Tasha Coryell & Brian Oliu: Judges’ Statement for The Zachary Doss Friends in Letters Memorial Fellowship

Ryan Bollenbach here. Heavy Feather Review is publishing short pieces on the blog from writers who have collaborated on previous projects in order to give potential collaborators ideas and stoke excitement for The Zachary Doss Friends in Letters Memorial Fellowship (collaboration itself being the biggest takeaway I hope to create from all this). Please read about my late friend Zach and consider creating work for the fellowship. After May 31, I will award $50 to four pairs of writers who have collaborated, winning praise from friends of Zach, Tasha Coryell and Brian Oliu—and myself. The friends’/comrades’ work will appear in print in HFR Vol. 12.

Below is the judges’ joint statement on reading submissions this year for the fellowship.

Tasha Coryell is originally from St. Paul, Minnesota. She received her BA from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where she majored in creative writing and double minored in gender and women studies and German. Following her graduation from Knox, she received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach English in Freistadt, Austria. She then went on to get her MFA in creative writing from The University of Alabama. She’s had fiction, nonfiction and poetry published in Word Riot, DIAGRAM, Barrelhouse, Winter Tangerine, and other journals. The author of Hungry People (Split/Lip Press, 2018), she is currently working on a novel about murderous sorority girls and a YA novel about witches taking over the government. You can find her tweeting under @tashaaaaaaa.

​Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey and has taught at the University of Alabama since receiving his MFA in 2009. He has a BA in English from Loyola University-Maryland and was the recipient of the Buford Boone Fellowship during his time at Alabama. His work has been anthologized in Best Creative Nonfiction Volume 2, 30 Under 30: An Anthology of Innovative Fiction, The &Now Awards 3: The Best Innovative Writing 2011-2013, An Essay Daily Reader, It Was Written, Working Stiff, Continue? The Boss Fight Books Anthology, The Shell Game, and Roxane Gay’s Unruly Bodies, among others. His work has been twice selected as a Notable Essay in the Best American Essays series as well as nominated over fifteen times for a Pushcart Prize. He has served as the judge for the Flannery O’Connor Prize in Fiction, Booth‘s Summer Nonfiction Prize, the AWP Kurt Brown Prize in Nonfiction, and the Best of the Net Fiction Prize. He has served as Guest Editor for Sundog Lit‘s Gaming Issue, as well as the weekly editor for SmokeLong Quarterly.

Tasha: Here is an argument that I’m going to make: All writing is collaborative. I hate the feeling of those words. It’s like the day that I admitted that maybe eating too much pizza doesn’t feel good. I want writing to be an act that occurs in a dark room lined with bookshelves and a roaring fire. Never mind that this room doesn’t exist and I am too lazy to build a fire. Never mind that everything we do is intrinsically linked with other people. 

Brian: I find myself often saying that all of my writing is collaborating with something, even though my collaborator doesn’t know that I am collaborating with them. Although these collaborations are typically with things that have no concept of give and take—they exist in the world, and I react to them. They are inanimate: a videogame published in the 1980s, a professional wrestler who doesn’t know who I am or that I am writing about them. Ekphrasis assumes a sense of stillness—to me, collaboration is a way of saying that I am alive and you are alive, and we are alive together.

Tasha: I’m going to make another argument to contrast Brian’s argument: we are all entombed in stone together. If writing is collaborative, it is collaborative in a way that passes over time and space, over material and non, over life and death. I think about the room where Zach started workshopping his book, Boy Oh Boy. I am still workshopping with Zach in that room. I can still hear his voice in my brain. And that voice will exist after I stop writing, after all that remains of my writing is maybe a book on a bookshelf somewhere if I’m lucky. 

Brian: There will forever be moments in my writing where Zach appears—either in direct or indirect odes. There are sentences that I’ll read of my own work where I’ll be like “that is such a Zach sentence,” or moments when reading Tasha’s work where I’ll be like “oh Zach would love that line.” For the past three years I’ve hosted a Druid City Pride reading where I’ll read one of Zach’s stories from Boy Oh Boy—I can hear Zach’s voice in my own voice when I say these things out loud. I wish he were here to read his work himself, but I am proud to be in that room with him—a reluctant understudy. 

Tasha: I think Zach would be skeptical of this idea of eternal collaboration if only because collaboration requires caring and at its very depth, infatuation. Recently, a friend that didn’t know Zach read his book because Zach was my friend and she said, “I can’t stop thinking about it.” This is a form of infatuation. The cultural ephemera that resonate inside of our brains, even while we’re doing other things. 

Brian: Similarly, I think of you reading Zach’s work aloud at AWP, and someone in the crowd was very visibly emotional—after the reading I asked if they knew Zach, and they said no, it was the first time hearing his work. I guess my question is if infatuation can be instantaneous, or is it something that needs to be cultivated—can one deeply care in a fleeting moment, or is collaboration something that has to persist and echo, not eternally, as you say, but until it rings out?

Tasha: The problem is that infatuation is painful, just as collaboration can be an act of pain. It hurts to love something because you know that you’ll eventually be separated from that thing or you’ll never embody it the way that you want to or you’ll have to admit that for a moment you were seen and you’re not impenetrable after all. To collaborate is to be vulnerable. To know that you might fuck up, that everyone might hate it and there’s nowhere to hide. That’s really what I think this project is asking. To make yourself vulnerable to someone else. To blur the line between your creations and theirs. 

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