Lang Remembers Akilah Oliver
After her poetry professor Akilah Oliver passed away last February, Lang junior Mia Bruner had to cope not only with the loss of a friend, but the loss of a poetry class unlike any other she had encountered.
Oliver’s Introduction to Poetry class taught what Bruner described as “contemporary experimental and sometimes feminist” poetics, with an emphasis on workshopping to truly reckon with each student’s poetry.
“The hardest part was when books were taken off the syllabus,” Bruner said. “When these thing that not many people at The New School are teaching -- not many people in a lot of undergrad programs are teaching -- were taken off.”
Disappointed with the discontinuation of Oliver’s teachings, Bruner and fellow Lang student Jamila Wimberly decided to work together in finding a way to ensure Oliver’s legacy at Lang endured. With the help of poet and co-founder of the Belladonna Collective, Rachel Levitsky, and Lang professor, Julian Brolaski, Bruner and Wimberly came up with the idea of an annual poetry reading in honor of Oliver.
“We were trying to think of different things we could do in order to keep Akilah around,” Wimberly said.
On Monday, September 12, Bruner and Wimberly’s efforts came together with “In Aporia.” Three students from Lang -- Erik Freer, Kailey Foley, and Karl Leone -- read their own work, as did Levitsky, Brolaski, and Lang alumna Lauren Nicole Nixon.
“We hope this reading series will allow us to keep contemporary experimental poetry present in our university,” Bruner said in her introductory comments. “And also to engage our peers, professors and mentors in conversations about these texts.”
Soft white Christmas lights hung on the cafeteria gate added a warm atmosphere to the event, which around 40 people attended. All six poets read their own work and featured poems influenced by Oliver’s style and writing. As the organizers hoped, the poets spoke of both remembrance for Oliver and the future of contemporary poetry.
For Lang professor Mark Statman, who took over Oliver’s class, replacing a poet like Oliver was never going to be easy.
“I knew her work and I knew how much her students cared about her,” Statman said. “And I knew I was stepping into what was obviously going to be a very emotional situation.”
Statman was aware of the differences between himself and Oliver, and understood that his method of teaching wouldn’t adhere to her syllabus. “The students had signed up to study with Akilah -- this wonderful black feminist woman, performance artist, and then they got this white guy who works primarily from the page,” Statman said. “We are completely different as poets.”
“What I tried to do was keep that spirit of a love of poetry,” Statman said. “Of a love of language and of facing the issues poetry allows you to face.”