A sexually suggestive poem he wrote three years ago has cost an English professor a tenure-track position at a Christian college here.
Scott Cairns was told in a March 11 letter from Seattle Pacific University President Philip Eaton that his appointment would “compromise the moral and ethical foundation upon which our institution operates.”
Cairns, an associate professor of English and director of creative writing at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., was offered the $50,000-a-year professorship at SPU on Feb. 10.
“On the basis of one poem my entire output to this moment was undone as far as they were concerned,” said Cairns, an active Presbyterian who was raised in a Baptist family in Tacoma.
“And frankly, the part that gripes me most is … they decided on the basis of that poem to question my spiritual maturity, I presume.”
Eaton’s letter also offered Cairns $5,000 for his trouble, provided Cairns release SPU from any possible claims against the institution.
Marj Johnson, SPU’s vice president of university relations, said she could not comment on the situation.
“Because this is a personnel issue, there isn’t a thing that I can confirm or deny,” she said.
Johnson also would not comment on the school’s general policies regarding publications by its faculty. An evangelical Christian university affiliated with the Free Methodist Church of North America, SPU emphasizes faith in Christ as the center of personal and academic development in its general catalog.
At question is “Interval with Erato,” a poem Cairns says is a humorous variation on an ancient poetic form that uses a conversation between the writer and his muse to criticize other poets.
In Cairns’ work, the poet performs increasingly heated sexual acts with the muse of love lyrics while expounding on the state of American poetry, such as overuse of the second person “you.”
“Presumably, Free Methodists still have sex, I guess,” Cairns said. “Something upset them, and I’m not quite clear what.”
“Interval with Erato” was published in The Paris Review. Cairns is also the author of three books of poetry and one of 15 writers featured in an anthology of contemporary Christian poetry, “Upholding Mystery,” published this year by the Oxford University Press.
He said he discussed the poem with English department chair Mark Walhout, who had not read it.
“He assured me at that point - in good faith, too - that he couldn’t imagine there’d be a problem with what I published,” Cairns said.
But Eaton soon asked for a letter of explanation, which Cairns sent Feb. 25. “In short,” Cairns wrote, “I have come to see this poem as a mistake.”
About two weeks later, the offer was withdrawn.
Cairns, who had resigned from Old Dominion, managed to get his job back. The settlement is still unresolved.
“If certain subject matters or certain human expressions are considered out of bounds for discussion, then how can that be education?” he said.
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