will inevitably revise what he reads, the believer (or potential believer) will inevitably participate in shaping the object of belief. Just as any literary text is, let's say, customized by the reader of the moment, the object of belief-let's call it the paraphrase of Truth-undergoes some similiar tailoring. I'm guessing that while the Truth itself may be supposed to be unalterable, we must accept that the metaphors we invent to suggest the Truth, or to approach the Truth, will be provisional, and will have to be individualized if they are to be of any use at all. So, sure. I leave lots of room for "the body's diverse members" to find a place, a personal point of entry.

MHR: In your last two books, you have reinstated Satan as a real being, more than just a stock movie or advertising character or literary device, but a spiritual being to be reckoned with. What were your intentions in doing so?

SC: First, let me say a little something about intentions. I don't have that many. And I usually come up with them long after I've finished the work. So, for me, intentions are more like "likely stories." I think writers with actual intentions generally end up saying things they already thought they knew, and I'm not much interested in reducing my vocation as a poet to something like propagandist. I write poems to find things out, not to communicate some previously ossified conclusion. So, when it comes to Satan, I suppose I've come to suspect that there is a mostly malignant, if also banal, force at work in the world. It might be that what we read in the papers is just the end result of centuries of bad politics and bad economics, but it might also be that there is a person who works to cause bad politics, bad economics, and general cruelty. Even so, I'm just guessing.

MHR: As a teacher of creative writing, do you have any specific goals for your students?

SC: Yes. I want them to see themselves, and what they create, as part of an ongoing, vital tradition. I want them to turn away from the modernist, personal mode and its taste for ennui. I want them to find in poetry a means of consoling their losses, a way of witnessing grace, and an access to living, even now, in what we still might call the Kingdom of God. I want us all to be free of petty passions, and freed into serving enormous passions. I know that's pretty big talk, but I think poetry has the power to effect just such pleasures. I think the writer of John's gospel was onto something when he chose Logos as a metaphor for the Christ. I like also the Hebrew notion of word, davhar, a word which is also a thing, a power, an agent instigating other, subsequent words.

MHR: Most of your poems have a distinct conversational tone. Is that intentional?

SC: Probably. Well, maybe back when I gave it any thought. Hard to call it intentional, though, when it wouldn't occur to me to make my poems with any other tone than the one I'm stuck with.

MHR: Your reflections on various aspects of theological grace and truth are particularly unassuming and inviting. Is that the effect you're hoping for?

SC: Yes! I'll take credit for that, too. These days I'm a Presbyterian; my theology is primarily Reformed, with a pet heresy or two on the side. God has already redeemed all things; so why not feel pleased, assured, unhurried? This is complicated, of course, by the fact that we are to be involved in the ongoing reconciliation of the world; but I'm thinking that even while we act to help heal a planet and a people, we may as well act in confidence, knowing that it is not our grim duty to assure the outcome. The outcome is God's business. Our business is to work toward it. I can't help feeling a little giddy at the prospect of this freedom and assurance.

MHR: The comic/apocalyptic style you use in several of your poems creates an interesting unpredictability and element of surprise. How did that develop?

SC: It wasn't always so, and in my files I have lots of evidence to prove it. While my poems have always demonstrated a taste for the comic, the freedom to trust that my comic impulse would lead me into finding something worth saying is a much later development. I wouldn't say it was a style I "use," either; it's more of a disposition, another thing I'm more or less stuck with. But I think it is what distinguishes me from my more fundamentalist upbringing. Frankly, many of the Baptists I grew up with have also outgrown fundamentalism, so, in a way, that upbringing served us well enough. At least we know the Bible better than the average Christian, even if it's taken us a while to learn to read it in a larger-than-literal way. Still, there is a theology of fear which continues to prevail in that segment of American Christendom, and it's the cause of lots of unnecessary suffering. In short, I am free to have a comic disposition because I trust God. I am free not to be a terrified racist, or a cranky conservative, or a whining taxpayer, because God's promise is good. God will bring it about. I need only work for justice, help feed the hungry, help house the homeless, visit the prisoner. You know, the basics.

MHR: Do you have a specific technique when you're working directly from biblical texts? Are there any special analytical tools that you use?

