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Brian Oliu

Brian Oliu is originally from Readington, New Jersey and currently lives, writes, and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.


Major ambitions for such a small book! Each brief meditation explores the daunting, existential task of searching (for you, whoever you are), and yet, with tender and earnest energy, retains a lover’s belief in the act of seeking.

– Lia Purpura, author of On Looking

Oliu’s book is playful, beautifully structured, filled with surprise and pleasure. Read it now, or you will miss out.

– Dinty W. Moore, author of Between Panic & Desire

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So You Know It's Me

A Conversation with Brian Oliu


How did So You Know It’s Me come about?

So You Know It’s Me came about as a writing project over the summer / fall of 2010. I’m a firm believer in having writing projects, which means I’m a firm believer in having side projects: I had been working for the past year on my collection of lyric essays based off of 8-bit Nintendo games and I felt the need to write something else for a change. The Craigslist pieces were perfect:  small things I could write every day (technically one every two days) and place them immediately into the world.

Why did you choose Craigslist as the medium for this project? What is it about Craigslist?

I’ve always been fascinated by Missed Connections; even the name holds some magic to it: it insinuates that if only things went differently, the missing / missed would be in eternal bliss forever. The Tuscaloosa ones are especially sad:  clandestine male for male ads, taking place at Hardees / Dollar General, a lot of ‘too shy to talk to you at the bar’ posts from frat guys. To me, there’s nothing sadder than a ‘missed Missed Connection’ — every once in a while you’ll see someone post the same one a few times just in case it might get passed over. There’s always an air of desperation as well: many of them start with ‘I know this is a long shot…’ or ‘you’ll never read this but…’ and those are the ones that fascinate me. They turn into open letters that will probably never be read, but for some reason they need to be said — and unlike e-mails we’ve written and then deleted or diary entries to people long gone, they’re all public. And so you get these heartbreaking and honest confessions that are completely anonymous. When I originally posted the pieces to the site they were always anonymous — obviously people started to gather through Facebook or Twitter that I was the one posting them, but I still wanted them to seem anonymous in order to keep that desperate starkness alive.

Is this about you?

It is about me in the sense that you cannot write about an other without writing about oneself. The narrator is me; at the very least a version of me, as is the “I” in any nonfiction. I tend not to use the fiction/nonfiction terms, but I consider it nonfiction with a suspension of belief. The stories are all true, as are the feelings. Metanonfiction? Maybe. Of course, I’m skirting the actual question which is being asked, which is ‘who is this about?’, and in that regard it is about a first love whom I hadn’t seen in years who passed away. I found this out online, and so I feel as if the connection to something online is important. As with anyone you love who is now gone, you start seeing glimpses of them in other places and other people. The book, I feel, is about seeing someone in someone else and what that means.

You wrote the essays in SYKIM in dense paragraphs, using gorgeous, rambling sentences. Was that a deliberate stylistic choice?

I knew I wanted the pieces to resemble posts in a way — I wanted them to look dense with little stylistic alterations in regards to how they looked on the page. I find repetition very exciting and I feel as if the medium of a Missed Connection is perfect for that, as they all seem to say the same thing, regardless of what one is looking for or who posted. I feel as if the rambling aspects also encompass the desperation of the post — Craigslist deletes each post after 45 days and so there’s a need to get everything out into the world as quickly and as honestly as possible.

In “21,” you write, ” you are encased in glass like a sad flower, like you are closing your eyes so that the sheep will not see you.” I loved that line and thought about how the girl in this story really does seem like is encased in glass because she is encased in your words. Writing allows us to do that, to capture people, or parts of people or maybe the ideas of people. Do you try to do that in your writing? Were you trying to hold on to something in these essays by capturing it?

Oh I totally believe in that:  writing to own things. Most of the time I try to write to own something that happened or to figure things out. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, yeah? I write about these things because I need to: it is catharsis. Do you ever wonder what your life would be like if you didn’t make art? Like you go to work, come home, and have nothing to work on? Man, that is strange. Sometimes I think that’d be nice, to not have the ‘I should be writing’ bug hit me when I’m playing videogames, but I am thankful for the pull.

Who are some of your influences? What books do you love most?

I’m a huge proponent of the lyric essay, and so I love John D’Agata, Christian Bobin, pretty much anything on Brevity, Lyn Hejinian, Jenny Boully, etc, etc, etc. Joan Didion, Joy Williams, and Olena Kalytiak Davis made me want to write / make me want to write / make me want to write better. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in terms of my writing teachers and I am very much in debt to them: Lia Purpura taught me how to synthesize the world and the self and to do it effortlessly and stunningly, Michael Martone taught me how to take chances in writing and form, to work towards a larger idea and project, and to always ‘whole-ass’ everything, Kate Bernheimer taught me how to channel memory into something sublime and terrifying and beautiful. Friends here in Tuscaloosa too: Lucas Southworth, Colleen Hollister, and Tessa Fontaine are just a sampling of gorgeous and at times ‘perfect’ writing. I am obsessed with the Odyssey; my first novel/memoir/whatever is a retelling of Odysseus’ story if it were a computer virus. Dear Sugar! Wikipedia articles! Anything that is beautiful and has heart and feels toiled over yet flows naturally and passionately. Writing that sounds good out loud.

