Cairns, Scott 1954–

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Cairns, Scott 1954–


Born November 19, 1954, in Tacoma, WA; son of Bud Clifford Eugene Cairns (a teacher) and Irene Elizabeth Cairns Laursen (an accountant); married Barbara Lunke (divorced, June, 1982); married Marcia Vanderlip (a journalist), March 12, 1983; children: Elizabeth Vanderlip, Benjamin Vanderlip. Education: Western Washington University, B.A., 1977; Hollins College, M.A., 1979; Bowling Green State University, M.F.A., 1981; University of Utah, Ph.D., 1990. Politics: Progressive Democrat. Religion: Eastern Orthodox. Hobbies and other interests: Metaphorical theology, "theosis, apocatastasis."


Home—Columbia, MO. Office—Department of English, University of Missouri—Columbia, Columbia, MO 65201; fax: 573-882-5785. E-mail—[email protected]


Writer, poet, and educator. Kansas State University, Manhattan, instructor, 1981-84; Westminster College, Salt Lake City, UT, assistant professor, 1987-90; University of North Texas, Denton, assistant professor of English and director of creative writing, 1990-94; Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA, associate professor of English and director of creative writing, 1994-99; University of Missouri—Columbia, associate professor, then professor of English, 1999—, also director of the Creative Writing Program and the Center for Literary Arts.


International PEN, Modern Language Association of America, Associated Writing Programs.


Guggenheim fellowship, 2006.



The Theology of Doubt, Poetry Center, Cleveland State University (Cleveland, OH), 1985.

The Translation of Babel, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1990.

Figures for the Ghost, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1994.

Recovered Body, Braziller (New York, NY), 1998.

Philokalia: New and Selected Poems, Zoo Press (Lincoln, NE), 2002.

Compass of Affection: Poems New and Selected, Paraclete Press (Brewster, MA), 2006.


(Editor, with W. Scott Olsen) The Sacred Place, University of Utah Press (Salt Lake City, UT), 1996.

(Adapter and translator) Love's Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life, Paraclete Press (Brewster, MA), 2007.

Short Trip to the Edge: Where Earth Meets Heaven—A Pilgrimage (memoir), HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 2007.

Poems have appeared in periodicals, including Poetry, Atlantic Monthly, Paris Review, New Republic, Image, Spiritus, and Tiferet. Poems have been anthologized in Upholding Mystery: An Anthology of Contemporary Christian Poetry, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1996; Best Spiritual Writing, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1998 and 2000; and Best American Spiritual Writing, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2004, 2005, and 2006. Series editor for the Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry, 1993—.


Scott Cairns once told CA: "As the poet W.H. Auden put it in Archaeology: ‘Knowledge may have its purposes, but guessing is always more fun than knowing.’ I spend most of my ‘writing time’ reading English translations of ancient texts, more often than not sacred texts. While I suppose that much of the time I am reading in order to know something, what I savor most about these texts are those moments when their rhetorics fail, when their coherences are compromised, when incommensurate and appalling wrongness disrupts the narrative. That's when I start guessing, and this guesswork becomes my next poem.

"Even so, it would be misleading to imply that making poems is all I want out of the practice. What I actually want, what I have always wanted, is—forgive the audacity—to see God. In those moments when the god-talk fails to convince, one is able to suspect something of the enormity which will not be confined to likely stories."

Cairns's poetry has generally received widespread critical approval. "In his first book, The Theology of Doubt, … Scott Cairns manages large themes in the characteristic ease of an unencumbered free verse" wrote Prairie Schooner contributor Kevin Cantwell of the author's initial poetry collection. In his second collection of poems, The Translation of Babel, the author features experimental poetry and the fictional character of Raimundo Luz, a postmodern poet. Jeff Gundy, writing in the Christian Century, commented that the author's poems in The Translation of Babel are "often openly or subtly indebted to some of the most original writers of the 20th century: Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino and C.P. Cavafy." Gundy also noted that Figures for the Ghost, the author's third poetry collection, "includes … experiments and homages, but also a number of explicitly theological poems." A Publishers Weekly contributor referred to Figures for the Ghost as "the work of a writer who seems to have spent a long time listening before reporting."

