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Searching for Utopia: a conversation with Adrian Shirk

The cover of the book "Heaven is a place on Earth."
Counterpoint Press
Cover of Adrian Shirk's forthcoming book, Heaven is a Place on Earth: Searching for an American Utopia

Yet another book has been produced by an alum of the University of Wyoming's, high-yield MFA program. Adrian Shirk is a creative nonfiction writer and hybrid memoirist whose first work was a 2017 NPR Best Book of the year. She has written a second book titled "Heaven is a Place on Earth: Searching for an American Utopia."

Wyoming Public Radio's Charles Fournier sat down with Adrian to talk to her about her newest work.

Adrian Shirk: Early on in the writing of this book, this phrase came to me: utopia is something that according to the laws of capital and conquest was not supposed to be able to happen but did anyway if only for a moment.

So, it's a response it's a dream of a better and more humane life. It is an activity or a community or a movement that is employing tools and strategies that are deviant to what the powers that be have required or enforced. Its scale is concerned not only with the particular people involved, but it dreams at a scale that has the capacity to be extended to as many people as possible. I would also add that utopia as a descriptive category is not an arrival but I think a really unique combination of both theoretical dreaming and practical action.

Charles Fournier: In order to come to that definition, based on your book, it seems like you had to travel a lot. You lived in a variety of places. How do you think your time in Wyoming has impacted your view of utopia?

AS: Wyoming really expresses so many of the ideas and myths of what the American Mountain West is or was or could be. This place where anything could happen, and during the 18th and 19th centuries, really was this stage upon which industrial experimentation and economic experimentation and religious experimentation and political experimentation took place. And I would be remiss to not underscore the ways that those experiments came at enormous costs. Cost of indigenous human life, ecological well being, and all costs that are also associated with the larger utopian experiment of the US American nation making project.

I also am an alum of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Wyoming, and I have really amazing experiences and memories from that time including having gotten to do some producing for Wyoming Public Radio. WPR is a public radio station that has utopian elements in that it reaches the entirety of this huge state, and I think that's really remarkable for a public radio station in a rural state such as Wyoming to have the ability to bridge all of the different people and cultures and corners of the state through this common publicly supported media platform.

CF: Now, when those same listeners get a copy of Heaven is a Place on Earth, what should they expect?

AS: A pretty intimate invitation to accompany me on an ongoing inquiry and conversation that I have been having with myself and others about all the different possible ways that people have and could help make each other's lives a little more spacious, a little more beautiful, a little more possible.

And I think it does compel readers to ask themselves, "So is that a utopian experiment?" or "Does that have a utopian quality to it?" And in doing so, I think they could expect to become kind of more curious or sensitive to all the different glimmers of freedom and mutualism and collectivism that exists already in their present that they might not have noticed.

CF: In the book, you take a step beyond curiosity towards application. Can you talk more about that experience?

AS: Something that the writing of that book gave me was not only the opportunity to research and synthesize and develop a sustained inquiry and chronicle of this history. But somewhat accidentally, it gave me a lot of resources and materials and ideas and a context to actually develop and experiment myself.

I started a cooperative artist residency called the mutual aid society that has served dozens of different purposes and really largely unforeseen purposes over the last three years. I offer that to say be careful what you're interested in because those interests will lead you to strange places if you take them seriously!

Adrian Shirk's book, "Heaven is a Place on Earth: Searching for an American Utopia" was released on March 15, 2022.

Charles' affection for public radio began in the back seat of cars. He remembers listening to Car Talk and This American Life during drives across Wyoming. Little has changed. Charles fell into volunteering as an Assistant Producer for HumaNature while creating a podcast unit for his high school students. The reporters of WPR graciously taught Charles about the production process, which led to his own contributions to WPR programming and a class project that students still enjoy. Charles has an MA in Literature from the University of Wyoming, and he teaches English and coaches wrestling at East High School in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
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