I know you also deejay. What set list would you create to accompany your book?

Ooh! I was asked this by the lovely folks at Artifice who published the first three Missed Connections. It was entirely sad dance music, which is the best. It’d be one of those dance parties where everyone would get sloppy drunk, sing / shout all of the songs, and take breaks to sit on the curb and have heart-to-hearts with people.

While some people are bored by process questions, I’m increasingly interested in how people write. How do you write?

I love process stuff! I type everything. I don’t turn off browsers/Facebook/Twitter/chat because that seems like I’d be in ‘high pressure / I AM SO SERIOUS RIGHT NOW’ writing mode and I wouldn’t get anything done. I don’t really have a writing time of day, nor do I write every day. I like to move around; I wrote all of So You Know It’s Me from my desk in my room, but I haven’t written from that desk in at least 6 months. I was writing on the futon for a while, but that broke, so I’ve been writing on the couch in the room that no one sits in. I’ve been on a book / eating / spaceship tour the past two weeks and so I write something from my hotel bed which I’m really intrigued about. I’m heading home to New Jersey for a few weeks and I’m excited to see what happens when I write back at home (it usually turns out weird? and dark? and ornate?). I read everything aloud when I write. If I’m working on a project, I’ll read all of the pieces of that project aloud in order to get me into the language / rhythm of writing. When I am done, I’ll read it aloud:  if anything gets stuck in my mouth, it’s gone. I’ll do this multiple times. If I feel something is done, I need it out of my computer as soon as possible — meaning I’ll send it out for publication immediately or I’ll send it to my friends Elizabeth Wade & Jeremy Hawkins who are the best editors / readers of my work on the planet. I write pretty well on Thursday late afternoons. No music, but sound is okay. Usually with a Coke Zero or Diet Dr. Pepper.

How are you doing as Alabama rebuilds from the tornado? How is Alabama doing?

I am doing fine — my house & car did not receive any damage. The tornado made a straight diagonal line through town about two miles south of where I live. The town is shocking to drive through still. Some days you’ll take a different street than you’re used to and you’ll see the destruction from a different angle and it’ll hit you hard. It is really dark at night. It’s been really hot this summer because there aren’t any trees. For a while the debris was everywhere, but the cleanup has started. The buildings beyond repair have been knocked down. Taco Casa, a local chain of absolutely horrid Mexican food which is dearly beloved by local Tuscaloosans posted on Facebook a photo of them starting to rebuild and everyone went bonkers. Most impressive to me are the ‘We Are Coming Back’ signs that popped up almost immediately after the storm. My friend & local photographer David A. Smith has documented a couple of the signs which really capture the spirit of the town. Obviously those first few weeks were tough, but we were all ready to help — I challenge another group of writers to wield a chainsaw or stack pallets of water better than us. Many folks would spend the day cutting tree limbs and answering phones at the courthouse or Emergency Services and then we would all meet at my place and we would eat/drink/cry together. One of the mantras during late April / early May was ‘play to your strengths. I put together an eBook of Tuscaloosa writers called ‘Tuscaloosa Runs This’ that had over 800 downloads and raised about 1000 dollars for the recovery effort.

A friend made a letter-pressed book that raised $1,000 for an elementary school in the area that had been destroyed. I’ve been on a two-week tour with friends where we’ve raised over $1,500 for tornado relief, some of which will go towards those affected in Joplin, Missouri. People have been incredibly generous, especially the writing community — I had folks I had met once at AWP or writers / editors I had never met face-to-face sending messages and asking where to donate and where to send food.

Isn’t writing fucking awesome?

How did you end up in Tuscaloosa? What do you do there?

I’m originally from New Jersey and went to undergraduate at Loyola-Maryland in Baltimore. I took a year off, worked in a mental health in-patient unit at a hospital in NJ, and started applying for MFA schools in 2005. I e-mailed Lia Purpura, who was my undergraduate advisor for suggestions: I knew nothing about MFAs, or writing, or what a chapbook was, or how literary journals work, or what-have-you. Michael Martone had just visited and read at Loyola, so he was fresh in her mind. She suggested I apply to Alabama, and so I did. I had offers to other schools in the northeast, but Alabama offered me the opportunity to teach (which is what I wanted) and it also was a three / four year program, which was extremely enticing. I came in off the waitlist, and so I had about 36 hours to give Alabama an answer. I took the offer and it was the best decision I’ve ever made. I graduated in ’09, and they hired me as an Instructor, which means I teach composition and creative writing. Furthermore, I am a partner in Slash Pine Projects, which is an undergraduate internship where we go on reading exchanges with other colleges, put out chapbooks, and put on various readings in Alabama. Those students are spectacular talents — whether it’s organizing, writing, book arts, fundraising, grant writing, they somehow manage to blow me away every time. It’s an honor to work with them.