In Recovered Body, Cairns continues his pondering of spiritual matters in terms of understanding and appreciating life. Several of the poems revisit Biblical stories and themes, such as the poems "Jonah's Imprisonment" and "The Turning of Lots Wife." Noting that Cairns is known for his religious and spiritual poems, Library Journal contributor Louis McKee also wrote in his review of Recovered Body that the author is more importantly "a serious poet." A Publishers Weekly contributor called the poems "more substantial and credible than a simple shot fired in the culture wars."

Commenting on his collection Philokalia: New and Selected Poems, Cairns told Prairie Schooner contributor Gregory Dunne that the poems "seem to be leading me more deeply into Orthodox understandings of the appalling human person, of redemption as being more than individual, of creation as sacramental." The collection includes nearly two decades of poetry by Cairns that, according to Christian Century contributor Jeff Gundy, "reflects his religious journey." Gundy also noted that the collection "reveals that with each new book Cairns has explored new styles, issues and poetic strategies."

In another collection, titled Compass of Affection: Poems New and Selected, the author presents "the best of Scott Cairns's work to date," according to Sofia M. Starnes, writing in Christianity and Literature. Starnes went on to note: "With this latest offering, Cairns lays before us his embodied, sacrificial etiquette of Life."

In his 2007 memoir, Short Trip to the Edge: Where Earth Meets Heaven—A Pilgrimage, the author recounts three visits he made to Mount Athos, a holy mountain in Greek Orthodoxy, and a visit to an Orthodox monastery in Arizona. Intertwined with the narrative of visits to these holy places is the author's account of his own spiritual struggles and epiphanies. A Publishers Weekly contributor commented that the author's reflections "are earthy and blessedly not saccharine." Writing in Kirkus Reviews, a reviewer commented that the author's "enthusiasm for his faith is apparent as he invites the reader to boldly believe in miracles."



Cairns, Scott, Short Trip to the Edge: Where Earth Meets Heaven—A Pilgrimage, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 2007.


Christian Century, June 4, 1997, Jill Pelaez Baumgaertner, review of Upholding Mystery: An Anthology of Contemporary Christian Poetry, p. 569; February 27, 2002, Peggy Rosenthal, "Double Take" (commentary on author's poem "My Imitation"), p. 8; November 6, 2002, Jeff Gundy, "Flesh Becomes Word: The Incarnational Poetry of Scott Cairns," p. 20.

Christianity and Literature, autumn, 2006, Sofia M. Starnes, "The Wound as Memory of Ineffable Touch: Four Poets Offer a Way Through," p. 163.

Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 2006, review of Short Trip to the Edge, p. 997.

Library Journal, November 1, 1998, Louis McKee, review of Recovered Body, p. 87.

New Letters, spring, 2004, Jonathan Holden, review of Philokalia: New and Selected Poems.

Parnassus, fall, 1999, Jay Ladin, review of Recovered Body; annual, 2000, review of Recovered Body, p. 8.

Prairie Schooner, fall, 1995, Constance Merritt, review of Figures for the Ghost; winter, 2003, Kevin Cantwell, review of Philokalia; spring, 2005, Gregory Dunne, "A Conversation with Scott Cairns."

Publishers Weekly, March 28, 1994, review of Figures for the Ghost, p. 91; September 28, 1998, review of Recovered Body, p. 97; June 5, 2006, review of Compass of Affection: Poems New and Selected, p. 38; September 25, 2006, review of Short Trip to the Edge, p. 63.


John Brown University Web site, (June 3, 2007), "Scott Cairns."

University of Missouri-Columbia Department of English Web site, (June 3, 2007), "Scott Cairns."