Cairns earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Western Washington University (1977), a Master of Arts degree from Hollins University (1979), a Master of Fine Arts degree from Bowling Green State University (1981), and a PhD from the University of Utah (1990).
Cairns has served on the faculties of Kansas State University, Westminster College, University of North Texas, Old Dominion University. He currently is Curators' Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Missouri. While at North Texas, Cairns had served as editor of the American Literary Review. He now also directs Writing Workshops in Greece, an annual, 4-week workshop during the month of June, located on the island of Thasos. Since 2015, he has also served on the poetry faculty of the Seattle Pacific University low-residency MFA program in creative writing, and currently serves as that program's director.
Cairns is the author of eight collections of poetry, one collection of translations of Christian mystics, one spiritual memoir, a book-length essay on suffering, and co-edited The Sacred Place with Scott Olsen, an anthology of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. It won the inaugural National Outdoor Book Award (Outdoor Literature category) in 1997. He wrote the libretto for "The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp," an oratorio composed by JAC Redford, and the libretto for "A Melancholy Beauty," an oratorio composed by Georgi Andreev. Cairns's poems have appeared in journals including The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Image, and Poetry, and have been anthologized in Upholding Mystery (Oxford University Press, 1996), Best Spiritual Writing (Harper Collins, 1998 and 2000), and Best American Spiritual Writing (Houghton Mifflin, 2004, 2005, and 2006).
He is married to Marcia Lane Vanderlip and they have two children, Benjamin V. Cairns and Elizabeth V. Cairns-Callen. He has a brother, Steve Cairns, who currently resides in Hong Kong, teaching at an International School.
- 2006 Guggenheim Fellow
- 2014 The Denise Levertov Award
- Another Road Home, Poetry (July/August 2009)
- Eremite, Poetry (January 2009)
- Idiot Psalms, Poetry (January 2009)
- Partaking in the Holy Mysteries: An Interview with Scott Cairns, by Andrew W.E. Carlson & Scott Cairns, The Other Journal, The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology
- Scott Cairns Interview, Mars Hill Review, Fall 1996 · Issue 6: pgs 140-143.
- Slow Pilgrim: The Collected Poems (Paraclete Press, 2015) ISBN 978-1-61261-657-5
- Idiot Psalms: New Poems (Paraclete Press, 2014) ISBN 978-1-61261-515-8
- Endless Life: Poems of the Mystics (Translations/Adaptations: Paraclete Press, 2014) ISBN 978-1-61261-520-2
- The End of Suffering: Finding Purpose in Pain (Nonfiction: Paraclete Press, 2009) ISBN 978-1-55725-563-1
- Love's Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life (Translations/Adaptations: Paraclete Press, 2007) ISBN 978-1557255259
- Short Trip to the Edge: Where Earth Meets Heaven—A Pilgrimage, Spiritual Memoir: (HarperSanFrancisco]], 2007) ISBN 978-0-06-084322-9
- Compass of Affection: Poems New and Selected, Poems: Paraclete Press, 2006, ISBN 978-1-55725-503-7
- Philokalia (Poems: Zoo Press, 2002)
- Recovered Body Poems: George Braziller Inc., 1998 ISBN 9780-8076-1437-2
- The Sacred Place [co-edited with Scott Olsen] (Anthology: University of Utah Press, 1996)
- Figures for the Ghost Poems: University of Georgia Press, 1994, ISBN 978-0-8203-1601-7
- Disciplinary Treatises (Poetry Chapbook: Trilobite Press, 1993)
- Sermons for the Wary (Poetry Chapbook: Franciscan University Press, 1993)
- The Translation of Babel (Poems: University of Georgia Press, 1990)
- The Theology of Doubt (Poems: Cleveland State University Press, 1985)
- Finding the Broken Man (Poetry Chapbook: Window Press, 1982)
General references (biographical)
- A Directory of American Poets and Fiction Writers, editions 1985 through 2002, New York: Poets & Writers
- Biography Index, A cumulative index to biographical material in books and magazines; Volume 28: September 2002 — August 2003, New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 2003
- Contemporary Authors, A bio-bibliographical guide to current writers in fiction, general nonfiction, poetry, journalism, drama, motion pictures, television, and other fields; Volume 146, Detroit: Gale Research, 1995
- Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. A bio-bibliographical guide to current writers in fiction, general nonfiction, poetry, journalism, drama, motion pictures, television, and other fields; Volume 91, Detroit: Gale Group, 2000
- The Writers Directory, editions 13 through 23 (1998–2007), Detroit: St. James Press, 1999
- Who's Who in the South and Southwest; 23rd edition, 1993–1994, New Providence, NJ: Marquis Who's Who, 1993