Why are U of A students and graduates so fierce in their loyalty to their school?

Oh man. You are going to get me all fired up! First, we’re a football school, and a good one. Alabama fans are loud, obnoxious, brash, and accustomed to winning. So there’s an element of pride that comes with that which trickles down to just about everything. It’s overblown, it’s a carnival, and it’s just football, but it’s also the identity of the town. There’s not much happening down here outside of football, and so that is part of our culture. On the flipside of that, one of the beauties of being in a town like this is that you can pretty much do anything / start anything. You can start a reading series. You can start an art kitchen. You can start a small press. You can form a band for one-night-only and play at the local bar. And people will show up! And be supportive! It’s the best.

Now, when it comes to the MFA program and the writers that come out of it, we perceive ourselves as underdogs. We’re not Iowa. We’re not Columbia. We’re not in a hip place, therefore so many people are hesitant to move to Alabama. I remember a potential student e-mailing me and saying that she’s originally from New York but now lives in Philadelphia and hates it because there’s nothing to do there. It was clear that folks like that are not ‘Roll Tide material’: you come to Alabama to write — there’s a “diva check at the border,” as Kellie Wells says. As a result, all of the writers in Tuscaloosa are extremely close: the majority of us are not from here and so we stick together, go to the same bars, hang out at each other’s houses. I always find it funny when writers / editors ask ‘do you know so-and-so? They live in Tuscaloosa too.’ These are the people I play darts with, eat barbecue with, watch football with, dance with, kiss while drunk, help move. Our individual victories are everyone else’s victories, and what’s good for one of us is good for all of us. We’re the cool kids at AWP who have buttons with secret meanings. We produce one of the coolest journals on the planet in Black Warrior Review. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a lit journal out there right now without a mention of Tuscaloosa or University of Alabama in the Contributors Notes. And goddammit, we’re nice too! RTR here we are, holler at your litgroup.

How is the track jacket collection?

Fantastic! Thanks for asking. It is way too hot in Alabama for track jackets most days. I just bought a new one the other day. It’s an Alabama one that I had never seen before. That brings the total up to 34, which, of course, will make 33-obsessed xTx unhappy, but I’m sure I’ll retire one come fall. I can go an entire Monday / Wednesday / Friday teaching schedule without repeating once. It melts my students’ brains. The one I am wearing in my author photo over there is probably my favorite.

What do you love most about your writing?

I’ll say what I love most about writing & what I hope to achieve. I love the fact that you can string together a bunch of words, and at a smaller level letters, and at an even smaller level black lines on a page and make someone feel something. That blows my mind every single time. That the dude who goes ‘mmm’ at a reading (you know that dude!) is going ‘mmm’ at a reading! That you can read something and get excited or all fluttery. So cool. I will say that everything I publish is going to be part of ‘something I have written’, so I have to make sure that it is something that I am incredibly proud of. I like knowing that, and I like that it pushes me to not take any shortcuts and to be a fierce editor of my work. I like the amount of time I spend on things and I like the emotion that I put into it. It warms my heart when people recognize that. I love how much fun I have while writing: the crafting of something, the tinkering.

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  1. Emily Lackey said on 07/11/11 at 9:29 am Reply

    Oh man. I don’t know what I want to do first after reading this interview: go read his book or write something of my own.

    Awesome interview. I totally want to go to the U of A now.


    Nathan Goldman said on 07/11/11 at 2:50 pm

    I agree heartily to both points.

    It is only the best writing (and, getting meta-, the best writing-about-writing) that makes you mostly want to get to writing. Thanks, Brian.

    Re: U of A, there is something (something very important and good) to be said about a community of writers focused on writing itself, rather than writing as lifestyle and idea.

  2. Kathy Fish said on 07/11/11 at 9:51 am Reply

    Great interview. Love this re: most loved books: “Anything that is beautiful and has heart and feels toiled over yet flows naturally and passionately. Writing that sounds good out loud.”


    Nathan Goldman said on 07/12/11 at 12:36 am

    Katy, I was thinking about the quote you pointed out, and I’m wondering: What is it that strikes us so much about writing that sounds good not just in our heads but on our tongues? Something of a throwback to ancient oral traditions of storytelling? Or something a lot more basic…?

    Kathy Fish said on 07/12/11 at 9:37 am

    Nathan, I think it’s that we/our brains innately find music pleasurable and prose that “sounds good” has the same qualities as music.

