I woke up this morning to news of the death of a good friend, Okla Elliott
. I walked around campus much of the day, stunned. For me, nowhere in this town isn’t touched by his memory. (And no one: I suppose I owe him some gratitude for introducing Priscilla
and me. We didn’t talk that night beyond hello, but he remained steadfastly convinced that she and I should not only date, but marry, long before we had spent our first real days together).
I met Okla my first semester in grad school in 2010, in a class with Nancy M Blake
. I found him loud and brash, but by the time the semester closed I was warming to his outgoing brilliance. We bonded over Bushmills and Bad Religion, started getting dinner after class each week. Pretty soon, hardly a day went by without at least an hour’s chat over coffee. We’d spend hours talking and reading at the coffee shop, only to grab dinner, get some Bushmill’s, and head to his place to argue about Heidegger, read poetry at each other, and discuss each and every stupid thing that came into our over-read heads. So many drunken nights of dancing, stomping, and singing. So many times we infuriated each other. So many times we didn’t. All were minor miracles.
Okla was, as so many are remembering, a great friend. He was unfailingly encouraging. And he took real interest in the interests of those around him. Of course, he was also a competitive friend, a frustrating friend, even a spiteful friend. But he was, invariably, a friend. And an incredibly vivacious one at that. How many people must be asking themselves now, with me, how a force of nature like that can simply have stopped. By his own accounting (which he offered daily on Facebook), any given day couldn’t get any better, and every taco he made was the kind of genius that gods bow down before. I am grateful to have spent so much time with someone so in love with the world.
Over the last couple of years, various frictions grew a polite diffidence between us. I’m not sad about that. We had our years of brilliant friendship. I *am* sad, though, that the world has been deprived of such a machine of creativity, so serious a teacher, and so intense a friend. I was looking forward to catching up with him one of these days, which is now not to be. But there is one thing I could count on: a long night of conversation with Okla would always end with a hug, a handshake, and his saying, “It was a pleasure and honor, as always.” Well, brother, it really was a pleasure and an honor. And I will always remember it. - Matt Nelson
I am heartbroken to learn about my friend Okla Elliott
's death. Many have spoken more eloquently than me about his work as a poet, a novelist, a literary critic, and a scholar. I will cherish the memories of grabbing bucket-sized iced lattes before going to talks on the Illinois campus, reading for hours in coffee shops together when everyone else left campus for the summer, collaborating on scholarly projects, hitting the gym only to stuff our faces with Thai food right after, and lengthy conversations about philosophy. Dear "robot monkey man", you are dearly missed. - Priscilla Charrat Nelson
Okla Jeff Elliott passed unexpectedly in his sleep on March 19, 2017. He will be remembered as a prolific writer, teacher, mentor, beloved brother and friend. He is survived by his mother, Freida Elliott, sisters, Vickie Elliott Brammer and Flora Elliott D'Souza, and nieces and nephew Hannah Brammer, Sabrina D'Souza, and Michael Brammer. Okla earned a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Illinois, an MFA in creative writing from The Ohio State University, and a certificate in legal studies from Purdue University . Okla published widely in national and international literary magazines, journals, and newspapers. He was the author of several works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, including From the Crooked Timber, The Cartographer’s Ink, The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, Blackbirds in September, Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide, and Pope Francis: The Essential Guide. He was a cofounder and editor of New American Press and MAYDAY Magazine, where he encouraged and cultivated the talent of both new and established writers. He also co-founded a blog for literary and political commentary, As It Ought to Be. Overcoming the obstacles of growing up poor and losing his father at age ten, Okla was an advocate for education as a pathway out of poverty. His too-short life served as a witness to his philosophy. His life and his loss touch his students, colleagues, friends, and family. He will be missed, but he lives on in his words, his genius, and our hearts." - David Bowen
I'm so overwhelmed to learn of the death of my friend and former colleague Okla Elliott
today. I noticed his photos in my Facebook feed this morning and without even reading the context simply assumed he'd published a new German translation, another poetry anthology or received a glowing interview somewhere about his last novel.
It feels disingenuous writing about how intensely news of his death is making me feel right now, crying as I write this, without also explaining that in the early years that I knew him, now more than six years ago, we argued so so often. I don't think there is anyone who has unfriended and refriended me more on Facebook over the years than Okla. Maybe precisely because we shared so many of the same very specific interests (from Sartre to the legacy of Stalin in Marxism) we butted heads on nearly every issue.
