Report: Penning Perfumes in Birmingham

06th March, 2013

Last month the Penning Perfumes tour arrived at Birmingham’s Le Truc bar, for an evening of poetry inspired by fragrance - and vice versa.

The lovely Lizzie Ostrom, aka Odette Toilette, began the evening by explaining that we would first hear a series of poems inspired by fragrances, followed by the opportunity to try some of the fragrances created during the original Penning Perfumes project, culminating in Chris Bartlett of Pell Wall Perfumes introducing his new fragrance inspired by the poetry of Claire Trevien. Lastly, we would be attempting the Penning Perfumes timed Haiku Challenge.

Before I begin, I should offer a general apology to all the poets quoted below - I spent the evening scribbling away as I listened, but unfortunately I can’t promise that there won’t be slight inaccuracies in my quotations.

Part One: poems inspired by fragrances

We were given the appropriate samples to sniff as we listened to each poem, but were not told what the fragrances were until afterwards.

The first poem was ‘A Man of Sandalwood’ (‘he might love you - but - watch for splinters’) by James Webster, one of the original twelve Penning Perfumes poets. James is a poet and performance poetry editor of ‘Sabotage: Reviews of the Ephemeral’, and will also text poetry weekly to mobiles on request! For me, the standout line of this entertaining poem was: ‘The night you spend talking of enlightenment and sex, but having neither.’

James’ fragrance was Tauer’s Rêverie au Jardin. All of the fragrances were presented to the poets in aluminium bottles, so that the colour of the liquid would have no effect on their interpretation, and delivered one month before the deadline. James describes his as ‘a little package from the future’, adding: ‘It was kind of baffling’, but also ‘really cool’. He then proceeded to ‘spray everyone I know’ and sniff until it made him ‘a bit light-headed’. He told us that after this his poem came together in one day.

Next up was Cockney poet Tim Wells with his poem ‘Upsetter’s Dream’ (I’m guessing from what I’ve since discovered about him that the title refers to the reggae band). On his Facebook page Tim describes himself as: ‘a poet, of sorts. He is published by Donut Press and reads regularly in London and also tours further afield when beer money is offered.’ (Also, I may be mistaken, but I’m pretty sure he was introduced by Lizzie as being born the same year that ‘West Ham won the World Cup’.)

Tim saw his fragrance in terms of ‘scent as a way to transform yourself’, describing ‘a bloke going out on the pull’, using ‘aftershave as a ritual’. His protagonist echoes Tim’s linguistic mannerisms, talking of ‘soap ‘n’ wa’er time’ and his ‘cropped barnet’. He’s heading out for the night and ‘there’s an emptiness I now see as opportunity’; suddenly he’s cloaked in a new personality, ‘not me me’.

Tim told us how he also decided to use nadsat (the slang from ‘Clockwork Orange’) in his poem to illustrate someone putting on a new personality as they might an item of clothing. That said, the fragrance, which turned out to be Caron’s Eau de Réglisse, doesn’t seem to have worked for Tim personally; he related how it went ‘badly’ when he wore it to go dancing. ‘Would you use it to go out on the pull?’ someone wanted to know (this may have been the most-repeated question of the evening); results were found to be inconclusive.

The next three poems were inspired by the same fragrance, but the contrast between the results was striking. Camellia Stafford describes her style as ‘romantic, private world-ish’ and read us her poem which talked of a ‘chiffon shirt’, drying petals ‘on song sheets’, and ‘the gardenia’s echoing notes’.

Polish-born Bohdan Piasecki treated us to a dynamic performance of his poem, which had triggered memories of church incense, dramatically demanding: ‘Come at me, you smoke machine!’ He explained that: ‘I like storytelling in poetry, I like characters, and I like the surreal.’

Jacqui Rowe read to us using a handbag as a prop on the table next to her, supposedly containing spilt perfume. For her, the fragrance was imbued with a sense of colours: ‘illicit stuffs of silvery romance’, ‘a wisp of sapphire’; ‘perfume more deep, more truly blue, chillier now than she recalls’.

Jacqui may have got blue; we all got violet. Also ‘Cyan!’ shouted someone helpfully. The fragrance in question turned out to be none other than Prada’s Infusion d’Iris, which certainly took me by surprise as it’s one I own - and yet I didn’t recognise it. Lizzie felt that it was ‘heavy and doughy’ and we all felt that it was similar to L’Heure Bleue ; Après L’Ondée was also mentioned. ‘Could you wear it to pull?’ someone asked, at which point Chris commented that it was ‘extremely sexy’; perhaps I should wear it more often.

