MU's Scott Cairns weaves poetry and religion

Monday, April 14, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:33 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, April 15, 2014


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Listen to Scott Cairns read three of his poems at the end of the story. Video and audio by Kelly Coleman/Missourian.

COLUMBIA — It's a Tuesday afternoon, and Scott Cairns is conversing with his books. He isn't talking to them, of course, just simply responding to what he sees as an ongoing conversation by reading and writing, reading and writing. A sense of imagination is important to a poet.

"Want some?" Cairns asks. "I have too many. There's a lot I want to reread, but then there's ones next to them that I haven't read yet."

His laugh diminishes into a pause. "There's not enough time," he says.

Though just about every MU English professor's office is laden with books, Cairns' sticks out in other ways. For one, there are more Eastern Orthodox icons spread across shelves and hung on walls than pictures of his wife, daughter and son.

Cairns, 59, is the author of seven books of poetry. "It's not just theological, but I wouldn't say that it's not theological," he said of the body of work. His latest, "Idiot Psalms," and a spoken word CD, "Parable," were released this year.

"It's all about God," he said. "Everything about human life that's worth puzzling over is somehow connected to God ... every facet of our experience."

In this sense, Cairns' poetry has been intricately linked to his Christian faith, just not always explicitly.

"It's different now — you can say anything you want in a poem, in a class," Cairns said. "I can say anything I want to you right now. When I was starting out, you put your life on the line, your happiness on the line, to admit your religious faith as a poet ... It was troubling to editors that I would have religious faith, so I would sometimes write poems that didn't manifest anything like that, though in my mind they all did, indirectly."

By the time Cairns was preparing to release his first book of poetry, it occurred to him that it was too easy to read his poems without any theological awareness, so he decided to call it "The Theology of Doubt" to bring into view what his poems were quietly doing.

"They do the same thing, but less quietly since then," Cairns said.

Two beginnings

Cairns' relationship with poetry began with his father, Bud, a high school English teacher who recited Robert Frost and Robert W. Service in their home. Every spring, a poet named William Stafford visited his father's classes and then came to dinner, where Cairns' father jokingly had Stafford read a few poems for his meal.

"That's when I first noticed that he would say a word and he would pause on the word, and my mind would make associated imaginative leaps," Cairns said. "I noticed that's what poems do, they really implicate the reader's imagination in making meaning as you go. So I fell in love with that way before I knew how to do it."

For Cairns, religion is also about the implication of imagination. He was raised in Tacoma, Wash., in what he described as a pretty fundamentalist Baptist community. He said that when he got to college, he started reading more and realized that the faith he knew was "scant," so he became Presbyterian just because they read more widely.

Cairns kept this faith until just before he turned 40, when he temporarily moved away from his family to Wichita, Kan., for a visiting professor appointment.

"I was living alone in a little basement apartment in February," Cairns said. "It was pretty grim. Out of despair, I went to this bookstore and spent my afternoons with the folks who ran it. They were Orthodox, and they invited me to their church."

He calls it his first real experience of worship.

"I had been a Christian for 40 years, as far as I could tell, but I had never actually experienced what I then experienced as worship," he said. "I'd figured I'd finally found my way home, so that was that. I wasn't going back."

This worship was the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which he described as a hybrid of two Jewish practices: the synagogue service, which is what the Orthodox "liturgy of the word" is built upon, and the temple service, which developed into the Eucharistic liturgy. Cairns said Orthodoxy is the most Jewish of Christian expressions, which is part of why he was drawn to it.

"To make a bad joke, with Orthodoxy I get to have my Christ and eat Him, too," he said.

That first liturgy was so beautiful that Cairns said he couldn't keep from weeping through it. He said the hymns, incense and the Orthodox icons in particular made it more beautiful, more present than his previous experiences.

"Beauty matters in the Orthodox Church, whereas in some Protestant sects it's almost held in contempt," he said. "So much of what we called worship during those years (as a Protestant) was really just about having the ideas explicated. The church worship was just really a lecture with hymns ... I'm not denigrating that kind of worship just because it's limited to the mind, but it's kind of short on imagination, it's more simply rational ... (In Orthodoxy) the whole body, your whole person, is invited to participate in the worship rather than just your mind."