In an atmosphere of quiet consensus I was drawn to Okla as a strong, confident interlocutor who wouldn't back down from an argument, someone who believed in the inherent value of debate, someone who resisted political chauvinism for the sake of keeping open a space for critical thought. Even after we stopped talking, I thought I'd have the chance someday to catch up over a drink and remark on the irony that so many years after our first and most heated arguments about theology, our positions had seemingly reversed. I came to define and redefine my intellectual positions against him. I really always felt he would be there in the background, his constant overachieving compelling me to work harder. I always imagined telling him someday how much I respect him and what an enormously positive effect on my intellectual development he had. I'm absolutely devastated to learn of his death today. - Brandon Carr
Okla was so alive in the world that it does not seem possible he is not here...his formidable energy seemed like it would never end. When he was working on his dissertation Okla would come to my office often; without fail he arrived carrying a huge iced coffee, no matter what the season. But the potential energy in an enormous coffee was nothing compared to Okla’s own vibrant mind. We would talk about all of his many ideas and I always felt that my role was, rather than offering any new ideas, to trim those thoughts lest they stray into too many directions.
After Okla defended his dissertation I was so proud that he took up a post as an Assistant Professor at Misericordia. We were in touch often over email and Facebook and I was delighted that he undertook the important project of building a Holocaust pedagogy website. When prospective graduate students visit Illinois I always hold up Okla as a model.
His voracious mind could take in Bernie Sanders and Pope Francis all while writing fiction and poetry and teaching. He was (why must I use the past tense?) an energetic person but someone whose traumatic past haunted him. More than once I cried reading his fictionalized autobiographical stories. His prose was often sparse but very powerful and I don’t think he would ever have run out of beautiful words with which to express his many and variegated thoughts.
Already on facebook people who knew him in person and also a surprising number who knew him only virtually have been describing Okla as a generous friend and colleague who always supported and encouraged them, who often argued with them, and who was always onto some new thought. He was indeed extremely generous and consistently went out of his way to help publish and broadcast other people’s thoughts and ideas. He was a tireless advocate for small presses and independent publishing.
I was very fond of him, and very proud of him, and he should have been able to continue to be the force of nature that he was. - Brett Kaplan
Feeling totally shocked this morning, having learned of the sudden death of my former classmate and friend Okla Elliott
. A creative writer and scholar of comparative literature, law, and (most recently) religion, Okla always seemed to be guided by a boundless energy and enthusiasm for learning that I found astonishing. He continued taking seminars while dissertating (and teaching) out of love for the experience, and always seemed to be working on multiple involved projects concurrently. In recent years, his prolific social media posts offered windows into his latest labors of love.
Really struggling to process this one. - Valerie O’Brien
Many people will have seen this by now, but my good friend, longtime roommate, and literary collaborator Okla Elliott
passed away in his sleep on March 19th. He was a brilliant mind and someone who was incredibly generous with me and changed my life for the better. I apologize to anyone close to him who is finding this out through Facebook. We wanted to contact you all by phone first, but his personal and professional spheres were large and it just wasn't possible before the news came out in other ways. That is all I want to write for now. David Bowen
has posted a nice obituary on Okla's timeline for those wishing to read it. - Raul Clement
My Dearest Okla Elliott
Not long were my days in Illinois before I met you, standing there amidst the rest of the comparative literature students and faculty, beaming with happiness and that beard covered smile I came to love so much, and ever since I was always incredibly grateful for the interest you showed in me and my work, your guidance and helping hand, and your willingness to take on a reclusive and introverted Swede. The two years I spent in Illinois, with you in my life, will forever stand out among the greatest in my life. Okla, you took me in, and not only as a roommate, but as an equal, as a fellow student, as a colleague, and as a debater of many things literary, and even though I could never convince you of the brilliance of my genre classification, you still stood there as civil as ever and told me your argument. This is one of the many things I will miss now that you are gone, your undying love to do and fight for what is right, your incredible fortitude to take the good fight, and perhaps most of all, to always be civil when others argued against you. You always took the fights, when I never could. My dearest Okla, I will forever cherish our moments together, and I always wish I were there with you more, in your many and long conversations with Raul and Matt, but we did have many fantastic dinners and lunches together, not the least of which were your absolutely amazing tacos. You were always there for me. I will forever miss you, my dear friend, my roommate, my brother. - Fredrik Wittsten
