Olfactory Report 9: Poetics of Scent by Catherine Haley Epstein + Poetry by Elizabeth Powell

“Poetry is the lifeblood of rebellion, revolution, and the raising of awareness.”   Alice Walker

April is National Poetry Month, and for the past few weeks my 10 year old has arrived home with endless haikus, acrostics, and concrete poems. Part of this equation is that he is not a fully self-conscious human and is still nimble with his words. Poetry is deceivingly simple, and one of the hardest art forms to do well. Poetry is in fact a major art form, it is peaceful and it is powerful.

Like scent work, poetry takes primitive symbols and sounds and combines them in novel ways to create new ways of thinking. It is a powerful translation and exchange of feeling and ideas. Scent work takes simple notes, and if combined artfully the result is powerful.

Another similarity with scent is the sense of democracy in the art form. We all speak and write, for better or worse, have access to pencil and paper or keyboard and twitter: the playing field is wide open. Similarly, we now have more access to materials than ever before in the scent landscape, we all have hungry noses, and for better or worse we all feel we may be olfactory “artists”.

A major difference is that poetry is far more accessible from a material and cost perspective, though not easy to disseminate. Scent is easy to disseminate because the audience is eager, and expensive to enter from a creator standpoint. Also, beautiful poetry is stripped of banal ideas, though beautiful execution of scent work may well be based fully on banal ideas.

Several years ago I was invited to attend Breadloaf Writers Conference in Vermont. There are three tracks: non-fiction, fiction, and poetry. While I was accepted to go as a non-fiction writer , we were allowed to dip into other disciplines outside of our assigned crit group. I attended several fiction and poetry master classes and was deeply humbled by my sad attempts at poetry. I was stymied and had never felt a “creative block” in such a way before or ever since.

Elizabeth Powell’s collection of poetry Atomizer book cover that features a perfume bottle with female legs coming out the bottom of it.In closing I’m pleased to share with you, with permission from master poet/maestro of words Elizabeth Powell, an excerpt from her amazing collection of poems from 2020 Atomizer inspired by our sense of smell. If you do not have a copy of this lovely book, please support the artist and add it to your art collection. While Elizabeth wrote this volume pre-pandemic, the work deconstructs ideas of olfaction and humanity which is prescient and, in my opinion, genius. Enjoy!



By Elizabeth Powell

            “Be like a flower that gives its fragrance even to the hand that crushed it,”   Ali ibn Abi Talib


            Was what my mother called sweating. We spritz, we don’t sweat.
What about skank? So exotic. Rules for nice girls— Don’t wear nylon
              drawers. The smell of white cotton panties, fresh
from the line is best. Go for nuance of honey and cumin. Don’t be catcalled—
            catfish. Arousal is a communication the body makes. As a child the smell
of mud and cinnamon soothed my sunburns. Now at night when
            tendril musks bloom patchouli, my body does the Lindy.
Whatever signal my respiration plus heartbeat plus endocrine
            chemicals publicize, I attract strange bedfellows. Even the bees
pollinating roses and jasmine for endnotes know
            the olfactory signatures of their own group. We communicate
through scent, we don’t walk blindly toward the plank of love.
            Trigger identification, primordial emotion: Big brother knows
how to market that in synthetic pheromone molecules of a billion dollar industry.
            Once, I tried smell dating: Wore a T-shirt three days and nights,
then took it off, sent it to Smell Dating central,
            where they cut the shirt in pieces, mailed out to prospective suitors
for them to smell, identify which appealed, see if my choice matched theirs,
            voila, ode to our limbic system cha cha cha over a martini or espresso
in a darling bistro where pheromone baits trap gypsy moths.
           History shows my ovulation triggered spermatozoa wars.
In the mornings washing with Cashmere Bouquet,
           I make it new like a car. In my kimono and red lipstick
I read the papers in bed. But at 9:51 a.m. I go back to the idea:
            Perfume is the feeling of flowers, a prayer burning
like brandy down the gullet. Poor flowers,
            how shall they avoid their feelings? I read Gluck’s The Wild Iris,
study their voices. I keep scents I never wear
            like “Love’s Baby Fresh” circa 1976. It’s like keeping a specimen
of a lie in a bottle. Forcing yourself to love a perfume
            is like forcing yourself to love someone you don’t.


About Catherine Haley Epstein—

CATHERINE HALEY EPSTEIN is a multi-disciplinary artist, award-winning writer, designer, and curator. She wrote a book titled Nose Dive (2019) which explores the intersection of creativity with the science and anthropology of scent. She is the co-founder of the Odorbet, a growing vocabulary for our noses which resides online and in a growing database offline for now. Articles of note include “Primal Art: Notes on the Medium of Scent”, Temporary Art Review (2016). She writes about contemporary art and practice and culture at her platform Mindmarrow. She conducts workshops on the use of scent in creative practices, advises companies on scent-related projects, and continues to collaborate with artists and writers on unique initiatives that explore intersections between art and other disciplines. She is currently a candidate for her master’s at Northwestern University. You may follow her on Instagram @mindmarrow, or email her at catherine@mindmarrow.com with questions on the nose front, or if you are interested in contributing to the Olfactory Report!

Read Catherine’s previous Olfactory Report, “Scent and Architecture.”


—About Elizabeth Powell —

Elizabeth A. I. Powell is an American poet and professor. She is the author of three books of poetry, AtomizerWilly Loman’s Reckless Daughter: Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances, and The Republic of Self. She is the author of the novel, Concerning the Holy Ghost’s Interpretation of JCREW Catalogues.