"Definitions and Fantasies": The Realness of Akilah Oliver
-This piece was written for Michelle Puckett and Amber DiPietra's "working [class] reading series #2: an akilah oliver celebration" in Oakland, CA on June 3, 2011.
I want to be big like you.
or I want you not vast, not dead, not gone, but human,
small and here.
-from A Toast in the House of Friends*
I took Akilah Oliver's "Eros and Loss in Poetic Construction" workshop my first semester of my MFA at Naropa University in the fall of 2005. I felt many resonances with her poetics, her queerness and how she wrote the body, but I also felt extremely intimidated by her energy. She was the only faculty member I felt a real connection to and admired; I wanted to come out to her, to reach out and get to know her, but I was also kind of afraid.
One evening after class I walked up to her with the tiny-hope-of-maybe-seeing-if-she-wanted-to-meet-with-me sometime (?), and she was immediately like, Oh, let's go get food now! We went to Rincon del Sol, which is a block from campus. She drove us in her jeep. I remember that when we opened her car doors, the internal lights didn't come on, and because we were surrounded by so much darkness I felt something like excitement.
and the day was itself and I was mine
and you were wherever you were
and I was still darkness
-from "rasul: definitions and fantasies"*
As we were talking over food I went into how difficult my "Transition" had been, referring to my move from a queer and women-centered community at my undergrad in Virginia to the dry, deserted landscape of Colorado, where I was discovering I was a person of color. She said something like, "do you mean gender transition?" I remember actually gasping and immediately saying "NO!" She talked about transgender friends she had, and I remember deep inside saying "really?" and hoping I would get to meet them. It's been almost six years and I still remember this moment, getting into Akilah's jeep, her naming my trans-ness and seeing it in me before I had even named it myself.
Even though the other students in the workshop had not much more to write on my poems than "I don't understand, but It's Beautiful Exclamation Point," I held on to everything Akilah said, because it resonated, because it drove me forward, because it made me want to keep writing. Her workshop was where I first read Barthes and Derrida--that eros and loss could envelop one another made perfect sense to me. The final manuscript I wrote in that class became my first chapbook, Is This January, which was published by Sueyeun Juliette Lee at Corollary Press in 2010.
Today I listened to Akilah reading "rasul: definitions and fantasies" from Jazz Speak: A Word Collection, a CD my undergraduate mentor TJ Anderson III gave to me before I had ever met Akilah. At the end of the piece she says "you are as close to me now in an upstairs room as you ever were, as you ever were," which sounds strangely like a line from my chapbook: "you came closer to me than any / except."
She wrote so much about loss and now here we are--reading her words, grieving her death. It's strange and unbelievable because this woman was so REAL. I remember being at Naropa and hearing her say that every so often she'd leave teaching positions and get a "real" job, meaning she didn't wed herself to academia, which is what I loved about her.
I saw Akilah when she did a reading at San Francisco State University on February 18, 2010. Here are some of my notes:
distorting language to realign identity
poetry as a gesture outward?
is poetry a social act?
shy and embarrassed about consuming poetry - like consuming food / culture
SWP in Akilah's room @ La Quinta with Lou and Puckett. Jacuzzi. biking home to get my swimsuit.
"if world is irreparable, there is the possibility of love"
After the reading Samantha Wall drove Michelle, Akilah and I to where Akilah was staying, which happened to be a fancy-ish boutique hotel downtown. I went in with Akilah as she checked in, feeling that scary misplaced feeling I feel whenever I'm in expensive places. But Akilah was so butch about it--she walked in like she owned the place (despite what the white cisgender man behind the counter may or may not have been thinking), and she asked if she could have the room for another night at the rate that Rachel Levitsky had paid, and they gave it to her, and they had someone bring ice to her room (because this wasn't a motel with a janky self-serve ice machine), and she knew she deserved to be treated like she belonged there, and she was going to ask for what she wanted.
Another day that weekend we were at Michelle's old house in West Oakland. After an evening of poet-ing she prepared herself for the journey back across the bay by train, and the walk to her hotel. She braided up her locks and put them under her cap. She wore her purse underneath her jacket. She was hiding everything that someone on the street might want to grab and pull. The image I have is of Akilah taking long strides through the city after midnight, not looking back.
On April 21 at 7:31pm Lou Florez posted to Facebook:
I have been looking for my copy of The Putterer's Notebook for the last two months. Today my bookshelf threw a slew of books off and there it was...."And I should be but am not saying: just tell me what happened that night of the full moon, as if amnesiac and unable to sort. alternately then, how nice it is to sleep during a shared darkness, sieve. or wisely:
What is the primary duty of repair?"
When I read Lou's post I immediately remembered that Akilah had been in my dream the previous night. She actually hadn't passed. I was with someone else and we were opening the lock on a door to a secret part of her apartment, the place where she had stayed.
Even though she writes in her chapbook a(A)ugust, "people come back from the dead all the time," her visiting me in my dream feels singular. "Is the body the place where the sentence ends?"
Akilah's question "What is the primary duty of repair?" is going to haunt me now.
* Line breaks in these quotations are mine.