with Erin Sharkey

The following interview with Erin Sharkey was conducted in-person by editorial board members Hugh Fleming and Alex Sirek in a small, intimate classroom setting. This interview was transcribed and edited for clarity by faculty editor Robyn Earhart.

Erin Sharkey is a writer, arts and abolition organizer, cultural worker, and film producer based in Minneapolis. She is the co-founder, with Junauda Petrus, of an experimental arts collective called Free Black Dirt and is the producer of film projects including Sweetness of Wild, an episodic web film project, and Small Business Revolution, which explored challenges and opportunities for Black-owned businesses in the Twin Cities in the summer of 2021. Sharkey has received fellowships and residencies from the Loft Mentor Series, VONA/Voices, the Givens Foundation, Coffee House Press, the Bell Museum of Natural History, and the Jerome Foundation. Sharkey was awarded the Black Seed Fellowship from Black Visions and the Headwaters Foundation. She has an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University and teaches with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop (MPWW). Sharkey is a steward cooperative member of the Fields at Rootsprings Retreat, a land-based Cooperative stewarding space for healing and development of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) artists, activists, healers, and community centering Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Queer (LGBTQ) folx in Central Minnesota. Sharkey’s anthology A Darker Wilderness: Black Nature Writing from Soil to Stars, published by Milkweed Editions, was longlisted for the 2024 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. It is a vibrant collection of personal and lyric essays in conversation with archival objects of Black history and memory. 

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Erin Sharkey

Hugh Fleming: Thank you, Erin, for being here with us today. We wanted to ask you what it was like selecting writers for the anthology. Did you have more personal relationships with each of them which made that a bit easier? What was it like to work with them specifically as an editor?

Erin Sharkey: I met with my editor at Milkweed, Joey McGarvey who is no longer at Milkweed, and she and I strategized that we wanted the anthology to have a national focus. So she and I decided that we would have two other writers from Minnesota in the collection. It turned out to be three, ‘cause I pushed them. These two writers are Michael Kleber-Diggs and katie robinson who are both dear friends of mine and some of my favorite writers. They both had work about nature that I knew about that I wanted them to explore further. Michael had written a poem called “Prestidigitation” that’s in his first collection Worldly Things, also from Milkweed, about going fishing with his grandfather and his twin brother when he was a kid. I thought that could be a whole essay, so I asked him if he could expand it. And then katie was really investigating stuff around her own grief and the death of her mother. She’s just weird in a way that I really like, and is obsessed with things that really excite me. She really loves aliens and sasquatches, and I wanted something in the collection that really would push the boundary of nature, like maybe into the supernatural or maybe into a different space, so I asked those two and they said yes, both of them. The third writer from Minnesota is Ronald Greer who was a student with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. I was at a reading in Stillwater and he read one page that inspired the essay that he contributed to the collection. 

The rest of the folks are sort of a mixed bag. There’s some people that I knew in community. Naima Penniman is a dear friend who’s doing some farming work in other places and is very connected to my best friend Junauda Petrus. Glynn Pogue is a travel writer. She and I were in a VONA/Voices workshop together. And then there were folks that felt like reaches. I really wanted to ask Carolyn Finney and Lauret Savoy to be in the collection, and they both said yes, which is amazing. All of them are new essays except for Lauret’s which is a rewrite of an essay from her collection Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape

For many of the writers in the collection we had an idea and then we had to work out what the essay would actually be about. This all happened in the midst of the pandemic and the uprising [following the police murder of George Floyd], and as a Black writer, I know for myself that I was really asked and called upon to reflect on race in the time a lot at that time. I’m not alone; all the other writers in the collection also had lots of new projects to take on in that period of time and all the natural stresses of the pandemic and the uprising. They all came together, and it felt really serendipitous. I felt really lucky that they all said yes and that we were able to push through a hard time to write for a lot of people to get their drafts done. I sort of courted folks with a few archival objects to ask ‘Would you think about it?’Many folks fell in love with those objects and were trying to push, like ‘Can I have six objects in the essay?’ But it was a dialogue with them from the start. Some folks I said ‘I know you’re from this region and you sort of like these things, would this be a subject that you would pursue? Would you think about protest or would you think about gardening or would you want to think about your experience in Alaska?’ And then we worked it out together what the final essay would be about. 

