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SHJ Issue 16
Spring 2017

A Farewell to Okla

(1 May 1977–19 March 2017)

[Poems + Photos + Tributes, and More]

Photograph of Okla Elliot, by Priscilla Charrat Nelson
2016: Okla Elliott, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Photograph by Priscilla Charrat Nelson


May Day, 2017: We were stunned six weeks ago by the heart-rending news of Okla Elliott’s death, just six weeks shy of his 40th birthday. On the 19th of March, he passed away during his sleep. (To our knowledge, the official cause of death has yet to be released, but apparently was cardiac arrest possibly related to diabetes). Okla served as one of Serving House Journal’s Contributing Editors, joining our team beginning with the Fall 2012 issue (SHJ:6).


Elliott was an assistant professor at Misericordia University in northeast Pennsylvania, where he worked in the fields of comparative literature and trauma studies. He held a PhD in comparative and world literature from the University of Illinois, an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University, and a certificate in legal studies from Purdue University.

His nonfiction, poetry, short fiction, and translations appear in numerous publications, including Harvard Review, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, and The Literary Review among others, and was included as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2015.

Elliott’s full-length books include:

  • Pope Francis: The Essential Guide (Eyewear Publishing, 1 March 2017)

  • Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide (Eyewear Publishing, 2016)

  • Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation; Black Lawrence Press, December 2015)

  • The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a novel co-authored with Raul Clement; Dark House Press, April 2015)

  • The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry; New York Quarterly Books, 2014)

  • From the Crooked Timber (short fiction; Press 53, 2011)

His poetry chapbooks include:

  • A Vulgar Geography (Mainstreet Rag Publishing Company [MRPC], 2006)

  • Lucid Bodies and Other Poems (MRPC, 2011)

  • The Mutable Wheel (2003)

Elliott also co-edited, with Kyle Minor, The Other Chekhov (New American Press, 2008); served as a senior editor at New American Press; and was the co-founder and managing editor of the culture and politics website As It Ought to Be.

I can’t get him out of my mind. So young, so brilliant, so forever gone. ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’[*] When Okla wrote The Mutable Wheel, he sent me a copy. He had read my novel, The Holy Book of the Beard, and told me that I had ‘at least one devoted fan.’ This was in 2002. Two or three years later we met at Steve Davenport’s house. Okla was so smart he was almost scary.
I loved him instantly and we stayed in touch here and there
for the rest of his life. I still can’t process his passing...

—Duff Brenna, author of six novels and
Founding Editor of Serving House Journal

[*From “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas]


Photograph of (L-R) Steve Davenport, Okla Elliot, John Griswold, and Duff Brenna, by R. A. Rycraft
2009: (L-R) Steve Davenport, Okla Elliott, John Griswold, and Duff Brenna,
at a party in Davenport’s back yard in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.
Photograph by R. A. Rycraft.

A Few Words from Okla:

[Webmaster’s Note: We are grateful to Okla Elliott’s sister Vickie Brammer for kindly granting us permission to reprint five of his poems and a few selections from his blogs and his Facebook page.]

I’m from Argyle, Kentucky (no relation to the socks), and I’ve lived in Mannheim, Germany, and Wroclaw, Poland, among other places. Oh, and I’m a great fan of bunny rabbits, robots, and monkeys.

—from Elliott’s 2009 blog The Mutable Wheel


The Unicyclist Has Found Love at Last

She came to this small Pennsylvania town
on a nearly empty bus
late at night, with stars bursting the sky brightly.
She sang and was perhaps happier
for her singing, perhaps not.
She trained hour upon wobbling hour
and even learned to juggle while riding.
Her balance and poise and dexterity
aroused many amorous thoughts
among the lovers of spectacle.
But lovers of spectacle cannot be loyal.
Then one day, an overcast summer morning in fact,
she was selecting the choicest red plums
and placing them carefully
in a wrinkled brown paper bag.
She looked up, neither by design nor by accident,
and saw a man with a beautiful tattoo along his arm
and a confused look on his face. He was fingering gently
a red plum, pondering its future possibilities
as though he had forgotten about the existence of red plums
until that moment.
At first the unicyclist wished she had her unicycle, leotard,
and juggling pins.
Then she was happy that she did not.

