The Assay Interview Project: Adrian Shirk
November 1, 2022
Adrian Shirk is the author of Heaven is a Place on Earth (Counterpoint, 2022), a personal odyssey of American utopian experiments, and And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy (Counterpoint, 2017), a hybrid-memoir exploring American women prophets and mystics, named an NPR ‘Best Book’ of 2017. Shirk was raised in Portland, Oregon, and has since lived in New York and Wyoming. She’s a frequent contributor to Catapult, and her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Lit Hub, and Atlas Obscura, among others. She teaches in Pratt Institute’s BFA Creative Writing Program, and lives at The Mutual Aid Society in the Catskill mountains. Find her on Instagram @so_pioneerz or Twitter @adrianshirk
In Heaven Is a Place on Earth: Searching for an American Utopia, Adrian Shirk takes readers around the country and throughout her life in a search of “the possible architectures of developing a happy, ethical life under late-stage capitalism”—in search, in other words, of utopia (44). Shirk’s understanding of utopia is continually made and unmade by her quest, leaving us with the sense that utopia is not, as the word’s etymology is often said to reveal, “no place,” but rather evident somewhere almost everywhere. Utopia, Shirk reveals, exists in fits and traces– the great surges of energy and hopefulness put forth by utopians as they try to make a new and better world, as well as in what’s left behind by the communities that fall away. By the end of the book, Shirk has founded her own utopian experiment called the Mutual Aid Society in New York’s Catskill Mountains, suggesting that immersion in these narratives– in all the ways utopians have tried to change their lives and change the world—can change your own life, if you let it.
Caylin Capra-Thomas: Heaven Is a Place on Earth is a quest to understand utopian thought and movements in America, as well as a personal narrative about searching for a way to live under capitalism’s increasingly unlivable conditions. We come to appreciate the pervasiveness of these conditions as you live them, navigating the tortuous and impossible maze of the healthcare system while caring for a relative who has had a stroke and experiencing financial instability as an adjunct instructor living in New York, one of the most expensive cities in the country. And we also come to understand the pervasiveness of utopia through your rigorous research in literature, the archive, and on the ground, traveling to sites of past and present utopian experiments.
This research reveals dizzying layers of overlay and palimpsest in utopian movements. The sites of previous utopian movements often become homes to future movements, and all of them are inscribed on land taken from Indigenous peoples so as to form, as you write, “very pale recreations of Indigenous life” (136). There is palimpsest even in your role as a researcher and writer, tracing your own layer of text and analysis onto the source texts used by previous “utopian groupies.” Simultaneously, you make considerable meaning of the gaps in the archive, noting that “The most successful communities will not even leave a trace, and you will never hear of them nor read about them in books, and you will walk on land where ‘something good tried to happen once’ and you will not know that anything happened there at all” (48). How did you navigate the tension between your desire to engage with and write about utopian movements and your understanding that the “most successful” of them would be inaccessible to you?
Adrian Shirk: I had to inhabit the logic of my subject. Utopian experimentation requires the same sacred paradox that a religious or a spiritual orientation asks of a believer, in the way that it insists on two incompatible things: that the utopian must always live fully in the world as-is, and that the utopian must always refuse the world as-is. The refusal is creative—it is the act of creating all those co-ops, communes, collectives, resistance movements—but such creativity is meaningless or poison without issuing from the vagaries of one’s contemporary moment. This tension is the utopian tension. I guess I realized that the tension is the point, and it is perpetual: utopian innovation is both always happening and always poised to “fail” when it is evaluated using the metrics of imperialism (i.e., conquest, growth, power, permanence). I suppose I navigated this by adopting, even nourishing, a paradoxical disposition within myself as I researched my subjects and built my own life: a sense of high irony and absolute sincerity, an urgent, organized practicality, and the acceptance that intention, even pragmatism, rarely counts for all that much in the end.