Alex Sirek: So speaking a bit more about structure, and I know you were just talking about the final essay, there’s a lot of consideration and intention that goes into the structure of an anthology. What made you decide to begin the book with Carolyn Finney’s “Memory Divine” rather than starting with your own introduction “More to be Shaped By?”

ES: I felt like putting hers first felt like it was adding to a necklace, like a string of other works, and it was emphasizing that I’m not the first person to be saying these things, that it’s in line with other books. I wanted to invite folks to read [A Darker Wilderness] in that light. I just felt like her endorsement meant a lot to me, so I liked it going first. 

We did wrestle around the rest of the order. Not super hard, but we did talk about several different iterations of the way it could go out. Should we just do it alphabetically, should we do it by region, should we talk about the age of the object that folks are encountering and should we start with the earliest age of an archival object and then move towards a more contemporary object. I wanted katie’s essay to go last, so that informed how they came to be in order.

HF: Switching gears. The archive is obviously an incredibly powerful thing in both literature and culture, and we wanted to know what you think the value of archives are to the world at large. Do you think A Darker Wilderness challenges what an archive could be? How do you think it fits into the conversation?

ES: I like research a lot, and I love being with evidence of history. The thing that I’ve been thinking about in the last several years inspired by other peoples’ work—Natasha Trethewey, Saidiya Hartman—is the way in which the archive and archival objects invite a partnership that has to do with imagination. I’m really interested in the role of imagination in nonfiction work because I think imagination is part of our lived experience, it’s part of the way we navigate challenges, it’s part of the way we confront unknown things. Archival objects, maybe from a historical writer lens, they maybe can feel a little isolated from other things or from the contemporary space, but I think that there is this particular absence in terms of Black history that necessitates a sort of imagination because our history wasn’t archived in the same that white history was archived. There’s these looming questions that still exist, and I think that the ways in which the contemporary moment provides us an opportunity to imagine, to give life and humanity and a fleshy personhood to the folks that encountered and interacted with those objects is something that I think is important in confronting history because of those absences in collected memory. 

In this collection, there are all kinds of objects. There’s a statue, and fishing tackle box, and the range in-between. Some of them are already public art pieces and some of them are from personal collections or from family albums. In the case of the tackle box, Michael had to swear up and down and make lots of promises to an aunt who lived in Texas to go into her garage and trust that the mail wouldn’t damage it for the photographer to take a photograph of it. He promised, promised, promised that it would be returned to her. That’s the case for a lot of objects of significance to Black history. Many of them are still being cared for in private collections, in homes or in churches because of our raw relationship to institutions. There’s a trust necessary in the holding and protecting of sacred objects. 

AS: This book considers the relations of Black people to land and to place, in the past, present, and the future. Would you consider A Darker Wilderness to be an ecocritical book?

ES: I feel like I’ve been waiting to see how it’s received. It feels like maybe the answer is yes? I don’t know. I think that you can have a lot of intentions when you set out in publishing. There’s a lot of questions that I had as an early writer around genre distinctions, around markets and stuff like that. In some ways with the book in the world, some of those things come together. It’s really about who’s reading it and what questions they’re asking. My desire is for the book to be centered on two arguments: That nature isn’t neural and the archive isn’t neutral. There’s political energy in the ways that we interact with the natural world and the ways that we interact with history. That feels like it’s been embraced by readers. I was really hoping it would end up in college classrooms. I’m an educator; I think that college students are a really dynamic audience. I was thinking that it could be a tool for teaching, and it feels like it’s getting embraced by folks to teach.

Thanks for that question.

HT: Speaking of public reception, you’re both a contributor to and the editor of A Darker Wilderness. You obviously have a very unique, creative relationship to it. How do you think that’s coded your response to feedback of the book from peers or from general audiences?

ES: That’s a great question. It has been something I think about when I bring the book to share with groups, like what parts do I read from it. Do I read mostly from my own essay or do I read from the introduction? Do I take samples from throughout the book? 

