Akilah Oliver was born in St. Louis and grew up in Los Angeles. In the 1990s she founded and performed with the feminist performance collective Sacred Naked Nature Girls. For several years, Akilah lived and raised her son Oluchi (1982 – 2003) in Boulder, Colorado where she was a teacher at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. A notable performer, she collaborated with a range of artists and musicians, such as Tyler Burba, LaTasha Diggs, Anne Waldman, and Rasul Siddik.
Akilah Oliver’s books include A Toast In The House of Friends (Coffee House 2009) the she said dialogues: flesh memory (1999, out of print), which won a PEN America “Open Book” award, as well as the chapbooks An Arriving Guard of Angels (Farfalia, 2004), Thusly Coming to Greet (Farfalla, McMillan & Parrish, 2004), The Putterer’s Notebook (Belladonna, 2006), “a(A)ugust” (Yo-Yo Labs, 2007) and A Collection of Objects (Tente, 2010).
In 2011, Akilah passed away unexpectedly in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, shortly before her fiftieth. At the time of her death, she taught poetry and writing at Pratt Institute and The New School. She was a member of Belladonna* Collaborative and a Ph.D. candidate at the European Graduate School.
On the occasion of the five-year anniversary of Akilah Oliver’s death, and the ten-year anniversary of The Putterer’s Notebook, I interviewed Belladonna* co-founder Rachel Levitsky.
Ana Paula (Rail): When did you first meet Akilah?
Rachel Levitsky: I arrived at Naropa University in the fall of ’96 and she was teaching a flesh memory workshop, not for credit.
I remember very clearly my impression of her, there was a plainness. Something about…you know when people present their ideas or work as though it is special, or precious? She didn’t, she was just very regular. She had us walk around and then write.
I went to graduate school in my thirties—I became a writer late!—and she was also in her mid thirties. She had gotten a scholarship for the Summer Writing Program, and became a teacher afterwards.
Rail: Let’s talk about the she said dialogues. Why she? Is Akilah constructing herself as an other?
Levitsky: She’s interested in multiple selves, constructing herself as an other, yes, but not exclusively that--she’s also interested in biography. In 1999, writing this around 1995, politically and personally, it was important for the female voice to be center stage—perhaps as a space of exploration, discovery, as a space of boldness, of femininity, of masculinity, never singular. All in the dialogue with what makes a woman a woman. And what are the limits of personhood, black female personhood.
Rail: Why do you think she chose the (fixed) I when writing The Putterer’s Notebook (2006), which she calls an anti-memoir?
Levitsky: What she experienced after her son died was such a profound loneliness. In a way she was a We and then it was no longer true or it was ruptured, her experience of fluid we-ness with Oluchi. She faced down the enormous responsibility of losing a child, and she was on her own. Maybe that’s where the I came from.
Rail: And what’s anti-memoir?
Levitsky: In Akilah’s poetic statement for her piece in the Memoir/Anti-Memoir issue of Chain Magazine, she writes about exploring the unreliability of loss in female desire. Putting unreliability, loss, desire to the forefront is the anti in anti-memoir, for these facts undercut all manner authenticity/reliability in mainstream concepts of memoir. How does focusing on loss and the “blundering nature” of female desire simultaneously support and subvert the notion that you are your biography, your cultural identity, your background? Anti-memoir is both memoir and against memoir. Akilah was always both for and against her cultural historical positioning being the thing that made her, defined her.
Rail: Would you say this is supported in the line: “I, as in not a Freudian mistranslation” (The Putterer’s Notebook)?
Levitsky: Yes. And so much of narrative poetry nowadays is grounded in notions of direct translation (cultural historic positioning). The She Said Dialogues are about grief, but not as directly an address as in her following books, like Putterer’s, which investigate grief and mourning, what she calls lamentation, as a trans-historical position/experience in and of itself.
