Poet Mathias Svalina on Clove Cigarettes and Teenage Fantasy Selves
It’s very safe (maybe the safest) to say there is no other person like Mathias Svalina. Since 2014, the Chicago-born poet has operated the Dream Delivery Service, which entails him riding his bike across the United States and delivering daily typed-up dreams to subscribers. Technically surrealist poems, they come in small, perfect pink envelopes and do precisely what the best dreams do: make you laugh and analyze and say to yourself “what a fucking weird thing to think.” Mathias delivers to one city at a time, but there’s also a mail-in option, and we can’t recommend signing up enough. For his Haystack Story, he wrote about clove cigarettes (yessss), and goth fashion (yesyesyesyesyes) and teenage self-loathing (ugh, yep).
What’s the star of your Haystack Story?
Djarum clove cigarettes.
Do you still smoke them?
No, and I don’t want one at all, not in reality. But in some alternate universe, I am a version of teen-me, much cooler than I ever was and dressed in all the right clothes, my body moving in all the right ways. And in this fantasy of the teen I never was, I am enveloped in a thick white cloud of clove cigarette smoke.
Can you describe them?
The box is black and sleek, a minimalist design with a single slash of red. The cigarette papers are black. The cigarettes themselves are a mixture of tobacco and cloves. The smoke is pungent and dense. You smell it from block away. The smoke clings. It’s sticky. The filters are soaked in sugar, so when you pull the cigarette from your mouth, you lick your lips and find yourself, a brief surprise, to be sweet.
They were so stupid. I loved them so.
Why are they so perfect?
I was a teen in Northern Virginia. And I know every white suburbanite will tell you that their suburban hell was the worst suburban hell, but Northern Virginia in the early 90s was truly the worst suburban hell. But a clove cigarette, in its cheap spiciness, in its janky headache of a buzz, in its sweetly candied affections, was not of the suburbs.
How do you feel when you think about them?
They were expensive and rare: sought out in city tobacco shops. They gave one, I thought then, an air of the urbane, the exotic, the fantastic. They gave me a feeling I rarely ever had as a teen, confidence.
As a fat kid desperately trying simultaneously to live in opposition to the culture I deplored and to be accepted by some, any, group, I never had the right clothes. While most teen identity-hoppers could stop by the thrift store and switch from hippie to punk to whatever in an hour, the thrift stores only had hospice-y clothes in fat guy sizes. And so I sought out and displayed accessories, hats, bags, drugs, cigarettes. And when I was fifteen, there was no accessory better at a punk show or a goth night than a clove cigarette. While a Marlboro Red or a Camel Light were de rigueur accessory to angst, the clove cigarette broadcast transgression with difference.
If your cloves could talk, what would they have said?
“You might be more than you think you are.”
When did you first smoke them?
I was probably around 14 or 15 is when I first knew of them. But I associate them most directly with two friends: Christina and Sara. They were the two axes of goth fashion: Christina with her chin-length cherry red hair, Sara with her teased-up jet-black Robert Smith hair. I envied them their goth. I envied how goth gave one a role. I think I thought that if a person had a role, it gave them a self. And clove cigarettes were ecstatic prizes with them. We were so young, any thing could be an ecstasy. I would have done anything to be like them, but I did not know how to do the thing I had to do.
Who did you have a crush on?
Anyone, everyone. I was a human yearn. I had such a desire to be accepted, but also such a rudimentary understanding of how trust and empathy and kindness worked, that I would follow anyone who allowed themselves to be followed. It felt so bad to be me and I had such an absence of ways to express this, that I made a hero of anyone who’d take from me. Having the right thing, the newest music, drugs or beer to share, an unopened pack of clove cigarettes, felt like a way to be able to provide for the real people, felt like an invitation to spaces into which I could not fit.
What did a typical Friday night look like?
In the version of my youth that I’d like to remember now at 43, Friday nights meant a wonderfully interminable six-band punk rock benefit show in DC, attempting to lose my sense of self in the center of all that noise and permeability. But probably on a typical Friday someone’s brother bought me a 24-pack of beer or a bottle of Bacardi 151 and I was tagging along in someone’s basement or some dark park, all of us waiting for the world to either begin or end.
Most of my memories of being young are of shame, moments without context. I don’t really remember events, even the ones I treasure. I recall spaces in which I didn’t fit, both socially and physically, always trying to contort and shrink my fat body and shamed mind to fit into a space into which I felt like I’d intruded.
If someone gave you $20 to spend, what would you have bought?
I would have spent about three hours in the indie record store, blithely unaware of how much I was annoying the record store folks, walking back and forth, picking up and putting down tapes and seven-inch records, calculating how to get the most pieces of music for that money. Or I’d buy some ditchweed from the kitchen manager at the restaurant where I was a fry cook.
What show did you rush home to watch?
In general, I tried to exit myself from pop culture. I was a very IdontevenownaTV kind of jerk (one time at age 19 or so I told someone that I thought film to be “a debased medium”). And yet, the one thing I did watch was Beverly Hills 90210. My brother and I would get together, with many snacks, and watch it with a flurry of giddiness that must have been ironic, but I hope was not.
What was your favorite snack?
This little shop in a strip mall near my high school had these deep-fried lentil patties packed with cumin and fenugreek—I don’t recall what they were called, but they were amazing. I wanted always to eat a hundred of them.
How are you the same as you were back then, and how are you different?
I’m probably exactly the same. I’m still fat and filled with shame about this. I still feel constantly like I don’t belong anywhere. But I’m middle-aged rather than a kid, so I care less about other’s opinions, and care less about myself. I’m maybe mostly the same, just with more developed coping mechanisms, more elaborately crafted and less self-destructive forms of escape. I don’t think that people like me, despite all the lessons learned, all the therapy and philosophy, get to change. So maybe the writing I do, the desire to connect with individuals through my little surrealist dream-stories, the niche world of poetry, is still me at the party with something to give people as an excuse for my presence.
On the other hand, I don’t smoke. And I would never smoke a clove cigarette. In retrospect, they were nasty. I don’t think they sell them in America anymore. Which is great. Which is better.
Illustration by Hannah Burch