I’ve loved the opportunity to be out in the world with the book with the other contributors. That’s the kind of interactions that I want to further the conversation on the collection. I know there was a struggle in accessing Ronald Greer in lots of ways because he’s currently incarcerated. All the rules of the DOC [Department of Corrections] are intense. It’s hard to describe this. I’m a teacher with Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, so I only get access to students in a very specific way. Like I really only access them in the classroom or communication through the Department of Corrections. I can’t be on anyone’s call list or visitation logs or anything like that. So all the communication I did with Ronald on the collection, because he wasn’t actively a student in my class, was through another person. It was sort of like a telephone game of trying to figure out how to get feedback to him and get stuff back from him. Things like making a decision around not having an archival object in relationship with his essay, that all was very complicated trying to get on the same page. Messages get lost all the time in the Department of Corrections. Kites fly away is what we say! They just disappear, so it was a challenge. 

I really wanted to make sure that he was celebrated in the collection, and that there were opportunities for him to interact with audiences, and it felt like we were hitting wall after wall with the DOC on that. But I got last-minute permission to spend publication day with Ronald, and I went in and was so excited, and he hadn’t even received the books yet. We had sent them months before, and there was some delay. They said ‘Yeah it must’ve been delayed with the dogs’ which I guess puppies had to smell them in order to make sure they were ok. So he hadn’t received his copies yet, so the first time he had them in his hand, I got to be there with him. He was with a couple buddies from the writers group, and I presented him with one of the reviews which said that his was the best of the best of the collection. It was so fun to see him and see that with his peers. That was my favorite reaction to the book.

AS: That’s so joyous! Warm and fuzzy! So the book opens by stating that nature writing is deeply rooted in freedom, access, and the availability of new perspectives. What do you think nature writing can mean for marginalized people who have been systemically deprived of freedom and access?

ES: You’ve read in the book that I had access as a child to nature quite a bit. But I’m also a fat person, I’ve also dealt with chronic illness. I came into the world wheezing and covered in a rash, so I’ve had a sort of uneasy feeling with nature all the time having to think ‘Will this activity isolate me in terms of my abilities’ or ‘Will this activity make me super sick.’ I love horses, and I’m more allergic to horses than any other thing on the planet! So the idea of access is more multifaceted than just racial access in this country. It also has to do with the ways we create spaces for people to participate who have different bodies. 

It was interesting to teach nature writing within the prison context because I think all the ideas around nature being a place you go to, a place that you stretch yourself and like do something really hard that no one else has done, I sort of immediately de-centered that perspective within the classroom. Sure folks had some memories like that that they were writing about, you know times that they had served in the military or jumped off a cliff with their buddies in high school or whatever, but the idea that you could find nature within that [prison] setting felt really exciting to me. It has been something that I’ve been bringing to the conversation around the book too, like you don’t have to plan some epic thing in order to engage with nature. Nature could really be you noting the way the sun moves through your room in the course of the day, or the weird habits of your cat or your houseplant. That really could be the way that nature is experienced and the way that you are impacted by it. That might even be more impactful than climbing Everest, which is cool and you should do it if you want to! I probably won’t be myself because the thin air up there is not for me!

AS: Too risky! 

ES: Mmm hmm, yeah!

HF: You actually just answered this quite a bit, but I’ll ask it anyways. Is there a particular aspect about nature that attracts you specifically in your writing or as a person?

ES: I think that nature does have an essential sensory component to it. I think I’m a natural storyteller. I came by it honest from a family of storytellers. Like my grandfather was—not like a hunter-adventurer out in the wilderness, but loved cross country skiing, and loved foraging in his backyard, and taking mead to the neighbor who was a beekeeper. I’m just fascinated about the ways in which we can sense it more than just see it, the ways we can sense it in lots of other ways. I haven’t really spent a ton of time thinking about ‘why nature?’ but maybe I should! You shouldn’t have been the first person to ask me that!

I think part of it is from my childhood experiences and feeling profound beauty in nature and the ways in which things surprise you in nature. I’ve also seen it as an incredible tool to build community around, and to give young people a place to find their own value and their own autonomy. I think maybe it’s a lot of things, maybe accumulative!

