Last night I went along to the Penning Perfumes event at the Albion Beatnik bookshop in Oxford, run by Claire Trevien and Odette Toilette. This was a fascinating night, which showcased poems written in response to perfumes, and scents devised in response to poems. In each case, the audience was treated to little paper sticks dipped in the scent, to accompany each poem, so we could enjoy the whole experience.
Here’s Claire, who read one of her own poems, about the Paris Opera on a rainy night, which resulted in a wonderful scent redolent of wet leather coats.
And here, with Ms Odette Toilette herself, are three other poets, Dan Holloway, Eloise Stonborough, and Lucy Ayrton, who produced quite different responses to the same scent, reminding us that those Proustian moments are so subjective.
Another speaker was John Stephen of the Cotswold Perfumery, who had us sniffing some very unusual scents. Our response to them changed depending on what we had been told about them beforehand. He made the excellent point that chefs and perfumers depend on being able to describe their work in terms of words, and how difficult it can be. After all, the sense of scent is a primitive part of the limbic system, while our language capacity is relatively recently evolved.
I wonder what strange melange of whiffs, niffs, pongs and stinks greeted Dennis when he opened up the Albion Beatnik bookshop this morning? We had experienced a number of conventional perfumes, plus the scents of rosemary, bonfires, stinky cheese, lapsang souchong, Vick’s vapour rub and Izal toilet paper. By the end of the evening, people were making slips of the tongue like “I don’t normally wear poetry” and “I wrote this perfume”. I’m inspired to try some olfactory ekphrasis myself.