Okla Elliott passed away in his sleep last night. The Misicordia University professor, a prolific novelist, poet, short fiction writer, and translator, would have turned 40 this year. Those of us who knew him – and his circle of acquaintance and friendship was very wide indeed – are in shock from this wholly unanticipated death. He was kind, generous with his time, and indefatigable in his writing. He was much loved. We wrote about him in the Book Haven here. Please feel free to share your memories, reflections, whatever in the comments section below.
His work appeared in Harvard Review, The Literary Review, New Ohio Review, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, Cincinnati Review, Indiana Review, Subtropics, and elsewhere, as well as being included as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2015. His books included From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a novel), Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation), and Pope Francis: The Essential Guide (nonfiction, forthcoming).
From Verse Daily:
Tilting Toward Winter
The air is gray and quiet as the sea’s
wet-dying warmth. A blackbird
screams out from memory and, pleased
with its sour chirping, keeps at it undeterred
by the browning season. I have everything
I could wish for —this air, this sea, this night.
We tilt toward winter, though the sand is spring
sand, erotic and youthful. Spirits are light
as May lasciviousness. But blood swells
to shore in cool disintegrating waves—
gone summer and gone winter aren’t real.
I walk into the unwarm froth, say farewell
to my selves that have died and pray for those still
to die — their wet wombs, their thick-salt graves.
Requiescat in pace, Okla.
Postscript on memorial: A service will be held at 11:00 a.m. on Friday, March 24, in the chapel located in Mercy Hall of Misericordia University: 301 Lake Street, Dallas, PA 18612
Postscript: An email from his sister corrected his birthdate, and we have made the correction above. Okla was born on May 1, 1977.
An announcement from Eyewear Publishing here: “His life was darkened by personal demons and controversies, and in the last year or so he had struggled after having been savagely mugged (he was hospitalised for weeks and almost died then). … Despite the shadows, and turbulence of his soul, and because of them, he was a compelling writer. RIP, man of words, man of many parts.
From Scott Esposito, editor and author of four books:
He was such a generous, intelligent presence. I can’t really believe this has happened. I’m very sad to see that he has gone before his time.
From writer and friend John Willis:
I once said that if made a list of people who have taught me the most and laid it beside a list of my favorite people, the two would look almost identical.
So to say that Okla Elliott taught me a lot about being a writer is to say that he was a favorite of mine. Seldom have I felt so simpatico with the ideas of another. We had many good conversations. And I meant to tell him how much he helped me with the first draft of my novel. Not by giving me feedback on it. But by recounting his personal process—by methodically illustrating how he would reread his last pages, then add a few pages, then move to this essay, and then to that story. By describing what it looks like to be a writer always in motion. These were posts accompanied by workaday details. He’d call them boring, but they never were. They were instructional, interesting and full of gratitude.
When I have learned of somebody’s death, sometimes I have felt myself reaching out for them, as though I could catch and hold them—as though I could pull them back from a cliff. When I heard this awful news, it was different. More specific. I felt myself reaching after his heart and his mind. I thought about all of his work in progress and the enthusiasm behind it. Each unfinished story: a mariner lost in the hull of a ship.
We will never know them. But what he already taught me—I’ll never let go of that.
Thank you, Okla.
Comment from Steven Gillis, author of eight books and the founder of Dzanc Books:A
I just learned that our friend Okla Elliott passed away in his sleep. Devastated. Okla was one of the good guys in every way. I’m at a loss. Everything seems trivial in comparison. Okla and I shared many moments , many discussions and projects, hopes and dreams. I am beyond sad. No words. No words.
From writer Agnieszka Tuszynska:
Everything else seems trivial by comparison.
This is not my loss. Not in a way that warrants condolences. I’d feel cheap receiving such. My friendship with Okla developed primarily remotely, and it was a union of kindred spirits who remain hopelessly hopeful. There are people out there today who were brothers to him, people who breathed the same air as he did, whose life was so fused with his that they don’t know how to get through this day. My heart wraps around them today.
But then it is my loss. Because it is everyone’s loss. This is your loss, too, whether you knew Okla or not. This is your loss if you care about other people, about literature and thought, about heart and spirit, about truth and justice.
I exaggerate on occasion, but this is not going to be one of those times. I have never known anyone in whom the fusion of brilliance, passion, and goodness would be as complete as it was in Okla Elliott. 50 years from now–and I have no doubt about this – his poems, fiction, and critical essays will be commonly taught is schools. But who can archive a heart? How will they ever understand how much he loved this life and cared about all of us?
From writer John Amen:
We knew each for at least 20 years, probably more like 25 years. We read together, reviewed each other’s work, and, more recently, commented extensively on each other’s Facebook posts, sometimes agreeing, sometimes not. I always respected his work and his enthusiasm for literature and life. Sometime in the 2000s, we read together. After the reading a few of us were at a restaurant talking about work process and the importance of persistence, staying true to the art. I recall him saying something to the effect of: “Well, you know, I get up, get moving, and just get into something!” That always stuck with me, rang true, seemed like some kind of bottom-line truth. I think about the comment frequently. I’m sure he had his private struggles, but he consistently presented as someone who appreciated being alive, who was committed to an authentic life, and who was proactive in his pursuits and relationships. You died too soon, my friend, but thanks for how you lived.