I encountered Akilah Oliver’s most recent book A Toast in the House of Friends (Coffee House Press 2009) with a bit of trepidation as I read “An erudite, gripping manifesto of grief” on the back cover. However, what I found was a joyful book despite the obvious presence of grief’s ghost. Oliver’s poetry bridges the gap between performance and written poetry. Her writing effortlessly transitions from lush prose to more sparse pieces, from repetitive chants to theoretic questioning.
Akilah Oliver’s previous books include The Putterer’s Notebook (Belladonna, 2007), a(A)ugust (Yo-Yo Labs, 2006), and the she said dialogues: flesh memory (Smokeproof/Erudite Fangs, 2009). She collaborated with Ambrose Bye and Anne Waldman to create the CD Matching Half. She is the recipient of the PEN Beyond Margins Award. Oliver was curator for the Poetry Project’s Monday Night Reading/Performance Series and co-founder of the avant-garde feminist performance group The Sacred Naked Nature Girls. She has been artist-in-residence at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Los Angeles and is on the faculty of the Summer Writing Program at Naropa University. She currently lives and teaches in Brooklyn.
Susie DeFord: On the back of A Toast in the House of Friends the book is described as “An erudite, gripping manifesto of grief” which made me a little concerned that I was about to read a depressing book. Yet the poems don’t seem to suffer from the bleakness associated with grief, many seem hopeful. Can you speak about this?
Akilah Oliver: Grief is a complicated emotion but also an inadequate word in many ways. Maybe it isn’t so much that the term fails to encompass a range of emotional states, but I think also death itself, as an event, as a limit, as a field of investigation, is too many things at once.It’s solid and it’s slippery. For me what I’m doing in A Toast is using language to walk through that field to find out about love, the collapsible body, what it means to be human, all of that. Also, I think that I am trying to transcribe rapture. I mean that in the ecstatic sense of the word. The opening poem, “In Aporia, ” is taken from Jacques Derrida’s exploration of the limits of a border, language’s inability to capture the tension of this impasse, death. The poems in the first section of the book are written directly from that impossible field where nothing seems grounded. I am in a state of seeking. Grief is a part of that seeking, but so is redemption and anger, the forgivable and the unforgivable, this ecstasy of being in a kind of light, the simple astonishment of the impermanence of absence. This book is dedicated to my brother who died when I was very young, and he was very young, 28 years younger than I am now, so in some ways he has passed into myth for me, which is another kind of symbolic being-ness. It’s also dedicated to my son who died when he was 20, so there is that grappling with the loss of the body who has come through my body, a kind of intimacy that is almost indescribable. And it is also dedicated to my mother, who is still alive and kicking at 74, and the recognition of myself as the beloved body too, who has passed through another beloved. So there is this elegiac intent here as well. I am trying to trace the mystery of the bodylife, a term I’m borrowing from Cherríe Moraga. So there’s hope in these poems of course. I want the reader to enter A Toast as investigatory poetics, and perhaps it’s not finished, since investigation requires ongoing query, which could be a hundred year project as my friend the poet Anne Waldman likes to remind us all!
SD: Some of your poems that use a lot of repetition—“Hyena” and “An Arriving Guard of Angels, Thusly Coming to Greet” almost beg to be read aloud as performance pieces. As someone who has performed a lot with the Sacred Naked Nature Girls and otherwise what are your thoughts on translating performance into the written form?
AO: These sections of the book were written with the consciousness of the page as a score for voice.So in these sections I’m interested in the primacy of the language, that it has to work on the page too, but I also want the potential for the reader to hear the words as a performative gesture, to invoke a sense of ritual. So my performance text serves several functions: lines can be marking time, or setting a sound quality, or indicating the speaker’s gesture to the beloved (“beauty boys girl beautiful/ beautiful girls boys beautiful/ I am extending to you this ahhhhh”). The “An Arriving Guard of Angels” section in the book was originally published as a chapbook and CD (from a performance recorded at Naropa University in 2004). I should just put the CD online, since it’s out of print and that was a pretty decent collaboration captured on the CD. I’ve had the privilege of performing this section with multiple voices and musicians over the last few years, and part of the fun of collaboration for me is playing with vocal arrangements (the text as a movable score, something that begs to be cut-up). And it’s really a pleasure for me, hearing what a guitarist or trumpet player or saxophonist might hear, and just playing with how all that works with my voice, or 10 voices. Some of the musicians I’ve collaborated with are Steven Taylor, who is a musicologist in addition to being a founder of the poetry rock group The Fugs, my longtime collaborator and friend Tyler Burba, who plays every instrument, but usually with me, guitar (we just did an improvisational cut-up of “An Arriving Guard” at the Bowery Poetry Club on August 8th). I just collaborated in May in Paris with the great jazz trumpet player Rasul Siddik whose work with the Now Artet is seminal in jazz. So, each musician brings a different sound and energy to the work, which allows for me to restage the text each time it’s performed.The piece has been performed as high dirge, as full out concert with up to ten voices and six musicians; as post-funk afrodelicious electronic with the conceptual sound artist Latasha N. Diggs.Working with the Sacred Naked Nature Girls was quite a different process. We were a theater-based group, but the spirit of structured improvisation that SNNG worked from certainly influences my collaborative performance work now.The other thing I consciously use in my performance practice are the principles derived from “flesh memory,” a working methodology and concept I developed through my stage work with SNNG, which privileges the body, the voice, and text as multi-vocal, generative sites of production.