As a writer, I had to both be very interested in the particularities of, say, The Shakers, the Bronx rebuilding movement, The Farm, The Fouerists, The International Peace Mission Movement, and I also had to be somewhat ambivalent about the particularities at the same time. What that gave me was a way to understand the value of these utopian activities as a whole, as a very long story, as a patchwork narrative that extends far into the future, and far in the past, and whose totality no one can ever know. That it is, in a way, only the continuousness of such activities themselves that counts, the shift and flux and reinvention and possibility for a more beautiful life, in the now-future (to borrow a phrase from Jose Esteban Munoz). Utopianism is an activity that simply will not end so long as imperialism exists, and that, as a counterpoint to empire, utopianism stakes its value on provisionality, variety, layering, incomprehensibility, precision, accident, and ephemerality, and that the very quality of any particular community or project’s impermanence is, in fact, the main reason that it poses such agitation to the imperial order. That which cannot be contained, named, pinned down or institutionalized, cannot be controlled.
This book’s exploration of intentional community had me thinking a lot about families – the kinds we make or choose as well as the ones we don’t. You write that “[a]lmost always, Christian or not, the American utopia vanquishes the nuclear family, the blood tie, the marriage, often sex, so that we are only, all of us, strangers and pilgrims together on the same path” (43). The text also takes hard looks at these institutions and the responsibility we bear to those with whom we occupy or uphold them—spouses, in-laws, siblings, parents, etc.—as you find yourself navigating the healthcare system for your father-in-law and the shifting shapes and needs of your own relationships. How has utopian thought and experimentation impacted the way you conceptualize “family?”
The United States in particular has such a rotten understanding of family, in that it asks and encourages us to create nuclear units which we protect and hoard resources for above all else, units which engender inequities across lines of race, class, sexual orientation and gender. So, like a freak, I will once again offer that, like a spiritual orientation might, utopianism asks you to question the received relational forms that have been conferred on you by a violent empire, and to ask, “qui bono” (who benefits?). Whether it was the egalitarian cooperatives of Robert Owen seeing to the equality of women and men or collective childcare among kibbutzniks or Father Divine’s multi-racial collective housing in the Depression, utopian activity often disrupts whatever the received notion of what “family” is in its era.
Of course, it does not require throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but it asks for a refinement of what your motives are for prioritizing and tending to such relationships, whether they are formed by marriage, biology, legality. Perhaps, for me, engaging with histories of utopian thought and activity really illuminates the received imperatives about these relationships that seem arbitrary or downright insidious, if you’re adopting a perspective of, Well, if in fact we could do anything, what do we want to keep? It seems so basic, such a basic thought, but the sheer persistence of dysfunctional relational forms as a “given” should make us wonder. Because capitalism does, in fact, have quite a lot to lose when we prioritize bonds and solidarities that do not rely on private property acquisition, or that produce no profit or wealth, no legal heirs.
So, a family is perhaps anyone who has seen to your survival and happiness, and you to theirs, in a sustained way, with whom you share time and resources, with whom you measure the health of your lives and broader community and other proximal ecosystems. Maybe that is your parents and spouse and children, but often it is not. I guess all of my research has made me somewhat skeptical about the absolute value placed on so many U.S. dogmas, which so often issue from Anglo colonialism: the nuclear family, the heterosexual marriage, the acquisition of resources, the necessity for particular arrangements of parenting, of which there are zillions of alternative forms globally, but which are often viewed in a U.S. perspective as lesser or precarious or unstable. The research, too, has cast in stark relief for me the extreme levels of violence that take place in conventionally approved-of families, private homes, marriages, parent-child relationships, against the panic and terror about abuse inside of unorthodox or communal contexts. It’s not that one is better than the other. It’s just that we shouldn’t make an idol of anything.
You also grapple throughout the text with the self-abnegation required by many of these communities, especially considering the value Americans place on individualism, which is particularly fetishized in the arts. My own American cultural conditioning became apparent when I found myself balking at the thought of letting go of my art-ego, even if to serve a higher purpose! Now that you have started your own utopian experiment and artist’s residency in the Catskills, have you come to any further conclusions about how to be an individual artist within a utopian-minded collective? (Or is the idea of the individual artist inherently anti-utopian?) How might American artists seeking refuge from the capitalist machine balance a communitarian ethics with not only individual needs but also the difficult-to-shake sense that the artist needs to be an individual?