Heartbroken to hear that we have lost Okla Elliott
, an amazing writer and person. It was an honor and pleasure to co-edit New Poetry from the Midwest
alongside him. He was a seemingly tireless creator and advocate for other writers. I was consistently inspired by his generosity of spirit and energy--he was such a force of empathy and good in the literary community. He made an impact on so many people--I know there are many grieving for him, and to all of you, I send hugs and compassion. - Hannah Stephenson
I am absolutely devastated to learn that Okla Elliott
has passed away. The co-founder and managing editor of As It Ought To Be
, he was my editor for 10 years. I feel like that sentence is too smal to contain all that it means, so I will just say it again: He was my editor for 10 years. He changed my life in so many ways, all of them for the better. I don't envy the person charged with writing Okla's eulogy; every time I start to write about who Okla was and all he accomplished I am humbled by the sheer weight of the task. Never have I known a man more prolific, more passionate, more capable. He was the smartest and most well-read person I knew, period. And he was the very definition of a mensch. I am thinking in this moment of grief of all of the people I know because of Okla, of the many friends we had in common and the many people who are in my life because of this man, people whose lives, like mine, were touched beyond words by this incomparable human: Raul Clement, Yahya T. Ali, John Guzlowski, Chandra EA Dickson, Karen Craigo, Chase Dimock, Matt Gonzalez, Deborah Dubroff, and many others who I am forgetting in this moment in my grief. If you go to Okla's memorial page here on Facebook you'll see post after post extolling his virtues and attempting to remember his innumerable accomplishments. I want to add one thing here that I think important. For most of the 10 years I knew him, Okla was an ardent atheist. This past summer he nearly died twice, but survived, and in his surviving he found god. I am not a traditional believer myself, but I was moved by Okla's newfound relationship with god, and with the countless ways Okla lived a life in the spirit of the core values of his religion: kindness to others, care for the downtrodden, generosity, social welfare, and an abundance of love. Looking back, I can't help but wonder if there were not some divine purpose in sparing his life twice this past year and only taking him from this earth once he had reconnected with his god. At the very least, I know his transformation brought him comfort. But I hope it's more than that. I hope he knew something that many of us don't. I hope he was right, and that he is now in a place worthy of a man who lived his life in righteousness, as Okla did. My heart goes out to everyone who is grieving for this loss. The world will never know another like you. You will be missed more than we can imagine. - Tristan Chaika
ENTRANCES AND EXITS
by Okla Elliott
When I was a younger man, a boy,
the intrigue of washing machine doors
trunks, windows, manholes--secret passages
of all sorts--possessed me. I spent hours
passing through and back through
a simple hole in the wall of a condemned house
careful to step with the other foot
or at a new angle each time,
conducting experiments that might foretell
how the world would receive me
and how I would leave.
A day later, and I still can't process the fact that Okla Elliott
, 39 years old, is gone. That someone so full of life could be taken from life, and so young, is incomprehensible. It makes me feel vulnerable and very, very small. Which I am; which we all are. It just sucks to be reminded of it.
I only knew him on the internet - one of his scores of fans aka "amigos internetos" as he called his online friends - but from what I can tell he is the most influential, impactful non-famous person I've ever known. The outpouring of grief I've seen on his Facebook page is beyond anything I've ever seen for anyone, and that includes famous people. It was thrilling to watch his career - as a poet, novelist, professor, translator, editor, and news commentator - unravel in ever more dazzling twists and turns. He made you believe in his potential, and then showed you time and again that your faith was not misplaced; indeed, that you had somehow managed to both believe in him and underestimate him at the same time. And along the way, he supported so many people in their own journeys. I don't know how he found time for it all, but someone he did it. He had an impressive work ethic. Most of all, I admired his courageous intellectual honesty. By now, I think we were all getting on the same page. Okla was going to be a huge force of good in the world, and we were on the edge of our seats; couldn't wait to see what he was going to do next.
Except that his life was cut short before "next" could happen. It's a staggering loss. My condolences go out to his friends, family, colleagues and students. He was so open about his life, and he made us care about you through his stories of you, and we care about you now in your time of grief. - Eliana Mariella