Dwaine Rieves was born and raised in Monroe County, Mississippi. During a career as a research pharmaceutical scientist and critical care physician, he began writing poetry and creative prose. His poetry has won the Tupelo Press Prize for Poetry and the River Styx International Poetry Prize. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review and other publications. He can be reached at www.dwainerieves.com.
Mayra Calvani: Please tell us about Shirtless Men Drink Free, and what compelled you to write it.
I began writing the novel about twelve years ago. The story began as an exercise in writing a long narrative that had poetry as its backbone. And, like most of my poetry, the impetus for the story came from images, a duo of real-life incidents. That is, two images: one of a steam room where a man provocatively lifts a towel, and the other a star-speckled Alabama night when I’m driving home to help care for my dying mother. In the first image, the man is (was) a prominent Southern politician; in the second image the sound is Talk Radio, irate callers from across the South attributing all the nation’s woes to the homosexual agenda. The images demanded a voice, and that voice speaks in Shirtless Men Drink Free. The title is, of course, a gay bar slogan. But its metaphor runs far deeper than non-fiction in the words.
M.C.: What is your book about?
I tell people the book is about “souls and the bodies that won’t let them go,” a summary that reflects the lyrical bent of the novel. More precisely, the novel explores how the death of our parents impact our seemingly fully-developed adult lives.
Had I know it would have taken twelve years, I’m not sure I would have taken up the novel’s challenge. But the adventure is done, and I believe the novel accomplishes what the colorful, poetic folks in 2004 Atlanta would have wanted—a story of their lives and after-lives on the record.
M.C.: What themes do you explore in Shirtless Men Drink Free?
Themes of legacy and parental approval pervade the novel—much as these themes pervade so much of literature. From the Bible (and from it the hymnal voices, for “This Is My Father’s World”), through the ghost-haunted Hamlet and the dedicated but jinxed Darl Bundren in As I Lay Dying.
Everyone has a father and a mother—an unavoidable legacy. I sometimes think the need to make something “good” of these legacies, of these parents, is innate to the human soul. Are we all simply acting out this need? Even for parents we never knew, for parents we misperceived? Such are the questions posed in Shirtless Men Drink Free.
M.C.: Why do you write?
All my writing is a product of what I call my poetry-process. Up until I was nearly forty, I never read anything but medical journals and medical textbooks. I was a studious and medically-obsessed critical care physician who, after some particularly challenging weeks in caring for the critically ill, discovered April Bernard’s book, Blackbird Bye-bye. The cover first caught my eye—the sun arising over a small town profile—water tower, houses where my patients could have once lived, houses where I longed to live. The book was a poetry collection, the last poem a long narrative that integrated the world of the late 1980’s into a tableau of incredibly real, beatifying pain. April took that pain and made it into something majestic, a work of art with souls at its center. April showed me the way.
M.C.: When do you feel the most creative?
Silence and solitude make the difference. Perhaps my enjoyment of this private writing laboratory world is a reaction to the all-too alarming (literally) world of Intensive Care Medicine. Endless alarms, non-stop digital readouts, electrical plots of the heart in action and, on the bed, the quiet body.
M.C.: How picky are you with language?
Language is probably the most important ingredient within a voice—the word choice, word-placement, mismatching and adornment or denuding—I can’t understate the importance of voice in a piece of writing. Of course, a moving story helps also. But, for me, the author’s voice must be engaging.
M.C.: When you write, do you sometimes feel as though you were being manipulated from afar?
When I write best, I most definitely feel as if the flow of words is coming from somewhere beyond myself. Perhaps those words are coming from my soul, perhaps giving the soul a voice is why writing can bring us so much pleasure. Perhaps I’m wrong—the source is nervous energy, perhaps my father! There are so many sources, and so many avenues for self-expression. All in all, I have to think one of the goals of every life is expression. Presence in the expression process matters.
M.C.: What is your worst time as a writer?
I treasure drafting a work and also revising work. I detest trying to market a work. So much of contemporary “writing” seems anything but artful writing to me—it’s marketing, hyperbole, branding, icky-stuff. Still, when the author is pleased with the work, I suspect she is proud to show it off. I am. My baby—I love her, see.
M.C.: Your best?
My best time writing is when I’m totally open to whatever words need to appear, whatever voice that simply arrives. This often happens best in the morning, when I’m fresh. Sometimes a key image or phrase will appear in the evening, sometimes in the middle of the night. I often awaken to write down the thought, to capture it for the morning. Typically, that midnight “gift” is a bummer. But hey, my brain feels better because, even in the middle of the night, it is alive and feeling.
M.C.: Is there anything that would stop you from writing?
Yes, I believe a number of things could stop me from writing. Profound depression can do it—I tend to have depressive episodes every decade or so—my mother’s illness, a friend’s suicide. As Marvell said, “How should I greet thee after all these years, but with silence and tears.” Some pains demand silence. Giving them a voice—forcing it out of them—differs little from torture. The voice in recovery is always the strongest.
M.C.: What’s the happiest moment you’ve lived as an author?
Ah, the joy in birthing a poem when—after letting it sit for a time—you come back and find it still very much alive. This birthing, for me, is not particularly common. More often, I’m labouring over the words, especially for prose. Balancing sensibility with music is not an easy task. I find it all too easy to overlook my baby’s illogical but musical flaws.
M.C.: Is writing an obsession to you?
Writing is a blessing to me. It would be a great loss if I couldn’t express myself in some way, which now seems to be the written word. Who can say where our needs will take us? Perhaps artfully changing a tire or digging a workable hole will some day prove a fine mode of expression for me. Perhaps solely constructing a thought. We all need the ability to take pride in something, don’t we?
M.C.: Are the stories you create connected with you in some way?
My stories—told in poems and prose—are deeply rooted in my personal experience of having grown up in Smithville, Mississippi. I travel back often and I continue to be amazed at the great sense of shame many Southerners (myself included) shoulder, a sense of inferiority, a deep need for redemption. And because the need is so deep, the people and culture are rich in character and potential. No easy stories here!
M.C.: Ray Bradbury once said, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” Thoughts?
I have a hunch Mister Bradbury was alluding to the sense of freedom in allowing your voice to appear on a page, devoid of censure or editing. This is clearly a therapeutic aspect of writing, the balm that the poet Anne Sexton vividly credited with keeping her alive for years after her first suicide attempt. In thinking about our current epidemic of suicide, I can’t help but think the act of suicide itself is largely another form of self-expression, perhaps the most desperate form. Recognizing the soul within us, providing it a voice—if only we could all express ourselves in a way that will keep us living.
M.C.: Do you have a website or blog where readers can find out more about you and your work?
Yes, indeed. Poems and musings are collected at: www.dwainerieves.com. I sure value folks checking out the voices there. Even more so, I appreciate hearing the voice you can share (ah, the magic in “contact me”).