AS: You speak extensively about the parallels of city living and the natural world. How do you personally strike that balance between the two?

ES: I’m trying to balance a little better at the moment. I was just talking to my wife about it. I love going to Rootsprings, which is our retreat center, but right now because of our schedules, we’re often going to Rootsprings to do work or to do a job. So we’re going to be there maybe for the whole month of January which will feel really nice to slow down a bit and not like ‘We’re going out because we have to put on hip waders and go get the swimming dock in the pond and it’s almost freezing already,’ that sort of thing! I’m ready to not just have chores!

Every time I do go out, I try to take the golf cart out on my own. There’s a part of the drive that I really like. There’s a place that you come around the labyrinth and our meadow and wetland is on the left-hand side and the lake is on the other side, and it could be the hottest day of the year and you turn this corner and the degrees drop by maybe eight or ten degrees. Just that feeling of the little difference in biomes on the land is really cool, and seeing all the surprises because it’s different every time. The noticing feels really fun. We saw a snapping turtle that jumped four-feet tall! Or once I was driving in the spring and I turned onto our dirt road and there were probably fifteen—they all looked like teenager deer, they’re like adolescent deer! They looked like they were all hanging out! They saw me and I saw them and we just stared at each other and it was awesome! I want to be slow

HF: You’ve already talked some about your work with MPWW. Do you think your abolitionist work intersects with the accessibility of nature?

ES: Well one of the challenges of abolition work is that the vision is so far away and so big that it can feel impossible or insurmountable. That’s the biggest critique that people offer when you say you’re an abolitionist is like ‘Oh that will never happen’ or like ‘How would that work, I can’t even imagine it.’ It has been an opportunity to think of it way closer, as close to you as possible. Like ‘How can I improve my communication skills so I’m in better harmony with my neighbors’ or ‘How can I provide mutual aid in a way that supports folks?’ I believe essentially that people are not born criminals or are built differently and that’s why they’ve become criminals. It’s like the worst day happened to them, and they’re having consequences that maybe I’ve been through that day but didn’t have those consequences. 

My first experience with restorative justice, or that sort of concept, came from an experience with the urban farm that I worked at. We had a big community center that we just finished renovations on. It was a partnership with the city. We put a ton of work into this building. The community center had a gym and a commercial kitchen people were using to make valuative products for business entrepreneurship. We had a space for the young people that were participating in the garden and the farm. That building burnt down in an arson fire set by teenagers, kids in the neighborhood. It was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life, and one of the biggest losses. It was so intense for this huge building to be in ashes. So we went to court, and in the court space we were treated as victims. As soon as we sat down, we were like ‘That kid is a kid we know and we know just a tiny bit of their life story.’ I know that that kid didn’t intend for all these consequences to happen. It was going to be a pretty standard legal proceeding. He was going to be charged as an adult and get sent away to prison, and I remember thinking that the shame of this experience is just going to fester in a way that’s not good for anybody. He’s going to be in community with folks who have a skillset in disrupting community in ways that he doesn’t even have yet, and he doesn’t even have a parent here to support him. So in that moment, we shifted. We were like ‘We’re not victims solely anymore. We have a different stake in this situation because of the consequences for him and the consequences for our community. He could probably come home to our community.’ So we worked with the DA and created a plan for him to serve his time in community with us. We got to work on some housing renovations and rehabilitations and a lot of work for years in the community. We got to have lots of conversations with him, lots of opportunities for him to get to know us and for us to really get to know him. And now he’s a union plumber and lives in the neighborhood as a dad, he owns a home. For me that was a real education around the fact that there are ways to disrupt that system, and some of it has to do with genuine prevention of crime and that has to do with provisions for folks, making sure that people have access to what they need.

One of the ways that the prison work and the nature work are coming together is that we’ve now hosted two retreats with Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, and we want to build out more so that folks can have a place, a space to reintroduce themselves to their families, to have fun together and to figure out who they are as a unit, to talk about the impact of being away and what that means. I also had an artist friend of mine who’s inside got to plan a retreat for his family. I’m not sure when he’ll get to go home or if he’ll ever go home, but his family got to come, and he got to design it, which is really fun. So we’re hoping for more and more of those sort of things to think about how nature might be a space to hold that sort of tender needs for reconnection.

