George David Clark was born in Savannah and raised in Chattanooga and Little Rock. The author of Reveille (winner of the Miller Williams Poetry Prize from the University of Arkansas Press), his recent poems can be found in the The Believer, Blackbird, Cincinnati Review, Measure, Southwest Review and elsewhere and his work appears reprinted at Verse Daily, Poetry Daily, and in a variety of anthologies and special series. The editor of 32 Poems, he is an Assistant Professor at Washington & Jefferson College and lives in Washington, PA with his wife and their three young children.
It’s August, hot, and a newly-married
couple in Mobile have left the window
partly open to the night and road noise
while they make love on a futon in the dark.
After, as he breathes heavy on the pillow
beside her and a thin clear line of perspiration
seems to quiver on the white guitar
that is her belly, she sighs and says,
Oh, now I wish I had a cigarette.
He’s been thinking he should pull the sheet
from where it’s bunched along the floor
and it takes him a moment to understand
that cigarettes—which both of them detest
and she has never tried—are not her point.
She phrases it that way because pleasure
is complicated, more so perhaps than suffering.
It will augment and diminish, both,
not unlike the ancient priests who’d purge
the humid entrails of the pharaohs
and then bathe the bodies’ cavities
with myrrh and frankincense and palm wine,
freights of fragrance in the hollows after.
She means that monuments to rapture
should be light to carry and combustible,
toxic in small quantities even secondhand,
and with an odor that darkens one’s clothes.
Somehow he comprehends this vaguely.
It reminds him of a concert he attended
in high school, the massive outdoor stage
where the band played one encore, a second,
then mangled their guitars across the amps
and footlights: sparks, debris, electric howling.
Stoned and riding home with his ears fuzzing
in the back of a friend’s Topaz, he felt
invincible and fantasized a car crash.
He’d passed out then, and later, coming to
sore-throated and coughing on his parent’s porch
where the guys had left him, it was as though
some breakneck song—all glass and metal
in his mind—had wrecked around him.
He rose there slowly and limped out of it
the way a man emerges from a shattered
windshield, the live adrenaline already
funneling off, but with a few stray echoes
still looping through his chest like feedback.
Tonight on the far side of the room
the infinite lungs of the wall clock exhale
long gray minutes. Eyes shut, motionless,
his wife leans toward sleep. Her teeth
are tingling faintly, white but crooked
on the bottom row. She has clenched
and ground them during sex again
and now she guesses at the likelihood
of braces in her future when there’s money.
It is her habit to sweep the tender downside
of her tongue across the misalignments
where the frets of wire might someday run,
and for a moment her mouth becomes
the smoky back room in a downtown bar
where a struggling band from out-of-state
is just about to plug in their Les Pauls.
Nascent music crackles in the outlets,
jittering, almost perceptibly, the ashtrays.
A breeze sleepwalks the curtains back
into the room and out again. Back and out.
Her husband slides his heel along her calf
and starts to tell her they should set his legs
on fire (she could inhale while they kiss),
but no, she’s gone unconscious. Instead,
he pulls the sheet to their shoulders
and thinks, as he dissolves beside her, how
from a distance they would look like two
thin cylinders wrapped in white, their minds
these grainy filters in their heads. Asleep
before he gets to who might smoke them
and why, his breathing slows and deepens.
The room cools slightly. The traffic
lulls outside and the sex aroma dissipates
till only the air that cycles through their chests
is warmed and sonorous and redolent.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I must have started working on this poem in the fall of 2011 while my family and I were living in Upstate New York. I can remember pretty clearly wrestling with this one in my little office on the 3rd floor of Colgate’s Lawrence Hall—an incredible place to spend a year writing. My window looked out on one of the loveliest campuses I’ve encountered, complete with swans sailing back and forth on a little lake.
