If you're on Twitter and follow at least a few writers, chances are you've run across a Brian Oliu tweet or two. Or maybe, if you're somehow not on Twitter, you've heard about his TinyLetter, the Boston Cream Review. I feel like this is a full-disclosure moment, because when I first learned of Brian's existence a few years back I gave him instant credibility, due to the title of his TinyLetter. You see, the Boston cream is my all-time favorite donut, and I am easily impressed. Does my proclivity for cream/custard-filled donuts have anything to do with this interview? No, it does not, but are you wondering why Brian hasn't migrated from TinyLetter to Substack? Well, you won't find the answer here. But you will read about bargain shopping in Tuscaloosa, how a guy from central New Jersey became a Timberwolves fan, and about that guy's latest books: the lyric essay collection on professional wrestling, Body Drop, and a chapbook of Rocky-themed poems written in collaboration with Jason McCall, What Shot Did You Ever Take. Brian is a professor at the University of Alabama, and we corresponded over email for a couple of months. Without any further rambling, please feel the vibe that is Brian Oliu.
I am fascinated by your Twitter feed, which is basically an Alabama athletics stan account, a few other sports things, maybe a baby pic or two, and sometimes donuts. Two questions to start: Including your time as a student, how long have you been in Tuscaloosa? Secondly, what has it been like to be there with a massive figure like Nick Saban looming over campus?
Thank you! When trying to explain my Twitter account to people who are not as online as I am, I feel as if I am speaking in a completely foreign language, or it’s that one meme from Breaking Bad where Jesse is talking some esoteric nonsense before Walter White is like “Jesse what the fuck are you talking about?” I realize I am using a very online meme to explain an online concept! None of this makes any sense! Great start, Brian!
So, I have been in Tuscaloosa since August of 2005. I moved to West Alabama to get my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama, & notably to study under Michael Martone. My first Alabama football game was when they beat Tennessee 6-3 on an ugly duck of a field goal & Roman Harper caused a fumble out the back of the end zone. Grown men cried & smoked cigars & I was hooked. I became a full-time Instructor in the English Department in 2009 & have worn a few hats since, including Director of an experiential learning community, Faculty Advisor to Black Warrior Review, and Assistant Director of First-Year Writing.
Nick Saban arrived in 2007, so I did get to experience two years of Mike Shula, who exclusively called zone run up the middle. Saban’s imprint is everywhere, including Alabama going from around 19,000 undergrads when I got here to 38,000 this past year. He lives on the lake north of town & pretty much keeps to himself. He very rarely steps foot on campus proper, though in the summer he gives a speech in the English building to the Boys State program. I ran into him once during a matinee at the movie theater. Meeting him is kind of bizarre because it’s like seeing a hologram simulacra of every version of him. He’s taller than you think he is, but is not tall. I see Ms. Terry, his wife, a lot more than I see him, because we have similar interests. Namely Mexican food, and bargain shopping at TJ Maxx & Ross.
I specifically asked about Saban, but it’s true that you stan all Crimson Tide athletics. Since Alabama is known so much for the football program, which sport do you think deserves more attention from the local fan base, and from the national audience?
So, I will let the audience know a little bit about the various Crimson Tide shibboleths—Auburn & LSU fans referred to Alabama fans as “Gumps” in the message board days—as in Forrest Gump (who played for the Bear!), presumably to mock our intelligence. A good section of Alabama fans have appropriated the derogatory term—specifically those who are fans of the team on Twitter—ergo “Gump Twitter” has become its own thing & has fostered a wild and varied online community. Gump Twitter has tiers to it: I like my friend Esther Scott Workman’s categorizations of it best—Tier One supports all sports & the university/Tuscaloosa as a whole. Tier Two supports football and basketball. Tier Three are bandwagon fans or FOGs (Football Only Gumps). There is also “Gump Elite” but we don’t talk about that. I am a proud Tier One & have been deemed “The Poet Laureate of Gump Twitter,” which is a true honor. As a sports fan, I know football backwards and forwards, though I love basketball as well—I also love the inner workings of the university and the community. I’m able to interact with a lot of our athletes, which is one of the highlights of my job as an instructor. I’m a big softball guy. I really like going to our gymnastics meets, but if I watch it on TV I get way too stressed out. I am a bad baseball fan in general, because I mostly follow along box scores or go to a game mostly to eat peanut M&Ms. We have one of the best adapted athletics programs in the nation, specifically tennis and basketball—I think that’s something that folks don’t necessarily realize about UA. I wish all our women’s sports would get a little bit more shine, though a sport like Women’s Basketball is so top heavy I understand it is difficult to get some momentum. But I’d like to take all of my friends from out of town to a softball game—the fans are die-hards, and it’s essentially like having a picnic while some of the greatest softball players in the world do cool softball stuff.
