David Morley meets Penny Williams

Last week we went, in almost feverish excitement, to the Writer’s Room at the University of Warwick, to introduce and document a creative meeting between perfumer Penny Williams and poet and professor David Morley.

David co-founded the Warwick Writing Programme and this is a space he has been instrumental in setting up as a library, performance and rehearsal space and rather more besides: imagine a space peppered with fairy lights, a telescope, logs from the woods, and countless other intriguing objects. New to the mix this time, however, was perfume, as Penny had brought with her numerous storage boxes containing an edit of her kit. These are just a few of the bottles.

The conversation over the next two hours was wide-ranging, spontaneous, often surprising, and of course punctuated by lots of sniffing, as we darted from words to scents and back again. We aimed to dig into the correspondances not only between Penny and David’s respective creative processes, but to host a bit of a jam through which the two could riff ideas off each other. Here’s a little taster of the session….

David talked first of his Romani extraction, and of the beautiful, invisible language used by his culture, invisible in so far as it has lain hidden, or kept from wider view. In Romani tradition, precise and detailed markers - about who you are and where you are going - are left in the woods. Some, who can ‘read’ the language will understand; the rest of us will be oblivious. This did remind me a little of the differences between those who seek to know and almost ‘read’ a perfume, and those for whom it is a pleasure in life, enjoyed sensorily yet not necessarily dissected and investigated. David showed us how he has been leaving poetry in the woods, inscribed into logs and visible to those who will take the time to see the words scratched into the bark:

Romani revels in double-meanings and in wordplay, and to find an olfactory equivalent, Penny got us all sniffing a rather polarising scent, something which smells delightful to some and horrendous to others:

We thought about the labour involved in developing a new perfume or poem, and whether being fast and spontaneous is as acceptable as taking pains over a new creation:

And how a perfumer’s best tool is actually language, in terms of interrogating references in a brief, and understanding what somebody really wants:

Then the REAL fun started as we started to to translate between words and scents. Penny was under pressure first, as David would find a word for her to interpret into a fragrance. The scent for ‘freshwater’ was a relatively safe place to start:

But then things got a little more abstract, as David challenged Penny to find us the scent of enchantment:

Particularly interesting was seeing how Penny would interpret the term, and in turn, whether we the recipients of the scent would hold additional expectations based on our own take on enchantment: would the fragrance reflect seduction, voodoo spells, curses or a sinister undertone lurking within something lovely, as with stories of fairytale enchantment? Penny’s choice of eugenol, that spicy clovey scent which also acts as an anaesthetic, was inspired to us….but you might choose differently.

Next it was David’s turn to find a word to describe a scent. With a background in ecology and particularly in water and waterways, David’s first word-response was a semi-aquatic plant known as:

Next, David came up with ‘Bluebell Calyx’ in answer to the scent we later discovered was Petigrain, made from the twigs and leaves of the orange tree:

The conversation took a turn towards Alice in Wonderland, as Penny and David talked about how you inhabit your subject matter as a poet or perfumer. For David, Bluebell Calyx came from imagining himself right inside the buebell, as if the size of an insect and crawling in, able to identify a scent within a scent, the calyx within the flower. Penny shared how she sometimes composes a perfume by deep aquaintance with the subject, using the example of mince-pies (you may hear our tummies rumbling towards the end of this clip).

David has now given Penny one of his poems, and Penny shall over the coming weeks, interpret this into a fragrance (we have been warned it might not be particularly wearable at first!). Driven by David’s enthusiasm and his productivity, we’ve slightly egged him on to then rewrite his poem in reponse to Penny’s perfume. So we’re embarking on an experiment of double-translation. Will the rewrite be a tweaking of the original, or something else entirely? We can’t wait to find out.