    Nathan Goldman said on 07/12/11 at 1:04 pm

    Good point! I’m wondering if there have been any studies to that effect. Probably so…heading to Google!

  3. xTx said on 07/11/11 at 10:05 am Reply

    34?!?!?! BOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


  4. Tyler Gobble said on 07/11/11 at 10:34 am Reply

    Very cool interview. Impressed by depth of answers and range of questions.

    After visiting U of A for the Slash Pine Festival last spring, I can attest to the intensity of the students. There’s a friendliness too that radiated from them as well that was amazing and bumped that school high up on my MFA list.

    This book truly is incredible. Good work, Oliu.


  5. Ashley C. Ford said on 07/11/11 at 11:57 am Reply

    I really enjoyed Brian when he came to Ball State wearing one of his famous track jackets and did the robot with me in Scotty’s Brewhouse.

    I LOVE Brian now that I’ve read his book and realized what a truly brilliant writer he is. I can’t wait for video game collection.


  6. Brian Oliu said on 07/11/11 at 2:19 pm Reply

    Thank you, everyone, for your kind words and for reading! Hope everyone is doing wonderfully.


  7. Angie Spoto said on 07/11/11 at 4:57 pm Reply

    “Do you ever wonder what your life would be like if you didn’t make art?” -I wonder this all the time! Since I’m a full-time college student who works, owns a business AND claims to be a writer, I get envious of people who can watch TV after class without thinking, like you said, “I should be writing right now.” But would watching a lot of TV make me happier? Nope, writing does.


  8. Jordan Blum said on 07/11/11 at 5:38 pm Reply

    Great interview. Very revealing. I especially like how Brian sort of summarizes Missed Connections as “these heartbreaking and honest confessions that are completely anonymous.” I’ve often looked at things like that the same way. It’s like every public statement, no matter what it’s about, is a form of written art. And if it’s anonymous, it has a universality to it. It isn’t Shelia or John looking for love; it’s “Human Being #——-“


    Nathan Goldman said on 07/12/11 at 12:32 am

    That connection between anonymity and universality is fascinating. Writers (at least in my reading) tend to emphasize specificity and detail, locating the universal in the über-precise. But the fusion of that precision with namelessness creates a different, more mysterious connection to the humanity we all have in common.

    Jordan Blum said on 07/12/11 at 11:59 am

    Thanks, Nathan. In a way, being uber-precise limits the universality. In terms of looking for love, it’s far less relatable if I say, “23 year old Jordan with brown hair seeking 25 year old Stacy who is 5′ 11” with blonde hair, blue eyes, and likes ‘Donnie Darko'” than if I say “Man in early 20s seeking woman around same age to watch movies with.” Or, going further, who couldn’t connect with “Man seeks woman for companionship”?

    And yes, I realize that paragraph isn’t grammatically correct ha-ha.

    Nathan Goldman said on 07/12/11 at 12:14 pm

    Actually, i think the one I’d connect most with is the second. Something about the blankness of “Man in early 20s” and “woman” combined with the still-not-very-specific detail “to watch movies with”. To me there’s something very compelling, even aching, about that. What if instead it said “to watch Wes Anderson flicks with”? Too much detail? Or does that strengthen the connection?

  9. Megan Fink said on 07/11/11 at 6:01 pm Reply

    RTR! Hollar at your lit group.


  10. Sara H said on 07/11/11 at 11:41 pm Reply

    Ooh! A playlist!


  11. Brittany Travers said on 07/11/11 at 11:47 pm Reply

    Beautiful. RTR.


  12. Kristina said on 07/12/11 at 9:27 am Reply

    Okay, Tuscaloosa sounds great and all, but, guys, the AVERAGE temperature is 24.4C. That means it’s like 15C in the winter! And it can get near 40 in the summer! DO NOT WANT.

    Totes agree about the curb-side heart-to-hearts, though. Those are the best.


    Barry Grass said on 07/12/11 at 10:55 am

    Yeah, it was 90F in Tuscaloosa at 8:30am this morning when I was walking to campus. I’d like to think that the humidity just makes us stronger.

    Nathan Goldman said on 07/12/11 at 12:00 pm

    Who measures temperature in Celsius?? That is patently un-American! 😛

    Brian Oliu said on 07/12/11 at 12:29 pm

    This much is true! At least you never have to iron. And you come up with clever recipes for popsicles.

    Nathan Goldman said on 07/12/11 at 12:57 pm

    And now I have to ask: favorite popsicle recipe?

    Brian Oliu said on 07/12/11 at 3:32 pm

    I had a prickly pear one in KCMO that I want to replicate. My friend also just got a bunch of Meyer lemons which make for exciting things. A friend was telling me about blueberry basil ones too. In the meantime, we have a freezer filled with Otterpops that we are bulldozing through.

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