This cannot be a full-on Alabama interview, so let’s go back a little bit further. Where are you from, and what got you into sports in the first place?
I am originally from New Jersey! I went to undergrad at Loyola Maryland, which in 2004 had a 31-game losing streak in basketball. I was at the game where we broke the streak against the Marist Red Foxes & it is the only time I ever stormed a court.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly where my love of sports came from, but it was always a part of my life, mostly facilitated by my father. He is a Notre Dame grad, so Saturday college football was always an event. As a kid I would memorize the Top 25 AP poll and the Coaches Poll in college football—I distinctly remember one year tracing the Orange Bowl logo in my notebook until I could get it right. I didn’t get a college football experience at my undergrad, so when it was time to go to graduate school, I was really excited to be a part of that whole scene—of course, I anticipated getting my degree in three years & getting out of Tuscaloosa, but instead I got married, got a dog, a house, a kid, and have developed a micro-niche celebrity Alabama twitter account.
In terms of hoops, my grandfather immigrated to this country from Catalonia & fell in love with basketball & I would spend a lot of my time at my grandparents’ house on the weekends, typically watching the NBA on NBC games. He also had Hoosiers and Larry Bird: A Living Legend on VHS, and so I would often take turns watching those when the game was on. And growing up in NJ, we got to watch a lot of pretty good Big East basketball—either at Rutgers home games or the Big East tournament at MSG. Basketball was also my favorite sport to play, even though I would say I was better at both soccer and football. Also, my first job was doing the books for the Readington Men’s Over 30 League, of which my dad was a five-time MVP. I got 60 dollars a night, which was an absolute fortune when you’re 13 years old.
You talked about going to Rutgers basketball games, so I’m assuming you were in north Jersey. Did you get into the Nets as a kid, long before they were bought by a Russian billionaire and bolted for Brooklyn? And with football, did you follow the Giants or the Jets, or were you pretty much a college fan?
Central New Jersey exists! As far as the Nets go, I was never a Nets fan, though I did go to games with my dad at the Brendan Byrne Arena (which I think is now called the Izod Center). I rooted for the Celtics when I was a kid because they were the ones always on television at my grandparents’ house, as well as the aforementioned Larry Bird VHS. My Wolves fandom is relatively recent, though I had always loved KG; my wife is from Saint Paul and considering I didn’t have much of a loyalty to the city of Boston as a whole (& the whole Patriots/Red Sox culture rubbed me the wrong way), I officially made the switch in 2013 and went all-in on the Wolves. Thus, I never really got into the Nets during the Kidd/Kittles/Richard Jefferson stretch because they consistently bounced the Celtics, and they were the reason why they added the charge circle—just an immensely frustrating team to watch.
My NFL fandom is a little complicated—my mom is a Giants fan, but all the kids in my school were assholes & Giants & Jets fans, so I went with my dad’s team, the Indianapolis Colts. When my dad was coming of football age, he was living in Maryland & so he picked the Colts. As he didn’t have loyalty to the area, he is one of the few people that followed the team to Indianapolis. I have a Jim Harbaugh jersey. My dad & I went to the Super Bowl in Miami but didn’t go to the actual game—we watched the game at the Clevelander in South Beach while it poured outside. It was great. A very drunk Saints fan who thought they were going to the Super Bowl gave me a “VIP medallion” which got my dad & I into a post-game party at one of the downtown hotels. I have a Superbowl champagne glass from that party & I got to see various national NFL media scarf down banquet food. It ruled.