There have been so many communities and collectives of artists that have banded together in a myriad of ways over time, whether residential or more conceptually, where the artists are all drawing from a common pot of resources, ideas, supports, tools. There are many artist-collective efforts that have become proper institutions that have emerged from this effort: Black Mountain College and The Poetry Project are two I think of. It seems relatively modern that the artist needs to be her own ambassador, marketer, audience-bringer, competing with millions of other artists similarly operating in a unidirectional set-up, while also working full-time to barely survive, or make art for that matter. It’s absurd. So, there’s that. When I was visiting communes like The Bruderhof and The Farm, I was looking at communities that did not place artmaking as a central activity or goal of their project, and they are types of places where I think it would be hard to strike that balance. It’s a matter of what the somewhat shared goal is, and for those communities it is some combination of low-carbon footprint, sustainable agriculture, a comprehensive system of mutual aid, abolition of wage labor, and, for the Bruderhof, a commonly held spiritual life.
But there are many art-centered experiments, and they are different in the things they center: less about homesteading subsistence and sustainability (though that’s a part of it or can be), and more about the collective strategies needed for more artists to bring their visions into fruition. Even five friends who are artists can pool resources and disrupt the unidirectional model, creating events, happenings, journals, series, collaborations where their work converges with one another, even if just by being side by side, or consistently working on common projects, or creating infrastructures which commonly support their individual work.
I think it is always both: that the artist is coming from a place of understanding herself as an individual, and always understanding herself as a part of a broader ecosystem (another paradox), and that the narrative around artistic genius being a kind of divinely sanctioned, immaculately conceived golden nugget is itself a patriarchal idea.
Between each titled chapter of this book, you include short pieces called “utopianotes,” which offer brief scenes of visits to utopian or utopia-adjacent communities, but which are not analyzed to the extent of those in the chapters. As someone whose research tends to sprawl beyond what an individual piece might call for, I thought this was a clever way to incorporate research that has shaped your thinking, but which might not fit directly into the meat of the chapters. They also contribute to the sense that utopia is all around us if we look for it—that even our attempts to classify it spill out over the edges of those categories and muddy our definitions. How else do you see these pieces functioning, and how did you come to use them in this way? What other shapes did you try or consider as you were structuring this book?
I really appreciate your read of how the utopianotes function in the book as a whole. I think it was my logic as well, though I was only conscious of it after the whole book was made. The utopianotes, as a reading experience, are a constant prompting (of me, the reader) for a bigger imagination of how we’re understanding this word or work of “utopia,” and also as an interruption lest my own imaginations in the longer chapters calcify. There was a sense of provisionality I wanted the book to have, too, that mirrored the ethic I was beginning to understand in utopianism, a sense that what you are reading, effectively, is just notes, notes toward an uncontainable inquiry, notes that build, notes that you or anyone can contribute to, an archive or a vault or a fund of usable ideas or learned solutions, and not as a totemic history. The utopianotes are thesis-resistant—they do not resolve or explain themselves, nor prove one idea in particular. It’s more like, the activity of keeping the notes going is the point. There are so many more notes. You are writing them now.
I originally set out to structure the book as a set of even and straight-forward chapters, and really, it was simply the awkwardness of trying to weave in the autobiographical elements to various chapters that forced me to come up with a much more jagged or dynamic structure. At first, I kept trying to shoe-horn in all of these different elements, enjambing or collapsing timelines, contriving themes in my own lived experience to the ones I was teasing from the research, and it just felt kind of like a sawdust-stuffed dummy. So then I started to house and refine some of the autobiographical elements in separate files called “Living” (which became their own chapters, inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s refraining “The Blue of Distance” chapters in A Field Guide to Getting Lost and MFK Fisher’s “Sea Change” chapters in The Gastronomical Me) and then I also separated the one-off encounters or stories as “utopianotes,” and it was only after that, and much later, that I began to understand their broader invitation.
This was obviously a massive undertaking in terms of research. In the chapter discussing your visit to the Catskills’ Fox Hill chapter of the Bruderhof—a century-old Anabaptist community with an international scope– you consider questions of how to approach experiential research, especially when not part of the researched community, as well as how to balance the demands of such immersive projects with the needs of everyday life: “Why was I there?...How much time should I spend questing for information, performing ‘research,’ and how much time should I spend living, spending time with family and friends, eating healthy, actually exercising, making concrete plans for the next phase—or is it folly to think that any of these things are separate tasks?” (116) What kind of advice would you give to a nonfiction writer whose research takes them similarly far and wide, geographically or historically?
