Eleni Sikelianos, In Memoriam, Akilah Oliver, 1961-2011

8 May

Akilah first came to Naropa in 1990 or 91, as I recall it, one of the first two SEI scholarship recipients.  I’m sure I have some of the details wrong, but I will relate it as I remember it.

We’d started SEI (which we first called SUEI, the Student Union for Ethnic Inclusion) to address what we saw as the monoculturism of the school, in the summer of ‘89, and soon had organized enough to offer two students summer funding.  My connection with Akilah, and Akilah’s connection to Naropa, began in this way.  I can’t remember if it was the first summer or the next that she and Oluchi lived in my house on Bluff Street while I was away and part of while I wasn’t, and then she and Oluchi and my boyfriend Peter Cole were driving across the desert in our van, which broke down around Needles, and the three of them spent some days waiting for an engine part and tried to stay in the shade.  (“A little wooden lion/you & Peter carve on Bluff Street is quieting across your cheekbone.” “In Aporia,” A Toast in the House of Friends.)  Then Peter and I moved back to California, and Akilah drove up from L.A. to visit us, and then we drove down.  There was a barbeque at her mom’s house (the house Akilah grew up in, with her given name; at some point we were instructed to call her mother Miss Mel), and then the next time we drove down she was living in South Central with or near two sisters and a niece and the insurrection had just happened (we’d driven down to “save” her, but she made us wait till things had quieted down), and everything was in ashes and some were looting.  Then (or before then) she was making out with a guy on the couch (I wish I could remember his name), and then she announced she was a lesbian, and then she was co-founding the Sacred Naked Nature Girls and she had her shirt off while standing on the lawn, and soon she was moving with Oluchi to Boulder, but before that she was artist in residence at Beyond Baroque in L.A., and I visited her workshop and did a reading, and then she came up to Santa Barbara and we smoked cigarettes on the porch during breakfast and she did a reading, and then Oluchi was in his bedroom quietly playing with play-dough and a typewriter, and then they had moved to Boulder and he was in high school.  Before that she was working with the L.A.P.D., which she or I loved to say — it was the Los Angeles Poverty Department, a theater group that worked with the homeless.  Then she was teaching at Naropa and I was living in New York, and I’d see her in the summers.

And then Oluchi died, tragically, and Akilah’s heart was seriously broken.

Then Oluchi died, tragically, and our hearts were seriously broken.

And she founded a group to address the healthcare injustice that had killed Oluchi.

And she wrote poems that posited a theory of lamentation.

And before then, Laird (now my husband) and I spent our first night together at Akilah’s in Boulder, and she was suspicious, because she knew Peter, but she made us blueberry pancakes in the morning and kept giving me looks.

Then she had a strange boyfriend with Fire in his name who few of her friends understood, and then she was agitating for transgender rights, and then she had a tall girlfriend who coached basketball (in my memory) in Denver and then she moved back to New York.

This is only a little bit of what she did.

She would sit quietly in a public space and size everything up, and she would turn her head slowly as if waking up to the world, to say hello to me, her dash of deep lipstick, and she never tried to make anyone comfortable.

And she would startle me with one of her incredible insights, and she would be reading Derrida and Judith Butler on the side.

She grew up in L.A., so she liked to drive, even if the destination was a half a block away.

In Paris this fall, she bought my daughter a music box (one of the many presents she gave her), and we went out to hear her old flame play jazz in the Caveau de la Huchette.  Earlier, we had walked to the park, and she’d laughed a lot.

I last saw her in New York, about three days before she died.  We parted at Houston and MacDougal.  She looked beautiful.  Earlier she had asked me, “What do we think of Black Swan?”

I worried about her often enough.  She didn’t take care of herself.  There are things I regret not saying or doing.  That is the way of the living.

When my mother was in town (in Boulder), they’d go to Blues concerts together.  They saw Pinetop Perkins, whom Akilah called Pinehead.  She said author arthur.  We hold these idiosyncrasies dear when someone we love has gone.  They are a little nub we can remember, like a knot of wood to run the mind over, cherishing.

And then she wanted to wear dresses (after many years in pants), and then she wanted to adopt a child, then a plant or a cat, and later she wanted a husband (as Rachel Levitsky said, to husband her body).  Who would husband her body, who wife it?

I say all these things, jumbled as they are, inaccurate (that’s how memory is), to say that Akilah kept inventing herself, she never settled on an identity handed to her, be it her name, her gender, her genre, her theories, her performances, her race — she made herself, from scratch, day by day, and that, and the stunning intelligence and large soul she carried with her through the world is what made her one of the most original beings among us.  She wrote: “I call for a language of shared possibilities. not the limited inferences of mother lover car cake run.”  She recognized such branding as “disfigurements in expected speech” (“Fib #7809,” A Toast).

That Akilah’s heart stopped is part of her invention, her transition to yet another idea, and she taught us, in her poems, before the fact, how to embrace her latest conversion, how to hold the space.

Akilah (center) and Eleni (right) at Lasky Lounge, 1999

Raised in California, Eleni Sikelianos received an M.F.A. in Writing & Poetics from the Naropa Institute. She is the author of Body Clock (Coffee House Press, 2008), The Book of Jon (City Lights Publishers, 2004), The California Poem (Coffee House Press, 2004), Earliest Worlds (2001), The Book of Tendons (1997), and To Speak While Dreaming (1993). She is also the author of a number of chapbooks, including From Blue Guide (1999), The Lover’s Numbers, and Poetics of the X (1995). She has received numerous honors and awards including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, and two Gertrude Stein Awards for Innovative American Writing. Her work has been translated into a dozen languages, with several volumes appearing in France and Greece. Sikelianos currently teaches in and directs the Creative Writing PhDprogram at the University of Denver.

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