—Previously published in Copper Nickel (Issue 23, Fall 2016)

21 October 2016: Elliott’s comment re “Unicyclist” on Facebook (FB):

“Poem in Copper Nickel’s last issue. This was the first one I wrote after moving to PA. In a weird way, I am both characters in the poem, or they are both parts of me, or some such thing.”


(FB) 16 March 2017:

Okay, this day can’t get any more perfect. I learned that a new review of my translation book will be forthcoming soon in a topnotch journal. I proofed the second edition of said translation book. Classes were cancelled due to the snow, and this is one of my long teaching days usually, so it freed up lots of time for grading, reading, and writing. And then my favorite living author who is more famous than oxygen shared my two recent poems in Public Pool.

JCO [Joyce Carol Oates] is infinitely kind and supportive in addition to being a genius off the charts, so I shouldn’t be surprised, but since I have a tattoo inspired by her, have read about forty of her books, dedicated a chapter of my dissertation to her work, and teach her every chance I get, my brain always explodes when she shows me such kindness/support.

Now I just have to try to concentrate enough to finish grading these Russian lit papers and write on my Hegel/Möhler/theology essay.

(FB) 16 February 2017:

[one of many examples of Okla’s resilience and optimism]

I made a somewhat flippant post yesterday about my traumas from last summer—spending five days in the hospital due to a near-death experience, returning home from the hospital to find my apartment had been broken into, having a gun pulled on me, and being beaten up pretty badly by two random dudes—all bouncing off of me. Now, while I do feel I came out the other end of that better than I might have, with no real lasting damages, physical or mental, it is inaccurate to dismiss it all entirely. In fact, in the way scientists in earlier eras would administer drugs to themselves and then note the effects on their bodies and minds, as a trauma scholar I have been kind of keeping notes on how these things affected me.

First off, for some reason I felt the need to entirely reboot my life by deleting social-media accounts and starting fresh there and by getting involved in a local church (something I haven’t done since I was ten years old). In fact, it was this series of events occurring alongside writing my pope book that caused me to get back into theological thought in general and to start an MA in theology. So, I consider that a positive outcome of the trauma, though some might find it problematic to say good can come from such things. I definitely feel it has.

Weirdly, the least of the above-listed events, having my apartment broken into, has affected my behavior the most. I’m not sure that even counts as a trauma at all, just an unfortunate occurrence, but for about five or six months, I locked all three locks on my door diligently and more or less made Raul do the same (or annoyingly walked behind him and locked any locks he didn’t). I have returned to the normal locking of one or two locks depending on the situation, so that has passed, but it was a borderline obsession for about half a year.

Anyway...sorry for this long post clarifying a post not many people likely saw, since I deleted it because I realized it was too flippant and simply inaccurate. If anything, I wanted to write this out just to have put it into words. I keep meaning to write a real essay about it all, but at first I didn’t have the distance I needed, and more recently I just haven’t found the time. But one day I will chronicle my hell-summer in essay form.

(FB) 5 January 2017:

That is some master-level concentration I am aiming at those dumplings. One must focus to truly appreciate the tastiness, weed-hopper.

Photo of Okla Elliott concentrating on fried dumplings, by Renata Fuchs
Photo of Okla Elliott biting into fried dumpling, by Renata Fuchs
Photo of Okla Elliott savoring fried dumpling, by Renata Fuchs
Trio of photographs by Dr. Renata Fuchs
Philadelphia, January 2017
Reproduced from Facebook with permission

Other Writings by Okla:

Four Poems in SHJ-16:

  • Aubade
  • Antinomies and Intensities
  • An Old Man Dying Tells His Son
  • Entrances and Exits

Two Poems by Georg Trakl in SHJ-9, translated from German by Okla Elliott:

  • Trumpets
  • Transfigured Autumn

El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles, short story in SHJ-5 reprinted from the collection From the Crooked Timber

Lonely Tylenol, flash fiction in SHJ-4

Online Publications listed at oklaelliott dot net

An Appetizer of Recent Essays from As It Ought to Be:

6 May 2016: The New Era of Engaged Literature

“American writers are producing more of what Jean-Paul Sartre called ‘engaged literature,’ and I couldn’t be more pleased to see this happening. As citizens of the most powerful nation on Earth, it’s about time we realized the rest of the world is out there and that our government’s decisions affect the lives of billions of people.”