Rail: In that book there’s a part that says, near the ending,
In which pocket did I leave that “I”? Is “I” ever a thing to miss, a personage to mourn, if the “I” still lives in the physical body and is capable of re/articulation? if it desires mirrors? history? or and then narrative sensibility. If the mirror breaks one can buy another. consume then recreate then resume an/other I. history I curse thee to not be borne in mid-twentieth century garb, a French feminist theorist laboring over “new ideas” to bounce the vernacular mind.
Would you view The Putterer’s Notebook as a sequel to the she said dialogues?
Levitsky: Not directly, but the concept is certainly still there. “Flesh Memory” is about things that happen all through space and not located specifically in something. After her son died, there was so much grief, the experience of having the body, the body that came to her body, the body that was grieving, and the body that was responding to the world in a certain way. When she was dying, she read “Antigone’s Claim” by Judith Butler, and she was also taking a class with her. Antigone is important because the story is built in a site of contradiction. The aspect of contradiction that Butler writes about is the contradiction of public and private, one in which govern kinship and sociality. Kinship, which is elaborately privatized (and feminized) is forced into the political by Antigone’s claim. When she insists on dutifully burying her brother and abiding the norms of kinship, she goes against Creon’s edict and enters the realm of state, breaking state law. Her female duty becomes the site of a confrontation between the public and the private. She was experiencing her body as a space of impossibility between public and private. I think this resonates throughout Akilah’s work.
Rail: In talking about “The Story of my Accident” you’ve said “The I is the We, and secondarily the I is the failure of the We.” If the I here is a failed We, is Oliver’s She a failed I?
Levitsky: That’s a good question. I don’t think it’s as pessimistic. I think the She came from a place of hopeful feminism and lesbianism. We have to contextualize with the Sacred Naked Nature Girls, the group Akilah was with back then, which was all about multiculturalism, or what we call nowadays intersectionalism. It comes from a hope that all the selves be represented, in their multiplicity.
Rail: There’s a quote by Claudia Rankine in Citizen: An American Lyric:
Yes, and the body has memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight. The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness—all the unintimidated, unblinking, and unflappable resilience does not erase the moments lived through, even as we are eternally stupid or everlastingly optimistic, so ready to be inside, among, a part of the games.
Do you find this relates to Akilah’s concept of flesh memory?
Levitsky: I think flesh memory is about inviting the weight to hover around the body, instead of settling into the body. It’s very much about bringing something into the language, into a realm of possibilities, something that is not mediated.
I don’t think it’s about resilience. It’s about habitation. In the books that followed, I think the weight, if it doesn’t enter, it doesn’t hover either. It becomes the site, the dwelling.
Rail: I guess what I found in common was the collective consciousness of trauma. I was reading Laura Smith’s dissertation on Akilah, and there’s a part that says how, basically, by recognizing indirect knowledge, Oliver suggests that bodily experience and bodily memory are not entirely individual; she recognizes knowledge that is invented as well as literal, suggesting that she counts as knowledge those memories, histories or useful fictions that must be created or imaginatively constructed when the record is missing, erased, obstructed, or corrupted. These useful fictions, though clearly constructed, are created to resist corrupted histories and commodified images. And then there’s the fact that Claudia Rankine uses stories by people she knew—not all exclusively lived by her—to construct the book.
Levitsky: That's excellent, yeah, that’s a very good point.
Rail: In both Neighbor and She said dialogues, there’s a certain play with subject positions from third person to first person, space-shifting and unstable. Structurally, they both seem to imply that individuals are not entirely bounded and discrete, but exist in very intimate interrelation with contemporary and historical others (whether they are neighbors, or not). Also, the space of absence seems to configure the occasion for all discourses to begin, in both books.
Levitsky: Tell me more about what you mean by absence.
Rail: It’s like The Lover’s Discourse. You’re uttering to an absent lover.
Levitsky: That’s so good. I’m happy with what you said, I just feel like: yes! The shifting person is also a shifting space of desire.