Spoken beauty

This imaginative, sensory invocation is now what Cairns tries to find in his worship and what he tries to create through his poetry.

"When you say a great poem, you almost taste it — you feel it in your mouth," Cairns said. "When you say a great poem, it implicates not just your reason, but your imagination ... so it's a little thicker."

If Cairns' own poems have any thickness, it will certainly be heard when he says them. His voice is deep and rich in a way that makes him sound Greek; he's not, but he goes to a Greek Orthodox Church, has taken pilgrimages to Greece and leads a summer writing workshop there through the Department of English.

"I dig Greece," Cairns said.

His words flow with ease mostly from the right side of his mouth. He enunciates with a softness of inflection that would equally articulate the F and the T in that word: soft.

Yet all this is conversational for Cairns. The only real difference between his poetic recitals and any other dialogue is in his hands. When he reads, they hold a text, but in conversation, he waves them on the syllables he stresses, as would an orchestra conductor.

Cairns' last published recital happened to also be a dialogue, one with composers Jeff Johnson and Roy Salmond and violinist Wendy Goodwin on a spoken word CD.

"Parable" features 26 poems from "Idiot Psalms," "Endless Life: Poems of the Mystics," and Cairns' sixth book of poetry, "Compass of Affection." "Endless Life" is a 2014 reissue of Cairns' 2007 book "Love's Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life," in which he translates and adapts the prose of mystics into poems.

"It's a weird book," he said. "Just say it's a book of poems."

In between Cairns' poems on "Parable" are compositions by Johnson and Salmond that serve as connective tissue. Johnson and Salmond composed the music about two years after Cairns originally recorded the poems in a Vancouver studio, Cairns said.

From idiot to fool

Cairns' other published works usually start as a pile of poems from his everyday writing. When it's time to put a book together, he said he lays them all out until an order suggests itself or he gets a glimpse of any kind of connection.

"I'm always looking for poems that will draw a reader in and then try to see if they set up a problem or puzzlement," Cairns said. "Then I look for poems that kind of work that over and offer kind of a momentary, provisional closure. But not completely closed closure, because you don't ever want your book to end, you want it always to suggest your next."

In the case of "Idiot Psalms," Cairns said he puzzled over the idea of human frailty and a desire for goodness that's frustrated by evil. There are 14 poems he calls "idiot psalms" that use King David's psalms in the Bible as a suggested form. Threaded throughout are other poems with a tonal lamentation that play back and forth with the psalms.

"Human frailty is just an old idea that I find endlessly interesting," Cairns said. "I don't know what's really different about this except that I do have this increasing sense that we're all connected ... So I think that's the thing that maybe is a little new turn, how it's not just about me."

This shedding of self-concern manifests itself in the book's title. Cairns' definition of idiot derives from the idea of idiorrhythmic monasticism, the original form of Christian, monastic life in which one is totally withdrawn from society; Cairns' idiot, then, is someone who is cut off from others.

In opposition to the idiot is a "holy fool," someone who sacrifices his or her image and plays the fool for the betterment of others, particularly spiritually. Cairns used the example of one who foolishly challenges the king and gets his or her head chopped off, but gets the king to think and maybe improve himself and his kingdom.

"The holy fool is this sort of virtuous figure," he said. "The idiot is less so. So the book has an arc of movement from idiot to fool — I think of myself as an idiot who would very much like to be a fool."

The book's ending follows Cairns' formula as it suggests his next, though he said for now it's still just a pile of poems. It's doubtful that it'll be called "Fool Psalms."

"I don't know if I'll live long enough to ever become a holy fool," Cairns said with a laugh. "I may live long enough to become a fool ... but holy? That's up for grabs."

Vox Magazine featured six local poets last week to celebrate National Poetry Month, read it at 

Idiot Psalm 2

— a psalm of Isaak, accompanied by baying hounds.

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 allegéd 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.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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