AS: Just building on this abolition conversation, what has surprised you the most about teaching incarcerated writers and what aspect of your work with MPWW has affected your own writing?

ES: I feel so lucky to do this work and to be able to teach. Honestly some of the very best writers in Minnesota are inside. I was with a class last night—I’m teaching a nature class at Shakopee Correctional at the moment—and I’m just always impressed with the ways that they are adaptive. I’m not sure I could do as powerful writing without access to internet searches or books. Research is such an important component of my writing, and they really find ways to do it. 

Being in prison is an experience that is way more busy than I thought before I was working inside of prisons. I didn’t really understand how their days were spent and they’re chock full of things. For them to prioritize something like a creative writing class is amazing because they have so much to do with work and earning points and going to school. 

I think I’m most moved by how generous they are with each other. How ready they are to champion each other and to celebrate each other, to help teach each other. I know that they’re back in their units reading each other’s work, and that feels really incredible. For a little while I was holding the writer’s group at Lino Correctional. At Lino Lakes, there are guys that are writers and they want to have a time once a month to just talk about writing. Not a class. But they can only meet if there’s an outside person that sponsors the group, so I have been the person for many years, and it’s awesome. It’s my best writing group for sure! They do all the prompts and they encourage each other and give each other ideas about places to send their work in or contests that are coming up. They have the prompt, we write together for an hour, and then we share the work that we wrote in that hour, and they give incredible feedback. I feel the most lucky to be in the writing group! 

AS: Do you have any abolitionist writing recommendations or any texts that have stood out to you outside of your own work or the work of your peers?

ES: I think that adrienne maree brown’s work with AK Press is a great place to start. Further work by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who’s part of my collection. Those are folks that I like the invitation they give to think in new ways to break patterns. I’ve been a community organizer since I was a teenager, and the inspiration from Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown was really exciting for me to think about new ways to engage with each other so that we don’t have to replicate systems that are disruptive, or systems that we don’t want to replicate. We don’t need to use them to envision the future. We can get inspiration from natural systems to do that. 

HF: You just talked about how the writing workshop inspires you, but how about your more broad abolitionist goals. How do you think those factor into your writing?

ES: I feel like it happens in the places I can find liberation in writing, the ways that I can find opportunities to break rules. I don’t know that I would always categorize myself as a rule breaker, but I think within the writing space, I love finding opportunities to transcend genre distinctions, or to ignore things that are black-and-white binaries, and that feels like an abolitionist project. Thinking on things in complex ways feels like an abolitionist project. I also think it’s around thinking about audiences differently, thinking on who accesses it, who does the writing belong to. I’m asking similar questions in both spaces. 

I’m really excited for the American Precariat collection from Coffee House Press. It’s an anthology that was edited entirely by people who are incarcerated, and it’s a brilliant collection. Each of the essays in the collection is followed up by a conversation between the editors around the subject matter, and the whole book is centered around what it’s like to occupy the precarious places in the United States. It’s a book I’m super excited about. 

AS: Last question here. Do you think that creating art and writing in the specific context of Minneapolis and Saint Paul can work to advance abolitionist goals? And what advice would you give to aspiring writers and artists who want to participate in more immediate and tangible forms of activism?

ES: Being in the Twin Cities is very special. I’ve lived other places, and there are a lot of things to critique about being in Minnesota, but I would encourage you to get as deep as you can in the literary community in Minnesota. There are incredible writers here, incredible artists here. The art stuff is very rarely separate from the justice community and the folks that are doing interesting work in the community. I’m inspired all the time by my peers who are making work and making work that matters. It was an important part of my bridging from the MFA program at Hamline to the literary community. I feel like doing work in relationship is really important. 

