I met Okla my first semester in grad school in 2010, in a class with Nancy M Blake. I found him loud and brash, but by the time the semester closed I was warming to his outgoing brilliance. We bonded over Bushmills and Bad Religion, started getting dinner after class each week. Pretty soon, hardly a day went by without at least an hour’s chat over coffee. We’d spend hours talking and reading at the coffee shop, only to grab dinner, get some Bushmill’s, and head to his place to argue about Heidegger, read poetry at each other, and discuss each and every stupid thing that came into our over-read heads. So many drunken nights of dancing, stomping, and singing. So many times we infuriated each other. So many times we didn’t. All were minor miracles.
Okla was, as so many are remembering, a great friend. He was unfailingly encouraging. And he took real interest in the interests of those around him. Of course, he was also a competitive friend, a frustrating friend, even a spiteful friend. But he was, invariably, a friend. And an incredibly vivacious one at that. How many people must be asking themselves now, with me, how a force of nature like that can simply have stopped. By his own accounting (which he offered daily on Facebook), any given day couldn’t get any better, and every taco he made was the kind of genius that gods bow down before. I am grateful to have spent so much time with someone so in love with the world.
It feels disingenuous writing about how intensely news of his death is making me feel right now, crying as I write this, without also explaining that in the early years that I knew him, now more than six years ago, we argued so so often. I don't think there is anyone who has unfriended and refriended me more on Facebook over the years than Okla. Maybe precisely because we shared so many of the same very specific interests (from Sartre to the legacy of Stalin in Marxism) we butted heads on nearly every issue.
In an atmosphere of quiet consensus I was drawn to Okla as a strong, confident interlocutor who wouldn't back down from an argument, someone who believed in the inherent value of debate, someone who resisted political chauvinism for the sake of keeping open a space for critical thought. Even after we stopped talking, I thought I'd have the chance someday to catch up over a drink and remark on the irony that so many years after our first and most heated arguments about theology, our positions had seemingly reversed. I came to define and redefine my intellectual positions against him. I really always felt he would be there in the background, his constant overachieving compelling me to work harder. I always imagined telling him someday how much I respect him and what an enormously positive effect on my intellectual development he had. I'm absolutely devastated to learn of his death today. - Brandon Carr
After Okla defended his dissertation I was so proud that he took up a post as an Assistant Professor at Misericordia. We were in touch often over email and Facebook and I was delighted that he undertook the important project of building a Holocaust pedagogy website. When prospective graduate students visit Illinois I always hold up Okla as a model.
His voracious mind could take in Bernie Sanders and Pope Francis all while writing fiction and poetry and teaching. He was (why must I use the past tense?) an energetic person but someone whose traumatic past haunted him. More than once I cried reading his fictionalized autobiographical stories. His prose was often sparse but very powerful and I don’t think he would ever have run out of beautiful words with which to express his many and variegated thoughts.
Already on facebook people who knew him in person and also a surprising number who knew him only virtually have been describing Okla as a generous friend and colleague who always supported and encouraged them, who often argued with them, and who was always onto some new thought. He was indeed extremely generous and consistently went out of his way to help publish and broadcast other people’s thoughts and ideas. He was a tireless advocate for small presses and independent publishing.
I was very fond of him, and very proud of him, and he should have been able to continue to be the force of nature that he was. - Brett Kaplan
Really struggling to process this one. - Valerie O’Brien
Not long were my days in Illinois before I met you, standing there amidst the rest of the comparative literature students and faculty, beaming with happiness and that beard covered smile I came to love so much, and ever since I was always incredibly grateful for the interest you showed in me and my work, your guidance and helping hand, and your willingness to take on a reclusive and introverted Swede. The two years I spent in Illinois, with you in my life, will forever stand out among the greatest in my life. Okla, you took me in, and not only as a roommate, but as an equal, as a fellow student, as a colleague, and as a debater of many things literary, and even though I could never convince you of the brilliance of my genre classification, you still stood there as civil as ever and told me your argument. This is one of the many things I will miss now that you are gone, your undying love to do and fight for what is right, your incredible fortitude to take the good fight, and perhaps most of all, to always be civil when others argued against you. You always took the fights, when I never could. My dearest Okla, I will forever cherish our moments together, and I always wish I were there with you more, in your many and long conversations with Raul and Matt, but we did have many fantastic dinners and lunches together, not the least of which were your absolutely amazing tacos. You were always there for me. I will forever miss you, my dear friend, my roommate, my brother. - Fredrik Wittsten
by Okla Elliott
When I was a younger man, a boy,
the intrigue of washing machine doors
trunks, windows, manholes--secret passages
of all sorts--possessed me. I spent hours
passing through and back through
a simple hole in the wall of a condemned house
careful to step with the other foot
or at a new angle each time,
conducting experiments that might foretell
how the world would receive me
and how I would leave.
I only knew him on the internet - one of his scores of fans aka "amigos internetos" as he called his online friends - but from what I can tell he is the most influential, impactful non-famous person I've ever known. The outpouring of grief I've seen on his Facebook page is beyond anything I've ever seen for anyone, and that includes famous people. It was thrilling to watch his career - as a poet, novelist, professor, translator, editor, and news commentator - unravel in ever more dazzling twists and turns. He made you believe in his potential, and then showed you time and again that your faith was not misplaced; indeed, that you had somehow managed to both believe in him and underestimate him at the same time. And along the way, he supported so many people in their own journeys. I don't know how he found time for it all, but someone he did it. He had an impressive work ethic. Most of all, I admired his courageous intellectual honesty. By now, I think we were all getting on the same page. Okla was going to be a huge force of good in the world, and we were on the edge of our seats; couldn't wait to see what he was going to do next.
Except that his life was cut short before "next" could happen. It's a staggering loss. My condolences go out to his friends, family, colleagues and students. He was so open about his life, and he made us care about you through his stories of you, and we care about you now in your time of grief. - Eliana Mariella