Repeating Ourselves: MFA Program Director and Poet Scott Cairns on the Rewards of Repetition in Liturgy and Poetry
Scott Cairns is the director of Seattle Pacific’s low-residency MFA in Creative Writing program. His books of theological reflection (Short Trip to the Edge; The End of Suffering), and his poetry have frequently appeared in journals such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review, The New Republic, and Poetry.
As an alumnus of SPU’s program, I was interested in Cairns’ vision for the MFA program, its present and future. I was also curious about Cairns use of repetition in specific lines, sounds, and metaphors, in ways both obvious and subtle in his ninth book of poetry, Anaphora (Paraclete Press, 2019), so we struck up a correspondence. Here are some highlights from our conversation:
Overstreet: Some poetry collections seem like just that: collections, assortments of writing on various subjects, in various forms, not necessarily intended to cohere as a single work. Others reveal that the poet had a grand architecture in mind, each poem contributing to a bigger picture. How would you recommend readers approach this collection?
Cairns: I think this book might be taken in a single sitting, so long as the reader doesn’t rush through any given poem. The book, I hope, works as a book, with something of an arc of development.
Overstreet: As you are a poet who has found a spiritual home in the liturgies of the Eastern Orthodox church, I’m interested in the relationship between these poems and the repetition found in church liturgy. This book’s title, Anaphora, and its cover art both recommend we consider that relationship. What interests you about this liturgical practice of repetition?
Cairns: In liturgy—which is itself a poetic composition—we speak the same words, pray the same prayers as countless members of the body of Christ have previously spoken, previously prayed. We are led to appreciate our communion with them as our beloved departed, and as active members of the real Christ.
Here’s another benefit of repetition in liturgy: Over years of praying the prayers, singing the hymns, reciting the scriptural passages of our Divine Liturgy, one hears increasingly more being said. It is as if, through long familiarity, these words open to a more profound sense of God’s presence.
In music and in art, the elements repeated in a composition can serve both to connect that new work with a tradition of works, and to provide, through variation, something of a discursive dimension — whereby the new work appears to be in conversation with prior works. That happens in poetry, as well.
Recurrence, of course, is never exact; in art, most recurrences involve variation. Moreover, even precise repetition is attended by, and subject to, variables of context. Even so, the repeated elements serve to make a whole out of what might otherwise seem to be discrete parts.
Overstreet: Perhaps more than any other book of yours, Anaphora feels like a book grounded in the Pacific Northwest. Is there something about the part of the country that leads you in your writing to discovery?
It is as if, through long familiarity, these words open to a more profound sense of God’s presence.
Cairns: I would say the book is largely about return. I use a good bit of linguistic return in the service of attending to my literal return to my homeplace. The landscape—and seascape—of the Pacific Northwest never stopped being the landscape of my imagination; its ridges, mists, and wood smoke have been present in every book. I’d say that they are simply more pronounced in Anaphora.
Still, just as recurrence is never exact, neither is return—no matter how familiar a scene might be, it is always new territory, yes?
Overstreet: Haunted territory, it seems. These poems find you caught up in memories of your mother and father. This amplifies a theme that runs throughout the book, that sense of venturing into places — the woods, the water — that bring us to a boundary, a border at which we can glimpse something more beyond.
Is it this sense of premonition that inspires you to write? Do you write in search of that moment, that glimpse?
Cairns: Yes. Both. This is what we might call “the efficacy of the sublime”: It is a longing whose very insatiability serves as proof that there is something beyond our knowing which nonetheless beckons.
Overstreet: You’re reminding me of how, as an SPU undergrad, I was taught to understand that that there isn’t (as previous English teachers had implied) one definitive meaning behind a poem. Instead, I learned that a poem’s revelation isn’t just what the poet intended to reveal, but that many factors, including one’s own experiences, are at work in what a poem reveals to an individual reader on a particular occasion. I find that your poems go on speaking in new ways to me as I revisit them at different points in my journey.