I went to the Great Twin Cities Poetry Read and there were probably 40 poets on the bill, and there were another 40 poets in the room celebrating poetry that weren’t on the bill, and I was like ‘Who else lives in a place like this? This is amazing!’ It’s a community where I’ve found to be not so gatekeeper-y where we keep secrets on what is happening. Every good opportunity I’ve ever had has come because another writer has been like ‘Do you know about this thing? Should we do this?’ I think that we can model moving beyond scarcity, or the ways that narrative organizing and storytelling has, I think, more potential power that lots of other kinds of organizing. 

I’d say that to encourage young writers, young editors, and thinkers: Be brave. Put yourself out there and just be a part of a community, and think how that community might reflect other things you care about. There’s Queer Voices out of Hennepin County Library from incredible folks with a lot of great information sharing and activism happening out of that space. Search out, be present, volunteer to read at an open mic. 

AS: Well thank you so much, Erin. If you have time, we’d like to turn it over to the audience for them to ask some questions.

ES: Sure!

Audience Member: Following up on relationship building and abolitionist creative work in the Twin Cities, are there any particular spaces or organizations that you’ve found to be especially valuable to you in that work?

ES: There’s an organization called REP—Relationships Evolving Possibilities—which is an organization that has been trying to form an alternative to 9-1-1. If there’s a mental health crisis going on or there’s a conflict between a neighbor, you can call someone and they could help you navigate it with the skillset to do that. Or if you just need to talk to someone, you can call their line. They’re also doing a sort of mutual aid pod development with neighborhoods so that folks can really get to know their neighbors, really get to talk about ‘How do we take care of each other if all the electricity goes out on our block’ or that sort of thing. So I’d say REP is a great organization to look into. 

I think that Penumbra Theatre is doing some really interesting work. They are developing a center for racial healing as part of their theater work. They are thinking about both body wellness and therapy and supporting care for folks, as well as thinking about the ways that art and the creation of art can impact the way that we talk about ourselves in community. So I’d look into that theater, one of the longest-running Black theaters in the country. August Wilson wrote several works there, and he was a staple in Saint Paul. I’d look into Penumbra. 

I think Pillsbury House Theatre is also a theater to connect with. They’re a South Minneapolis theater just two blocks from George Floyd Square that has been an important organization on the southside for many, many years. It’s one of those old settlement houses from the beginning of social work. It came from grain mill money, from Pillsbury doughboy money! But they have an incredible daycare, they have a great senior care program, an adults with disabilities program. They have a commercial kitchen with people coming in for residencies to make food for folks, and their theater works are really challenging. They create really great spaces for conversation. They have a project called Naked Stages which is sort of an emerging writers project. They have a sliding fee scale for tickets or you can volunteer to get a ticket. There’s lots of hands needed for theater work! 

I’d look into all of those three. 

Audience Member: In addition to your work on A Darker Wilderness, you’ve also worked on film and theater projects through Free Black Dirt. How does your creative process differ when you’re making films and theater productions compared to writing prose?

ES: Well theater is much more collaborative by nature. Sometimes I feel isolated in my own personal writing, and have to seek out ways to be interacting with other writers or have people read and give me feedback or things like that. The theater experience is essentially collaborative because you need front-of-house people, back-of-house people, you need technical folks, you need to be thinking about actors and directors. So you’re not the only voice in the room. I think I’m a pretty good creative problem solver, and I think that’s an essential skill when doing collective work. Problems will always come up. 

When working on Small Business Revolution, I was sort of the local expert person on the team because the rest of the production group came from mostly Texas. They had worked together on this model before—I was producing Season 6. So they had done this several times, but to take their model and to make it work in the Twin Cities—especially in this sort of heightened space of the pandemic, the heightened space of the uprising and coming out of the uprising—it was important that they had someone who was in relationship with people, who knew that we could film at this place or how we could highlight this cool thing about the community in the Twin Cities. 

This book [A Darker Wilderness] certainly felt like the most collaborative of my writing projects, and I think I would do more projects like this. I like the idea of being in dialogue throughout the whole creation process. The dialogue really did make for richer writing, make for deeper writing, make for more ambitious writing. For myself too, I needed an editor (like everyone else in the collection), so it was nice that I got to edit but also that there was an editorial team that was part of the project. 

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