The seed of the poem was the line that I give the wife at the end of the first stanza. My own wife had said this (“I wish I had a cigarette”) a couple of times, though she too has never smoked, and I wanted to try to think through some of what that comment expressed.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I save and number my drafts, so I can see that “Cigarettes” went through twenty-six significant revisions over the course of about eight months before I first submitted it to a journal. The first draft of a poem is fairly excruciating for me, but I love revision, so I sometimes get stuck chewing my own cud. Even after “Cigarettes” was published, I continued to fiddle with the poem. Finally, with the help of Enid Shomer, my editor at Arkansas, I made a couple more important changes as I prepared the poem for publication in Reveille. In total, that makes about three years between the first draft and the final version, though there were seasons where it sat untouched.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
Is it Auden who wrote that by “inspired” we mean simply that a work of art is better than we could reasonably expect it to be? I like that gesture toward demystification, but when I say I believe in inspiration I want to avoid suggesting that I mean simply a writer getting lucky. The workings of the mind are just such a mystery. I wonder if inspiration isn’t like some calculus we can’t fathom because in addition to the author’s preparation, its variables include the subconscious, the language itself, and even a spiritual element. Before I begin writing I like to spend a little time reading something that excites me. I also pray. I tell my students that in my experience the muse is most likely to respond when I court her with good writing and reading habits.
This poem certainly wasn’t “received”, but its “labor” involved more play than sweat and tears. You know how when you’re shooting “HORSE” with a friend on a driveway goal, you try all these ridiculous tricks (behind the back, off the windshield, nothing but net)? Every once in a while something implausibly goes in. Particularly with lyrics, poems have the advantages of highlight reels—all one’s best shots edited together with none of the air balls. Under such conditions a seemingly inspired performance really isn’t so impossible. The pleasure of revision is cutting away all of the uninspired mistakes, or at least as many as one can.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I’m trying to dramatize parallel thought processes in time, so one of the poem’s “formal” challenges was moving back and forth between consciousnesses. Perhaps the more difficult technical work in this poem however, was rhythmic. I wrote the first draft in blank verse, but eventually I wanted a bit more rhythmic flexibility. I think this poem wants to hide its blank verse roots without forfeiting the potency of that cadence altogether. A great deal of my energy in revision was spent trying to hear and hone that balance.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
This poem appeared in TheYale Review in January 2013, so almost a year after I first submitted it. It wasn’t truly “finished” though (in the form it takes above) for another good year and a half.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I’ll revise a poem every day until I can’t see the flaws anymore, but then I tend to fire it off pretty quickly. I don’t recommend this bad habit though, and it’s meant that I sometimes have to ask editors if I can make changes after things are accepted. These days I’m trying to wait longer. If I’m satisfied with a poem after I’ve left it completely untouched for six months, I can let it go without qualms. It’s just hard for me to set something I like aside for that long. On the other hand, I know that if I keep fiddling too long I can do real damage.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
There’s not a lot of fact in this poem, but, as I mentioned above, at least one line of dialogue is borrowed from my wife. I drove a Topaz in high school like this character’s friend, and I suppose the details concerning how the pharaohs bodies were prepared for mummification are factual. The rest is a fantasy.
Is this a narrative poem?
It’s narrative in the sense that time progresses (albeit slightly) and there is a sequence of events related by causation, but those “events” are really only thoughts and memories, and the poem actually seems more driven by the lyric impulse to depart from time and meditate on experience, rather than a thrust toward climax and conclusion.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
This poem owes its most direct debts to Robert Hass. As I struggled with the shape or “plot” of this poem, I remember studying the way Hass will leap away from his triggering subject for lyric texture and perspective. I think there’s also a rhythmic debt to Hass here, but I wasn’t as conscious of that influence while I was composing.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I would love it if a fan of Stevens, Eliot, and Moore enjoyed what I wrote. My ideal reader is probably pretty sensitive to a poem’s sound and has an affinity for the surreal.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
No. In the last couple years my first readers have been the editors to whom I submit my work for publication.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
This is among the more narrative poems in Reveille, but I’ve written several others in this style recently. I try not to repeat myself any more than I have to, but the metaphysical subject matter here really represents an abiding interest.
What is American about this poem?
It certainly references American places and culture (though not exclusively), but I suspect the most American thing about this poem is its idiom. English speakers outside the States, and even Americans outside the Southeast wouldn’t write quite like this. Or I don’t think they would. Maybe another way of saying this is that I hope there is something of my place’s color in my words. I’ve lived outside the region for some time now, but I think of Georgia and Arkansas as home. I want a versatile tongue with many tones, but I also don’t want to completely lose my drawl, in my speech or on the page.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
It’s finished. I think.