A couple of things. There’s an issue of moral authority hovering about all the books you mentioned: Neighbor, The She Said Dialogues, Citizen. In using the “you” one abdicates one’s own partaking in the law. The narrator or writer becomes the law.
In the other two—first and third person—that very moving around is inquisitive: Am I the law? Am I under the law? Am I outside of the law? It’s Kafka’s “Before the Law.” What is my relationship to the law? And that goes back to Butler, the public and the private, and that at any moment I can become the problem that I’m talking about.
Rail: You mentioned being in an Agamben reading group with Akilah. How did he influence your and Akilah’s work?
Levitsky: The book that we were reading was The Coming Community. What I think is influential is the question of absence—your question before about writing to absence. One side of absence is Barthes, the aspect of desire that entails mourning. In an essay about the messianic, Agamben says: “In times of the messiah, everything will change. And the difference between the world now and the world of the messiah is that one small shift changed everything.”
I think that small thing is the fissure, the gap. It’s what Akilah talks about in the introduction of A Toast in the House of Friends. The absence is first the desired object, which is itself a problem, but is further problematic that this absence/object is made out of fissure, or rupture, or opening, which is the space of uttering as yet unformulated thinking as speech. Absence and its focus on its object of desire is what holds open fissure long enough to let the formulation come into being. In my work I tend to recognize the fissure space as of a kind of a grunting, that’s how I pry it open. Writers like Gail Scott, Bhanu Kapil, Akilah, their tool for keeping that fissure open is the using of a shard, or a fragment. I’m interested in a grunt because I’m interested in finding complex grammars that hold many things together, and often for myself this is achieved through a guttural need first, before I have a beautiful or masterful process. But also, one formal solution is only ever good for itself, because the form of solution I find is a process of closing the gap, and to do that I first have to open the gap and leave it open.
Rail: It’s funny you mention that because the other day I read an interview of yours with Lucy Ives and you held the shards, what Bhanu Kapil does, as something you like as opposed to what Anne Carson does: “a vague, open-ended, pretty thing, often fragmented, that is called poetic,” you said. But at the same time, you’re now talking about absence and there’s a lecture in which she [Carson] mentions her use of brackets as opening up a space that is wide enough for God to enter.
Levitsky: Yes. You write the truth or else it doesn’t work but as soon as you finish writing, the truth shifts. I was thinking of the contradiction of it: as soon as you have the book in your hand and put a wrap on it, it’s no longer yours, and it’s no longer true.
Rail: So much of your work, and Akilah’s work, seems to dialogue with theory. Why becoming a poet and not a theorist?
Levitsky: I am interested in dialoguing with all forms of thinking, thinking that produces thinking, seeing that produces seeing, all kinds of degenerate work. I’m interested in art that pulls me in that space of dwelling and slows down the anxiety of my heart and makes my heart not only the beating but the habitation of my whole body and brain. And I think the space for this writing is one of grief, anxiety, and I know life is long, and the space of the world is long, and beauty and love and art and the unknown are just as important as the space of urgency that we’re asked to produce all the time.
Rail: The obligation of producing alienates the passion of creating.
Levitsky: People talk about complexity and nuance when talking about art production and I think those are nice words and a nice rebuking of social media, but it doesn’t get to the heart of what we’re trying to say, which is that we are all, even now, in a moment of necessary rupture and necessary fire.
I’ve been reading Elena Ferrante, and in the third novel—which is set in this political rage of 1968 at the Italian University. In one scene, just after the narrator Elena Greco has written her first novel, she’s with a past lover and a friend who are saying, “Now is not the time for novels.” And our responses are: It’s always the time for novels! It’s always time for this even during rupture and revolution because the revolution should last. And the kind of fire that is raging through social media, it’s not sustainable, but I don’t think it’s wrong either. Sometimes there are fires and they burn everything and that’s O.K.
Rail: Do you think the poet, or the artist, has a bigger chance of effecting change? In the sense the poet writes the sign and the academic writes the signified.
Levitsky: Tell me more about it.
