Professor and Poet Noted for Work on Grief Dies Suddenly
Akilah Oliver, nationally-known poet and professor at Eugene Lang, died on February 20 at her home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
She is believed to have died of a heart attack.
Oliver was born in 1961 and grew up in Los Angeles. She taught at the distinguished Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets at Naropa University in Colorado, where she lived with her son, Oluchi McDonald. In 1993, she co-founded The Sacred Naked Nature Girls, a performance art group. She was a featured writer at the Belladonna Collaborative, a reading series that promotes the work of female activist writers.
In 2010 she began her part-time professorship at Lang, where she taught poetry. Students in her Introduction to Poetry class received an e-mail notice on Thursday informing them of her sudden death.
In another e-mail sent to the class, Alex Chasin, co-chair of Literary Studies at Lang, offered condolences and information on the future of the class. The email expressed the sadness felt by those who knew Oliver. "Akilah's intelligence and responsiveness and curiosity manifest in her writing, her teaching and her whole being," Chasin wrote, "make it even more difficult to understand this completely unexpected turn."
Mark Statman, a Literary Studies professor at Lang, will take over Oliver's class for the remainder of the semester.
Her death stunned both students and fellow staff members.
"It is a shock and a tragedy for someone so young and so talented to pass away so unexpectedly," Stefania de Kenessey, dean of Lang, said. "We are all grieving for the loss."
Emily Skillings is a member of the Belladonna Collaborative who graduated from Lang in 2010. "The Belladonna* Collaborative is feeling an immeasurable loss with the passing of Akilah," she wrote in an e-mail. "She was such a bright light in the community; her treasured work and amazing spirit will be living strong in our hearts and in our collective presence."
"We are missing her, mourning her - fiercely," she added.
Oliver was a prolific writer. One of her latest books, "A Toast in the House of Friends," is a collection of poems that grapples with the subject of grief. She dedicated the book to her son, who died at the age of 20. The book has a variety of short poems and longer pieces. In "glimpse #245" she wrote, "whatever's happening to us seems to be really strange but/the strangest thing is nobody seems to be in charge of it."
Jamila Wimberly, a student at Lang and member of the Belladonna* Collaborative, wrote in an e-mail that Oliver taught her how to write about her pain. "To her, she could have been passing along her infinite wisdom to one of her students, but to me she changed my entire life," Wimberly wrote. "Pain never has to be a constant in my life, and it changes when I open myself to experience happiness. And that's what I'm doing for Akilah; the pain of her death is recreated as the joy, the celebration of her beautiful life. Love you, Akilah."