I love giving advice (I am a Virgo), but I find this especially hard to advise on, insofar as writing is living, and we all get it done differently. For me, my books form themselves around really pressing questions I have that bear on my life in real time, and so the act of researching the books is a real-time activity, an act of pursuing something I would be after solutions or answers to anyway. The aestheticizing of personal narrative is done less as an act of memoir (memory) and more like I am reporting on the present (or the very recent past), as a way to synthesize what I am learning, thinking, encountering, and as a way to, well, do the artistic thing, the production of beauty. So I might advise writers of what we call creative nonfiction or literary nonfiction, or just nonfiction that is an art object more than it is explanatory or thesis-driven or committed to the continuation of scholarship in a particular discipline: if you want to find a way to create limits or boundaries with your research, if you want to make sure you don’t go “too far afield,” then just make sure that the subject matters so thoroughly to your actual life that it is not so separate from the (what did I say?) eating and exercising and spending time with your friends and family, or whatever it is you would otherwise naturally want to spend your time doing. Make sure that the research is in some way a vessel that aids in the magnification of those things.
You’ve noted in previous interviews that your process is very immersive, stating to Hannah Maureen Holden for the Columbia Journal that “books subsume whatever questions or crises I’m currently navigating,” and advising listeners of Wyoming Public Radio to “be careful what you’re interested in because those interests will lead you to strange places if you take them seriously!” If you are open to it, I’d love to hear about the questions or interests you’re currently immersed in, as well as how they relate to or have grown out of your utopian thought and experimentation. (And do they have a theme song as perfect and iconic as this book’s?)
Maybe my theme song right now is, and has been for a while, “Come on Up to the House” by Tom Waits. It’s such a great song. Having just written that sentence, I’m now wondering whether he actually was the original author of it, because the melody and the words strike me as so gospel. “Well the moon is broken/and the sky is cracked/come on up to the house,” or “The world is not my home/I’m just passin’ through/you gotta come on up to the house,” where “the house” is like heaven I guess, a hearth around which desperate and dispossessed characters gather when life on earth has failed to provide joy or beauty or meaning. I live in a house like this. I bought it for such things.
My questions and interests these days are definitely oriented around that living project The Mutual Aid Society, and all of its activities, projects, visitors, ailments, entropy, and innovation, in terms of it constantly needing to be a project approached like art, and revised: is it providing a beautiful life for me and others? What kinds of projects does it lend itself to this season? What needs to be built, fixed or amended? Has the garden been watered and the pipe been fixed? Is it a member-supported artist’s retreat, residency, incubator, secular monastery, or family home? What kind of digital infrastructures can we build to sustain the things that are being made, or which we hope to make in the future? Is the future even worth anticipating too strictly, or should we mostly tend to the present? Do you want to build a fire tonight? As much as it is also my home, or some part of it is dedicated to that, I’ve also been de-centered from these questions a bit, as new partnerships form (or fade) season after season.
My own art practice has changed a lot, too, in this set-up. For instance, for two decades really, I primarily locked myself away, alone, when I was doing the work of “writing,” but that has faded. My studio became a library that is a common space now, and maybe that’s a good metaphor for how things are going. I am devising a play in weekly Monday sessions, with the director Kristin McCalley, the painter Amy Tidwell and the producer/actor Tamara Todress. I am combining dance videos produced with the filmmaker Bridget Carsky with audio recordings of absurdist manifestos written in verse. I am agenting select projects with the writer and principal agent at Drift(less) Literary, Jackie Gilbert, and with her conceiving of new models for how to publish the kinds of books we want to read. I log audionotes more often than I sit down to compose words on a page. If a contribution is called for in someone else’s film or musical project, I might offer a vocal track or a character I developed. I suppose my interests these days are about knitting together a world of relationships and collaborations as an art project itself, and experimenting with the conditions in which that knitting can really happen.
Caylin Capra-Thomas’s debut poetry collection, Iguana Iguana, is out now with Deep Vellum. The recipient of fellowships from The Vermont Studio Center, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and The Studios of Key West, she served as the 2018-2020 poet-in-residence at Idyllwild Arts Academy and is now living in Columbia, MO, where she is a student in the University of Missouri’s PhD in English program, studying poetry and nonfiction.
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