Part and Parcel: Okla Elliott

Elliott's poems don't encourage us to turn to the scholars, but to turn to one another. Together, we can reinvent this risky, dangerous place as our perch.
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In Part and Parcel, I talk with writers and artists about a fascinating facet of their work.


"Perch, please, with me on the edge/ of an apocalypse," reads a line in Okla Elliott's debut full-length poetry collection, The Cartographer's Ink (published by NYQ Books). The world of this book is wild, but Elliott dares us not to pull away or flinch. Some of the poems look to history, philosophy, or other great thinkers to make sense of what it is we're doing here--Sir Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla, and even The Rolling Stones make cameos.

But most often, Elliott's poems don't encourage us to turn to the scholars, but to turn to one another. Together, we can reinvent this risky, dangerous place as our perch.

NOTE: My questions appear in bold. After the mini-interview, you'll find two poems from the book (both of which appear with the permission of the author) and the author's bio. "The Inside Bird" originally appeared in The Southeast Review. Images courtesy of the author.

Q: Animals have gotten loose inside of The Cartographer's Ink. There are wolves, birds, dumb gazelles, squawking grouses, squirrels, and the poor animals living in the forests near Chernobyl. Many of these animals stir up distress or discomfort. Even the humans are animals, your book reminds us--in one poem, you mention "mammalian love." As a writer/thinker, how do you relate to ideas of wildness? Tameness? How do the animals (and people) in your poems fit in?

A: I like your phrasing, that animals have gotten loose inside the book. I like the tension created by animal chaos and animal affections, human chaos and aesthetic order. I rarely write what could be called nature poetry. In fact, I have a strong distaste for nature poetry, since I think the vast majority of it pretends we're living in 1814 instead of 2014, ignores real contemporary issues, and gets our current relationship to nature wrong. The animals in The Cartographer's Ink are, as you say, sometimes human animals, sometimes radiated animals near Chernobyl being chopped to bits by Russian soldiers at the behest of the Soviet government, sometimes metaphorical and post-apocalyptic birds, and so forth. A dainty doe at an idyllic stream does not make an appearance, and if one did, there would be a six-lane highway cutting through its previously pristine habitat in the background, because that's the truth of nature's place today.

As to your question about wildness vs. tameness, I immediately think of James Dickey's off-the-charts poem "For the Last Wolverine," in which he tells us "How much the timid poem needs / The mindless explosion of your rage." I want something of Norman Mailer's existential excess in literature. I want "one million nights of apocalyptic lust." But I also want those things to have form. That line I just quoted comes from "Wolf-Sense Sonnet" in the book, so while the poem's content is about the limit-experience of extreme passion, the form is a strict fourteen lines in iambic pentameter (except for the last line, where I break from the meter, hinting that such passion cannot be totally contained).


In the Days of New Wonder

Nikola Tesla watched a brown bear
climb the persimmon tree
and shake her snout
at the sour bites she took.
He nursed
his sickness
by an open window,
seeing death in stellar signals.
The brown bear
climbed down and gamboled
to Tesla's darkened frame and snorted
her animal displeasure.
This is why
he did not sharpen the razor
purchased secondhand for loneliness.

This is how electricity made a home
in his disintegrating mind.

The Inside Bird

My friends of the broken window
I beg you for patience

There will be night enough

There will be deeds
we will wish to forget

World enough
Death enough

Applause for our many talents
we have refined with self-love
for years, decades, waiting
for this applause
which sounds different than expected

But the glass jags threateningly
Eyes are vulnerable globes,
hands fleshy spiders skittering

There is a fallen bird
on both sides of the window

The outside bird is a cardinal, dead
The inside bird is actually a bat

My friends of the broken window
let us nurse this inside bird
to screeching health
Let us make its future our own



Okla Elliott is currently an Illinois Distinguished Fellow at the University of Illinois, where he works in the fields of comparative literature and trauma studies. He also holds an MFA from Ohio State University. His nonfiction, poetry, short fiction, and translations have appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, and Subtropics, among others. He is the author of the fiction collection, From the Crooked Timber (Press 53, 2011) and a poetry collection, The Cartographer's Ink (NYQ Books, 2014). His novel, The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (co-authored with Raul Clement), is forthcoming in early 2015 from Dark House Press, and his book of translation Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker is forthcoming in late 2015 from Black Lawrence Press.

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