Review: Penning Perfumes – Oxford 21/02/13

– reviewed by Paul Fitchett


I had heard Good Things and exciting rumours about Penning Perfumes – the poetry and perfume mash up organised by Sabotage’s own Claire Trévien and perfume aficionado Odette Toilette – so it’s fair to say that I was looking forward to the event. 

And, with one “cheesy” exception (more of which later), I was not disappointed.

The Oxford leg of Penning Perfumes was in the Albion Beatnik bookshop, a suitably literary venue for an event that was to make poets and writers of all the attendees, because almost from the start it became clear that this wasn’t just an ordinary spoken word event.  No, in fact the event turned out to be akin to a workshop, as perfume samples were passed around the audience and people were encouraged to describe the smells.

Odette gives us the background

Odette was on hosting duties first and set out the background to the night – samples of perfume had been sent out to various poets to create works based on that scent.  She explained that the poets had been given a pretty much free range on how to develop their poems, and that came through in the different forms that the poems on the night took.

The format for the night was first half, poems based on perfumes, second half, scents based on poetry and then a haiku competition to win a bottle of perfume.  Interactivity and feedback were also to be key with question and answer sessions with the poets after their performances.

First Half – Poetry from Perfume

Claire introduced the poets in the first half with some humorous introductions and good patter.

  • The first poet of the night was James Webster, with a poem called “Flatpack Lover” based on the perfume Reverie au Jardin by Andy Tauer. It was a tale of creating a wooden man with the “still pulsing root of a sandal wood tree” and eventually a sentient army that led itself to emancipation.  He made full use of the depths of the perfume, mint and wood and flowers, resulting in a poem with a good mix of humour, politics and philosophy and excellent delivery. James’ poem was also the only one of the evening (by someone present) not to use the perfume as a leaping off point for reminiscence and so as the night went on his piece became all the more unique.
  • Next up was Valerie Laws. Her perfume was Smell of Weather Turning and is by Gorilla perfumes, who  supply Lush. The scents in the perfume to her suggested the colours green, white and violet (which were the colours of the suffragette movement) and memories of her childhood and grandmother. This inspired her poem: “Scent for a Suffragette”.
  • It had a structure to it that accented synesthesia throughout with repeated accent on the three colours and was a good example of the nature of this evening with smells translated to word.

After the first two poets with their “classic” pieces, we had the three new poems created especially for the Oxford event and it was revealed that they had all been secretly sent the same perfume (Hasu no Hana by Grosssmith).

  • First up, Lucy Ayrton with an untitled piece about memories of childhood, her mother and feelings of ‘having to be a grown up’.  A very sweet poem, well delivered and with lovely phrasing “slicked lipstick” and her mother’s make up not being “war paint” but rather “watercolour”.
  • Next, Dan Holloway who added another stimulus to the night by passing around photos of a street in Gdansk lit by cabinets full of amber.  I particularly liked Dan’s performance here:  rhythmic and subdued, he excellently reflected the themes of the piece – time, our connection to the past and repetition.  I would like to read through this piece as it sounded like it had a lot of depth to it.
  • The final poet in this half was Eloise Stonborough who had also been inspired to think of her mother by this perfume….but in a very different light to Lucy’s piece.  Eloise’s “All things nice” was an exploration of gender and how we know ourselves (in a more formal poetic style than the previous poets). There were parts of the poem that were almost post-apocalyptic in their imagery and this sense of loss was maximised in the final line which shall stick in my mind for a while – how the inside of her mouth is “still as pink as the girl my mother mourns”.

Odette then asked the three poets what they thought of each others pieces, and  I thought this was a bit awkward for the poets as they didn’t really seem very comfortable trying to read into each others’ pieces.  However, they all seemed more comfortable when talking about their own pieces and it was good to get an insight into their thought processes, the development of the poems and how they’d used the perfume.

  • The final fragrance of the first half was one created by perfumer Kate Williams in collaboration with Lindsey Holland, and her poem based on the scent was well read by Claire Trévien.  It was with some trepidation that I took a sniff of this perfume after Odette said that it wasn’t for sale….for a reason!  Actually, it wasn’t that bad, I thought it was sweet and sherbety.  Lindsay’s poem “Plantation” was a verbal recreation of a fairground on the frozen river where “wine and cider make petals on the ice”.  As it turns out, the perfume was apparently created to smell like the indolence of pre-raphaelite women surrounded by sweets but never happy.

Second Half – Perfume from Poetry

  • After the break we were told we’d get some very unusual fragrances and the first one certainly split opinions – I thought it was quite pleasant, with a smell something like new shoes or an unused sponge but others visibly recoiled from it.  The perfume was created based on a poem by John Clegg, called “Mermaids”.  I enjoyed this poem and the way it explored the crossover between taste and smell with mermaids “singing to each other in pheremones”.
  • Valerie was called to the stage again to introduce a perfume based on her “Remembering Love”, which had some lovely images of summer rain and the earth drinking its full, but I was distracted by smelling the scent and trying to figure it out – at times on this night there was a bit of sensory overload. 
  • The perfume: imagine vicks rub mixed with rosemary.  Valerie told us that the scent was designed to invoke memories of love, but it mainly invoked memories of having a blocked nose for me, but I suppose perfumery isn’t an exact science. 
  • The penultimate fragrance, created in response to a poem by Claire Trévien by Shropshire based perfumer called Chris Bartlett.  Claire admitted to trying to manipulate the outcome by giving him a poem that mentioned her favourite smell -leather.   The poem itself, “Listening to Charles Ives” was a self-described breakup poem, which I thought was great.  With a nod to pathetic fallacy, the poem talked of a crowd gathering and storming and delicately dealt with a relationship that was going nowhere that had ‘the promise of a tomorrow’.
  • And now it was the time we’d all been waiting for – John the Perfumer was to create some kind of scent live tonight based on a poem by Lucy Ayrton, which he’d been sent in advance.
  • But first, the aforementioned “cheesy moment”.  John split us in two groups, gave us both the same scent (but with a different description) and instructed us to rate how pleasant it smelt. It was like someone had eaten a whole parmesan and vomited it back up.  Bleuch.  Sadly, this smell lingered throughout the rest of the night and I had to forage for discarded scent sticks from earlier in the night to rescue my poor nose.
  • He then passed round a much more pleasant scent and there was much discussion among the audience about what it was – nutella or caramel.  It turned out to be prunes.
  • After this perfuming interlude we were back to the poetry with Lucy Ayrton performing “Bonfire Juice” – a lovely rendering of a happy summer that has been discussed before on Sabotage.
  • John Stephens, the Perfumer, discussed his choice of scent based on the smell and I must admit being slightly disappointed. We had been told that John would create something live onstage for the poem, but he just chose an extract that he felt matched it.  Admittedly, the choice mate (used as a tea itself in South America) was excellent – the woodiness really evoked the images in Lucy’s poem and he also passed around a “phonolic odour” that really did smell like the lapsang souchong mentioned in Bonfire Juice.  I combined the two smells to make something I thought was very pleasant!

The Haiku Challenge

The audience was given one last perfume to smell and then 2 minutes to devise a haiku based on it.  Some of the haiku were excellent and came from such different places and with great stories.  While I couldn’t quite hear them all, I did hear the winning poem as…. it was by me!  Which was a nice surprise and definitely not a bribe.

Overall, it was a very interesting event, very different from your average poetry night.  I really did enjoy the interaction between the audience, poets and hosts.

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