One of the other sports we need to get into is wrestling, which directly relates to your latest book, Body Drop. My heyday as a wrestling fan was the mid to late-80s. WCW was still the NWA, and WWE was still the WWF. Before we delve into the book, can you tell us a little about the wrestlers that first got you into it? Are you old enough to have stayed up late to watch the WWF’s Saturday Night’s Main Event?
So, the reason why I got my own TV in my room is because my parents were tired of me watching wrestling all the time—I have Monday Night Raw (& a Super Nintendo) to thank for that bit of autonomy. I would stay up & watch Saturday Night’s Main Event, which was less of an ordeal because Raw was on a school night & often wouldn’t wrap up until 11pm. My favorite Main Event was Randy Savage vs. Yokozuna for the title—I wasn’t a “smart mark” back then, so I legit thought that Macho Man had a chance, even though it was a week before a major pay-per-view & Yokozuna obviously wasn’t going to drop the belt. Savage hit the elbow & I thought that was it, but Yokozuna kicked out. I remember going to bed so mad. But my guys were Randy Savage, Owen Hart, The Undertaker, and Golddust, which, I gotta’ say, proves that I had pretty exceptional work rate taste, even as a young kid.
Do you have any personal history of amateur wrestling or boxing, or any time trying to master a figure-four leglock and become the next Ric Flair?
I do not—although I got in my fair share of fights as a kid & would try to bust out some moves that I saw on television with very marginal success. The most effective move was the double ax handle smash, if I’m being honest. I was a big fan of Jericho’s Liontamer when it came to basement wrestling, as you could both wrench the back & dig their face into the carpet.
The outcome may be determined in pro wrestling, and they may be serving a storyline much like a daytime soap opera would, but it is still highly athletic, and the participants suffer real pain. In combat sports like MMA or boxing head trauma gets glossed over. From writing Body Drop and really delving into the world of pro wrestling, did you learn anything that shocked you about the physical toll the athletes go through to pursue stardom?
So, I think the main thing that folks need to know about professional wrestlers is that they are considered independent contractors, which means that many of them did not have healthcare for a very long period of time. The other thing is that there is no guarantee of your spot still being there if you are injured, so many wrestlers in the middle of a huge push will find themselves working through horrific injuries, concussions, etc. Things have gotten (marginally!) better these days, but the bottom line is that wrestlers put their bodies through an immense amount of pain. I think the most surprising thing to me is how many accounts there are of even the most basic moves being very painful—a flat back (e.g. just falling down on the canvas) is a really jarring move that so many of the folks watching take for granted. When something looks like it hurts, it does—but the things that don’t look “so bad” also hurt.
You had another book come out last year, What Shot Did You Ever Take, co-authored with Jason McCall. That one is all poems inspired by the Rocky film franchise. How did that project come about?
Yes! So, Jason is one of my best friends & an immensely talented poet. We used to live in Tuscaloosa together, but he took a job at the University of North Alabama, which is about two and a half hours away, so we don’t see each other as much. One year I decided that I wanted to do the National Poetry Month challenge where you write a poem a day—except I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to keep up that pace, as I am not exactly a poet. I had been thinking about Rocky a lot, as it is my favorite film franchise—so I approached Jason to see if he’d want to try out the National Poetry Month challenge with me, as he is a much better poet than I am, and he loves the Rocky movies as much as I do. We set up a Google Doc & would write poems back and forth—I wrote a bunch of thought starters/poem titles & we both worked from there. It was a really fun time, as I feel as if I was trying to mimic Jason’s style of writing in the poems, not unlike Rocky trying to learn how Apollo fights in order to take down Clubber Lang. It was a cool contrast in styles & a little competitive, as you didn’t want to put up a terrible poem when your friend is throwing straight haymakers. We never really thought of it going anywhere & it was just a fun thing between friends, but I decided to polish up the manuscript a little bit and send it out to a few chapbook contests, and the good folks at The Hunger Press reached out about publishing it. I love a chapbook—and any time you can collaborate with a friend is a huge win.
Back on April 30th, I saw you issue a simple tweet: Brick City. That was shortly after boxer Shakur Stevenson, from Newark, New Jersey, unified 130-pound titles. Am I right that your tweet was in response to, and celebration of, his victory that night?
Heck yeah it was. Shakur Stevenson rules. Did you watch that fight?