Part Two: fragrances inspired by poems

The first of the fragrances which we experienced from the original Penning Perfumes project was by Sarah McCartney of 4160 Tuesdays, who created The Deep, inspired by a poem by John Clegg called ‘Mermaids’. Lizzie told us that it contained a huge quantity of aldehydes; it smelt very nice, considering that Sarah apparently tried her best to make it smell anything but. A few of us said we would consider wearing it, although the general consensus was that it was: ‘Not something you’d wear to go pulling.’ This was qualified with the statement: ‘Depends on what you’re trying to pull.’

Kate Williams of Seven Scents was inspired by a poem by Lindsey Holland called ‘The Standing’. She and Lindsey have in common a knowledge of the history and archaeology of the North-West, which is where the poem is set: ‘We scramble home. We stand on the spur.’ This scent smelt very masculine and, even at the 10% concentration we experienced, it was extremely strong. Lizzie told us that Kate also used green pepper to create a feel of coldness and wet. James commented that it smelt of ‘sweat and leather’. Someone pointed out: ‘You just don’t get to smell this sort of thing when you’re walking around Superdrug, do you?’

Penny Williams used David Morley's 'Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland' for her inspiration, which Tim read to us: ‘To be honest, he said, ‘when David sent me this poem I don’t think he knew how Cockney I am!’ It described a moth ‘secreting scent trails’ and ‘the saucepans of her eyes’. We felt that the resulting fragrance was ‘sensual’ and ‘seductive’; someone described it as being ‘like Cleopatra’s barge with scents coming off the sails’. Lizzie got pear drops from it, then incongruously followed this up by pointing out that perfume is all about sexual attraction and describing it as ‘entrapment in a fragrance.’ Someone else felt the scent was ‘like being trapped in a four poster bed’.

Finally we heard from Claire Trevien, and Chris Bartlett from Pell Wall Perfumes, as Chris unveiled his fragrance Sticky Leather Sky, which was inspired by Claire's poem 'Listening to Charles Ives'. Chris had made a point of doing just that, which then gave him the idea of creating an uncomfortable juxtaposition between top and bottom notes of bergamot and leather, so echoing Ives’ use of discordant musical notes. Chris told us that he received the poem in December, but did nothing with it until 2nd January; meanwhile he was mulling over ideas. He wanted to create something which was evocative of ‘silence after the tempest’ and the sun illuminating clouds from underneath, turning them yellowy.

Lizzie, curious about Claire’s initial response to a fragrance based on her writing, asked: ‘What the hell is that like?!’ To which Claire replied: ‘It’s amazing!’ Claire also felt that it was reminiscent of heavy velvet theatre curtains and told us how she had hoped for a leather scent, which fortuitously is what she got.

The Haiku Challenge

Lastly, we attempted a timed challenge to create haikus from a mystery fragrance, which turned out to be Bay Rum hair tonic, which Lizzie picked up for £2.50 from Boots in the Bull Ring. It smelt very strongly of cloves; not bad for the price. According to the Penning Perfumes site, all the haikus will be going into an anthology once the tour is finished, which is worrying as mine was dire. Here it is for your edification:


Christmas pomander

Zig zag lines of diamond cloves

Rotting orange sphere


Finally Lizzie thanked us all for attending what she described as: ‘The first ever Penning Perfumes event in the Western hemisphere.’

(Photos by James Hayward)


About the author

As well as working tirelessly behind the scenes at Basenotes, Judith Brockless is a Jasmine Award shortlisted writer.

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About the author: Judith Brockless

As well as working tirelessly behind the scenes at Basenotes, Judith Brockless is a Jasmine Award shortlisted writer.

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    • pkiler | 7th March 2013 21:36

      This is really FANTASTIC!!!

      I really love interdisciplinary interactions like this...

      I heard from Christ Bartlett of Pell Wall Perfumes about his perfume about the Listening to Ives' Music Poem, and was so happy to hear of it. That places three of the arts, interacting together, Music, Poetry, and Perfume... I just Love it!

      I love to work like this... My Perfumes are so often inspired by images, photographs, poems, and music too.

      Last year, I had the opportunity to speak to a conference of Contemporary Classical Music Composers, on Art and Music. One of the most fun and great things about this conference was that they asked for about 25 of my Artworks and Photographs to post on their website, so that the composers could choose one to compose a piece of music to/for. How great is that? To be able to inspire another creative person's creative output was such a fun thing, and I was so humbled and honored at the same time. Then at the conference, they exhibited the images of Art and Photographs during the conference in a gallery for those images for which musical pieces were composed.

      We really need more of these types of interactions,

      Great Going folks!

    • lpp | 9th March 2013 13:30

      Thanks for the article & hope it catches on!

    • Chris Bartlett | 18th March 2013 14:31

      I really enjoyed the whole creative process: it was the first time I'd created a fragrance from a poem and probably the most unusual 'brief' I've ever had.

      In a way I was surprised at how easily the ideas of what to do with it came together and the positive reaction on the night encouraged me to introduce it to the range.

      Penning Perfumes is a fantastic project that I can wholeheartedly recommend.