Rail: The academic points and gestures towards the structures of power, showing how they work and breaking them down. But the artist creates a space where they don’t repeat themselves.
Levitsky: I thought a lot about that question while writing my last book, which is so theoretical. Gail [Scott] writes about how every book is formal invention, and the language poets wrote extensively in this belief that the form itself was revolutionary. And the new narrative people kind of refuted that, they said: It can’t only be formal.
But because there’s very much a belief, and that goes back to Agamben, that if you change the way you think, you can change the way you are. If you change the grammar but still make it so it has a structure and logic but it has a changed form, an urgent necessity of what needs to be said also informs the way it has to be said.
This is good art, the encounter with that something that in a moment changes thinking. It is that meeting that is the messiah. It changes who you are so that you are a person in the present, presently affected. That’s how I think the role of the artist is different than that of the theorist.
Agamben is really important to me (and maybe to Akilah) because he brings things together very much the way an artist does. In one of his essays in Profanations call “The Assistant,” he references Kafka, Arab philosophy and Christian theologians, so that all kinds of assistance come together into one picture. That’s the whole point of it for him, to see where the secular, or profane, and sacred exist in the same space, especially [for] the artist.
Rail: That also goes back to Akilah and her work, especially in She Said…
Levitsky: Yes, and your quote by Anne Carson. And it’s hard for me because I’m so against religion! Not theology though. I was thinking of this book by Rene Girard called The Scapegoat, and he’s an absolute Catholic but what a theorist can do even if they’re Catholic is acknowledge this: very prominent ideas of religion are so deeply embedded in the way we construct ourselves. So I think that in a way the job of the artist is to be profane with those ideas. To be perverse, not for the sake of perversity, but for the sake of perverting lies and showing reality in a way that otherwise gets submerged—and that’s Akilah’s work. I keep trying to go back to the feeling I had with theory and art and that book. The first is that art requires form and formal intervention. The other is that things come together and become new reality in the work itself, whereas a theorist can show how they are together, it doesn’t become a thing of itself. In art, form is a thing of itself. The new form becomes either the messiah or the apocalypse.
I really like what you said, it’s interesting this idea of a thing repeating itself. Even though for me form has to be reconsidered, recreated every time I work, I know I’m working with the same problem. You know Akilah works on different forms all the time, but still she’s always creating a multi-form plurality, as you said, and exposing the problem of being black and free. Of what it means not to be a slave.
Rail: And women too, simultaneously. What it means to be a black woman and to be free.
Rail: Can you talk about the upcoming chapbooks curated by Saretta?
Levitsky: Saretta (Morgan) is working on a chapbook and reading series about self-care for brown and black women, inspired by Akilah. We’ll release chapbooks by Pamela Sneed and Mahogany Browne next year (2017.)
Rail: And what is self-care for brown and black women?
Levitsky: Saretta’s introduction to the series is about finding a way to live with grief. But I can’t say what it’s self-care for brown and black women since I come from a different subject position.
Rail: What is self-care for yourself?
Levitsky: I myself come from a Holocaust refugee family, a harsh family, and I have two siblings whose lives and bodies physically and emotionally bear the effect of that story (one has since this interview passed away). I feel like my own time and ability to stave off that trauma has reached a limit...in other words, I’ve been feeling it, and how could I not. My mother and father come, as Jews, from a racialized European context and came to this country in which we become/became white—but complicated by this refugee experience—which for us is one of displacement and not having a story—and for me of being a pervert, a queer, a woman, a feminist, a communist. All those things. I also live, since 1995, in this neighborhood that is now very gentrified. I’ve watched my own signification shift from being a member of a small steady minority of white people to being the sign of gentrifying aggressor. I hold that violence, of representing violence.
I am always occupying both the space of being enemy-bodied and being my own body and my own experience at the same time. This resonates with what Akilah was doing in her work. It’s very confusing how to negotiate; it doesn’t stop being confusing but for me there’s an imperative of standing in the middle of it, bearing responsibility while also not objectifying the experience of black and brown people. It’s a difficult negotiation. It’s harder to be black--including because it’s a physical danger. It’s also requires vigilance to not just run with white privilege. To stand and face down one’s own enemy position. It’s a fact of life. And art.
