Poet Scott Cairns understood his erotic poem might raise some eyebrows. But it also cost him a $50,000 job offer in the English Department at Seattle Pacific University.
The university's president, Philip Eaton, recently took back the offer a month after Cairns was hired. That was even after the poet apologized for writing "Interval with Erato," saying he had come to see the poem as a "mistake."
The apology didn't impress Eaton, who wrote Cairns that "to bring you to Seattle Pacific University would risk your career and alas compromise the moral and ethical foundation upon which our institution operates."
Cairns, a native of Tacoma, is an associate professor of English and director of creative writing at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
Officials at SPU wouldn't comment on the Cairns case because it relates to personnel matters. But the exchange between Cairns and SPU is included in letters provided by Cairns.
In the letter withdrawing the job, Eaton offered Cairns $5,000 as compensation if Cairns would release SPU from any possible claims.
It surprised him that one poem could nullify 20 years of his work, which is "more directly theological," said Cairns, an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.
In response, the poet asked for the full amount of the 10-month contract, $50,000. Cairns was able to stop his resignation process from Old Dominion. He said he has not decided what action to take.
As to the poem, Cairns said it draws on an ancient convention of lyric poetry, invoking a muse to poke fun at one's contemporaries. In this case, the poem makes fun of modern poets' prolific and clumsy use of the second-person "you."
Cairn wrote the poem three years ago and the Paris Review published it earlier this year.
Cairn said it was discovered by Tom Trzyna, the dean of Arts and Letters at SPU, who called it to the president's attention after Cairns had been hired. However, Cairns said he mentioned the poem in a public forum on campus and in his job interview.
"Interval" is one of a group of poems in Cairns' current book manuscript, but he says he probably will take it out.
"I write poetry as prayer. As meditation. I write poetry to find things out . . . I actually write poems to find out more what it is to be human, I guess," he said. And what has he discovered?
"I discovered one of the liabilities of contemporary American Christianity. It tends to deny the beauty of animality. It's sort of a blessing to be both animal and spirit."
SPU is affiliated with the Free Methodist Church. Its students must agree to no sex outside of marriage and to no drug use or drinking.