27 December 2016: This Train Is Bound for Glory

“I first fell in love with trains and public transit more broadly speaking when I studied abroad in Germany during my junior year of college. Everything was suffused with Romantic bluster—me on a train heading to Berlin or Prague or Krakow with my journal and some classic of European literature—and I felt the weight of history everywhere around me. I watched the countrysides and cityscapes flash by as I wrote naively self-important entries in my journal and scribbled notes for novels that would never reach completion.

“But there is more to trains than the Romantic fantasies of a blissfully ignorant boy from Kentucky seeing the world for the first time. Public transit can be instrumental in solving many of our economic, environmental, and even cultural problems.”

[In this essay, Elliott calls for us to “change not only our policies about public transit but also our attitudes toward it, our sense of how it can enrich our personal lives,” and he offers practical “suggestions for programs that could increase the popularity and efficiency of public transit.”]

22 July 2016: Five Scenes from the RNC Convention: Dispatch #2

But if there is one rule of protests, it’s that for every protest group, there is an equal and opposite protest group. On the opposite side of the square was another Christian group, Healing Prayer, making a demonstration, but this time of love not hate. They played acoustic guitar and sang happy songs; they offered to pray for people in need; they hugged passersby freely. When I walked up to get a few photos, a man named Kevin (pictured to the right here) approached me and asked if he could pray for me.

“Anything you need, anything you want me to pray with you for. What would you like me to pray for you for?” he asked.

“Maybe my health,” I said.

“What’s wrong?”

“I recently learned I have diabetes.”

And Kevin put his hand on my chest and gave a thoughtful and heartfelt prayer. And either he is the best actor in the world, or he was sincerely tearing up near the end of it. (I lean toward the latter.)

I’m [not] sure whether one group cancels out the other or if some political/theological balance was restored to the universe by both groups being present, but I do know that rarely can you find such diversity in one location and rarely can [you] see how a religious belief can be so starkly different in its enactment.

As Kevin said before I moved on, “Don’t you feel something different standing here with us? You feel love, right? Jesus loves you. Hell may be real, but I know this love right here is real. I can feel it. Do you?”

Yes, Kevin, I did.

The Complete Menu: Links to Elliott’s essays on literature and politics back to 2009, in As It Ought to Be

A Few Words from Others:

Okla was a beloved brother and uncle, friend, colleague, teacher, and/or mentor to countless folks, evidenced in part by the outpouring of messages on Facebook after his passing, a testament to his profound influence in the lives of others.

We include here in SHJ a few of those messages and photos, along with other heartfelt tributes:

Ephemera by Shaindel Beers

[“Looking Like an Academic”] by Priscilla Charrat Nelson

The Book You’re Reading Now Has All Our Names in It by Lynn Marie Houston

[Beginnings] by Sean Karns

[Death Shall Be No More] by Daniel Rifenburgh

[This Incomparable Human] by Sivan Rotholz Teitelman

A Death on Facebook by Arne Weingart


“O Captain! My Captain!”: As It Ought To Be Mourns the Loss of Our Founder, by AIOTB contributing editor Sivan Butler-Rotholz (22 March 2017), in which she includes two of Elliott’s poems and a video of The Wailin’ Jennys singing “Calling All Angels” (which Okla wanted played in his memory), along with links to other memorials and tributes.

Saturday Poetry Series Remembers Okla Elliott, by AIOTB contributing editor Sivan Butler-Rotholz (25 March 2017); includes two of Elliott’s poems (“The Idiot’s Faith” and “the Light Here”).

Remembering Okla Elliot on Facebook:

Obituary by David Owens, Facebook (20 March 2017)

It is ironic that death has claimed one so energetic and enthusiastic, so sensitive and humane, so young and so enamored of living and loving, and it is pitiless that one so full of promise of more good works should be taken from us. As Okla was a believer in Christ and poetry, consider these words from a treasured Poet, John Donne:
‘Death be not proud.../ One short sleep past, we wake eternally/
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.’

Daniel Rifenburgh, award-winning author
of the poetry collections, Isthmus and Advent


“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury