Monday, September 08, 2003

Scott Cairns - Columbia, MO

Having taught for the past three years at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, I've forgotten the sort of shock one gets when a giant university suddenly appears in a big town or small city. 

I was casually meandering down a deserted Campus Blvd., arm out the window, sucking on a Pepsi, munching on a Rice Krispie treat (product placement opportunities), when I turned into campus and had my Nissan Pathfinder (an excellent vehicle, fun for the whole family) swallowed up by teeming groups of college students escaping at 50 minutes past the hour. Four lanes of traffic came to a dead stop as hundreds of book-bagged - and terribly thin, attractive, fresh-faced, YOUNG - students strolled across College Street toward unseen dorms, apartments, etc. Two kids played hackey-sack as they walked. One girl flipped off her flip flops right in the crosswalk, punched them into a purse, and never lost a beat in her cell phone conversation.

When I got through this group, and got onto campus, I got caught up in the intoxicating youth of the place. For me - someone who knows the value of a great, pessimistic lethargy - I didn't even let "intoxicating - yet fleeting - youth" enter my mind. Well, at least not until now.

But I walked longer than I might normally, just to soak all of it in. Young men with sleeveless shirts and earrings. Young women with earrings and sleeveless dresses. I peered in through the library windows and it was like looking at a college catalog: a group huddle around a gleaming computer, one older student showing a younger student the way to the stacks, the restrooms, the elevator, whatever. A professorial woman beaming out at me as I looked in.

Scott Cairns is waiting in his Tate Hall office for me. He's recently moved offices, so he's still in the honeymoon phase, shuffling books from case to case, looking for just the right angle for the desk. If it matters, the desk is perfect right now. When one walks in the door, the desk is at about 40 degrees off the mean, angled in such a way that as soon as you walk in, Cairns will be before you.

He's a genial guy, as interested in me and my questions as he is in answering them well. We talk about his background in Washington state, a place I love as well. We talk about his early work, which he identifies as being the most "place-oriented," but we get around eventually to something new for this trip - the spiritual.

Cairns has written for years as a part of a quest (my word) to come to an understanding of the presence (his word) of God. He notes that he's simply got a "God obsession," and that he is able to get glimpses of meaning through his own work. So he continues, and each poem helps him fill in the great unknowns in his own search.

Together we wonder if spiritual landscape fits the overall theme of this book project. And while we ponder it, Cairns talks a bit about the physical landscape of his youth, the mist and the mountains and the rocky beaches of the Pacific Northwest. In those places, overgrown, thick, heavy, and seemingly always shrouded in vapor, he found his way. How like that his work as a man?