The classic, stereotypical college professor is an older man sporting a bowtie, quiet and reserved; and a fan of cigars, crosswords and reading Walt Whitman by a fire in his humble home after the kids are put to bed.
Many instructors at the University stand in proud contrast to that image, but one of them, Brian Oliu of the department of creative writing, does this particularly well.
Students familiar with Oliu have discussed Lady Gaga and cologne with him, partied as he DJed at clubs and bars across the city and, most importantly, witnessed his love and charity for Tuscaloosa since the tornado rocked the community on April 27.
Immediately following the storm, after realizing the extent of the damage, Oliu said he didn’t know what he could do to help the community, but he knew he had to do something.
“In the days after the tornado, I collected writers that I knew cared about this city and told everyone to give me pieces about Tuscaloosa. Some were written before the storm, and some were written just after,” Oliu said. “Everyone played to our own strengths. I certainly can’t use a chainsaw, but I knew I could gather people together and assemble something.”
Oliu assembled an e-book, a compilation of the works sent to him by the writers whose help he solicited. He titled it “Tuscaloosa Runs This” and released it for free with a feature that allowed people who enjoyed the book to make donations for the cause. The money the book raised, nearly $1000, Oliu donated to tornado relief.
The book isn’t finished helping Tuscaloosa, though. Oliu recently accepted the help of Bob Weatherly, the owner of Egan’s Bar on the Strip, to finance the production of the e-book in hardback form, which can be preordered for a release in early March. Oliu said after Weatherly was repaid for the costs of its publication, all surplus money the book makes will again be donated to the city’s recovery.
Oliu also donated $500 of the profits from another of his books, “So You Know It’s Me,” to the Red Cross during their relief efforts in the city.
That project, a collection of Tuscaloosa-themed lyrical missed connections Oliu had previously listed on Craigslist, was published by Tiny Hardcore Press, who announced its availability for presale on April 26, a day before the tornado devastated Tuscaloosa.
The book featured connections that were missed exclusively in locations in Tuscaloosa, including the ten Hoor parking deck, the Barnes and Nobles at Midtown Village and Bryant Denney Stadium.
“There’s nothing sadder than a missed connection. There’s a certain desperation of the language,” Oliu said. “A lot of the times, the poster says ‘I don’t think anyone will read this, or this is a long shot, or I know you’ll never see this, however…’ and there’s a passionate honesty to it.”
Although the book was not printed or officially released until the end of May, Oliu allowed preorders for the book and donated the proceeds, about $500, to the Red Cross and their efforts in aiding Tuscaloosa.
“I talked to Roxane [Gay, his publisher], I said, ‘Look, take all my money, whatever extra money I get, and donate it to the Red Cross.’ She’s incredibly kind, an amazing woman, and she was just like, ‘Yeah. Let’s do it.’”
Oliu’s most recent project, a short book called “Level End,” is made from sections cut from a longer book he is still writing that focuses on several classic video games and the tropes and feelings associated with them. Level End does this on a smaller scale and focuses on a game’s most intense moments: boss battles.
“In this book, these are all of the boss battles and the save points. I’d write a prose poem or a lyric essay about a boss battle and the tropes that revolve around them. There’s always an underwater fight, one where something digs up from underneath, the robot fight; there are just these certain recurring things.”
The book features eight pieces on these struggles and a final boss fight, as well as a few resting places in between that explore another popular video game feature: the save point.
“I looked at those things and categorized them as fights that you have in your life,” Oliu said. “So I kept asking myself, where were moments in my life where I reached the end of something, and what were things I had to overcome to get there?”
“Level End” will be released by Origami Zoo press, who plans to sell a regular edition as well as, in true video game spirit, a “gold edition” that will feature the essays bound as a game booklet and a CD of bonus features.
Oliu has been in Tuscaloosa since 2005, when he began studying to earn his MFA, which he earned in 2009. He now teaches as an instructor of literature and creative writing.