SC: I want to say no, because words like technique and tools suggest to me too deliberate a process, too determined an outcome. Even so, I do entertain a few habits of composition, but these are not confined to my working off biblical texts; I am always working off some text, something of Milton's, or Coleridge's, or Elizabeth Bishop's, some prose passage from Calvino, or Susan Sontag, or Harold Bloom. Those habits primarily consist of deconstructive, or otherwise subversive, readings of the text at hand. It's really a great pleasure-once you develop a taste for it-to read a prior text while remaining alert to the ways its own words can provoke other versions of the utterance, sometimes very contradictory versions.

MHR: In "Prospects of the Interior" from your last book, Figures for the Ghost, you make a pretty strong suggestion that the supernatural, being a realm entirely different from our own, may present itself in a rather forbidding fashion.

SC: Well, that's a strong reading of that poem. I imagine the poem to be more concerned with the life inside us, the mystery of which we are utterly a part-which is to say I don't think it's an entirely different realm; I just think we are slow to see it. And yes, I think that, as we come to suspect the presence of God within our very persons, we ought to find the experience somewhat daunting; we ought to be appalled, if delightfully appalled.

MHR: One of the recurring motifs in your work is death. Whether it be several of your best poems which happen to be about the death of your father; or more recently a preview of death called "The History of My Late Progress." Several maintain an attitude of welcoming and wonder, but they also possess a dispassionate quality. Is there a certain reason for this?

SC: First, it is interesting to me that you mention "The History of My Late Progress." That poem too, is a sort of late biography (necrography?) of my father. I suppose that among the countless things my father taught me, the most important was how to die, and consequently how to live in the presence of death. He died very well-and over the course of about two years, which couldn't have been easy. At any rate, I've come to think of the Kingdom of God as a metaphor for a habit of mind which partakes in eternity even now, and which provokes a sense of our walking even now among the dead, in the presence of the Holy. I remember reading many years ago in C.S. Lewis's work somewhere a passage that suggests the world is full of invisible glories and horrors; my father's death helped me to make those (at least the glories) part of my own vision.

MHR: The theme of sensuality is prominent in your new book, Recovered Body. How did you approach it, and why did you decide to emphasize it this time out?

SC: Well, I have a suspicion that much of what diminishes our lives has to do with certain, received dichotomies, secular (if sometimes ancient) cultural models which have become too identified with Christianity. For instance, I don't believe Christianity is correctly identified with, say, capitalism, which seems to me to be the very antithesis of teachings of Christ. I also suspect that certain, ancient, more or less Hellenistic dispositions have also become too much a part of how Christians think. The debasement of the body in favor of an idealized spirit seems to me to miss the point of the resurrection, that the body is not to be discarded, but is to be restored, reinspirited. So, my new book, Recovered Body, undertakes to trouble the habitual division and to suggest a potential revision of the terms, wherein the body-the deliciously complicated animality of humanity-gets its due.

This is all related, as well, to ways of attending to language itself. I'm privileging a more Hebraic (as opposed to a more Greek) notion of what words are, what words do. The Greek notion would diminish words to mere names for absent things. The Hebrew notion atrributes to words the status of things, and the power to produce things. Ancient Greeks and American fundamentalist Christians prefer allegory-one-to-one correspondences. Hebrews and artists prefer metaphor-expansive, suggestive, endlessly productive figures.

MHR: Who are some of the writers who influenced your thinking and approach for Recovered Body?

SC: Well, there are dozens. But I'll name the theologian Sallie McFague, the scholars Susan Handelman and Gershom Scholem. Also Auden, Coleridge, Teilhard, St. Augustine, Calvin, St. Paul. And the rabbinical writers of midrash in general.

MHR: What writers outside the United States are important to you, and why?

SC: He passed away some years ago, but I continue to read Italo Calvino (Do you supposed he was related to Calvin?). Something about his light touch and his constant delight in the constructions of the mind make me want to read him over and over. Also, I love the erotic pressure in Marguerite Duras's fiction. She has a wonderful way of provoking the lush animality of the human body. Among poets, I love Montale, Milosz, Amachai. I'm pretty ignorant of younger poets, my contemporaries.