SD: The structure of A Toast in the House of Friends and its various sections was interesting to me. You have long poems like “An Arriving Guard of Angels, Thusly Coming to Greet” which is highly meditative, interior, and somewhat chanting that then explodes into “The Visible Unseen” your theoretic piece about graffiti and ghosts, which includes beautiful color photographs of the graffiti. It gives the feel of the outside world intruding on the inner poetic monologue. Can you speak about this?
AO: The color photos are of my son Oluchi McDonald’s graffiti artwork. So I wanted to take this documentation of his art and play around with the intersections of public “outlaw” art, graf writing as partially elegiac, and as a way to mark absence. What I love about how graf marks absence is that presence always intrudes. I’m thinking of the title of that film about Jack Johnson, this documentary, I saw it on PBS, called Unforgivable Blackness. Graffiti is like that, in your face, naming itself as never an “other,” but always as itself. Unforgivable in that sense, you know, in that it upsets easy notions of identity, resists type, even though the form itself has been codified as if it were only representational of a particular voice–the way the “invisible” are reduced to easy categories of erasure. Anyway, this critical, creative piece is about disrupting that erasure by looking further into it. I still like outlaw aesthetics. The other reason this section is important to me is that I really struggled with referentiality while thinking about how to talk about this book, and of course the “Visible Unseen” is about problematizing referentiality, so I got to do it my way. So this section for me is a collaboration with Oluchi’s work and an opportunity to “tell” something about who he was, the core space from where he worked, what he loved, while doing critical work on graffiti. The outside world and the inside world, you know, they’re not that separate, but the way of knowing and telling them can be.
SD: Your work deals a lot not only with the body but also with memory. Flesh Memory, and now it seems exterior memory such as that of graffiti. Why this fascination with memory and where it is held?
AO: I don’t know, but I do know I’m continuing this love affair with memory and the body! My new manuscript is an anti-memoir, The Putterer’s Notebook, and it’s backing into memory as disjuncture, the body as a shifting I. So, another way of looking at story making.
SD: Your series of “Fib” poems, which are somewhat list poems of the things happening around you, made me think of the idea of false memories. Are you playing with the subjectivity of memory and how that may not be the factual historical experience?
AO: Yes, and I am playing with this idea of useful fiction, which is similar to the idea of memory, not as false, but perhaps more as conditioned by multiple subject positions, or multiple experiences of our own experiences. I’m also playing with dreams, so dream lines are dropped in there. I wanted the sexual body, the desiring body, to speak too, so it’s in there, sex and sexuality as a source of play and discovery, as central to the idea of the embodied self. The lines are purposely fragmented and bumping against each other, like narratives do, at least in my life.
SD: How did writing Toast in the House of Friends transform you?
AO: I don’t mean to sound pretentious, but I think it’s made me more human.I think what I mean by that is, I now want to know more about little g God. Thanks to Fanny Howe’s work for helping me think about little g God and the loveliness of bewilderment. I’m thinking here about Howe’s book, The Wedding Dress. This book has been a sly and gorgeous influence on my thinking and teaching practice lately. One of the (many) things I like about little gGod is that you can have a vodka tonic while you talk to little gGod, sing along to Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans,” and hum Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” though maybe not all at the same time. This what I was perhaps trying to intimate in the poem, “wishes”: “I could couldn’t i/ temper heresy with a friend of mine/…irrationally content alongside the girning rain.” I’m still trying to figure it out.