Disjuncture } 1
the difference between chicken breast fillet and ground turkey should be
obvious but i hadn't noticed it until the kitten cried.
Disjuncture } 2
don't dream that i don't dream of you. sometimes I do. i'm tired was just
a statement. no reason to doubt veracity. or to sleep until three in the
afternoon is normal if the sounds from the first hydrants kept you awake
all night. paris must be a different city than this one. I did walk on cobble-
stones once but it seems like that was baltimore. I don't know anything
about that place. your tongue has an obvious attachment to things that
taste slightly salty. I don't think i'd feel as sexy in a hair weave. or the skin
of a lover past her 'prime.'
Disjuncture } 3
now that has got to take the cake. a forest should be an actual location or a
storybook ideal of evil. like the shadows of denver streets after 10pm.
when you died I thought everything would change for the better but
things just got worse for awhile. she was sent here to uninvent the family.
an alliance to Mondays. a plotless wonder.
Disjuncture } 4
you asked me where the passion went as if I should be able to trace its
source to a gully or exclamation point. as if clever were a disguise I could
shrug off at any whimsical point in the plot revealing myself really just a
plain girl. a workhorse in sensible low heeled shoes shopping for the
family's daily rutabagas at a predestined location while donkeys bray loaded
down with trade.
Disjuncture } 5
salty unlike sexy doesn't get in the way of things when you need to invent
a letter to write to someone you hardly know. it could just be my oldfashioned
selfish impulses at work here but I wanted to see the squirrel
swing itself off the tree ledge down into the snow drift below. a reinforcing
syntax. double negatives. I don't know nobody. the first statement of
a disarming endearment. false negative. we don't have anything in common.
or john, we hardly knew you. I wanted to wear the body you'd taken
on as a thirty-something woman curled in the leather bar stool of the five
and dime novel.
Disjuncture } 6
dear: i'm sorry I didn't return your call right away but the days just seem
to run into each other like one endless sentence and besides I didn't want
to talk in the voice you would expect of me.
Disjuncture } 7
what if all the people are getting ready 'cause there's a train coming. a
code in which we all speak like mtv. apparent acronyms that take up little
emotional space. nafta. nwa. a mode of thought that brings everything
neatly together in a master script.
Disjuncture } 8
you broke my heart. now that's a handy idiom. I call for a language of
shared possibilities. not the limited inferences of mother lover car cake
run. disfigurements in expected speech. a man of the people.
Disjuncture } 9
false alliances to activisms like insisting on a female gynecologist or buying
black or drinking Zapatista grown coffee makes me feel better.
and because I feel better by extension perhaps the world is now a
slightly better place. like carefully plotting all appointments in the
daily calendar masks a slight quivering in the fingers when I think of
IT. the antithesis of lying on one's rusty dusty
My work investigates the tensions between identity, memory, desire and useful
fictions. In the "Fibs" series, I am attempting to blend and blur the intersections
between those contentions. Much of the impulse for the "Fibs" series of
poems is derived from Roland Barthes' A Lover's Discourse. What specifically
interests me in Fib #7809 is the unreliability of loss and its relationship
to female=female desire's struggle to transmute its blundering nature, or to
unhinge itself from itself.
Note: FIBS 7809 first appeared in CHAIN MAGAZINE.
RACHEL LEVITSKY’s most recent book is The Story of My Accident is Ours. She is also the author of Neighbor and Under the Sun. She lives in Brooklyn, NY where she teaches at Pratt Institute and organizes with the Belladonna* Collaborative.Ana Paula
Ana Paula is a Brazilian writer, reader and translator based in Brooklyn, NY. She is a research assistant to Valeria Luiselli, a member of Belladonna* Collaborative, and an intern at Triple Canopy.