I did watch that fight (Shakur Stevenson vs. Oscar Valdez), and Stevenson is one of the most skilled boxers there is. Such a pleasure to watch, but it was a bummer for me. I’ve been in Tucson for over 20 years, and Valdez is from Nogales, Sonora, just about an hour away on the Mexican side of the border. He’s basically a hometown guy, but he didn’t have enough to compete with Stevenson.
Shakur made that guy look like a tomato can. I’m hoping he can make the leap. It was super fun being in Tuscaloosa for Deontay Wilder’s rise. We go to the same dermatologist.
Speaking of Wilder, he held a heavyweight title for five years, but nationally, almost no one knew who he was. Boxing is a niche sport, but he has the type of personality and backstory that people like to get behind. In Tuscaloosa, is he revered by the local community?
Oh, absolutely. They just unveiled a statue of Deontay down by the Black Warrior River. He is beloved in Tuscaloosa—I think mostly because he continued to fight here rather than opting to go to Las Vegas to train. While he splits his time in Atlanta, he is still very much of the community. He worked for a beverage distributor while he was training, so a lot of the industry/restaurant people know him—he also worked as a door guy at a few places. He gave a bunch of money to a handful of community centers around town. His early fights were in Tuscaloosa, including one at an abandoned furniture warehouse where I bought my first couch. Even when he was fighting a bunch of tomato cans at the beginning of his career, all of the bars would show the fights. There was a big send-off event (where his statue is now!) before his first fight with Bermane Stiverne (editor’s note: In 2015, Wilder defeated Stiverne to win the WBC Heavyweight Title at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.)—and after he won, there was a parade that hilariously ended with everyone in the crowd joining the parade & marching down to the amphitheater where he received the key to the city. Sometimes you’ll randomly see his car around town—Tuscaloosa has a beloved (& terrible!) fast food Mexican restaurant called Taco Casa & every once in a while you’ll just see this giant bronze Hummer in the parking lot.
Going back to Body Drop, I’ve seen you mention this book was in the works for ten years. When we see a book about fandom, I think the tendency is to think it will be a collection of anecdotes about how someone really loves a sport, and how good it makes them feel. You talk about different things, though, even delving into how hero worship can blind us to the unsavory parts of someone’s character, whether that is in or out of the ring. How did the writing of this book crystallize your relationship with wrestling, and has it changed how you experience the sport at all?
I think, as with anything, when you write a book about something, you find people asking you about it—rather in an interview like this, or even when people hear about a work in progress. As a result, you find yourself justifying why you are writing about the thing you are writing about—with wrestling, it’s obviously considered a low artform & would get a lot of perplexing reactions from other writers, colleagues, or other academics. I think my initial reaction was to defend my love of wrestling and talk about it in these heightened terms and explain why wrestling is a much larger and fascinating thing than people give it credit for. I still do that, but writing the book allowed me to pinpoint exactly what it is about wrestling that I love—there are certain things that I find brilliant that other fans find idiotic, and vice versa. It allowed me to find my place within the fandom of professional wrestling—it was pretty cool receiving messages from folks who probably wouldn’t be otherwise interested in a book of lyric essays finding themselves enjoying the book. I’ve received a lot of nice notes about it from strangers who mention that they are happy that I am in their “community”—which is something I never quite considered myself a part of in the past.
We always like to end our interviews with recommendations. Could you give us three writers (sports related or not) our readers should check out?
Yes! David J Dennis' book The Movement Made Us is out—I got into David’s work when he was writing wrestling blogs & now he is on Pardon The Interruption AND has a book about the Freedom Riders. Sports related and not!
In terms of wrestling books, I read a bunch of autobiographies of wrestlers when working on this book. The Daniel Bryan/Bryan Danielson one, Yes!: My Improbable Journey to the Main Event of Wrestlemania, was really fascinating—it has an epilogue that is WILD & completely changes the entire book. It’s kind of worth reading solely for that?
I’d also like to plug the work that FanFyte is doing with professional wrestling—it’s really fascinating in-depth analysis coupled with general silliness & fun stuff; like, they had an EMT talk about the validity of the “fake EMTs” that are ubiquitous with big wrestling moments/injuries. Highly recommended.