Frankie Velvet (aka Mikaila Hanman Siegersma) is a writer living in Melbourne, on Kulin Nations land. Frankie is one half of the collective andalltheglassjars. We asked them what writer they had a literary crush on, and now we’re in love with Akilah too…
where is your embodiment? this small obsession of becoming and collapse. or the desire to be
in the world as Image or as Voice. or a knowing or known clatter, prostration. the world:
—Akilah Oliver, The Putterer’s Notebook
In The Argonauts (Graywolf Press, 2015), Maggie Nelson writes in conversation with an unpredictable, varied, queer kind of family. A family made up of language, theorists, artists, poets and writers and thinkers; a family of recalibrators. She refers to this family, using the words of poet Dana Ward, as ‘the many gendered mothers of [her] heart’.
The many gendered mothers of my heart.
I’m thinking of the poet and performer, Akilah Oliver.
I’ve never met her and I never will, but her words help me think through things. I read her and rejoice. Oliver published three books of poetry—that I know of—in her lifetime: the she said dialogues: flesh memory, A Toast in the House of Friends, and The Putterer’s Notebook. She also published several chapbooks: An Arriving Guard of Angels, Thusly Coming to Greet (Farfalla, McMillan & Parrish, 2004), a(A)ugust (Yo-Yo Labs, 2007) and A Collection of Objects (Tente, 2010).
She was an African American queer woman, who taught at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. In the 90s, she co-founded the avant-garde feminist performance group Sacred Naked Nature Girls.
I could go on and on in relaying to you more details about her life, but I could also just tell you how I came to find her (words).
Whilst in an obsessive Eileen Myles haze, I stumbled across a video of her at the PEN’s 2013 World Voices Festival. The event was called ‘Bravery in Poetry’, and Myles was reading Akliah Oliver. I was watching the video and there was one line in particular that snagged me: ‘i am thinking about good intentions/playing the arenas: how new gender identities upset petunias’.
I bought the only two books of poetry that could possibly be delivered from the States to Australia. I read them over and over and I read them out loud. There’s scarcely a poem of hers online, ‘cept this one, ‘In Aporia’.
It’s bizarre getting to know a writer’s work, post-memoriam. There’s also something to think about within the queer-poets-lineage, which I love; how I came to Oliver through Myles.
The more I read of Akilah, the more I see how she examined things in multiplicities, in pluralities. She wrote on, and of, the intersections of language, memory, trauma, violence, healing, and narrativity, as they traversed with the experiences and identities of African Americans, women, and queer and trans peoples. She was fierce and she was talented, and she imploded various categories through the command of her words.
See here, from the poem ‘green fibs’:
if memory is an act of bearing witness
if jesus was born at midnight
if la la la la la la la la lalalallllaaaaaaaa
then the dream is a friend driving us somewhere
my hand casts a shadow across the page and i am
writing above my shadow
That’s an extract from her book, A Toast in the House of Friends, of which almost every page in my copy has been dog-eared numerous times.
There is a difficulty in wrapping up, or telling of, a writer you have a crush on.
Do you tell of their accomplishments? Do you pick your favourite line from a much-loved poem? I suppose, whenever you’re trying to give a picture of someone or something, it always falls flat; all you can really do is recall.
So then, recall, recall, recall, I will. Recalling, remembering, is vital. It is vital, the recalling of poets of colour, those queer poets of colour, those poets whose identities were forced to find habitat in the margins. Those who were and are, more often than not, disregarded from any kind of poetic history—a history in which any acknowledgement of these poets’ importance and urgency is severely lacking. Let us start paying homage to those poets who, like Oliver, had not just talent but tenacity.
Akilah Oliver’s voice is one of the many-gendered-mother’s-voices in my heart, who continue to rejuvenate and catalyse and encourage and soothe; who continue to spur me on.