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On Perfume And Poetry

The poet Lindsey Webb discusses her new book Plat and the fragrance formulated for the publication’s release.

On Perfume And Poetry
Courtesy of Archway Editions

Peruse websites like Fragrantica and Basenotes, and you’ll find that they “hold some of the best surrealist writing being done today,” writes poet Lindsey Webb in her 2023 chapbook Perfumer’s Organ. Why? “Because smell can’t be transmitted digitally—or, arguably, via language—these descriptions necessarily court the absurd.” For the launch of her new poetry book, Plat, however, Webb offers readers a chance to override absurdity with the real, releasing a fragrance called “Not An Allegory” in tandem with the publication. Designed by perfumer Alie Kiral and formulated with notes of toasted tobacco, overripe plum, warm wood, dust, and fur, the fragrance translates Webb’s otherworldly and foreboding Plat into an olfactory experience.

“There are very few abstract words for scent,” Webb tells Coveteur. To adequately describe fragrance, “we have to borrow language from other senses, like sight. This results in a very interesting synesthetic experience when you're trying to write about perfume, even on the most basic descriptive level,” she explains. As I grasp for the right words to capture “Not An Allegory” myself, I can’t help but agree. And in truth, Webb isn’t alone in her affinity for interactions between fragrance and literature. Many contemporary authors ask readers to consider how scent and writing can interplay artistically rather than existing as sensory opposites.

Take the launch of author Anna Dorn’s novel Perfume & Pain, for example, where samples of cult-favorite Marissa Zappas perfumes were given to guests with their signed books. Or musician and author Geoff Rickly, who intentionally wears notes like oud to write and leather to perform. Or the sold-out Perfumed Pages creative course led by writer Arabelle Sicardi, who teaches participants about fragrance and how it can inform their writing. Ultimately, the trend suggests a mutual respect for independent perfumers as artists in their own right; writers can collaborate with perfumers as they would with a painter on a book jacket design.

Author Marlowe Granados writes that fragrance “is one of the few things that threads us together with the natural world and human tradition […] from the burning incense of Ottoman mosques to the fragrant oils popular in the thermal baths of ancient Rome.” This sentimentality toward ancestry and ancient texts is quite present in Plat, which invokes the founder of Mormonism Joseph Smith’s heavenly city, the Plat of Zion. Throughout the poems-in-prose that feel similar to an illusion or a nightmare, Webb’s narrator explores the biblical landscape while grieving the loss of a childhood friend by suicide. I discussed the book and its interaction with “Not An Allegory” with Webb before her New York City launch.

Sydnie Hyams

Coveteur: Fragrance isn’t brought up explicitly in the book, but the fact that it primarily takes place in a garden elicits fragrant imagery in the mind. When did the idea for the partnered perfume, “Not An Allegory,” come to you?

Lindsey Webb: “I was almost finished with this book when I started getting into perfume. I finished a draft, and then I ended up writing a chapbook called Perfumer’s Organ which was all about perfume, and I got obsessed with it. I was interested in the possibility of portraying scent in language. When my editor Naomi Falk and I were talking about potential things we could do for the book launch, she knew that I was quite into perfume, so it was her idea to reach out to perfumer Alie Kiral of Pearfat Parfum.”

How would you describe the scent to readers?

LW: “To me, the scent has developed very interestingly over the course of its life. It starts very bright and fruity and a little bit challenging or brash in the opening. As it sits on the skin, that brashness mellows out, and the tobacco and the woods come through. Alie did such a beautiful job of having the scent warm and become dark and dusty but [still] wearable.”

When talking with Alie about the perfume, what were your conversations like? How did you want the fragrance to represent or interact with the text?

LW: “I came to her with some ideas, such as important images and moments from the book that could reference a perfume material or accord. I’m not a perfumer, but I have often thought about trying to reach a perfume through language. As a poet, I found it very interesting and exciting to experience someone whose medium is perfume trying to touch language through perfume and go the other way.

When thinking about the scent for the book, I started noticing motifs in the writing. One of those motifs was the concept of the fugitive scent of violets, which isn’t just a play on language but a chemical reality. Violets have a weird relationship with our sense receptors. There are compounds called ionones found in violet flowers that temporarily desensitize the nose, which, by disappearing, counterintuitively allows the scent to reassert itself more quickly than other fragrance compounds. Basically, you can re-smell violets as if you are smelling them for the first time. It was fun to go back and find that, so our initial sketches had a lot of violet. We were also thinking a lot about dusty curtains and the idea of the coyote being an animalic note.”


Lindsey Webb

This book has so much beautiful imagery, but I want to ask you about coyotes, a recurring animal throughout the text. Sometimes, I sensed the coyote was a stand-in for you. Other times, I wasn’t sure. I’m particularly interested in the passage where the coyote tells the narrator, “I’m losing my faith.”

LW: “For me, the coyote is this shifting figure throughout the book. It felt like a zone of chaos. Sometimes, the coyote feels very much like me. Other times, like the line you referenced about losing one’s faith, that is when the coyote takes on a version of my friend who passed. Then, there are other times when the coyote is working against the speaker, pissing all over the place, making what seems to be an orderly and beautiful space suddenly very chaotic, bodily, and wild. Writing about the coyote felt like a surrender to chaos. There is something unpredictable in faith, grieving, loss, and even myself and my positioning within these questions that I can’t always explain. The coyote became a figure for that as I was writing.”

I’m also curious about when the speaker says she’s expected to explain “the narrative” of her friend’s death. I understood this as the idea that when someone dies, we usually have a prescriptive reason for their death that can feel unsatisfying for the grieving.

LW: “When writing this book, I was very frustrated with how elegies usually get written. I didn’t want this book to feel like I had come to an epiphany about death or grief. Especially when talking about suicide, it’s tough. People like to have a stable answer. I felt a resistance to providing that. I wanted to see what else I could say about death that wasn't, ‘I have written this book, and now I’m fixed.’ That said, I think this book helped me understand more about the grieving process and death, but that initial frustration still lingers in the writing.”

In your chapbook, Perfumer’s Organ, you wrote about surrealist writing on sites like Fragrantica and Basenotes. How did that project begin for you?

LW: “That chapbook actually started as a scent diary. I was just trying to train my nose and I was keeping track of the perfumes I was smelling and the things I was smelling in my daily life. I liked the idea of someone reading it and not knowing that they were perfume descriptions, wondering how these materials fit inside of each other in ways that feel physically impossible. But because scent is so difficult to describe in language, the traditional boundary between realism and surrealism that we tend to think about is totally scrambled when you're trying to describe scent because if you're trying to be as thorough or descriptive as possible, you have to resort to metaphor. Otherwise, you have no other resources. In Plat, the idea of sensory perception not being as stable as we tend to believe continues here. I was thinking about how sight and vision can be unstable and disorienting, so I’m quite interested in all other senses as well.”

In your ideal world, how do you want readers to experience the fragrance and the book? Should they use the perfume before reading it? Is there a right answer?

LW: “I think of the perfume as a translation of the book, which is what I love about it. It’s an interpretation that doesn’t perfectly line up with mine, but I think Alie has brought a new kind of reading to it that feels very akin to a translation in a way that excites me. If that means reading it while wearing it, if that means the book comes to mind while wearing the perfume, it’s all great. All of the above.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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